Review: Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 Millennium

Hello, everybody! I went to a hobby shop this afternoon and I found some plastic models on sale that were reissues of classic kits from many decades ago. The original models were considered vintage and valuable when I was still active and working as a scale modeler several decades back. These ones are new, made with new molds and technology and they have new parts or fittings to go with them. They don’t make the original kits any cheaper but it is nice to be able to build the classics without having to actually build one if you get what I mean. Reissues serve a purpose and they’re always welcome sight to every hobbyist who can’t afford the original. Today, we are going to talk about a reissue of a legendary Nikkor, a lens so legendary that the older design even rivals what’s for sale today from any manufacturer but since I don’t have the resource to buy the original lens I’m going to review the new reissue instead.

Introduction:

The Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 Millennium edition is a reissue of the famous, rare, and exquisite Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 “Olympic Edition”. The latter lens gained that nickname because it was released around the same time as the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. It’s a famed lens because it’s the best 50/1.4 from Nikon, it remained to be so until this day depending on who you ask. This lens shares the same as the Nikkor-S•C 5cm f/1.4, both were made for the older Nikon S-mount for rangefinder cameras but the “Olympic Nikkor” was sold very late into the rangefinder Nikon era, long after it went obsolete with because of the revolutionary Nikon F. Despite the similar-sounding name, the lens isn’t a variant of the the Nikkor-S•C 5cm f/1.4, it’s a completely-different lens. It’s a new lens made using 1964 manufacturing techniques compared to the old one which was from the early 1950s.

The Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 Millennium is beautiful. It’s one of the best-looking rangefinder lens from Nikon. The design is elegant as it is practical, there is nothing that will get in your way. The aperture ring feels precise and there’s no play in any of its parts. Compared to the “Olympic Nikkor”, this lens uses better coatings and the glass was made using modern materials. I assume it had its optical formula tweaked a bit but it remained the same as the older one in nearly all aspects.

Compared to the Nikkor-S•C 5cm f/1.4, the “Olympic Nikkor” incorporates a new optical formula consisting of 7-elements-in-5-groups and is not an old, copy-cat Sonnar. It’s sharp wide-open and the bokeh quality is beautiful. It’s also bigger, heavier and better-made compared to the older one, which feels dated even during the 1960s. Many people love this lens and it is what many people refer to as Nikon’sSummilux Killer“. This will excite many people, I know a couple of people who swear by their Summiluxs’ but this lens is not feather-weight and it can hold its own against the best that Germany has for a fraction of the price. It doesn’t have the delicateness of the Summilux but it’s close enough to rival in many regards. Some people even claim that this is even sharper wide-open. Of course, sharpness isn’t everything to me, you know this for a fact if you have been following my blog for some time now. Unlike most, if not all of Nikon’s rangefinder lenses, this one was not made in Leica Thread Mount (LTM) barrels, it came too-late in the game for that.

The Nikkor-S•C 5cm f/1.4 is a more compact lens compared to this one. This is the biggest 50/1.4 for the S-mount and it’s the heaviest one, too.

The iris has a lot less blades compared to the older one which has the classic characteristics of a vintage rangefinder lens iris consisting of many blades. I prefer the classic design as it produces rounder, better-looking bokeh balls.

The rear element is also much bigger compared to the Nikkor-S•C 5cm f/1.4, which is tiny in comparison, a classic Sonnar trait.

Despite being almost 70-years-old, I prefer shooting with this setup. It’s tiny, light and it has more character. It doesn’t have the complicated electronics of the newer cameras but I don’t really need it for enjoying photography. It has an aftermarket hood in this picture, I never remove it from this lens. It is widely considered to be Nikon’s best 50/1.4 even by modern standards, it can easily beat many of Nikon’s later 50/1.4 lenses despite the design being a re-issue of an old lens from 1964. I can see where that sentiment originates but if you don’t believe me then just see the sample photos later.

This lens was sold as a kit along with the re-issue of the Nikon S3. Both were made in 2000 and hence, the millennium monicker. The engineers at Nikon made these with the same specs as the original ones. The old tools for these were long-gone so they had to re-fabricate the tools from scratch again. The result is a modern replica of the original items made to modern specs. You can buy them separately today on the used market but it’s best to buy them as a set if you can.

Let’s now see some simple tests with this lens. Knowing how it performs is a big deal since you will learn how to exploit its strengths and avoid its flaws. I took these from f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8 and f/4 from left-to-right. I assume that these apertures are what people will use the most and we see the most changes in terms of performance and characteristics in these apertures.

