The 50mm is still and always has been a staple of mine. Over 20+ years, I’ve never been without a decently fast 50mm. To say I was excited getting my hands on a mint Nikon LTM 50mm f1.4 without any flaws or dust, fungus etc in the glass, well excited would be an understatement.
I searched high and low, bought and tried at least 5 of these. Only to return them upon finding out the glass had flaws that didn’t allow me to really experience what the lens was able to do. But at long last, I got my hands on a good example. I slapped it on my Leica IIIf and loaded some HP5, my standard test roll. Visiting a reenactment set the mid-late 1700s era, I switched between the Leica collapsable 50/f2 and the Nikon 50/f1.4. I fired off about 4 rolls, happy that I had some great images at a really unique event. Off to the lab they went….
Of course when they got back, I took note of a rather large and unforgiving mistake, the cloth shutter in my IIIf had developed a great many tiny tears during the day and all but a few images were beyond hope. The few that came out at all had so many light leaks in them that they couldn’t be used for anything. It was time for a new plan. Enter the Leica SL and an adaptor, later the MM with adaptor. It wasn’t the same as shooting it on my IIIf, but it would have to do.
“…the images it creates while not bad, are at the end of the day remarkably unremarkable.”
Let’s start with what I did like. The Nikon LTM (Leica Thread Mount) 50mm f1.4 feels great. It’s small, feels very nicely built (because it is) and has a nice smooth focus and firm but not stiff aperture ring. In it’s day this was a pretty great lens. Flash forward to 2017 however… And I just can’t find any reason to love it.
Although the lens handles fine and feels good in hand, I didn’t enjoy working with it. The draw isn’t really anything special, colors don’t really “pop” (even on the SL’s sensor), contrast is only fair. One of the reasons I’ve so enjoyed shooting with the Leica SL is how wonderfully it works with legacy or vintage glass. LTM, M mount, R, F, whatever I’ve used with the SL, it’s worked incredibly well. But here, with the LTM Nikon 50/f1.4 I’m less than impressed. Possibly because the focus peaking on the SL is contrast based, I had a hard time getting a good read on the focus with peaking. I ended up turning focus peaking off and going with magnification for focus, which due to the lens being slightly soft made things just a little less friendly while shooting in the field. When I set up some controlled tests at home on a tripod (the gnome photo above) and took my time with the focus this was no longer a major issue. But when do we find ourselves only shooting via tripod?
It’s at this point I decided to go to the Leica M-Monochrome. The CCD sensor brings out the flaws and the highlights of a lens and using the rangefinder focus will take care of the focus issue I had with the SL. It was also my thought that the MM would bring out the character of the lens. The CCD also tends to be very, very sharp, which will maybe counter balance the lens being just a little soft. Or so I thought. Even when the photos are sharp, they’re still soft by todays standard and there’s really nothing that makes the lens stand out, even when shooting with the Monochrome. There was also an issue of some focus shift when I was shooting on the MM, which could be do to the adaptor for LTM lenses, but I did not have this issue when testing the Nikon LTM 28mm or 35mm (reviews on those soon!).
After a few weeks with this legacy fast 50… I couldn’t come up with a single reason to keep it other than collector value (which is low, you can buy one for around $500). I have a rule about lenses, I don’t keep anything that doesn’t have a user value to me personally. And here in this case, I just can’t recommend this lens. Is it bad? No. But there’s also nothing really special about it. It lacks any real character that makes me fall in love with it. It’s average in every way when working with a digital body. The MM images felt better to me, so I’m led to believe that if you were to use this only with film, it may be worth your time if you were also buying it as a collector piece. But if you’re looking for a 50mm with a lot of character/unique draw and you’re like me in that you love shooting legacy/vintage glass, there are better ways to spend your money.
Final thoughts: The Nikon LTM 50/f1.4 is an historic lens that both Andrew and myself wish we could love. It’s pleasing to look at and might make a nice item for a collector, but the images it creates while not bad, are at the end of the day remarkably unremarkable. 5/10. FP