The fastest vintage 50mm lenses ever made – light gathering behemoths

Some of the most interesting vintage lenses are the sub-f/1.2 lenses, of which there are very few. In the 1950s Japanese lens makers wanted to push the envelope, racing to construct the fastest lenses possible. There were four contenders: the Zunow 50mm f/1.1, the Nippon Kogaku’s Nikkor-N.C 50mm f/1.1, Konishiroku (Konica’s predecessor) Hexanon 60mm f/1.2 and the Fujinon 50mm f1.2 LTM. This spurned research which led to the development of the Canon 50mm f/0.95 (1961), which at the time was the largest aperture of any cameras lens in the world. The other, which did not appear until 1976 was the Leitz (Canada) Noctilux-M 50mm f/1.0.

(Note that these lenses were made for 35mm rangefinder cameras.)

Why were these lenses developed?

The most obvious reason was the race to produce fast lenses. An article in the February 1956 issue of Popular Photography sheds more light on the issue. The article, titled “Meet the Zunow f/1.1” [1], by Norman Rothschild, described the virtues of the Zunow lens (more on that below), and concluded with one of the reasons these lenses were of interest, namely that it opened up new areas for the “available-light man”, i.e. the person who wanted to use only natural light, especially with slow colour films. This makes sense, as Kodachrome had an ASA speed of 10, and Type A’s speed was ASA 16. Even Kodachrome II released in 1961 only had a speed of 25 ISO. Conversely, black and white film of the period was much faster: Kodak Super-XX was 200 ISO, and Ilford FP3 was 125 ISO. Ilford HPS, introduced in 1954 pushed the ISO to 800. The newer Ektachrome and Anscochrome colour films were rated at ASA 32. In the patent for the Zunow f/1.1 lens [3], the authors claimed that objectives with apertures wider than f/1.4 were in more demand. In reality, the race to make even faster lenses was little different to the race to get to the moon.

Zunow 50mm f/1.1

The first of the sub-5/1.2 lenses was the Zunow 50mm f/1.1. Teikoku Kōgaku Kenkyūjo was founded by Suzuki Sakuta circa 1930 and worked for other companies grinding lenses. The company started working on fast lens around 1948, with the first prototypes completed in 1950, and the 50mm f/1.1 Zunow released in 1953. It made a number of lenses for rangefinder cameras, including slower 50mm lenses in f/1.3, and f/1.9, a f/1.7 35mm, and a 100mm f/2 lenses. In 1956 it became the Zunow Kōgaku Kōgyō K.K., or Zunow Optical Industry Co., Ltd., but closed its doors in early 1961. During the last years the company designed a couple of camera’s including a prototype of a Leica copy, the Teica, and the Zunow SLR, the first 35mm SLR camera with auto diaphragm, instant-return mirror, and bayonet mount interchangeable lenses (only about 500 were ever produced).

The Zunow 50mm f/1.1 was derived from the Sonnar-type f/1.5 lens. The patent for the Zunow f/1.1 lens [3] describes the lens as “an improved photographic objective suited for use with a camera that takes 36×24mm pictures”. Many of these fast lenses were actually manufactured for the cine industry. For example the company produced Zunow-Elmo Cine f/1.1 lenses for D-mount in 38mm and 6.5mm (and these lenses are reasonably priced, circa US$500, however not very useful for 35mm). The Zunow 50mm f/1.1 is today a vary rare lens. Sales are are US$5-10K depending on condition. The price for this lens in 1956 was US$450.

  • 1953 – Zunow f/1.1 5cm, Leica M39 mount/Nikon S, 9 elements in 5 groups.
  • 1955 – Zunow f/1.1 50mm, Leica M39 mount/Nikon S, 8 elements in 5 groups.

