Repair: Nikkor-S.C 55mm f/1.2 Auto

Hello, everybody! Do you like “Chunking Express“? That’s Wong Kar-Wai’s masterpiece. The cinematography is amazing with its creative use of photographic techniques and clever, but thin layering of its storyline. I like it a lot because the director dared to create this kind of movie. It became a classic, something that many people study today. In celebration of that movie I would like to introduce to you something that produces photos that could fit in that movie’s look. It’s bold, daring and ambitious, signifying the dreams of its designer.

Introduction:

The Nikkor-S 55mm f/1.2 Auto was sold from 1965 to 1974 where the last version is called the Nikkor-S.C 55mm f/1.2 Auto to denote that it has improved coatings applied, the latter is the subject of this article. It was made to give the then-new F-mount an f/1.2-class “normal” lens. However, technical difficulties made it rather difficult not just for Nikon to achieve this and an interim solution has to be made by making the focal-length longer by 5mm, resulting in the 55/1.2 class of lenses. You can read more about that in this article.

The front element is huge in order to gather large-amounts of light. Despite that it still retained a 52mm filter-size which is excellent since it was the old-standard for Nikkors. The iris is 7-bladed which gives better results compared to a 6-bladed one.

A special NASA variant was made and sent to space to take pictures of our ozone layer. It says a lot about the performance of this lens. To read more about space cameras, check this article and scroll to the middle of the article.

It has a 7-elements-in-5-groups design of the Gauss-type design. It was difficult to calculate this at that time, it required a lot of effort to get it this fast while still retaining a 52mm filter-size. The mirror-box of the Nikon F requires adequate distance from the rear of the lens to the film aperture. That made it even harder to design a lens of this class with existing technology because the techniques required for designing lenses with adequate back-focus hasn’t been perfected yet. Nikon persevered and gave us this new design that lasted 13 years until the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 Ai was unveiled in 1978, the dream of creating the fastest 50mm lens for the SLR system has been achieved.

Despite being a band-aid solution is could take great photos, it’s perfectly usable wide-open unlike some other lenses made by other brands. Its ability to render 2-different looks makes it valuable as an artistic tool, you’re able to alter the feel of your photos on-the-fly with it. You could express your vision in different ways.

Here it is together with the New-Nikkor 55mm f/1.2. The latter has a new barrel with a slightly-modified optics using different materials, enabling it to focus closer. They both perform similarly, any differences should not be attributed to the minor revision done to their optics, it’s more likely that it’s due to sample changes. Do not mount it to a newer Nikon if it doesn’t have an Ai-ring installed. That will damage your camera and the repair cost won’t be cheap since some parts have to be replaced.

For those who are new to Nikon, here’s a recap of the f/1.2 family:

A Nikon Z6 with its in-body stabilization enables you to shoot at slower speeds with it. You can now take use it at smaller apertures when taking lowlight photos. It works great with a Nikon Df but newer, high-MP sensors such as the one on the Nikon Z6 will reveal that the resolution isn’t as good wide-open. The difference is subtle and you won’t really notice it until you zoom-into the photo and look at it with a large monitor.

Studying how a lens performs is crucial so you could maximize it. You will know its strengths and weaknesses and that knowledge will help you determine which lens is the best for a job. I shot these with a Nikon Z6 from f/1.2, f/2, f/2.8, f/4 and f/5.6, we’ll see the most changes happen within these apertures. I also assume that these are the most common apertures that people would like to shoot this with.

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Vignetting is quite high wide-open but it improves considerably when you stop the iris down to f/2. It gets a lot better at f/2.8 and you’ll only see traces of it from f/4 on. It has quite pronounced barrel-type distortion, it’s not something that I wouldn’t tolerate but I’ll be mindful of it when I take photos with straight lines.

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Chromatic aberration is quite high wide-open along with spherical aberration. The former looks uglier and it’s going to tint your overblown areas with magenta and green. Stop it down to f/2 and the chromatic aberration gets controlled a lot better while spherical aberration can still be observed at a high level but it’s not bad at all as it could add another layer of interesting effect to your photo. Chromatic aberration is tamed by f/2.8, you’re not going to see much of it from here on.

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It flares terribly as expected, veiling your frame and causing it to lose contrast. You’ll also see blobs when you have bright light sources. Shooting with a hood helps but not if the bright objects are within the frame. This is typical of many older Nikkors so I just accept it as it is.