(Click to enlarge)

Vignetting is kind of high wide-open but not as bad as I expected. It’s about a stop or more darker at the corners and it improves by f/2. It is gone from f/2.8 and on. Distortion is kind of high for a 50mm lens so I won’t use this for shooting architecture or anything with straight lines in the scene. You can’t see it in real-world photos unless you’re shooting a scene with straight lines near the edges of your frame.

(Click to enlarge)

The character of the bokeh can range from good to mediocre depending on what’s on your scene or where it’s focused but it’s generally good. At f/1.4, it is capable of producing clean-looking discs but you’ll see some outlining. It is not bad at all but we’re used to seeing clean, clear discs these days. You’re not going to get terrible-looking outlines that are common with the vintage lenses from the 1960s and older which I think looks terrible. The discs look much cleaner by f/2 and you won’t see the outlines anymore. The discs will always stay round since it has more blades than usual. The edges of the iris blades are straight and it has less blades than the Nikkor-S•C 5cm f/1.4 but it is enough to maintain a circular shape.

Here’s an example showing the bokeh balls in better detail when you shoot this lens at its minimum focus distance. Also note the spherical aberration, I don’t think it’s much of a problem since it makes the highlight “bloom”. It’s a nice touch, making the picture more interesting.

The bokeh quality is smooth but there will be times when you’ll get harsh or busy-looking bokeh characteristics. This is not so much of a problem since it is generally smooth specially when you have your subject and background separated by some distance.

(Click to enlarge)

This lens is sharp wide-open and the resolution is ample, too. You can see a lot of chromatic aberration wide-open but it’s nothing compared to the old Nikkor-S•C 5cm f/1.4 which has boat-loads of it. Spherical aberration is not a concern but it can be observed when given the right variables. Stop the iris down to f/2 and you’ll get a sharper image due to the better resolution. You will also notice a subtle rise in contrast as well. Everything looks a lot better by f/2.8 where the lens is operating near its peak at the center. You’re going to get the best quality from this lens at f/5.6 where it’s performing at its peak and the corners start looking a lot better. There’s no point in shooting this at a smaller aperture from this point since all you’ll get is more depth-of-field. I don’t know when diffraction starts kicking-in but I assume that it’s around f/8 to f/11 or so.

Let’s now see some real photos that were taken under practical conditions. I always judge a lens by its practical use and the value that I get from it. Some people judge by graphs and metrics but not me. Look at these photos to see how it performs with a modern 24MP sensor, I took these with my Nikon Z6 which is the best mirrorless camera out there pound-per-pound.

This lens won’t focus really close and it’s reliant on what your helicoid will allow. It’s sharp wide-open at its closest focusing distance. It definitely can’t be out-resolved by a 24MP sensor.

This lens renders beautifully, I love how natural this photo looks. The depth and the details of the photo looks so natural you can feel the textures of the scene even without being there.

It can be difficult to focus with this lens when shooting wide-open because the depth-of-field is so shallow but you can get it right with practice. This is a skill that you will learn to perfect as you use this lens more and more. The bulb shows plenty of chromatic aberration, this is OK since it makes it look a lot more interesting.

The rendering looks lovely and it is the best that I’ve seen from an S-mount Nikkor. This is great for taking environmental portraits or candid photos. It is definitely the best 50mm lens you can get for your Nikon rangefinder.

Spherical aberration can be observed in this photo, it makes the photo look more interesting as the highlights glow a bit, making it look delicate. It has a nice balance of sharpness and fuzziness, a real “wabi-sabi” lens.

Here’s another example showing this trait. It makes the photo look better in that you get many interesting characteristics in one photo, yin-and-yang as one.

You can isolate your subjects very well with this lens and it does it perfectly. You’ll get a nice 3D-like effect with it, you’ll feel the depth of the scene. This is something that this lens does really well and you should exploit this.

(Click to enlarge)

Check these photos up by clicking on them. These should give you an idea of how this lens performs with modern digital cameras with a high MP count. I love how this lens renders and I don’t see a point in owning its expensive and boring autofocus counterparts unless Im shooting for an assignment.

Let’s now see some photos that were taken with film. Film has a unique and difficult to reproduce look thanks to film grain, it can help mask flaws but it can also help amplify them depending on what variables you give it. This is part of the excitement of shooting with film. Since this lens was designed to be used with film it’s only fair that we judge it with photos that were taken with it. I used my Nikon S2 and loaded it with Fujifilm Industrial 100.

