After shooting the Nikon Nikkor 55mm f/1.2 fast prime for the past month, I’m reminded of my old, high school jazz instructor. He would always tell our band, ”Speed isn’t everything.” Our problem was that we young whippersnappers could play fast, but we never sounded good doing it. The solution, according to the instructor, was to practice slowly until familiarity with the material let us play not only faster, but with more control.
Unsurprisingly, telling a bunch of hyperactive sixteen-year-olds to slow down and practice self-discipline wasn’t effective, and the band continued to fail at faster tempos. It became clear that, to us, the physical rush of playing faster was the only thing that mattered, even if our sound suffered for it.
The Nikkor is big, glamorous, and features that seductive “f/1.2” marking on the aperture ring. This alone makes it a lens to conjure choruses of Oohs and Aahs at the local camera meet, and posting a shot of it on Instagram racks up massive numbers of likes and reposts. People love this lens. Because of that fast aperture it automatically gets lumped in with some of Nikon’s best lenses. Yes, the numbers say it should be a great lens. But after spending time with it for the past month I’m starting to agree with my old jazz instructor; speed isn’t everything.
But I should slow this review down; the reputation and fanfare surrounding the Nikon 55mm f/1.2 does indeed come from a place of real reverence. When introduced in December of 1965, this lens was the fastest lens on offer for the Nikon SLR system (although not the fastest in their entire catalog – the Nikon rangefinder 50mm f/1.1 takes that credit). The combination of a Nikon F or F2 with the 55mm f/1.2 represented the premium package from the brand, the best of the best in the heyday of the 35mm mechanical SLR camera.
Its construction was state of the art – a seven elements in five groups Double Gauss-derived design with a seven-bladed aperture and, depending on the version, single-coated or multi-coated elements to provide punchier images and improved flare resistance. Mitigating that flare was crucial – a speed of f/1.2 could not be achieved without an enormous front element, and this lens had a big one.
These huge glass elements came packaged in Nikon’s all-metal lens chassis complete with a metal focusing ring and aperture ring, bringing the lens to a hefty 12.6oz. The resulting heft and size makes the 55mm f/1.2 cut an imposing figure to this day, fitting for what was once top dog in the vast Nikon lens lineup.
Large, fast, and technically bonkers lenses like the Nikkor 55mm f/1.2 became a badge of honor for lens makers of the time. Some notable examples from the period include Canon’s 50mm f/0.95 “Dream Lens” made in 1961 for Leica Thread Mount, Leica’s Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 introduced in 1966, and Minolta’s MC-Rokkor 58mm f/1.2 made in the late ‘60s. These lenses were the feathers in the caps of each manufacturer, and the Nikkor 55mm f/1.2 was a particularly colorful feather.
Though fundamentally glamorous and showy, these super-speed lenses did have a real and practical function. Film sensitivity was much lower back then, which in turn required faster lenses. These enabled shooters to get one more stop out of ultra-slow slide films like Kodachrome 25, and helped nightcrawlers pull out an extra stop for their ISO 400 black-and-white films.
When these factors are taken into account, a lens like the Nikkor 55mm f/1.2 makes a lot of sense. Nikon gets a lens that keeps them relevant among lens manufacturers, and shooters can enjoy improved performance on slower films and in low-light.
But we must remember that while these super-speedy lenses were dancing on the bleeding edge of optical technology, they were doing so in the mid 1960s. Manufacturers at the time still hadn’t perfected many of the techniques that make super fast lenses so exceptional today.
Modern lenses are constructed with a much higher number of glass elements than their ancestors. These advanced elements correct distortion and field curvature, increase corner resolution and help to mitigate optical aberrations. That’s why older lenses are so much smaller, lighter, and more elegant than modern glass. Good news for legacy lens lovers, but it’s also true that the early super-fast lenses suffer when it comes to image quality. This is especially true when shot wide-open (as the f/1.2 Nikkor so often begs us to do).