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The bokeh quality is mediocre, it’s ugly at worse and somewhat-smooth at best depending on what you have in the scene. Some people like this look but I don’t. In order to avoid it I’d just shoot with it wide-open and at f/2 to be even safer since you’ll get outlines wide-open. The core doesn’t look even wide-open and stopping it down a bit helps. Be mindful of your aperture size and your focus distance since they will affect it a lot.

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Coma isn’t well-corrected wide-open, point-lights look deformed with wing-like extensions. Stopping it down to f/2 makes the point-lights look a lot more acceptable despite displaying some deformation. They look better at f/2.8 where they begin to look circular with small rays poking-out from the core. Setting it to f/4 or f/5.6 will give you nice-looking sun-stars with a nice core. It’s nothing compared to the Noct-Nikkor 58mm f/1.4 Ai-S, that is a magnificent lens for its time and it was made specially for shooting at night.

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The bokeh quality isn’t the best wide-open since the discs have an outline and the core isn’t even but it’s able to deliver smooth focus-transition. The compression has degraded the photo somewhat but the white lantern looks sharp when viewed with a large monitor.

Here’s another photo showing how smooth the focus-transition is. I think this is its best trait apart from being sharp even wide-open. This was shot at f/2.8 or so, the deeper depth-of-field helps get more things in-focus.

Contrast is a bit subdued wide-open due to spherical aberration and flare, you’ll be able to get a “dreamy-look” with it. This is the “vintage-look” that some people are talking about.

Stopping it down helps improve contrast and sharpness. You’ll be treated with excellent image quality and it’s able to resolve fine details specially at the center.

It’s not as sharp at wide-open apertures but it’s still quite good, more than acceptable. Spherical aberration or flare will make any highlights glow, giving the photo a unique, delicate look.

It’s a great lens for travel photography, it ensures that you could take photos from lowlight situations to sunny beaches.

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These were shot by the owner of the lens that I serviced. It’s capable of rendering beautifully and you won’t be deprived in the artistic senses because it has a lot of “character” when used wide-open. Some call this effect an ugly “aberration” but some people embrace this and call it “vintage-look”. By the way, these were shot with an old Nikon D3.

Let’s now check some film photos. Film has a unique look that is hard to simulate with a digital camera thanks to grain. It reacts differently to light, this means that it could mask a lens’ flaws or amplify them. Since it was designed to be used with film, it’s best that we judge this using its intended medium. Most of these were taken with the iris stopped-down unless there’s not enough light. I shot these using my Nikon F3 loaded with Fujifilm Industrial 400.

It’s amazing with film, sharp results are guaranteed when you stop the iris down a bit. The bokeh character is smooth and the focus-transition looks very natural, you won’t get a “wall-of-focus” effect with it. I personally do not like that look as it makes a photo feel “cheap”.

Stopping the iris down also cleans-up the bokeh so you won’t see any roughness and other artifacts. Despite it being shot with a smaller aperture you could see nice subject-isolation in this photo.

Shooting it with an ISO400 film can prove to be challenging but it’s capable of doing so. This is the reason why it was made, it enables you to push the limits of your film and techniques at lowlight photography.

The effects of distortion is evident in this photo specially in the bowed top of the torii gate. I’ll avoid using this for shooting architecture and if I must I will have to angle the shot so any straight lines won’t be parallel to the edges of the frame.

Here’s an example of what I am referring to. It’s usable for shooting architecture so long as you know how to angle your shot properly.

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It’s an amazing lens for use with film. In fact, I think I prefer to shoot this with it more than digital. I like how it renders with film. It just begs to be shot with it. It’s difficult to focus with it since the depth-of-field is thin, I missed a couple of shots. Shooting with film means that it’s not practical to shoot with it in bursts unlike what you could do with a digital camera. This will force you to refine your technique.

Let’s now shoot with it at night in dark alleyways. I’d imagine that it was designed to be shot in these kinds of scenarios. For this exercise I chose to shoot it with Fujifilm Natura 1600. I rated it at ISO1250 since I think that it’s best at that speed.

This is what this lens is made for, shooting in the dark. It renders beautifully, giving you a delicate look. This is addicting to shoot with at night.

Its beautiful focus-transition enables you to render scenes with natural-looking depth.

The foreground blur looks nice, too. Ideally, it’s best to shoot this scene with a smaller aperture but that wasn’t possible as I wasn’t shooting with a tripod that night.

Even with negative film’s dynamic range it was difficult to meter this scene because exposing for the tower means that I’ll end-up with an overblown foreground. The reverse will result in a dark tower, but the arcade will look a lot better.

This should’ve been shot with a tripod. Despite having a fast maximum aperture you’ll still need to use slower speeds in the dark even with a fast film.