My focus is off so the awning is in-focus instead of the Japanese characters but it ended up being good for this example since we can see just how good this lens is at resolving details even with film, you can see the grain and the texture of the concrete structure was faithfully reproduced in film.

Stopping the iris down will ensure that you won’t get chromatic aberration in your photos. Lucky for us, it goes away from f/2 and on.

Here’s another photo of the sculpture. It’s a bit blurry due to the slow speed of my shutter.

I missed my focus a bit but at least this photo is a nice example showing the character of the bokeh. It’s not as smooth as I like but I have seen worse. It’s a bit busy-looking when given the right variables which you can avoid.

(Click to enlarge)

Here are some more photos from that afternoon. These photos don’t do the lens much justice as they’re boring, if you want to see more interesting ones please go to the next set of photos.

How about some pictures that were taken with less light? For situations like these I use the Fujifilm Natura 1600, a discontinued film that has become as expensive as gold to shoot with, an exaggeration that many will agree to. It’s one of my favorite films to shoot with but with a limited stock, I only use it with special lenses like this one and I make sure that I don’t waste any of it. I took these with my Nikon S4 along with the aid of a Minolta Spotmeter M. I cannot take any chances and I only shoot at these lighting conditions with a spotmeter or not at all.

Even when shooting wide-open, there will be times when you’ll have to get more light to reach your film. This lens does it beautifully when paired with a really-fast film like the legendary Fujifilm Natura 1600. It’s difficult to get a nice, focused photo with a tiny rangefinder patch with a moving subject but you can get things to line-up properly with practice.

This is a remarkable lens, it’s great for street photography but you will want to shoot with it stopped-down just in case so you’ll get more things in-focus.

This was taken at f/5.6 since it’s a bit brighter outside. Notice the sunstar, it’s nice and pointy thanks to the number of iris blades it has. It’s sharp and the contrast is amazing. This lens is performing past its peak at this aperture.

Stopping the iris down a bit to about f/2.8 will give you amazing photos that are sharp and the resolution is also amazing to say the least even with film. This is the best aperture to shoot this lens with if you ask me.

I love the 3D-like effect that I get with this lens. The focus transition of this lens is smooth, something that I see less of these days. This give the pictures a nice vintage-feel despite the lens being made in the new millennium.

Here’s another example exhibiting the smooth focus transition. You get that silky-smooth look which helps in subject isolation and your photo does not look “artificial” since you get a more organic look.

The bokeh quality is nice but not as smooth as the Nikkor-P•C 8.5cm f/2. This is not bad at all because the former is known to have some of the smoothest bokeh quality you’ll find in a vintage Nikkor from the 1950s.

This lens is great for taking pictures in low-light conditions if you use a fast film. This is not much of a problem when using a digital camera where you can set the ISO to a higher level and fix the photo in post.

(Click to enlarge)

Enjoy the rest of the roll by clicking on the photos above. I love using this a lot for these kinds of photos because it’s sharp even wide-open. It’s hard to find a rangefinder Nikkor with the same quality as this one. It’s unique, the lens has no equal in its class (and focal length) for this application. It truly is a “Summilux Killer” as some people call it.

I highly recommend this lens for people who shoot film. Many people love this lens so much that they bought adapters to use these with their Leicas. I sure love mine to bits and I will never part with this lens. This is the cheap way to experience shooting with the “Olympic Nikkor” or a better version of it. It has excelled the original lens since it has better coatings, it is a perfect homage to a legendary Nikkor that many people consider to be the ultimate expression of a 50/1.4 for the S-mount. If you’re a serious collector then you already have one of these. If you’re just out looking for a great 50/1.4 then it is the best that money can buy in terms of cost-over-performance. They are not cheap and they will cost you about $750 each depending on condition or what’s included but it’s worth the cost. Only people who have shot with this can tell you how beautiful this lens is.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Repair: Nikon S3/S4 part1 | Richard Haw's Classic Nikon Repair and Review
  2. Trackback: Repair: Nikon S3/S4 part 2 | Richard Haw's Classic Nikon Repair and Review
  3. jonathanpaulcogen
    Aug 15, 2020 @ 11:53:20

    Thank you for this review! I have this lens and use it with the Amedeo adapter on an M10, and it’s my go-to lens when the 50mm App-Summicron is not fast enough, or when I want the optical effects you get with it at F1.4. Just curious about one thing: What is the lens design? If it’s not a Sonnar, how would you describe it?

    Reply

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