Nikon has been around for over 100 years designing and building professional optics for photography, microscopes, binoculars, rifle scopes, and many other applications. For some reason their presence in the world of cinema optics has been very limited. It’s been decades since their C-Mount Cine-Nikkor super-16 lenses were being built (note: Nikkor is the name Nikon uses for almost all their photographic lenses, and Cine-Nikkor is the name used for their motion picture lenses). Over the years, some Nikon lenses originally made for still photography have made their way into cinema.
John Dykstra used Nikon lenses to shoot most of the FX shots for the original Star Wars on his Vista Vision format Dykstraflex motion control camera system. At the risk of spreading rumors, I have heard from a few reliable sources that some fast Nikon still photo lenses where chosen as the base spherical lenses in some older, high-speed, anamorphic lenses from a big-name lens maker that shall remain nameless. There is also a modern front-anamorphic zoom that I will bet good money is based on Nikon glass, however I can’t prove it yet. I actually have a bet with Matthew Duclos regarding the origins of this lens…any updates on that Matthew?
Once upon a time, companies like Optex and Century Precision Optics converted Nikon’s amazing manual focus 200mm f 2, 300mm f 2 to and 300mm f 2.8 to PL mount so DPs could use these fast telephoto primes on their 35mm motion picture cameras. Nikon’s highly regarded “Holy Trinity” of modern auto-focus zoom lenses (14-24mm f 2.8, 24-70mm f 2.8 and 80-200mm f 2.8) have all been rehoused by different lens rehousing companies because of their incredible optics. Despite all the repurposing of Nikon’s amazing glass for cinema use, Nikon has not made any moves of their own to get back into cinema lenses.
Nikon has made other lenses that are a perfect fit for cinema production. I am referring to Nikon’s manual focus SLR lenses, mostly from the second half of the 20th century. The oldest of these are designated as “Non-AI,” followed by “AI,” and finally “AI-S.” In Nikon speak, “AI” is short for “automatic maximum aperture indexing,” and it pertains to the way the lenses mount to and communicate with Nikon’s SLR cameras. All three variations utilize Nikon’s F Mount, and optically speaking, the lenses are typically identical from one series to the next. For instance a 35mm f 1.4 Non-AI, 35mm f 1.4 AI, and 35mm f 1.4 AI-S all have identical optical designs. However. the very oldest Nikon F Mount SLR lenses can differ in the coatings used (single-layer coating for the oldest lenses vs. multi-layer coatings for the newer ones), and the older lenses often have iris designs that use fewer iris blades compared to the later versions.
In their original factory form, all manual focus Nikkors have smooth, nicely dampened manual focus rings and manual aperture rings, making them well suited for cinematography use. Nikon conveniently made many great focal lengths to choose from including many high-speed lenses. Also, most of these lenses incorporate floating elements in their focus systems, a design technique still used by many photography and cinema lens makers today to ensure a lens is at peak optical performance at all focus distances. An additional benefit from the use of floating elements is that focus breathing tends to be minimized, something that is not as relevant to photographers, but important to cinematographers.
The look of these older Nikon lenses is quite special. Many of them, especially the fast lenses have a lot of character. Stopped down they are quite sharp, however at the wider apertures, they are very flattering on your subject. They have less micro contrast than most modern lenses, and they lose a bit of sharpness in the corners. Pale skin tones and highlights have a tendency to bloom slightly. The lenses also have incredible bokeh: very smooth and never busy. Out-of-focus pinpoint light sources are rendered beautifully even stopped down thanks to their 9-blade iris design (used for almost all of the fastest AI-S lenses), which to me was always more pleasing than the 8-blade “stop sign” shaped iris design adopted by many still photography lens makers of the era. Of course that’s completely subjective.
Because of these characteristics, I have always thought these vintage Nikon primes would be excellent candidates for a proper cinema rehousing. They have it all: great optics, character, performance, speed, and plenty of focal lengths to choose from, but until now no one was rehousing them. If you were like me, you did the next best thing and had them Cine-Modded by Duclos Lenses. As much as I love using my Nikkors in their Cine-Mod form, there are always situations where you need a lens with a proper PL mount and a longer focus throw than still photography lenses typically have. Luckily a company called Zero Optik had their eyes on these Nikon lenses too.
Some quick backstory on Zero Optik: their first project was a PL mount pinhole lens with no glass elements (hence the name Zero Optik). Their second project was rehousing the original 1930s Bausch & Lomb Baltar primes. If you’ve had a chance to shoot with either their pinhole lens or their rehoused Baltars, you know that the craftsmanship of their lenses is second to none. I have used just about every lens out there, and Zero Optik’s mechanical design is as good or better than the very best. They are durable, with buttery smooth, reliable mechanics, and they are compact and light-weight. So when Alex Nelson from Zero Optik asked me if I was interested in the idea of rehousing my Nikon primes, I jumped at the opportunity.