Stopping it down a bit enables you to capture sharp photos. The results are amazing even at f/2. Having a fast maximum aperture means that it performs better than your average 50/2 lens at that aperture because you’re able to shoot with it stopped-down.

This was overexposed by 2/3 of a stop. That enabled me to get more details from the shadows at the expense of the brighter areas of the scene. A 55mm lens will give you something close to what your eyes could see and you’re able to take photos with a natural-looking perspective.

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Here are more examples. I’d love to shoot with Fujifilm Natura 1600 more but I only have a roll left. That is my last one and I couldn’t find more since it was discontinued by Fujifilm. If that wasn’t the case I’d use it more to take photos with this lens.

I highly recommend this lens to anyone, specially videographers. The New-Nikkor 55mm f/1.2 works similarly so that is also a great alternative to this. Despite that, it could focus closer which will make it more useful for some applications. Whichever you choose make sure that you get the ones with an Ai-ring. That enables you to mount them safely with modern Nikkors that have an Ai-interface. You should also use a hood with them, I find it useful for protecting the front element from my fingers or stray light reaching the front from an angle. The Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 Ai is another lens that you could consider despite being a bit wider. It’s sharper mostly but it won’t give you that “dreamy-look” that this lens is able to present. When looking for these, be sure to see how the iris behaves, it should be dry and snappy when actuated. The rings should turn smoothly, too. Be sure to check the optics, they should be clean and clear. Prices for these range from $90.00 up to $350.00 depending on condition, I got mine for very little money because of its condition. Just be patient and you could get it for a reasonable price. Happy hunting.

Before We Begin:

If this is your first attempt at repairing a lens then I suggest that you check my previous posts regarding screws & driversgrease and other things. Also read what I wrote about the tools that you’ll need to fix your Nikkors.

I suggest that you read these primers before you begin (for beginners):

Reading these should lessen the chance of ruining your lens if you are a novice. Before opening up anything, always look for other people who have done so in YouTube or the internet. Information is scarce, vague and scattered (that is why I started this) but you can still find some information if you search carefully.

I highly recommend that you read my working with helicoids post because this is very important and getting it wrong can ruin your day. If I can force you to read this, I would. It is that important!

For more advanced topics, you can read my fungus removal post as a start. It has lots of useful information, it will be beneficial for you to read this.

Disassembly (Lens Barrel):

The barrel’s construction is conventional but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to service. It’s cramped inside so it’s difficult to get things around, bending a lever will mean that your lens won’t operate smoothly. It also has a stop-down lever mechanism that’s built-in to the barrel, that means that you’ll have to take it apart in order to service the helicoids properly which is inconvenient. The good thing is you could remove the objective and store it in a safe place while you work with the barrel. This isn’t something that a beginner should work with, you will require special tools to service it. Skill is also required to put things back properly. If your lens needs to be repaired, send it to a professional.

Extract these to remove the focusing ring. Use a driver that fits perfectly to prevent stripping these.

You’ll now be able to access this, carefully extract it so you could unscrew the front barrel.

Unscrew the front barrel and be careful not to warp it or it will hamper the movement of the focusing ring.

The front barrel secures the objective, carefully pull it off and store it in a safe place. There’s a brass shim here to adjust its focus. Also note that the guide-screw of the objective has to fit the slot at the helicoid.

Before I forget, you should be careful while removing the objective, make sure that the rear element won’t get damaged as you pull it off.

Extract these so you can remove the bayonet mount. Many people get stuck here because they have stripped them. To prevent this happening, read my article on how to remove bayonet screws. These are difficult to get off, you’ll have to heat them with a soldering bolt to soften the epoxy used to seal them.

Remove the bayonet mount.

Extract this to remove the aperture ring. It couples the aperture ring to its fork underneath. Never attempt to remove the aperture ring while this is still installed.

Extract these carefully so you could remove the sleeve. Use drivers that fit the heads perfectly or you will strip the heads or scar the surrounding metal.

Pull the sleeve and the grip off to reveal the port holes underneath it.

Extract these to remove the helicoid key. It syncs the movement of the helicoids so it retracts-and-expands as you turn the central one. It also keeps the helicoids from coming-apart.

Carefully remove the helicoid key from the inside. Be sure to note its direction so you’ll be able to put it back again properly later.

You could now collapse the helicoids completely. Make a shallow, diagonal scratch, you should be able to get it back this way when you reassemble the helicoids or else you got it all wrong.

Separate the central helicoid from the outer one. Don’t forget to note where they parted since this is also the same spot where they should mesh. People forget to do this and waste a lot of time later figuring how to put these back. To prevent this from happening to you, read my article on how to work with helicoids.

