Nikon Nikkor O 35mm F/2 Pre-AI Lens Review

Nikon Nikkor O 35mm F/2 Pre-AI Lens Review

1999 1333 James Tocchio

Not long ago, I reviewed the fastest 35mm Nikkor that Nikon has ever made, the 35mm F/1,4. While incredibly luxurious in the hands and a stellar performer in low-light situations, this lens let down in terms of wide-open sharpness. What’s more, its massive maximum aperture of F/1.4 and the razor-thin depth of field it produced, while exciting and exotic on paper, proved to be an impractical nuisance in everyday shooting. It was a stunning lens, but the high price and wide-open hassles meant I could only recommend it to shooters who value bokeh above all else, or for collectors who need the “best” and “first” of everything.

Recently I’ve had the chance to shoot that lens’ slower, older brother, Nikon’s Nikkor O 35mm F/2, and it’s proven to be a surprisingly superior tool. Offering much of what makes the 35mm F/1.4 great, it manages to avoid the faster lens’ failings and improve on its strengths. With a lower price, fantastic optics, and excellent ergonomics, this 35mm may just be the one to own.

Build quality is what vintage Nikon fans will have come to expect – excellent. With an all-metal body, metal aperture and focus rings, metal lens mount and filter threads (52mm diameter), metal focusing helicoid, and metal aperture blades, this lens is about as robust as certain other treasures from the Land of the Rising Sun. The complicated optical design (unchanged until the mid-1980s) employs quite a lot of glass (8 elements in 6 groups), and this combined with the just-mentioned metallic build results in a weighty lens, at 280 grams (10 oz.). Its outer dimensions of 64mm x 61mm puts it squarely in line with most standard focal length lenses – not too big, not too small.

Practical use and feel are intuitive and stunning, as we’ve come to expect from Nikkors made in this lens’ era. Focus throw is well-damped and precise, allowing confident fine adjustments, and the close-focusing distance of just twelve inches makes close-up shooting a real pleasure. The aperture ring clicks into its detents with mechanical precision in full-stop increments, and the seven curved aperture blades do well to keep highlight bokeh looking pleasant. There’s the usual Nikon color-coded focus and depth of field scales, an infrared index, and the classic rabbit ear prong that allows the lens to index with classic Nikon SLRs.

Compatibility of our review lens is about as universal as a pre-Ai Nikkor can be, though later 35mm F/2s brought changes to the mount that allow it to fit to more varied machines. The important part is the optical formula, which was offered in every Nikon manual focus mount, including pre-AI seen here, AI, and AIs. That means that there’s a version of this lens to mount natively onto every Nikon F mount camera made since the original F in 1959, including the most recent DSLRs. Additionally, any version can be adapted via common and inexpensive adapters to today’s various mirror-less cameras, such as the Sony A series and Fujifilm’s X series. Most importantly, whatever camera you’ve attached it to, this lens will make wonderful shots.

Unlike its faster, newer brother, the Nikkor 35mm F/2 is incredibly sharp when shot wide open. Center frame sharpness at F/2 is stunning, detailed, and impressive. While edge sharpness at fast apertures is understandably less impressive, compared with the F/1.4 this Nikkor is a marvel. Stopped down, the lens becomes remarkably sharp across the frame. There’s very little to complain about here, or even to note. At all apertures the Nikkor O is a very sharp lens.

At F/2, depth of field is very thin, though not so thin as to be the limiting factor experienced with the faster F/1.4. This more reasonable fast aperture and the lens’ short minimum focus distance allows us to play with shallow depth of field to really emphasize small, up-close subjects, and mid-ground subjects can be nicely isolated, allowing for contextual portraiture.

Bokeh is very well-blended, especially when we consider that this is a wide-standard lens, and when shot wide open there’s little to distract from our chosen subject. Sure, some out of focus elements can look a bit harsh, but this isn’t a portrait lens, and for the focal length it’s one of the best performers around. Stopped down a bit, bokeh becomes just a bit harsher, with some slightly distracting demarkations surrounding “bokeh balls” and highlights. The seven-bladed diaphragm tries to keep things round, and it does so for the most part, but highlight bokeh does inevitably become polygonal. The nine-bladed diaphragm of the F/1.4 will be more covetous to those who prize bokeh over everything, but for most users, the blur produced by this F/2 lens will be nearly perfect.

But as with all lenses, there are objective imperfections. Like its faster counterpart, the 35mm F/2 suffers from light falloff at wide-open aperture. This resolves incrementally from F/2 down to F/4, at and after which the vignetting is all but gone. As mentioned in every lens review I’ve written, vignetting is easily handled in post-processing by simply sliding a slider, but it’s worth noting for those who aren’t going to edit their photos. Shooting wide open, expect slightly darkened corners.

