In my Leica M2 review, I mentioned a certain lens, a Nikkor-H.C. 5cm f/2 in Leica Thread Mount. The lens sparked a mini-revolt in the comments section, with its detractors crying “Heathen!” at my mounting of a non-Leica lens onto a Leica body. Some even cited that it was the Nikkor that spoiled the entire “Leica experience” for me, and that I could only truly understand Leica if I chucked the Nikkor and slapped a Summi-whatever onto my M2. Right.
Rather than cause an inevitable flame war, the type that happens when one talks about products that engender fanboyism, I’ve decided to do something more productive – review the Nikkor to see what it’s really capable of.
But first, a little historical context. The Nikkor-H.C. 5cm f/2 is one in a long line of Japanese lenses made specifically for Leica Thread Mount, otherwise known as LTM or M39 mount. These lenses also fit onto countless post-war Leica copies; think Nicca, Tower, Leotax, etc., and this pairing of a Leica copy with a Nikkor was a simple, cheap stand-in for genuine Leica III’s and their Summicrons. Perfect for the average consumer.
One could dismiss this lens as a simple Leica ripoff, and indeed many have, but a closer look reveals that Nikon’s lens design has roots not in Wetzlar, but in Dresden. That’s because the Nikkor 5cm f/2 in Leica thread mount was adapted from its Nikon S-mount predecessor, and this mount is famously known for being a clone of the Zeiss Contax mount. Surprise surprise, the Nikkor 5cm f/2 in S-mount derives from one of the Contax system’s most highly-regarded lenses, the prewar Zeiss Sonnar 5cm f/2.
This original six elements in three groups Zeiss Sonnar stands as one of the most famous and beloved lenses in photography. The Sonnar represented a huge leap forward in lens design for 35mm, with its increased speed and punchy contrast compared to the lenses of its day. This, combined with its incredible sharpness and beautiful rendering, made the Sonnar the lens of choice for the Zeiss faithful.
But how did Nikon come to manufacture a Zeiss design? Easy. World War II. The end of the war would see the Americans obtain the Zeiss patents as a spoil of war. The Yanks then passed the patents on to Japan, a country they knew could manufacture and export goods back to them on the cheap. Nippon Kogaku Tokyo took up the challenge of replicating the Sonnar for both Nikon S-Mount and LTM, and the Nikkor-H.C. 5cm f/2 was eventually born.
But the Nikkor isn’t just a crappy, coffee-shop cover version of the Sonnar, it’s an improvement on a masterful lens. If the original Sonnar was Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, the Nikkor is the more iconic Jimi Hendrix cover. And everybody prefers the Hendrix version, even Bob Dylan.
Okay, I might be going overboard with that comparison, but hey me out. Nippon Kogaku took the original Zeiss design to new heights by endowing it with an improved hard-coating and increasing its minimum focus distance to an insanely close 0.5m. They even matched the build quality of the old German lenses, encasing the lens in high-quality chromed brass, and used smoother, more durable lubricant for the focusing helical and aperture dial. This means no flaky or easily scratched coating or de-gassed lube gumming up the aperture blades, common problems for most lenses of this vintage.
As pretty, well-built, and advanced (for its day) this lens was, the real test of any lens is always the images it makes. For a lens that’s over sixty years old, the Nikkor performs incredibly well, which speaks both to Nikon’s build standards and the quality of Zeiss’ original formula. Although soft wide-open at f/2 (what lens of this era isn’t), past f/2.8 this lens exhibits clinical sharpness all the way to the corners, with some diffraction at f/16. The Nikkor is also capable of resolving incredibly fine detail, and does particularly well when recording finer details like ocean spray, hair, and fabrics.
Light fall-off with the lens is heavy wide open but the resultant vignetting lends a glow to subjects placed in the center of the frame. Fall-off decreases considerably at f/2.8 and completely disappears by f/4, perfect for general photography, landscapes, etc.
A big part of any Sonnar’s signature look is found in its bokeh, and the Nikkor’s got that bokeh for days. This lens churns backgrounds into the smoothest of butter, with no distracting bokeh highlights or geometric shapes. Wide-open we get a little bit of that vintage swirl, but again, not to a degree that it could be called distracting (looking at you, Zeiss Biotar/Leica Summitar).
But here’s the special thing about this lens; it’s one of the few standard rangefinder lenses with a close-focus range that goes all the way down to 0.5m. That means that we can achieve extreme close-up subject isolation and even creamier bokeh with ease. But alas, there is a catch. Most rangefinders cannot couple down to that range due to their designs, so this lens must be used as a scale focus lens at this range if used on a rangefinder. Bummer.
However, if we mount the Nikkor to a modern mirrorless camera this problem completely disappears. With a new mirrorless machine and its live-view capability, we can close focus to our heart’s content and enjoy. With the added close-focusing range, this may prove to be one of the most ideal vintage rangefinder lenses out there for the modern shooter.
But what makes this lens truly special, even legendary, is the certain intangible rendering that’s often attributed to Sonnar-style lenses. These lenses are renowned for their beautiful, smooth rendering. Whereas other lenses may be clinical and meticulous in their approach to recording detail, the Sonnar takes a different approach. Details remain sharp, but they seem to be painted with a finer brush and a more painterly eye. The lens is contrasty, yes, but there’s an uncommonly smooth gradient between light and shadow that makes subjects seem that much more lifelike and beautiful.
I could describe this lens as being “vintage”, but I find that the word is often written as an apology for lenses whose imperfections wouldn’t fly today. After using the Nikkor extensively, I can say that it’s more than that. It’s super sharp, but it’s got that gentle understatement and nuance that most lenses simply don’t have. Other lenses might be able to beat it out on an MTF chart, but none of them render quite the way this one does.
A lens with this pedigree from Zeiss or Leica often begets an insane price tag, but thankfully, this isn’t the case with the Nikkor. At approximately $250, this lens can be had for much less than its German contemporaries. This is a steal, considering the images it can make and how well-built and durable it is. And because this was a kit lens for many of the high-quality Japanese Leica copies, you can often find these attached to beautiful bodies for just a little more.
The Nikkor has wriggled its way onto the mounts of two of my daily shooters, my Leica M2 and my Sony A7, and it won’t be dismounting anytime soon. It’s a beautiful lens that makes beautiful images. It’s durable, well built, and cheap enough to bring around everywhere. And really, that’s all I need.
Does loving this Nikkor make me a Leica heathen? Probably. But then again, I kind of like that.