There’s a helicoid stop here that prevents you from separating the inner helicoids. Extract these to remove it.

Do not forget which way should be facing up as this is not symmetrical.

Separate the inner helicoid from the central one and don’t forget to note the spot where they parted.

Extract these to remove this brace.

Carefully decouple this spring with a pair of sharp tweezers. It’s not easy to remove it so be careful.

The retainer of the ball-race is sealed very well. Dissolve it properly with acetone or heat. Use a lens spanner to unscrew it but be careful not to drop any of the balls.

Placing it over a shallow pan helps prevent losing any of the balls.

Drop the balls into the pan and remove the stop-down lever and its ring.

This is interlocked with the stop-down lever and you’re now able to remove it safely.

Carefully clean the parts, never leave any residue. Scrub the helicoids, I would even polish the threads with a stiff-bristled brush. Hardened dirt can only be removed with a sharp toothpick.

A thin-type of grease works best with this because the focus-throw is long, it will give the best results. Never apply too much grease or it will migrate to the iris mechanism and cause an even bigger problem. Only apply a really thin film to the slots of the aperture ring.

Disassembly (Objective):

The objective is conventional in terms of design but the elements are huge so you’ll have to handle it with care in order to prevent damaging anything. You’ll need special tools to remove the parts here and some alcohol to soften the seals. Never flood anything here with alcohol or solvents since there are cemented groups here.

Separate the front optics assembly by unscrewing it from the objective’s casing.

The rear optics assembly can be removed after extracting these. Be sure to note its alignment since this is not symmetrical as evident in the notch at the rear element.

Carefully remove the rear optics assembly.

The front element can be removed after unscrewing its retainer off.

Carefully extract the front element with a lens sucker.

Do not bother removing the 2nd group from its collar. You can unscrew it from the housing if necessary.

I didn’t clean the iris mechanism. If you need to service yours, read the New-Nikkor 55mm f/1.2 article because its iris mechanism is similar to this one’s.

Clean the glass carefully. If your lens has fungus, read my article on how to clean lens fungus. Do not use the solution at full-strength, thin it with distilled water. Don’t soak the elements in the solution for too long or it will dissolve the coatings. The cemented group is fragile so handle it with a lot of care.

Conclusion:

This one took me the whole night to service, around 3 or 4 hours with most of that time spent on cleaning and repacking the bearing. This is not an easy lens to service because of that. Despite being familiar with this lens I enjoyed working with it a lot and it wasn’t boring at all.

It took me a lot of time to put this back. There’s no easy way to get it back and you’ll have to place them one-at-a-time until the whole assembly is complete. It usually takes me an hour just to reinstall this properly.

(Click to enlarge)

This is how it looks like now. I got this lens from a junk shop as evident by how it used to look like. The grease has migrated from the helicoids and covered the entire barrel, tinting it with the same color of the grease. It’s good that it found its way to me, now it looks a lot cleaner.

Thanks for following my work, if you liked this article please share this with your friends so it will get more views. This site earns around $0.30 a day, it’s totally reliant on views. You can also support this site, it helps me offset the cost of maintenance and hosting. You are also helping me purchase, process and scan film. This site promotes the use of film so we’re all in this together. See you again in the next article, Ric.

Help Support this Blog:

Maintaining this blog requires money to operate. If you think that this site has helped you or you want to show your support by helping with the site’s upkeep, you can make a small donation to my paypal.com (richardHaw888@gmail.com). Money is not my prime motivation for this blog and I believe that I have enough to run this but you can help me make this site (and the companion facebook page) grow.

Buy me a roll of film or a burger?

Thank you very much for your continued support!

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Helping support this site will ensure that this will be kept going as long as I have the time and energy for this. I would appreciate it if you just leave out your name or details like your country’s name or other information so that the donations will totally be anonymous. This is a labor of love and I intend to keep it that way for as long as I can. Ric.

13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. marcr
    Apr 14, 2017 @ 03:06:15

    Great work, Thanks!

    Reply

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  9. Michael Schmidt
    Mar 30, 2020 @ 19:02:59

    Hello Sir i tried to clean my nikkor 55 1.2 and the last Elemente dropped out of the socket, i don’t know how to fix it again. I think it’s pressed or glued…
    Thank you for help
    Mike

    Reply

  10. Trackback: Review: Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.2 S | Richard Haw's Classic Nikon Repair and Review
  11. Trackback: Repair: Noct-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 Ai-S | Richard Haw's Classic Nikon Repair and Review

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