Alex contacted me in response to an Instagram post I made about my Nikkor AI-S 85mm f 1.4. He and I share an appreciation for Nikon’s contributions to photography and the look of Nikkor lenses. We talked at length about the history and unique qualities of these lenses, and we found ourselves agreeing on the many focal lengths that would be perfect for rehousing.
In June 2017 I handed 10 Nikon prime lenses to Alex and he began the research and development phase of each focal length. When he was ready to start manufacturing parts, it only took 3 weeks to have the first working prototype ready to test. Of the 10 lenses I handed off to Alex, the first focal length he chose to rehouse was arguably the most legendary, certainly one of the most rare, most exotic, and high-performing Nikkors ever made: the 58mm f 1.2 Noct.
Nikon originally designed this lens for astrophotography, which is where the name Noct came from, which is Nikon’s nod to “nocturnal” photography. Similarly, Leica uses the name “Noctilux” for some of their fastest lenses.
The 58mm f1.2 AI-S was introduced in 1977 with a 7-blade iris design and was updated in 1982 to have a 9-blade iris design. The optics for both versions are identical. The secret to this over 40-year-old optical design is that the lens has a hand ground aspherical front element.
The average “fast fifty” offers speed at the expense of contrast and resolution. Most are also optimized for aberrations somewhere in the middle of the focus range. The Noct-Nikkor, however, was built to photograph stars against the night sky, and so has several unique optical characteristics. For one, it performs exceptionally well at its maximum aperture and exhibits virtually no coma, or smearing of points of light, in the corners. It has also been optimized for focus at infinity, rather than closer, more traditional distances. As a fortunate side effect of a lens being corrected for infinity focus, when focused at closer distances, backgrounds melt away into smooth, creamy bokeh, yet you still get a sharp yet flattering look to your subject. The lens is just as sharp at f 1.2 as it is at any other stop, which is incredible. That’s Zeiss Master Prime territory, but with Full Frame coverage!
Speaking of close focus, because of the design of the Noct’s focus system, Zero Optik is able to improve the lens’ minimum focus distance from about 20.5” down to about 12”. (NOTE: Some Nikon lenses with sophisticated floating elements will retain their stock minimum focus distance, but lenses with simpler focus design like the 58mm f1.2, are capable of improved minimum focus distances as part of Zero Optik’s rehousing process).
A 58mm lens at T1.3, focused down to one foot makes for really dramatic images. Even with the wider field of view of Full Frame, you can fill the frame with just the eyes of your subject. You can get the front of the lens just a few inches from an object, but even when your subject is at more typical distances from the camera, backgrounds melt away, and there is so much separation between subject and background, that the images deliver an almost three dimensional feel.
Improved close focus is not where the improvements stop. One of the few and now infamous negatives about Nikon lenses, is that their focus rings rotate the opposite direction of just about every other lens on the market. Don’t worry, Zero Optik addressed that too. When they rehouse a lens, all that remains of the original lens is the glass and the iris. The rest is brand new and designed for cinema use. All Nikon lenses from Zero Optik will focus in the “correct” cine direction. Focus throw is also increased to about 300 degrees with plenty of witness marks, so ACs will be very happy. The focus ring’s movement is silky smooth, it rotates with very little effort, and there is no back-lash. The aperture ring is well marked and well spaced, and it is nicely dampened so that your stop won’t slip out of place if you lightly bump the iris ring. Another distinction between the original and the Zero Optik version (I think it goes without saying) the aperture is “de-clicked.” All the lenses except for possibly the widest focal lengths will have 95mm front diameters, a nice industry standard size, which works well with so many accessories.
A big design philosophy and point of pride for Zero Optik is total honesty in what they are delivering to their clients. Since you are supplying your lenses to Zero Optik, you know exactly what glass is going into them. Painstaking and time-consuming development goes into each lens to maintain the optical design, look, and character of each lens. In addition, both the lens’ f stop (the mathematical equation of the focal length divided by the diameter of the lens’ entrance pupil) as well as its T stop (a value for how much light is actually being transmitted through the lens) will be engraved onto the lens. Why is this important? T stops aren’t traditionally used in the still photography world, but they are a staple of the cinematography world. A lens that is f 2.8 for its maximum aperture will not transmit quite enough light to give you a proper exposure if you are lighting a scene for T2.8. The lens elements and coatings will soak up some of that light as it makes it’s way to your camera’s sensor. That f 2.8 lens might actually be a T3 wide open, meaning you need to light your scene to T3 to get a proper exposure when shot wide open at f 2.8. If someone rehouses a lens that is f 2.8 and claims it is also T2.8, you might want to question that T stop.
