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:

A list of vintage super-fast 50-60mm f/1.2 lenses

So who made f/1.2 lenses? The answer is that most manufacturers had some lenses with this large aperture, usually in the 50-60mm range. Most of these lenses came from Japanese manufacturers, who led the way in fast lenses. The only real exception is the Leitz Wetzlar Noctilux 50mm, and they are expensive, to the point where it is cheaper to buy a new Noctilux-M 50mm f/1.2 ASPH (for US$8k).

These lenses are sorted by focal length and years up to 1985. Up until 1975, there were few if any 50mm f/1.2 lenses for SLR cameras, but there were a range of 55/58mm f/1.2 lenses. Note R indicates a lens for a rangefinder camera.

50mm

  • 1954 – Fuji Fujinon 5cm f/1.2 R
  • 1956 – Canon 50mm f/1.2 R
  • 1966 – Leitz Wetzlar Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 R
  • 1975 – Pentax SMC 50mm f/1.2
  • 1978 – Minolta MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.2
  • 1978 – Nikon AI Nikkor 50mm f/1.2
  • 1980 – Canon FDn 50mm f/1.2
  • 1981 – Minolta MD 50mm f/1.2
  • 1981 – Nikon AI-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.2
  • 1981 – Fuji Photofilm EBC X-Fujinon 50mm f/1.2 DM (+Porst UMC)
  • 1982 – Olympus OM Zuiko Auto-S 50mm f/1.2
  • 1984 – SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/1.2

55mm

  • 1962 – Canon R Super-Canomatic 58mm f/1.2
  • 1965 – Nikkor-S Auto f/1.2 55mm
  • 1968 – Canon FL 55mm f/1.2
  • 1970 – Tomioka Auto (Chinon/Cosinon/Revuenon/Yashinon/Cosina) 55mm f/1.2
  • 1970 – Tomioka Kogaku Auto Tominon 55mm f/1.2
  • 1971 – Canon FD 55mm f/1.2 (+AL)
  • 1972 – Olympus OM G.Zuiko Auto-S 55mm f/1.2
  • 1973 – Tomioka Auto Yashinon DS-M 55mm f/1.2
  • 1974 – Nikon Nikkor 55mm f/1.2
  • 1975 – Canon FD 55mm f/1.2 Aspherical
  • 1976 – Yashica ML 55mm f/1.2
  • 1977 – Nikon AI Nikkor 55mm f/1.2

57-60mm

  • 1956 – Konishiroku Hexanon 60mm f/1.2 R
  • 1960 – Tamron 58mm f/1.2
  • 1962 – Canon Super-Canomatic R 58mm f/1.2
  • 1964 – Canon FL 58mm f/1.2
  • 1967 – Konica Hexanon/Hexar 57mm f/1.2
  • 1968 – Minolta MC Rokkor-PG 58mm f/1.2
  • 1973 – Minolta MC Rokkor(-X) PG 58mm f/1.2
  • 1977 – Nicon Noct-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2
  • 1981 – Nikon AI-S Noct_Nikkor 58mm f/1.2

The Pentax (Asahi) 17mm fish-eye lens – 160 or 180°?

The closest Pentax came to a fisheye prior to the 17mm was the Takumar 18mm, which had an angle of view of 148°. In 1967, Pentax introduced the 17mm fish-eye. There are some discrepancies with whether the Asahi fish-eye lenses had an angle-of-view of 160° or 180°. During the period when Asahi Pentax produced the 17mm lens, it seems there were three versions.

  • Fish-eye-Takumar 17mm f/4 (1967-1971)
    • This seems to be referred to in the literature as a Super-Takumar.
  • Super-Multi-Coated FISH-EYE-TAKUMAR 17mm f/4 (1971-1975)
  • SMC PENTAX FISH-EYE 17mm f/4 (1975-1985)
All three variants of the 17mm lens

Many people assume every variant is 180°, but the literature such as brochures seems to tell another story. As you can see from the snippets of various catalog’s shown below, the earliest version seems to be 160°, with some transition between the Super-Takumar and Super-Multicoated being either 160° or 180°, with the later SMC versions being all 180°. What’s the real story? I haven’t been able to find out. Short of physically measuring the earlier two versions it’s hard to tell whether the early versions were indeed 160°, or was it a typo?

Specs from various pieces of literature

Vintage cameras and lenses – where to buy?

I have been buying vintage analog cameras and lenses for a few years now, and so this article offers a few tips, on where to buy them based on my experiences. Now when you’re dealing with vintage camera equipment, you will quickly realize that there is a lot of inventory around the world. This isn’t so surprising considering how the photographic industry blossomed with the expanding consumer market from 1950 onward. Analog equipment can be old, mostly dating pre-1980s, some quite common, others quite rare. I say pre-1980s because that decade heralded cameras and lenses that were bulky, ugly, made of plastic, and had clumsy auto-focus mechanisms. I will cover what to look for in vintage lenses, and cameras at a later date.

