Camera Geekery: Nikon SP + Nikkor 5CM F/1.1
The Nikon SP + Nikkor 5cm F/1.1 needs no introduction. It is the Land of the Rising Sun’s holy grail answer to zee German’s holy grail that we all know and covet, the incomparable Leica M3 with the 50mm Noctilux. Much like its respective Germanic nemesis, many believe the Nikon SP represented the pinnacle of the Japanese camera industry. But does it actually hold a candle to the legends and belong amongst the Gods on Mount Olympus? The prices sure imply it does. But for the non-collectors out there hopefully this will shed some light on whether the hype is true or like government statements.
The Nikon SP was manufactured by Nippon Kogaku of Tokyo, Japan between the years of 1957 and 1962. It was the 5th model in Nippon Kogaku’s line of S-series rangefinders and considered the most advanced in the entire series.
The surprise arrival of the Leica M3 in 1954 took the entire camera industry by storm. No one really saw it coming and the completely new design shocked the world. The Leica M3 was all new and shared nothing with the Barnack Leicas of yesteryear. It sported a unique new body with a new bayonet lens mount, an advanced rangefinder with an almost 1:1 viewfinder that allowed photographers to compose and focus with both eyes open, lever wind film advance, a glass pressure plate, and many other improvements. The M3 really stole the thunder of the highly anticipated Nikon S2 so when the latter arrived in 1955 it seemed dated by comparison.
Rivalry with the Leica M3
For the next couple years, engineers, designers, and technicians worked tirelessly to unleash not only Nippon Kogaku’s answer, but Japan’s answer to the Leica M3, while also trying to enter the all new SLR market segment with the Nikon F.
Nikon rangefinders took the best features of the world’s two best German rangefinders at the time: the Leica III and the Zeiss-Ikon Contax. So they turned them into a single camera. The SP had a few advantages over its German competition including a removable back, titanium shutter curtains, and a unique dial viewfinder system that had visible frame lines for six different focal lengths.
The Nikon SP turned heads in the photo world and became a star in its own right, despite making its debut two and a half years after that of the M3. Yeah the M3 wildly outsold the SP and cemented the cult of the red dot, but the Nikon SP shed any doubt that they could not keep up with the Germans.
For history buffs looking for a more in depth look behind the production of the Nikon SP, Mike Eckman has a great article here.
Nikon SP Tech Specs
Viewfinder 1: Coincident Image Coupled Rangefinder w/ Adjustable Frame lines for 5cm, 8.5cm, 10.5cm, and 13.5cm
Viewfinder 2: Scale Focus Galilean Viewfinder w/ Frame lines for 2.8cm and 3.5cm
Shutter: Titanium Curtain Focal Plane
Speeds: T, B, 1 – 1/1000 seconds
Exposure Meter: None
Flash Mount: Cold shoe and M and X Flash Sync
Weight: 603 grams
Nikkor 50mm f1.1
Nikkor 50mm f1.1 lens was the world’s second fastest production lens since the release of the Zunow 50mm f1.1. Zunow began the development for ultra fast lenses in 1953 and Nikon joined the competition a few years later in 1956.
- Production Year: 1956
- Construction: 9 Elements / 7 Groups
- Lens Design: Optics designed by Murakami Saburo. Gauss type elements with three rare-earth lanthanum convex lenses
- Maximum / Minimum Aperture: F1.1 – F16
- Closet Focusing Distance: 1m
- Filter Size: 62mm
- Weight: 400g
Design and Ergonomics
Focusing and aperture settings
Notice how the depth of field scales and focus distance are on the body and not the lens! Not sure how accurate a universal focusing system like this is. Not to mention the awkward angle you need to look down at to see them. Sharp eyed viewers will also note the aperture numbers increase from right to left. So setting aperture will require opposite direction turns compared to Leicas.
Details and design thoughts abound in this engineering marvel of a camera. For example, I love the little tooth on the film take up spool to ensure the film leader catches.
The dials on the top plate are all handsomely designed with cool retro looks and top notch finishing. When you advance the film with the lever, the red circle on the shutter release button rotates to indicate the film is indeed advancing.
For me the focusing wheel for me is an acquired taste. I get the concept of it behind it as focusing accuracy is crucial with such fast lenses at low apertures but I didn’t find it actually all that useful in practice. The rotating lens is also an an unorthodox design choice that takes some accustoming to.
The shutter release button too is in an awkward position a little bit recessed towards the back of the camera. As such, I had to switch to this hand position to be able to use the camera properly. Initially it felt as awkward as it looks above, but you do get used to it after awhile. But I still prefer to focus the OG way on the lens barrel and resort to using the focus dial primarily in just low light where I need to be more wide open. It also abrasive to the skin after a bit of use.
One of the crowning features of the Nikon SP is the frameline selector dial which is part of the film rewind crank. When set to show 135mm lines the view is as shown as below in the right side “main” viewfinder. The hood for the Nikkor 5cm f/1.1 is so outrageous it covers much of the viewfinder. So you can imagine the difficulty in focusing when the parts of the hood blocks the rangefinder patch because the lens rotates to focus (see below).
The main finder has 1.00x magnification and automatic parallax correction. The unique feature of this viewfinder/rangefinder was its optical neutrality. These permitted the photographer to keep both eyes open, a big plus for action photography. The secondary finder for 28mm and 35mm lenses has 0.4x magnification and no automatic parallax correction.
Though serves just as an aesthetic function, I just love the graphic design of the ISO dial on the bottom plate.
Nikon SP + Nikkor 5cm f/1.1 Sample Pics (JCH Streetpan 400)
Nikon SP + Nikkor 5cm f/1.1 Sample Pics (Kodak Gold 200)
One of the nicest things about the Nikon SP is how quiet and smooth its shutter and shutter release button are. It also gives off a very objectively satisfying sound ;) Quiet like a Leica but with a more masculine, mechanical tone if you will.
The Nikkor 50mm F1.1 lens remains a legend for good reason. As one can expect at its maximum aperture of f1.1, it is sharp in the center but soft around the corners. However the sharpness increases gradually when stepping down and the lens renders beautiful thin lines and subtle color tones that is unique. The classic slightly cold, masculine “Nikon look” is in full display with the legendary lens.
Like a Nissan GTR, the Nikon SP + Nikkor 5cm F/1.1 epitomizes Japanese engineering and design. Whether the aesthetics and design choices suits one’s taste and style is a question only you yourself know the answer to. But respect it you must. Despite the ergonomic quirks and slightly lackluster finish only when compared to a Leica M3, the Nikon SP + Nikkor 5cm F/1.1 offers a unique shooting experience. Especially when taking into account what it was up against and made to do.