Again mimicking the faster Nikkor, this 35mm lens similarly distorts a bit when close-focusing. This can most easily be seen when shooting close objects with straight lines, and presents as barrel distortion. As with the vignetting mentioned, this can be solved in post-processing very simply, and when shooting objects at a distance of more than, say, three feet, the distortion doesn’t show.

Due in part to its early pedigree, the lens’ optical coatings aren’t the best you can find today. The result can be images that show greater optical artifacts than those made by a more modern Ai, Ai-S, or autofocus era lens. Chromatic aberration shows as color fringing, purple or green outlines around high contrast areas of a frame (examples can be seen in the sample shot of the lobster – check the antennae). Flares and ghosts can pop up when the front element is exposed to direct sunlight. Eliminate this with a lens hood, shade the lens with your hand, or better still, just don’t worry about it. For me, lens flares and similar aberrations are far from displeasing, and instead imbue a frame with a bit of refreshing imperfection that’s difficult to find in today’s era of clinically clean imagery.

And this reference to clinical versus characterful images brings us to the Nikkor’s greatest selling point. This lens, first designed and produced in the 1960s, provides us with a way of capturing shots today that’s impossible to replicate with a new lens. The images it makes, while gorgeous and precise, aren’t perfect. There’s a uniqueness to the depth of field, the color rendition, the contrast and resolution, that sets it apart from a modern Nikkor (or any modern lens for that matter). Even when shot on today’s mirror-less cameras, the lens allows us to make images that are unpredictable, with a bit more character and feeling.

Part of this comes from the fact that it’s a manual-focus lens – you’re not going to nail every shot, and these slightly out of focus images are often the most magical. And part of it also comes from the fact that it’s not a multi-coated lens produced by robots. Rather, it’s a piece of glass designed by humans to bend light in a pleasing way. And still more of its uniqueness comes from its simple quality. This lens feels amazing, which encourages us to use it, to experiment and grow, and to shoot in ways that we may not think of or care to try with a modern lens.

Many of these things can be said about most legacy lenses, but not all that we’ve said about this Nikkor can be said about every legacy lens. The Nikkor O 35mm F/2 is a special creation, and whether you’re shooting a classic Nikon film camera or today’s DSLRs and mirror-less machines, it’s a lens worth shooting.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
32 comments
  • Merlin Marquardt June 19, 2017 at 10:43 am

    Poetical.

  • Randle P. McMurphy June 19, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    Glad to read this poem of a review
    Glad someone remembers the amazing craftmanship and perfection

  • The pre-AI Nikon lenses seem frequently to be superior to their AI and post-AI versions. Every one I’ve shot has unique qualities the later versions lack. This lens looks to not be an exception!

    • Agree wholeheartedly. I prefer the pre-AI Nikkors because they just render so, so well. The single coated pre-AI 105/2.5 and 50/1.4 and 50/2 lenses stick out for me.

      • I’ve got a converted pre-AI 105mm f/2.5 too, incredible portrait lens, you’d have to spend a LOT of money to get anything better! There’s some special magic about it that you don’t get with modern lenses, even really good ones.

    • I have been shooting this lens and the Nikkor (?) 28mm f/2 forgot how many elements for a letter .
      On my Nikon d850 at paid live music shows for my clients along with modern autofocus Nikon , Sigma Art and Tamron lenes. These two hold their own for live music photography. The 35mm f/2 I think I get a little more consistent results and a hair sharper . They both have really cool hexagonal shaped light bokeh shapes . I’ve been shooting them lately at f/4 and 5.6 when light allows . This allows me to give folks pictures different than what other folks are giving out . Especially with so many people jumping onto the Sony bandwagon. Sony pics seem to have a harder edge to them and the non Sony folks seem to edit to that look anyway for live music photography. All good and to each his own . I find I can give pictures with more Microcontrast with these old pre ai lenses and the Nikon 70-200 e fl vr has more than most other companies 70-200s . But the non ai lenses just have something special about their rendering and I think intentional aberrations and microcontrast used by the brilliant old master Nikkor lens designers are the secret sauce!

  • Funny this should pop into my mailbox right now – I have this very lens (albeit AI-converted) on my Nikon F2A on my camera on this moment and I’m about to head out into the park with it. I love this lens, I’ve using it for a year and always find myself coming back to it. Nicely comprehensive and well-written overview.

  • Randle P. McMurphy June 19, 2017 at 6:19 pm

    The point at last for me is that a lot of these old abandoned jeweils have what I miss at modern lenses – character !
    It feels like Aladin rubbing the magic lamp and any time the ghost inside offers you a wish…
    Looking for a amazing portrait lens with great bokeh ?
    Try a Nikkor Q 2,8/135 and find out !

    • I have a Q 135 2.8 that I bought used in 1986 for my Nikon FM. Still use it today! On a D-800 it still produces great images…

    • I have the Nikkor Q 135 f/2.8 and really like how it renders. Shot it side by side on my d850 with the 105 f/2.5 and couldnt see and difference except the fov and focal lenght. Both are sensational

  • If you mount this lens to any low-end Nikon DSLRs, you would not get any metering, for example D3xxx, D5xxx.

