Wider than wide

Perhaps you’ve seen them, the hoardes of dejected, sad looking photographers, all searching for a bargain in a wide angle lens. If I look out the window, the line stretches into the distance, perhaps halfway round the world by now.
It doesn’t help to take one aside and point out that the widest setting on that kit lens they got with their DSLR outfit actually is a wide angle lens.
“No, I’m looking for something really wide. You know, for landscapes and stuff,” they say.
Of course, there’s nothing like an ultra wide angle lens for making that majestic mountain landscape into a distant row of small humps. Those sailboats out on the lake become mere specks, dwarfed by too much sky and too much water.
That’s okay, they’ll have to learn the hard way.
I remember when I bought my first wide angle. I was still in high school, and it took a lot of scrimping and saving to finally buy it. I was so jazzed about how great it would make my photos, and was so shocked at how weak those first rolls turned out. Sure, I had a wider angle of view, but my subject matter got smaller, more distant, with too much space in between, around, and above. What the heck?
Of course, with time, I figured out that wide angles sing best when snuggled right up to their subject, and a spacious background gives the shot its “air”.

2.1 in cap

This is just odd looking, when you take it out of its case. But it keeps the lens and its special viewfinder all together.

That first wide angle, however, was a 28mm, which is just about as wide as what the typical kit lens gets down to these days, in equivalent field of view. And yet all these people out there think they need to go even wider?
Tastes change, of course, and even though a 28mm was considered a decent wide angle in those days, and some considered it even too wide and “distorted” for their taste, a 74 degree angle of view is just ho-hum nowadays.
For the record, I’m going to specify focal lengths for the 35mm/“full frame” digital format. If your camera has a smaller “crop” sensor, then translate to your appropriate focal length. If your sensor is even bigger – well … good for you!
My old 28mm Minolta lens cost around $150 bucks back then, which is close to spending $400 today. As I said, it was a stretch buying it then. But a 24mm Minolta extra-wide (84 degrees corner to corner) would have set me back, and anyone else, another $100 – which is why vintage 24mm lenses are much harder to come by these days. 28mm is common. 24mm is rarer, regardless of what brand of 1970-80s camera you are talking about.
And it went up from there. Back in those days, a 20mm cost $400, and a 17mm nearly $500 – and that was from budget-friendly Minolta. Those with Nikons and Contaxes expected to pay even more for wide angle exotica.
That said, I don’t believe I have ever beheld, in the real world, a manual focus Minolta 20 or 17mm. In the grand scheme of things, they’re super rare. Ultra wide Nikon lenses do surface, of course, mainly because the pro-oriented (or just wealthier) photographers were willing to pony up all that cash for 10 or 20 degrees more coverage.

2.1 what inside

The special rear cap hides the long rear element group of the non-retrofocus wide angle 2.1cm lens.

But I was taken aback the other week, when shown a true rarity from the early days of SLR ultra-wide angle photography: a Nikon 2.1cm Nikkor … with viewfinder.
Back in 1959 when Nikon brought forth the first pro-grade 35mm SLR, the “F”, there weren’t many lenses for it. Some designs were modified from those made for their earlier rangefinder 35mms. But wide angles posed a problem for the SLR and its slappy, dangly mirror that just plain got in the way. Still, Nikon had a couple of wide angles ready for their new creation – 28 and 35mm lenses (actually badged 2.8 and 3.5cm), using the relatively new “retrofocus” design, that allowed clearance for a mirror, despite the short focal length.

2.1 lockup

To get that long rear end into the camera, the mirror has to be locked up out of the way – so you no longer have an SLR!

