In a previous article, I wrote about cheap 200mm telephoto prime lenses and offered the opinion that everyone should buy up while they are a bargain basement alternative to the signature portrait lens focal lengths. The lens I’m writing about today is just the opposite; much wider, much more expensive, and much harder to find. The Nikon Nikkor 15mm f/5.6 AI ultra-wide rectilinear lens is not only a lungful to say, but it’s also a marvel to shoot.
I firmly believe that everyone should shoot with am ultra-wide rectilinear lens, at least once. At least, that’s my opinion after acquiring, traveling, and shooting with one; and a rare one at that. For Fourth of July weekend, I decided to treat myself to the crisp, cool mountain air of Red River, New Mexico and take a much needed rest from the triple digit beating of the Texas summer.
Origin and Evolution of the Nikon 15mm
During the early 1970s, Nikon was sitting firmly atop the pyramid of professional’s choice brands for pro level 35mm SLRs. In 1972, their product catalogue showed a non-existent 15mm lens, dangled like a carrot on a stick to all Nikon/Nikkor enthusiasts and pros alike. In the summer of 1973, Nikon delivered.
Introduced as a pre-AI lens, the original Nikon Nikkor 15mm f/5.6 came outfitted with a diamond pattern focusing ring, a chrome filter tab, and built in yellow, orange, and red filters (more on those later). During the K series, from 1976-1977, the focusing ring was changed to the common waffle pattern, and by 1977-1978 the AI version was introduced. This version remained in production until the summer of 1978 when it was replaced by the 15mm f/3.5 in an AI-S mount.
Exact production numbers are not entirely known, but it is estimated that 2,500 of the non-AI versions and about 1,000 of the AI versions were made, leaving the total production of this lens somewhere around 3,500. To put it simply, this lens is somewhat of a rarity, and it’s very sought after by Nikkor collectors.
What is it that attracted me to such a wide and rare lens? It happened when I learned that the 15mm f/5.6 is more accessible than the Holy Grail 13mm f/5.6, which sells in the mid to upper five figures (when one happens to show up at an auction). Also, I’ve never shot any lens wider than 24mm.
After shooting at a 15mm focal length, the 24mm starts to feel like a 50mm. It’s that big of a difference. So much of a difference, in fact, that the 15mm had me rethinking and planning all of the things I could now shoot with ease. Interiors, street, architecture, wide close-up portraits, and my favorite application, landscapes. Architecture comes in at a close second, but I have to put landscapes on top of the list since its the only application I have been able to shoot extensively.
Build Quality & Engineering
Before I get into my personal love for this lens, I would like to marvel over how beautifully this lens is made.
The optical formula consists of 14 elements in 12 groups with Nikon Integrated Coating (NIC), as well as a floating element for close range correction (CRC). The aperture consists of seven blades that stop down to f/22 with a horizontal view of 100 degrees, a diagonal view of 110 degrees, and a vertical view of 77 degrees. By itself, the lens weighs three pounds. That’s all metal and glass construction; the way they used to make them, to sound like an old grouch. There is no plastic to be found here.
In short, this lens is built like a brick outhouse with precise optical engineering that allows for a vast view through the viewfinder while maintaining a virtually distortion free image; unlike most of the standard wide angle focal lengths, which often suffer from some (sometimes slight) barrel distortion.
Focusing is about as easy as you could possibly imagine. The lens gives such a wide field of view that focusing by way of setting the hyper focal distance is the primary option. Of course, if we endeavor to use this lens for close range focusing, then we can absolutely achieve those results; we just have to be real close to the subject.
The best and most useful feature of this lens is the built in filters. For some brief background, Nikon couldn’t be bothered with building filters for massive or odd-sized front elements for their ultra-wides or fish-eyes, so they engineered the filters into the lenses by means of a selection wheel. The three main filters that were used were a yellow (Y48), orange (O56), and red (R60). These were used for black and white film shooters to boost contrast with a simple turn of the selection wheel.
For color film, this lens does really well. Color reproduction in my opinion is somewhat muted, bringing in more pastel tones rather than vibrant. Some people may see this as a negative, however, my main application for this lens is black and white which I fully believe is the best application all around.
Use In the Field
My intention when using this lens on my trip to New Mexico was to try to create images reminiscent of old oil paintings that feature landscapes as their subject matter. I wanted grand, extravagant, detailed images that a viewer could spend minutes or even hours looking at in an attempt to absorb the atmosphere of the image. A majority of my images were made with black and white film, and I used all three of the built in filters to achieve different variations of contrast.
Carrying this lens on an already heavy camera body (Nikon F2) definitely makes walks in the mountains feel a bit longer than they truly are. Although, if you persist and are patient, you will be rewarded and thank yourself later. In many cases, I used the through the lens metering on my F2 and metered for the sky during the brighter parts of the day. As the sun progressed towards the horizon, I aimed for somewhere in the middle in an attempt to achieve a reasonably evenly exposed photo. In other cases, I metered for the sky during sunset with one of the filters engaged to create a darker sky and silhouetted mountains and trees.
The simple, yet well-designed ergonomics make for easy use handheld or on a tripod. I used this lens handheld the entire time. While not in use, I always stored the lens in my bag with the comically large lens cap on the front to prevent an abundance of dust or damage to the even more comically large front element. Dust appearing in your images could potentially be an issue depending on storage and how frequently you clean the front element like me. I’m always paranoid of stray dust particles appearing in my images and those who know me personally will know that I will always have a clean lens.
Why the 15mm f/5.6?
At this point, you may be wondering why I decided to purchase this lens. The price point is not very friendly (I did sell my Pentax 6×7 to buy it). While I’m sure that might shock and even infuriate some of those who read this, know that I kept my Mamiya RB67 since I believe it is the best 6×7 system and much better than the Pentax. But I digress and apologize for rubbing salt into that Pentax-sized wound.
All jokes and ribbing aside, the three reasons that I chose the slower 15mm f/5.6 as opposed to its faster 15mm f/3.5 successor are as follows. First, the f/5.6 is more affordable than the f/3.5. Even in the world of ultra-wides, the faster glass will typically hold the higher price tag. The second reason is that the f/5.6 is less prone to flaring than the faster f/3.5, even with its larger front element. The third reason I chose the slower AI over the faster AI-S successor, is most likely the most important – the built in filters. Since I am more likely to shoot black and white rather than color, having a lens with built in yellow, orange, and red filters opens up a vast array of possibilities.
Most photographers have a certain comfort zone, when it comes to focal lengths. And mounting a wildly different lens than is typical to their camera will challenge that comfort. The more extreme the lens, the greater the challenge. Such is the case with the Nikon 15mm. But since I’ve gathered more experience shooting with it my entire thought process and composition choices have shifted. Of course, everyone’s thought process with a focal length of this type will vary, but the consensus is sure to remain equal across the board: shooting with a rectilinear/ultra-wide lens will change the way you shoot.
Overjoyed satisfaction is the feeling that comes whenever I put this lens to work. The ease of use, the quality of build, the sheer beauty of the operation, from selecting the filters, to setting focus and selecting aperture, is quintessentially classic Nikkor. You will pay something of a small collector’s tax when purchasing this, or the f/3.5 version of the 15mm. However, what we might pay in collector’s tax is certainly made up for in pure bliss.
Before actually using one, it’s almost impossible to imagine what such a wide field of view can bring to our photography. Cities, landscapes, large gatherings, architecture, all of these are paradise for a field of view this expansive. You won’t know what it’s like until you try. Which brings us full circle, and I repeat. Everyone should shoot an ultra-wide rectilinear lens at least once. And this Nikkor isn’t a bad place to start.
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