A pocketable miracle.
As I continue to accumulate manual focus Nikkors of various ages for very modest outlay, it increasingly seems to me that optical progress has pretty much stalled over the past 40 years. With the possible exception of a few exotic ultra-wide zooms, the Nikkor optics I am buying all display fabulous performance equal to modern glass. More recent advances seem to have targeted electro-mechanical components like focus and anti-vibration motors, neither required in a lens this wide. These devices add a lot of weight and bulk and while Nikon makes some exceptional lenses in the ultra-wide zoom category, they come with a price, bulk and weight penalty. On optical grounds alone they are no bargain, compared to many of their predecessors.
Case in point – the 35-70mm f/2.8 AF D shows absolutely identical performance at all common apertures with that from the current 16-35mm f/4 G wonder at the shared 35mm focal length. I mean identical when pixel peeping the extreme corners at 30x magnification. The current G lens is a two year old design, the older AF one dates from 1987, some 24 years old.
My latest acquisition is a 1982 vintage 20mm manual focus wide angle. In mint condition this one ran me $215.
Nikkor 20mm f/3.5 Ai-S wide angle lens.
20-21mm is a focal length I am very comfortable with and while this optic does not replace the versatile 16-35mm G lens, it’s a handy alternative when you don’t want to carry much weight. Pair it with the outstanding 35-70mm zoom and you have almost everything you need for most situations. Performance? Mild full aperture vignetting disappears by f/5.6 as does the faintest trace of chromatic aberration. I see absolutely no deterioration through f/22. Pretty amazing given how very small this lens is – no bulbous front element, no motors, no gizmos. And auto focus is hardly missed at this focal length where most everything is sharp most of the time. In keeping with that ethic, the focus throw is exceptionally short – maybe 75 degrees of rotation from infinity to one foot.
I sought out the Ai-S variant in preference to the earlier Ai as Ai-S uses a linear aperture cam which will make chipping easy. The rear baffle is the right diameter for a straight glue-on of the CPU, maybe with a very thin shim to raise the CPU a tad.
Is it as good as the 21mm Leica Aspherical Elmarit I owned back in my Leica M days? Maybe not quite. But, then again, you don’t have to contend with the worst viewfinder ever made (the Leica optic requires a clip on finder which is pure crap, poorly made in plastic and showing massive barrel distortion, while quite ruining the beautiful lines of the Leica M body). Leica have the temerity to demand $750 for this piece of garbage. The Elmarit is now discontinued but good luck finding a nice used one for under $3,500. POS finder extra, of course.
Is it as good as the Super-Angulon R 21mm f/4 I used on my Leicaflex SL? The Nikon is much better and a fraction of the size. Leica borrowed Schneider’s tired wide angle design for the Super Angulon and succeeded in underwhelming at great bulk and cost. Once again, the Leica optic demanded a second mortgage back in the day.
And how does it compare to the ultra funky 20mm Orion? The Nikkor is better in every way.
Finally, comparing it to the 16-35mm f/4 G lens the G monster zoom is one stop sharper than the 20mm Ai-S at wide apertures in the center and two stops better at the extreme corners. Yes, the G is better, but at 30x and pixel peeping it should be for the price asked. Stated differently, from f/8 down you cannot tell the difference.
I continue to be amazed how easy it is to find mint manual focus Nikkors of this vintage and hope to share some results from this Nikkor with you soon.
I have created a lens profile for use with Lightroom 3 and 4 and Photoshop CS4 or later. You can find it here. This profile will make correction of distortion and vignetting a one click process, once installed.
For some street snaps from the 20mm, click here.