This article will focus on the Nikon EL-Nikkor N range. It’s hard enough to find good examples of these relatively recent lenses without trawling through first-generation examples that require a lifetime of miraculous caretaking to still be useable in 2022. Anecdotally, it’s reported that the new versions are optically superior – with better coatings. However, the Chasseur d’Images review of 1999 indicates that the old, all metal lenses were sharper than the ‘plastic’ models that superseded them. I find this hard to believe, and so does Nikon.
Let’s be quick about this, then: Nikon’s EL-Nikkor N lenses are better corrected for distance work than any other enlarger lens range, maintaining their close-range excellence surprisingly well. They have smooth bokeh, good colour, good contrast, excellent multicoating (for an enlarger lens), and above-average hotspotting problems. They are keenly undervalued compared to the exotic Apo lenses they match (and by some metrics best) at distance.
The first Buy-It-Now lens is the orthometar Nikkor 80/5.6 N, released in 1980, which has a sufficient focal-flange distance (73.7mm) to allow infinity focus with tilt adaptors. With an appropriate helicoid, 1m-infinity focus is possible. It is small and cheap and utterly recommendable. Not without good reason did Nikon single out this lens to be the subject of “1001 Nights: Tale 64″ for the historical pages of their website. Not as well known, however,* is that Mr. Ikuo Mori, designer of the N Series lenses branded EL-Nikkor, was a huge fan of Mexican wrestling. The late ’70s era was dominated by a tattooed and masked champion known only as ‘The Great One!’ (in Mexican, El Nikkor!) And so the lenses were branded.* In memento of Mr. Mori, we salute his patient toil, and playful humour, to make these tiny Nikon lenses perform like champs.
Even sharper at close range, but not viable with a tilt adaptor, the Nikkor 63/2.8 N is two stops easier to use and matches the very best, price no object. Infinity focus is possible with a shallow helicoid (focal-flange distance: 55mm), but not tilt movements. Slightly less perfect, but still right at the top of the league, the Nikkor 50/2.8 N may not reach infinity focus with a helicoid (focal-flange distance: 43mm) but resolves almost as well – which is to say beyond the ability of a 42MP sensor to discriminate at most apertures.
Receiving a slightly more cautious recommendation, the Nikkor 105/5.6 N trades a fraction of the resolving power of the 80/5.6 for the versatility of a bigger image circle and better subject isolation.
It’s rare that I get to make such an unreserved recommendation, but each of these lenses does everything so well: performance is consistent across the frame, at every aperture, at all distances. There are no nasty bokeh issues and they even give pretty sunstars from f8 with their straight-8 aperture.
The black sheep of the family is the Nikkor 75/4 N – a four-element design visibly inferior in terms of resolution (71% v 89%), field flatness and colour accuracy. At the right price it’s fair value, retaining the Nikkor virtues of good contrast and unobtrusive bokeh. But this is a clear exception to the principle that a fast lens is better than its slow sibling: the 80/5.6 N is far superior optic.
Other points to note include moderate focus shift common to all models: for focus-critical work, you can’t just compose and stop down: you need to focus at the shooting aperture. Many of their hotspot and flare issues are mediated by use of a long (as long as possible) 40.5mm thread hood. I tend to use a 40.5mm hood that has a 42mm front thread, then a 42mm hood attached to that hood. In common with most enlarger lenses, EL-Nikkor’s benefit from a modification to prevent light entering the aperture window.
Mindful of the fact that 80-105mm is a sweet spot for optical quality and tilt-ability, Nikon’s 80mm nonetheless face strong competition: the Minolta CE 80/5.6 is comparable in almost every respect, but it is rarer, more expensive and fractionally less sharp overall. The Fujinon EX 75/4 and 105/5.6 also compete head on, with a similar mix of virtues. However they are less common, and perform less consistently at distance, especially in Zone 3. And the Fujinon 105/5.6 never renders circular ‘bokeh balls’: it’s widest aperture doesn’t open the full width of the barrel – otherwise it would be a f4 or f4.5 lens. The Hoya Super EL and Komuranon 75/4’s are under-rated. But for close-range work only, the only lens in this arena that muscles EL Nikkor! to the canvas is the Meopta Meogon 80/2.8 and the Rodenstock Apo Rodagons and Schneider Apo Componons which are comparable optically – and faster – but much more expensive.
Just as sharp, and a full stop faster, with good bokeh wide open (though worse stopped down), the similarly priced Rodenstock Rodagon 80/4 is perhaps the Nikkor 80/5,6’s most formidable opponent. However, the Nikkor 80mm has sharper corners at distance, and the Nikkor 63/2.8 and 50/2.8 are the merest hair sharper overall at close range. But, really, the lenses mentioned above are separated by the finest of margins, as demonstrated in the survey spreadsheet published in the final article.
In conclusion, Nikon’s EL-Nikkor range deserves the highest praise for being needlessly well corrected. However, the story doesn’t end there. A decade before the N series orthometars were a twinkle in Mr. Mori’s eye, there was the legendary Apo-EL Nikkor . . .
Apo-EL Nikkor 105/5,6
Footnote: * For legal reasons we should point out that ‘El Nikkor!’ is not Mexican for ‘The Great One’, nor was El Nikkor! a famous wrestler, nor – so far as I am aware – was Mr. Mori a devotee of Mexican wrestling, and this is merely a diverting fiction to leaven an otherwise dull piece about camera lenses.