Bricks-and-mortar stores

If you are new to the buying vintage photographic equipment, then the obvious place to start is a store that focuses on vintage gear, but honestly they are few and far in between, which may be the nature of dealing with analog. Sometimes photographic retailers who sell modern camera equipment may deal with some “used” gear, but you often won’t find a really good range of gear, as they tend to deal more with used digital gear. Some people of course will comment that specialized stores tend to have higher prices, but we are talking about vintage equipment here, which may be anywhere from 40-70 years old, so if you are serious about lenses it is worth paying for the expertise to properly assess them.

In Toronto a good place to start is F-Stop Photo Accessories, which has a good amount of online information on their inventory (but does not ship). You will find a good assortment of Japanese gear, with some German and Soviet-era gear as well. The store is tiny, so best to check out the website and email to make sure the items you’re interested in are in stock, then drop by to examine them. In places like the UK, Europe and even Japan there are likely more bricks-and-mortar stores that deal predominantly with vintage. For example Tokyo abounds with used camera stores, some of which have huge inventories.

Fairs / Camera shows

If you are fortunate to live somewhere that has a photographic club, they may also have swap-meets, or auctions. In Toronto there is the Photographic Historical Society of Canada, which typically has two fairs a year, which are a good place to pick up vintage gear. The first time I went in 2019 I managed to find an 8-element Takumar 50mm f/1.4 (C$250), a Helios 58mm Version 4 ($20), a Takumar 35mm f/3.5 ($60), and a Carl Zeiss Tessar and Biotar 58mm f/2 for $140. The benefit is always that you get to examine the lens/camera, and check the functionality. There is generally a huge amount of lenses and cameras, some quite inexpensive for the person wanting to get started in analog photography.

Online stores

What about purchasing from an online reseller? This is somewhat tricky, because you are buying a physical device. I typically don’t buy any vintage electronic things off the internet because you can never be 100% certain. Thankfully the type of vintage we are looking at here, especially as it pertains to lenses, rarely involves any electronics. However it still involve moving parts, i.e. the focusing ring, and the aperture, both of which have to move freely, and are obviously hard to test online. There are a number of differing options for buying online. There are (i) physical stores which have an online presence, (ii) online retailers with a dedicated website, and (iii) online retailers on platforms such as Etsy and eBay.

I have had a number of good experiences when shopping at online stores. The first one was with the Vintage & Classic Camera Co., on Hayling Island near Portsmouth (UK). I bought an Exakta Varex 11a, and the experience was extremely good. Listings are well described, with ample photographs and a condition reported (as a percentage). The second was a recent experience with West Yorkshire Cameras, arguably one of the premium retailers for vintage camera gear. I have also bought lenses from a number of resellers on Etsy and eBay. Etsy provides access to resellers from all over the globe, and vintage products have to be a minimum of 20 years. I have bought some Russian lenses from Aerarium (Ukraine), cameras from Coach Haus Vintage (Toronto, Canada) and Film Culture (Hamilton, Canada). If you are looking for Japanese vintage cameras, I can also recommend Japan Vintage Camera based in Tokyo, who have an Etsy store as well.

What makes a good store?

A good vintage camera reseller will be one who lives and breathes vintage cameras. Typically they might have an Instagram account, offer weekly updates of new inventory, and service/inspect the equipment before even advertising it. If there should be something wrong with an item when you receive it, the reseller should make it good (I mean things do get missed). A good online store will have listings which describe the lens/camera in detail while listing any defects, provide a good series of photographs showing the camera from different angles, and some sort of grading criteria. Ideally the store should also provide some basic information on shipping costs.

Regardless of the store, always be sure to Google them and check online reviews. Don’t be swayed by a cool website, if there is a lack of customer service you won’t want to shop there. Sometimes the company has a Google review, or perhaps a review on Trustpilot. If there are enough negative reviews, then it is safe to say there is likely some truth to them. For example a company that posts 70% bad reviews is one to avoid, regardless of the amount of inventory on their site, how quickly it is updated, or how aesthetically pleasing the website looks. I had an extremely poor experience with a British online reseller that has an extremely good website with weekly updates of inventory. I had purchased a series of vintage lenses in Nov.2020. After one month they had not shipped, after two also nothing. I conversed with the owner twice during the period and each time the items were going to be “shipped tomorrow”. To no avail, after 5 months, I finally submitted a refund request with Paypal, which was duly processed. I have since written a review, which wasn’t favourable, but then neither were 90% of the reviews for that particular reseller.

The website Light Box has a whole list of places to buy film cameras and lenses in the UK, including a section named “Caution advised”, outlining those to avoid. I have created a listing of various stores in the Vintage Lenses etc. page.

Stores by region

Geographical locations do play a role in where to purchase vintage camera equipment. For example during the early decades of the post-war camera boom, there were two core epicentres of camera design and manufacture: Europe (more specifically both East and West), and Japan. So if you are interested in cameras/lenses from these regions, then stores within those geographical locales might offer a better selection. For example there are quite a few vintage camera resellers on Etsy from Ukraine and Russia. This makes sense considering cameras like FED were made in factories in Kharkov, Ukraine. Interested in Pentax or any number of Japanese vintage lenses, then resellers from Japan make sense. There are a lot of good camera stores in places that have few links to manufacturing, but may have had a good consumer base, e.g. UK and the Netherlands. The trick of course is being able to navigate the sites. Many Japanese stores have online presence, but very few provide an English-language portal.