Zero Optik measures the exact light transmission of each lens using a Lens Transmittance Meter and engraves accurate T stops on the aperture rings. For example, the 58mm f 1.2 Noct is actually T1.3. It’s nice to know when you are exposing your scene that you can trust the numbers engraved on these lenses. In addition, each lens’ f stop, focal length, and serial number will also be engraved on the barrel exactly the same as it was on the original Nikkor lens barrel, so there is no confusion about what the donor lens is.
One of the things Alex and I discussed at length was that we wanted to honor the heritage of the Nikon brand with the look of these new housings. Nikon fans will notice the many nods to both Nikon lenses and Nikon SLR cameras of the era. The Zero Optik engravings (like the font used for the word “Nikon” for instance) are nearly identical to the style of the engravings on Nikon’s old SLR lenses and cameras. The unique and unmistakable “F” from Nikon SLR cameras was also borrowed and repurposed for the “FF” engraved on the Zero Optik housing. The “FF” now standing for “Full Frame.”
Some of these old Nikkors had the lens name and serial number engraved on the side of the lens, but with others like the 58mm Noct, “Noct-NIKKOR 58mm 1:1.2” and the serial number are all engraved on the front bezel facing your subject. Zero Optik will have this same information engraved in the same way on the front bezel of their rehoused Nikon lenses. And finally, Zero Optik reimagined one of Nikon’s most recognizable signature elements: the polished silver band that separates the focus and iris rings. The resulting housing combines clean, modern lines with vintage details resulting in metalwork that is timeless and also pays homage to its Nikon roots.
As exciting as a rehoused cinema version of the Noct is, what would be even more exciting would be a complete set of these vintage Nikkors, right? That is indeed the plan. The Noct will be accompanied by other rehoused Nikkor primes from the same 1970s-1980s era that will match in regards to color, contrast, and character. They will have similar performance with most focal lengths being high-speed lenses in the f1.2 to f2 range. All will deliver flattering images, beautiful lens flares, minimal breathing, and pleasing bokeh.
For the same reason that many DPs select Cooke Speed Panchros, or Canon K35s these days, older Nikkor primes give a beautiful look that modern lenses cannot reproduce. They also give you fast apertures and full frame coverage. As far as coverage goes, these lenses were designed to cover 36×24 35mm still photography film. They will cover the ARRI Alexa LF, RED Monstro 8K, Sony Venice, Panavsion DXL2, and all the Full Frame DSLRs on the market. Some focal lengths will even cover beyond Full Frame. For instance the rehoused 58mm T1.3 was tested on an ARRI Alexa 65, and it covers the entire sensor! Imagine: a 58mm lens, at T1.3, with the wider field of view of an Alexa 65…unreal.
With the introduction of more and more cameras with Full Frame or larger sensors, it’s nice to have new Full Frame lens options for cinematographers. It should be noted these lenses are also perfectly suited for Super 35 sized sensors, but it’s nice to know they can cover larger Full Frame sensors when they need to.
There is a need for lenses like these Nikkors, and it’s not just because of the trend of using older lenses to take the edge off digital cameras. Diffusion filters can do that. However diffusion filters can’t change the color, intensity and character of a lens flare. They can’t alter a lens’ distortion, its focus roll off or its bokeh. Those are the characteristics that are baked into the design of a lens, and it’s why vintage lenses offer so much to cinematographers. Current lens-makers tend to design lenses that are sharp, high-contrast, and aberration-free. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but for some projects, character is just as important as performance.
These rehoused Nikon lenses are going to bring another creative tool to filmmakers looking for a way to make their work stand out, and thanks to Zero Optik, there will be absolutely no compromises on the mechanics of the lenses. This is legendary vintage Nikon glass in one of the best lens housings available. It’s an exciting time to be a filmmaker.
NOTE: At the time of this article’s publication, the Zero Optik Nikon 58mm T1.3 Noct is the first and only lens available. A full set of rehoused Nikon lenses will be available soon. Focal lengths will likely be as wide as 14mm and as long as 300mm, though a full list is not available at the moment. Follow @zerooptik and @old_fast_glass for updates and more information. The Zero Optik 58mm T1.3 Noct is currently available to rent from Old Fast Glass.