    • Randle P. McMurphy July 3, 2017 at 9:30 am

      That´s right – the first you have to check if you can mount the lens anyway !
      I also think this sort of glass is not interesting for people who buy a D3xxx or something like that.

      😉

  • Another good review, very nice pictures, and the cutest child ever.

  • Sheldon L Hambrick November 9, 2017 at 12:42 am

    I bought this lens in September 2017 to use on my Sony A7rII. LOVE it! Creamy, smooth bokeh, sharp-enough in the center wide open, with a nice vignetting. The thing that I like the best is that wide open, at moderate distances, you can isolate your subject w/a shallow depth of field, yet still get a sense of the (out of focus) environment, due to it being a 35mm.

    • Top tip: pre AI 105mm f/2.5 😉

      • I have both the AI and AIS versions of this lens. Is the pre-AI really any different?

        • There are two different versions – start with the first optical formular a sonnar construction
          replaced with a gauss version later which is the same like the AI only different outfit.
          In my opinion this gauss version as pre-ai is the best mechanical piece of craftsmanship
          ever build !

          • I agree!
            I know this thread is pretty old but I just found it . I have been shooting this lens on a Nikon d850 . Just shot it last night for live music photography . The performance is phenomenal. So easy to focus and handle . Such a joy to use . I also shot with the Nikon 180mm f/2.8 ais . Another good one and I have a 28mm Nikkor N coming soon

  • I got this lens to use with my Nikkormat FT2 and really love it. This combo is a very affordable option for someone who wants a Nikon rig.

  • Is ther any problem on fx body because of a mirror? I used converted version on d7000 and now upgraded to d600 and dont want to trash mirror 🙂

    • No problem at all. Should work perfectly.

    • I use it on a D610

      • Stefan Staudenmaier June 10, 2021 at 1:20 pm

        After a long period of ignoring it I bought a Sony A7.
        My first electronic viewfinder camera at all and truly
        I never thought I would prefer something over a SLR
        but now I do !

        With a cheap adapter I can even use my old per-AI
        glass and focus perfectly to the point.

        The Nikkor S 1,2/55 and Nikkor N 1,4/35 are some
        of the finest lenses to use and tack sharp at 2,8
        with beautiful rendering !

        The Nikkor H 1,8/85 has a little fuzzy bokeh but a
        sweet spot for outstanding Portraits at 4,0.

        The Nikkor P 3,5/55 and Nikkor O 2,0/35 are the next
        lenses I have to try and compare soon.

        • I just got a Sony a7siii and have an adapter for f mount to e coming. Can’t wait and like you I’m starting to like the evf. Long time Nikon guy and still not abandoning them but adding Sony to the mix .

  • Great review ! I always consider this len to my Nikon FE and after reading your review, I think I will get one.

  • What film was used for the photos in this article, and how was the film scanned? Detail is amazing.

  • Hi, after reading this article and the comments above I am wondering what are your thoughts (and if someone finds it superior in any way) to purchase this (pre-AI) Nikor-O lens being AI converted rather than purchasing the AI/AIS version of this 35mm F2 lens? I’ll be shooting it with my Nikon FE so having it AI converted (if I would opt for the former option) would be nice to have for me as it makes the shutter priority mode more straightforward to use.
    Thanks!

  • Get the Ais for easier use I’d say for you . I like the build quality of the old non ai and even ai builds over the ais most of the time . In about 1973 I think they multi coated the lens but other than that I “ think” the optical design stayed the same over the years .
    The non ai versions most likely have a longer focus throw also . I like the long throw usually over the faster focusing throw .

    • Thank you for your take on this.
      I will go with the Ais in that case as it would indeed be easier to use on my FE when shooting in Aperture Priority than my current 50mm pre-ai lens. It will be also interesting to compare the build of such an Ais lens with my Nikkor-S auto 50mm f1.4 and get a better sense of my preference with regards to the focus throw and other build aspects.

  • Antonio Mata, DP August 11, 2021 at 5:55 pm

    Great review, it reads lie a poem to me. There is something lost through “perfection”of modern lenses that these pre ai lenses manage to capture.
    I am in the process of selecting lenses for a trip to Italy and I can assure you this lens is coming with me. I shoot Tri-x on my F3 alongside digital on my D850 and this lens creates magic on both.

  • This lens has a rare rendering for sure and the Nikkor N 28mm f/2 (I believe it’s N ) has a beautiful rendering similar to this lens if you like wider . I love both and have been shooting the 28 f/2 as of late .
    Then one more is the non ai 24mm f/2.8 . Something special about all three of these lenses in their wide open rendering that I myself particularly love .

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio