Leica Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5, the lens that got the attention of the World

I believe this is more than anyone else has written about this lens. I've looked for one of these for 20 years, after reading the March 1991 Pop Photo article on "How the West was Won". This is some history of the Nikkor-SC 5cm, F1.5, and a comparison with a "true" Zeiss 5cm F1.5 Sonnar "T" made in 1943.

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The year is 1950, David Douglas Duncan is in Korea making unforgettable images of an almost forgotten war. “This is War” captures, in Duncan’s own words, “what a man endures when his country decides to go to war.” The photojournalism of Duncan, Carl Mydans, Horace Bristol, Hank Walker, and Chas Rosecrans brings the war home to the American public, and pressure is generated to end it. Dwight Eisenhower adds a promise to his campaign for President to bring an end to the Korean War, and fulfills that promise when elected. Duncan’s photograph of Capt Ike Fenton, USMC, is regarded as one of the best portraits ever made.

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(Capt Ike Fenton by David Douglas Duncan, Nikkor 5cm F1.5 wide-open)

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(Korea by David Douglas Duncan, Nikkor 5cm F1.5 wide-open)

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Duncan’s photography also introduced the world to high quality Japanese lenses. Duncan used a Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 and Nikkor-QC 13.5cm F4 on his Leica IIIc for most of his photographs taken in Korea. Other photographers took note of the quality of Duncan’s images, and several started shooting with Nikkor lenses. Hank Walker started using a Nikon camera along with Nikkor lenses in Korea. Word spread about the quality of the Nikkor lenses, and in the December 10, 1950 issue of the New York Times broke the story.

“The first postwar camera to attract serious attention in America has causes a sensation among magazine and press photographers following the report by Life magazine photographers in Korea that a Japanese 35mm camera and its lenses had proven superior to the German cameras they had been using. The lenses, which include a full range of focal lengths, give a higher accuracy rating than lenses available for German miniatures.”

The Times also reported statements by well-respected camera experts Marty Forscher and Mitch Bogdanovitch regarding the Nikon camera and lenses. Bogdanovitch wrote of the Nikkor lenses “The lenses are of excellent color correction and perform better at full apertures than do Zeiss lenses.” Dr. Karl Bauer, President of Carl Zeiss, Inc. USA, was furious with the Times and threatened to drop all advertising with the paper. The Times allowed Zeiss to run a statement that the “Zeiss lenses being tested were not true Zeiss lenses.”

The Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 placed a world-wide spotlight on the post-war Japanese camera industry and started a competition between the German and Japanese camera industries that would rage on for decades. Yet, it is one of the least known of any of the Nikkor lenses ever made. Two batches of lenses were produced, the “905” batch was ordered in May 1949 and the “907” batch was ordered in July 1949. Fewer than 800 lenses were made, about 400 in Leica mount and less in S-Mount. The F1.5 lens was soon replaced by the Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.4, which was introduced in May, 1950. Production of the 5cm F1.4 lens is in the 100,000 range.

The question begs- “Why develop an F1.5 lens and an F1.4 lens within a year of each other?” Peter Dechert’s excellent book “Canon Rangefinder Cameras” provides the answer. Nikon developed the 5cm F1.5 in 1937 for use on the Hansa Canon. A few were made, some possibly used on an X-Ray camera. After the war, Nikon needed a super-speed lens to compete with Zeiss and Leitz, the 5cm F1.5 lens had already been designed. The type of glass used is critical to the fundamental design of any lens, perhaps Nikon had a small supply of the glass that was the basis of the F1.5 lens. The exact answers are lost to the ages. Bob Rotoloni’s book “Nikon Rangefinder Camera”, 1983 writes “The Nikkor-S 5cm F1.5 is one of the least known RF Nikkors ever produced.” “Obviously designed to compete with the famous Zeiss Sonnar F1.5, it’s optical formula is unknown, but may be similar to the Zeiss lens.”

The Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 is a Sonnar family lens, 7 elements in 3 groups. Some authors have stated it is a “copy” of a Zeiss Sonnar. The Nikkor lens is made to the Leica 51.6mm focal length standard, and is constructed using different optical glass than the Zeiss optic. It is a unique formulation, and has the general behavior attributed to family Sonnar. The post-war focus mount is an all-brass rigid mount, beautifully finished in chrome, and has a close-focus of 18”. It is the first Nikkor lens to feature the close-focus capability, followed by the 5cm F1.4 and rigid-mount 5cm F2. The optical surfaces were all hard-coated, and my 64-year old lens has nearly perfect glass. The focus is smooth, aperture is smooth, and blades are clean. The aperture mechanism does not employ click-stops, the F1.4 lens and rigid F2 lenses of 1950 feature click-stops. This is a heavily made lens, and had to be to withstand the harsh environment that it operated in while in Duncan’s hands.

The performance of the Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 was the subject of debates when it debuted. Mitch Bogdanovitch stated that it outperformed the Zeiss lens at full-aperture. The very first picture taken with my lens on the M9 confirmed what I’ve known about Nikon rangefinder lenses for years. They are optimized for wide-open use, and the 5cm F1.5 is no exception. Sonnar type lenses have a lot of “spherical aberration”, which produces focus shift. The lens must be positioned in the focus mount with reference to the RF cam to produce an accurate focus for one selected F-Stop. Nikon chose wide-open use for their lenses, other manufacturers made different decisions. Zeiss optimized their lenses for stopped down use and perform best at F2.8. Zeiss did not start optimizing their Sonnars for wide-open use until 2007. I modified my vintage Sonnars for wide-open use several years before that.

Dr. Karl Bauer’s statement regarding that the lenses tested “were not true Zeiss lenses” was most likely accurate. After World War II, the Zeiss factory was in upheaval. Much of the machinery that was used to produce precision optics was shipped back to Russia as war reparations. Wholesale lots of optics, optical glass, lens parts, and fixtures were shipped to Russia where they were completed at the KMZ factory. ZK 5cm F1.5 Sonnars and 5cm F1.5 Jupiter-3’s using German parts were produced through the early 1950s.

Within Germany, lenses were produced with what remained behind. Post-war Leica mount “Carl Zeiss Jena” Sonnars can be found that are not in the “official records”, and often have a “one-off” quality about them. These lenses were probably machined using mostly hand-tools, sometimes were missing parts, and had sub-standard finish on the optics and mechanical fixtures. These lenses appear on post-war Leica cameras, many bought by serviceman in Occupied Germany. I have disassembled several of these lenses, the middle triplet in my copy was not fully polished, was uncoated, and produced poor results. I replaced the triplet, which greatly improved performance. My Russian 1950 Jupiter-3 5cm F1.5 has a serial number stamped into the fixture that shows it was made in Germany, in April 1945. The spacing between the optics was wrong and the lens could not be used at any distance, at any F-Stop. After correcting the error by increasing the length of the optical fixture, it is one of the best vintage Sonnars that I’ve seen.

“True Zeiss Lenses” in Leica mount were manufactured during the war in small numbers. The 5cm F1.5 Sonnar “T” made during the war used a “recomputed” optical formula that improved performance compared with the pre-war lenses. My personal observation is that edge-to-edge performance is improved compared with earlier lenses.

The wartime Leica mount Zeiss lenses are not as well made as the Nikkor lenses used during Korea. The choice of available materials for the fixtures and focus mount was poor, lighter metal alloys were used. The design of the Zeiss focus mount for the Leica camera is not well thought out; as an example a set screw through the focus ring serves as the focus stop. Lenses that saw heavy use during the war often fell out of RF calibration, with the sleeves and helical “loosening-up” making the lens unusable. This is a fragile lens, the only way to put it. I’ve rebuilt a couple of wartime Zeiss 5cm F1.5 Sonnar “T” Leica mount lenses. The middle triplet of one had to be tightened back into position after slipping, a second required that a new sleeve be added to the mount to “steady up” the movement of the RF cam and heavy grease be used for the helical. A lens in perfect condition would not have withstood use under combat conditions faced by Duncan.

The Sixty-Four year old question is “How does a Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 compare with a True Zeiss 5cm F1.5 Sonnar T optimized for wide-open use on a Leica.” I took both to the Marine Museum at Quantico, Virginia to find out. “Long story short”, center performance of the two lenses is equal. The Nikkor compares with every pre-war Sonnar that I have used, but “whatever tweeking” that Zeiss did in the late 1930s to improve the design paid off in edge-to-edge performance. Contrast at F1.5 was slightly better with the Zeiss, again improved over the pre-war lenses. The same is true of the “now-corrected” 1950 Jupiter-3 made in Germany in 1945 and repaired in the USA in 2012, the performance is nearly identical to the wartime Zeiss lens and was better than my later (~1953) Nikkor 5cm F1.4.

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(Korea Display, Marine Museum, Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 wide-open)


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(Korea Display, Marine Museum, Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm F1.5 Sonnar “T” wide-open)

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(Korea Display 2, Marine Museum, Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 wide-open)

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(Korea Display 2, Marine Museum, Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm F1.5 Sonnar “T” wide-open)

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(WW-II Pearl Harbor Display, Marine Museum, Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 wide-open)

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(WW-II Pearl Harbor Display, Marine Museum, Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm F1.5 Sonnar “T” wide-open)

"Bibliography", and for further reading,

"How the West was Won", Arthur Goldsmith, Popular Photography, March 1991

"Canon Rangefinder Camera", Peter Dechert, April 2001

"Nikon Rangefinder Camera", Robert Rotoloni, 1993

Photographs taken at the Marine Museum in Quantico, Virginia

The National Museum of the Marine Corps and Heritage Center

And... A lot of time spent taking lenses apart and figuring out how to make them work...

I found a nice Postscript for the story, from the Book Jacket of the 1990 reprinting of "This is War", a letter written to Life Magazine by Captain Ike Fenton jr, the subject of the famous portrait.

"Men in my company think a great deal of him and felt it a great privilege in knowing him" His desire to obtain good pictures for your magazine often made him an exposed target to the enemy, and he gained the reputation as the type that would crawl out in front of our lines so he could get a picture of the facial expression of a Marine as he squeezed off a shot. Knowing Dave and having his friendship was one of the nicer things about Korea." - Captain Ike Fenton, USMC

I also learned that Captain Fenton survived the war, passed away in 1998.

F. I. Fenton, Colonel, United States Marine Corps

- Brian
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"Sceptred Isle"

Hello Brian,
Many thanks for re-posting your excellent and very informative history of the 5cm f1.5 Nikkor-S.C. lens.
As you say very little has been written about this lens and it's place in the history of early Japanese "fast" lenses.