Like many of its contemporaries, the Nikkor 55mm f/1.2 is a product of its time and of those industry-wide growing pains. Though it sports an obviously incredible top speed of f/1.2, optical performance at that aperture leaves a lot to be desired. At f/1.2, contrast decreases and sharpness becomes a moot point. Bright sources of light suffer from large amounts of coma (smearing), and color images show plenty of chromatic aberration (color fringing in high contrast areas).
The tradeoff for this lack of technical quality is an added functionality in low-light (f/1.2 being a full stop faster than f/1.8) as well as razor-thin depth of field, dream-like rendering and, you guessed it, heaps of bokeh. It should be noted that the Nikkor 55mm f/1.2 does all of these things extremely well. Shooters who prefer dreamier photos as well as bokeh addicts will be absolutely in love with this lens. It renders subjects with an ethereal quality, has an uncanny ability to dissolve backgrounds and foregrounds, and lends itself well to a more interpretive composition. This lens is an art lens.
However, shooting at maximum aperture in situations where fidelity is the ultimate goal is hard, and shooting must-capture subjects this way is risky. I do a lot of shooting in low-light and I find that if my subject is anywhere besides the center of the frame I won’t come away with anything resembling a usable image. The razor-thin depth of field afforded by a 55mm lens at f/1.2 also makes shooting moving subjects at close to mid-focusing range as difficult as bullseyeing womp rats in a T16 back home (without using the Force). In other words, it’s really hard to do.
Users of super-fast sub-f/1.4 lenses may be familiar with these characteristics, and enjoy them while also championing the stopped-down performance of such lenses. The Nikkor 55mm f/1.2’s performance does improve a lot when stopped down, but its stopped-down performance doesn’t outshine the other Nikon standard focal length lenses of the era. The slower Nikkor 50mm f/2 and f/1.4 lenses perform about the same as this Nikkor 55mm f/1.2 when stopped down, and wide open they offer a slightly deeper depth-of-field which makes acquiring focus in low-light much easier. In fact, the only advantage the 55mm f/1.2 has is that it exhibits less vignetting at f/2 and is slightly sharper at that aperture.
Considering that Nikon’s slower, cheaper lenses of the same era perform just as well as the 55mm f/1.2, the lens seems impractical. If given the choice, I’d still take any of Nikon’s slower standard focal length lenses over the 55mm f/1.2 simply because they’re lighter, and easier to use when shooting wide-open. Sure, the 55mm f/1.2 has a dream-like character that bokeh lovers go crazy for, but beyond that the lens’ image quality is par for the course. Add that to the fact that this lens sells for three to four times the price of those slower, but sharper, lenses and the prospect of buying one suddenly elicits fewer Oohs and Ahhs, and a lot more Hmms.
[Digital sample shots made with a Sony a7]
Prospective buyers should consider if a lens as specific as the Nikkor 55mm f/1.2 fits in with their personal vision and photographic style. People who love bokeh and enjoy dreamier, softer images will want to own this lens. It does make dreamy, ethereal portraits better than most fifties on the market. But for shooters for whom bokeh and softness aren’t the ultimate goal, the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 or f/2 will be a far more practical choice. They do the simple things well, and are just as capable of making great images loaded with vintage Nikkor character.
Shooting an early super-speed lens Nikkor 55mm f/1.2 reminded me a lot of being a young musician wanting to play too fast, too quickly. Playing fast feels good, but if the fundamentals aren’t there, the music will just end up sounding rushed and one-dimensional. Similarly, the Nikkor 55mm f/1.2 might be fast and feel great to shoot, but its images wide open can be one-dimensional and almost uncontrollable.
In an era where legacy lenses are as likely to be fitted to a modern mirrorless camera (with their incredible high-ISO performance) as they might be to a classic Nikon, these ultra-fast primes just have less relevance than they did fifty years ago. I hate to admit it, but speed really isn’t everything.