Wider than that? Well … they had a new 2.1cm ultra-wide wonder lens, that was introduced at the same time for the Nikon rangefinder. But it wasn’t a retrofocus design, and that meant its dinky 2.1cm focal length put its optical centre right inside the mirror box, with some lens elements even closer to the film. The only way it could work was with the mirror locked up out of the way. No through-the-lens focusing, or metering. You guessed your focus distance, used a hand-held meter, and viewed through an accessory finder clipped over the rewind knob. Hardly convenient.
If you watch those television specials that document the days around the President John F Kennedy assassination, you’ll see plenty of news reporters using a wide variety of camera equipment trying to document those turbulent hours. Unlike today, when every news photog seems to have the same black DSLR, in November 1963 you saw photographers with Rolleiflex TLRs, Leica rangefinders, and the fairly-new Nikon F SLR. There may have even been a few still using 4×5 sheet film in their Speed Graphics. But in the often-repeated footage of the crowded hallway of the Dallas Police Station, you can clearly see a photographer hoisting over his head a Nikon F, distinctively wearing the 2.1cm ultra-wide, with its viewfinder over the rewind knob. I notice trivial crap like that.
It truly was a state-of-the-art optic at that time, even if it turned your shiny new pro SLR into a scale focus 35mm. Its optical design was apparently an improvement on the 1954 Zeiss 21mm Biogon. And that basic design lasted into the Nikkor wide angle large format lenses, and even into my little Nikon 35Ti pocket camera that currently has a half-shot roll of film in it, and a dead battery.

2.1 on body

Even though this is a 35mm SLR, with the 2.1cm installed, you have to compose with the rewind knob-mounted finder; you have to guess your focus distance too. Not shown is the hand-held meter you need since, the camera’s own is inoperable with the mirror up.

When I was offered the chance to try out this 2.1cm Nikkor, with its eight-element almost-symmetric lens design, I quickly dusted off my Nikon F2 and dropped in a roll of film.
I wish I could say that first roll confirmed the lens’ legendary status, but it didn’t take long to realize nothing was sharp. Nothing was in focus. Nothing.
Putting it on the collimator confirmed that it was focusing past infinity, even at its minimum 3-foot distance. Taking it apart, I discovered that the last time it was serviced, someone put it back together on the wrong thread. Its owner couldn’t recall who did that, or when. But that might have explained why the lens was likely retired from active duty. A sticker on the lens case says it went to the 1976 Olympics. The owner says he indeed used it there, as a press photographer.
After re-assembling it properly, with a bit of cleaning and fresh lubrication, I set out to try it again….

Ghost flames

With great sharpness and detail right into the corners, minimal flare, and surprisingly little light falloff, this lens can be mistaken for a much newer design.

This time round, I got sharp negatives. In fact, really sharp. I have to say the old Nikkor surpassed my expectations. One presumes old lenses like this to have those compromises you see in ‘60s optics. A bit more flare, some saggy contrast, and fuzzier edges and corners, can all be forgiven. But this old 2.1cm held its sharpness right into the corners. Light falloff was also expected, but wasn’t really a problem at all. I can see why people have praised this lens over the years. And, yes, I was able to generate a few “sunstars” by including the sun in the frame.

Last season

Again, you can see great detail across the image. Here, you can see a bit of light dropoff in the corners – but then again, not much worse than current wide angle zooms.

You’ll notice I used my Nikon F2 for this exercise, but I could have used my older Nikon F, or even my Nikomat FTn, but nothing else. Only those cameras have the hard mirror lock up, and the tiny nub at 10 o’clock behind the lens mount that fits the notch on the back of the lens. This keeps the lens oriented correctly. Later cameras, like the F3 and such, didn’t have it. And why would they? The 2.1cm was discontinued in 1967 as Nikon launched its proper retrofocus 20mm f3.5 in 1968. The newer lens was much more successful, as it sold well over 40,000 units in six years, compared to less than 6,000 in eight years for the 2.1cm.
Retrofocus wide angles may have their issues, but they do usually have less light fall off in the corners, and there’s still no substitute for viewing and focusing on a focusing screen for most of us.
Now that Nikon has launched a mirrorless camera, there’s an outside chance someone might make a special adapter to use such oddball lenses as this ultra-wide, and the mirror-up Nikon fisheyes that worked the same way. I won’t hold my breath though.
It was a real treat to handle and try out this special optic from a time when shooting with anything wider than an 84-degree 24mm made you a member of a very exclusive club.

~ by windsorphotooutfitters on September 19, 2018.

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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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

%d bloggers like this: