Fast compact prime lenses or cheaper, more accessible lenses will always command the most attention. The Summicrons and the Noct Nikkors of the world often take center stage for their high specification. On the other hand, bargain bin lenses with decent performance earn just as much fanfare for their value proposition. Like the proverbial “middle child,” mid-priced, mid-specced lenses can often be overlooked. Such is the case for the Nikon Nikkor 50mm F/1.8 Longnose. Today we’re here to talk about the forgotten favorite.
History and Overview
The 50mm F/1.8 lens, or the “nifty fifty” as photographers lovingly call it, has long been known as the best possible bang for buck for anyone getting started with photography. On a full frame sensor or 35mm film, the 50mm focal length has been the “standard” for eighty years, and provides a very natural look no matter the genre. Nikon’s example, the Nikon Nikkor 50mm F/1.8, is no different. It’s a versatile lens for little money.
The first ever Nikon NIKKOR 50mm F/1.8 AI lens launched in the cold month of January, 1978 bearing the serial no. 1760801. Many people overlook it in favor of its more attractive counterparts. These are the less expensive Series E Nikon 50mm F/1.8, or the faster Nikkor 50mm F/1.4, or even the updated model Nikkor 50mm F/1.8 AIs pancake lens, which is smaller and lighter. Don’t get me wrong. These other lenses were and remain fantastic performers, but as the title of this article suggests, we are here to acknowledge the forgotten lens, the original Nikkor 50mm F/1.8 AI Longnose.
The 50mm F/1.8 Longnose was the brainchild of Mr. Souichi Nakamura, Nikon’s most celebrated lens designer and the creator of many Nikon optical designs still in use today. And it’s a lens that was created to disrupt the market.
The legacy of the 50mm F/1.8 stems from the 50mm f2 way back in 1959. This legendary lens which stayed in production for over two decades. Utilizing a double Gauss structure, this lens was long believed to be the best Nikkor glass, of which the most important factor was its value proposition. The last variant of the 50mm f2 came in the form of an Ai update which saw the light of the day in the month of March in 1977.
But this was a period in which amateur photographers and pros alike were demanding greater performance for their money. Competitors were packing their consumer camera kits with faster F/1.8, the next standard for compact inexpensive primes. Enter our candidate from 1978, the long nose 50mm F/1.8. For almost a year both lenses were sold alongside each other. Utilizing most of the F/2’s characteristics, the F/1.8 lens was able to improve upon a few key areas.
The recessed element proved to be quite a discerning factor for this lens giving its name. The depth also allowed the lens to be more durable whilst protecting its optics from sun, a sort of built-in lens hood. The F/1.8 also improved upon other optical factors such as spherical aberration, improving contrast when wide open. An improved optical formula reduced flare and coma while incorporating the faster aperture.
Nakamura’s 50mm design would continue to be produced for decades. As the industry shifted to autofocus lenses, this impressive lens design remained. Even today, his design can be found in Nikon’s modern AF Nikkor 50mm F/1.8D.
Build Quality and Design
The lens is made of metal, a sturdy barrel protecting its advanced multi-coated elements. The focusing ring is wrapped in a band of rubber with two distinct segments. This creates an easier to feel and spin focusing ring compared with its smaller brethren. The aperture ring is made of metal, with square cut finger grips all around. The filter threads are metal, as is the mount and mounting grip, which is silver and knurled. On the whole, the lens is tough, simple and built to last.
One of my copies in particular was abused very severely before I even acquired it. How can I tell? When I bought the lens last year there were signs of haze on the optical elements, a clear indicator that the lens was not looked after. I usually love taking things apart. Most of these usually return to their original working state, some unfortunately don’t. It’s a problem, I know, but I can’t help tinkering. A certain amount of excitement ensues after every bolt, screw or part that comes off allowing me to marvel at its engineering. It also provides me with an insight into the inner workings of the lens, as well as providing a certain level of respect for the individual who came up with the design in the first place.
So, there I was, a small screwdriver, a few turns and a little bit of wiggling later – at the heart of the lens in front of me. The aperture blades and optical elements ready for a gentle clean. Problem solved. No etch marks, no yellowing of elements, no haziness whatsoever and the coatings are wonderfully intact in their prominent greenish purple tint. The exterior of the lens was cleaned and rebuilt, unscathed except a few dents and scratches from the previous owner. After disassembly, inspection, and rebuilding, I know just how impressive this lens is inside and out. They were made to last a lifetime. Japanese engineering at its best.
With six elements in five groups, it certainly seems that this lens is just an ordinary 50mm. And in many ways, it is. But this lens also offers some surprises. At F/1.8 images are a little soft, but by F/2.8, image sharpness is pretty much perfect for a lens of its time. The inherent softness gives way to a cleaner and pleasing image. A different methodology when compared to modern lenses and their more clinical approach to image rendition. There’s also essentially zero distortion.
Contrast is abundantly present even alongside some amount of micro contrast to assist in its unique rendition of photos. Pictures are pleasing to look at and almost give off a more natural feel to them compared with modern glass.
The multicoated front element helps in reducing flaring, but then again not entirely. There’s still quite a bit of purple fringing at F/1.8. Stopping down does reduce their effects but it never really goes away completely. F/5.6 to F/11 seem to be the strongest range. Beyond this, diffraction comes into the picture and sharpness decreases.
Image resolution is very respectable for a lens of this age. Subjects remain well defined and remain so even when zoomed in at 100%. Compared to the 50mm F/1.8 AFs the saturation and contrast keep up but a drop in resolution is observed.
Bokeh or background blur is a total dream thanks to the seven-bladed aperture. There’s definitely a more hexagonal shape to the blurred background but it is in no way distracting. It’s certainly not Zeiss or Leica level in its background rendition but this Nikkor lens costs, what, eighty dollars?
Why buy this lens? I can understand that question. After all, its image quality is great, no doubt, but surely there are better performing 50mm lenses. And sure, it’s pretty fast at F/1.8, but there are faster lenses too. The build quality is very good, but in 2020, this will often be a mixed bag when buying used and more often than not the lens will require some kind of a service.
So, why would we buy this lens? And for that matter, why write about a lens which was so quickly replaced, even by Nikon.
The Nikkor 50mm F/1.8 Longnose isn’t the best at anything. But it provides a more soulful approach to our photography. Shooting one allows us to hold a piece of history in our hands. It’s a lens whose designer helped shape the lenses of today.
So why not buy the Nikkor Longnose, and shoot one, and write about one? In a world full of cutting-edge glass and advance autofocus capabilities, it’s often counterintuitive to seek out or use lenses that aren’t objectively “perfect,” if such a thing exists. But I think it is useful to understand the humble origins of the Nikkor 50mm F/1.8 Longnose, if only to appreciate the past. Oh, and it makes pretty good photos too.
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