Nikkor-N 50mm f/1.1

Hot on the heals of Zunow was the Nikkor-N 5cm f/1.1 developed by Nippon Kogaku. Introduced in 1956, it was the second sub-f/1.2 lens produced. The lens was designed by Saburo Murakami, who received a patent for it in 1958 [5]. While the Zunow was an extension of the Sonnar-type lens, the Nikkor lens was of a gaussian type. It was also made using an optical glass made using the rare earth element Lanthanum in three of its optical elements. The lens was made in three differing mounts: the original internal Nikon mount (for use on Nikon S2, SP/S3 cameras), the external Nikon mount, and the Leica M39 mount. The original lens mount was an internal mount, and the heavy weight of the lens (425g) could damage the focusing mount, so it was redesigned in 1959 with an external mount. The lens had a gigantic lens hood with cut-outs for setting the focus with the rangefinder through the viewfinder.

  • 1956 – Nikon Nikkor-N[.C] 50mm f/1.1, Leica screw mount/Nikon S, 9 elements in 6 groups (Nikon, 1200 units; M39, 300 units)
  • 1959 – Nikon Nikkor-N 50mm f/1.1, Leica screw mount/Nikon S, 9 elements in 6 groups (1800 units)

A 1959 price list shows that this lens sold for US$299.50. Today the price of this lens is anywhere in the range $5-10K. Too few were manufactured to make this lens the least bit affordable. Nippon Kogaku also supposedly developed an experimental f/1.0 lens for the Nikon S, but it never went into production.

Canon 50mm f/0.95

In August 1961, Canon released the 50mm f/0.95, designed as a standard lens for the Canon 7 rangefinder camera. It was the world’s fastest lens. The Canon f/0.95 was often advertised attached to the Model 7 camera – the Canon “dream” lens. The advertising generally touted the fact that it was “the world’s fastest lens, four times brighter than the human eye” (how this could be measured is questionable). It is Gauss type lens with 7 elements in 5 groups. The lens was so large on the Canon 7 that it obscured a good part of the view in the bottom right-hand corner of the viewfinder, and partially obscured the field-of-view.

In a 1970 Canon price list, the 50mm f/0.95 rangefinder lens sold for $320, with the f/1.2 at $220. To put this into context, $320 in 1970 is worth about $2320 today, and a Canon 7 with a f/0.95 lens in average condition sells for around this value. Lenses in mint condition are valued at around $5K.

The verdict?

So why did these lenses not catch on? Cost for one. While f/1.2 lenses were expensive, faster lenses were even more expensive. For specialist applications, the development of these lenses likely made sense, but for the average photographer likely not. There were a number of articles circa 1950 in magazines like Poplular Photography which seemed to downplay their value, which likely contributed to their decline. It is notable that by the the early 1960s, Nikon stopped advertising its 50mm f/1.1 lens, and never produced another sub-f/1.2 lens. By the late 1960s even Canon had ceased production of the f/0.95.

There were probably more sub f/1.2 lenses created for non-photographic applications, in many different focal lengths. For example x-ray machines (Leitz 50mm f/0.75), D-mount film cameras (e.g. Kern Switar 13mm f/0.9), C-mount for film, medical and scientific imaging (e.g. Angenieux 35mm f/0.95), and aerial photography lenses (e.g. Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7). Not until recently have super-fast lenses once again appeared, likely because they are technologically better lenses, made much cheaper than they ever could have been in the 1950s and 60s.

References:

  1. Norman Rothschild, “Meet the Zunow f/1.1”, Popular Photography, pp.126/128, February (1956)
  2. Kogoro Yamada, “Japanese photographic objectives for use with 35mm cameras”, Photographic Science and Engineering 2(1), p.6-13 (1958)
  3. U.S. Patent 2,715,354, Sakuta Suzuki et al., “Photographic Objective with Wide Relative Aperture”, August 16, (1955)
  4. Hagiya Takeshi, Zunō kamera tanjō: Sengo kokusan kamera jū monogatari (The birth of the Zunow camera: Ten stories of postwar Japanese camera makers) Japanese only (1999)
  5. U.S. Patent 2,828,671, “Wide Aperture Photographic Objectives”, April 1, 1958.

Further reading:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s