NIKKOR - The Thousand and One Nights No.4

Japan's first compact and low-price standard zoom lens with practical use

Zoom-NIKKOR Auto 43-86mm F3.5

The second tale in this history of Nikkor lenses was concerned with the AI Nikkor 50mm f/2 normal ("standard") lens.
In this, the fourth tale, I'd like to tell you about the forerunner of standard modern zoom lenses, the Zoom-NIKKOR Auto 43-86mm f/3.5, which was popularly known in Japan (Nippon) as the "yon-san-hachi-roku", literally the "four-three-eight-six".

by Kouichi Ohshita

I. First domestically produced standard zoom

Zoom-NIKKOR Auto 43-86mm f/3.5 lens mounted on a Nikon F body
Zoom-NIKKOR Auto 43 - 86mm f/3.5

This lens, which went on sale in 1963, was the third zoom lens to be produced by Nippon Kogaku K.K., having been preceded by the Auto NIKKOR Telephoto-Zoom 85-250mm f/4-4.5 and the Auto NIKKOR Telephoto-Zoom 200-600mm f/9.5-10.5.
It was also the first domestically produced standard zoom lens.

The reason I stress "domestically produce" is that, as well-informed readers will know, the German camera maker Voigtlander had already brought out a zoom lens by the name of Voigtlander-Zoomar 1:2.8 f=36mm.... 82mm for its Bessamatic lens shutter SLR camera.

Voigtlander-Zoomar was, however, a little too ambitious with this lens which, as a result of its ground breaking specifications of wide-angle 35mm focal length at the wide end combined with large f/2.8 aperture, was heavy and unwieldy.
Moreover one would have to be hard pushed to say that the performance it offered was sufficient for practical purposes.
That however is hardly surprising, since back in 1959, the year that the Nikon F first went on sale, the design of even fixed focal length wide-angle lenses for SLRs was considered to be very difficult.
The world's first zoom lens was still very much an "idiosyncratic" lens.

Even if its specs didn't match up to those of the Voigtlander-Zoomar, the Zoom-NIKKOR Auto 43-86mm f/3.5 could on the other hand claim to be a small zoom lens by comparison, boasting a length of 78.2mm, a weight of 410g, and a Ø52mm attachment size, specs which put it almost on par with the NIKKOR-P Auto 105mm f/2.5 (length 72.7mm, weight 375g, Ø52mm attachment size).

Though it can't be denied that a full four years passed between the launch of the Voigtlander-Zoomar and the NIKKOR 43-86mm, the appearance of the latter as the world's first standard zoom lens of a practical size could be described as a landmark event.

II. Configuration of lens

((Fig.1.)) Longitudinal cross-section of Zoom-NIKKOR Auto 43-86mm f/3.5

As ((Fig.1.)) shows, the Zoom-NIKKOR Auto 43-86mm f/3.5 lens was composed of 9 elements divided into 7 groups.

The designer of the lens was HIGUCHI, Takashi, the leading authority of his day where zoom lenses were concerned.
HIGUCHI single-handedly pioneered the development of the first NIKKOR zoom lenses, being responsible also for the design of the 85-250mm f/4-4.5, 200-600mm f/9.5-10.5, and even an ephemeral 35-80mm f/2.8-4 which never actually went into mass production.

The 43-86mm was originally created to be used with the popular-use Nikkorex Zoom 35 lens shutter SLR camera, and for that reason the number of elements was reduced to the absolute minimum in order to keep both price and size down.

As ((Fig.1.)) shows, the zoom component of this lens is composed of 3 groups, the first acting as a convex lens, the second concave, and the third, another convex lens, making this a so-called "3-group mechanical correction" type of zoom lens.
The second group is at a fixed distance from the film plane, with the first and third groups moving independently when the subject being photographed is zoomed into.
This independent movement of first and third element groups was achieved through the incorporation of a "cam", an eccentric curved wheel on a shaft used to transform rotary motion into reciprocating motion.
Producing such a high-precision mechanism in those days was a remarkable feat.
The purpose of fixing the second group was to simplify the mechanical configuration and reduce both size and cost as much as possible.
Even now this 3-group zoom type is common in telephoto zoom and other lens types, with the difference that now all three groups of lens elements are mobile in most such lenses.
Lens designers did an outstanding job considering the many limitations they had to work under in a period when high-speed calculators and other tools utilized by today's designers did not exist.

III. Lens performance

Sample 1
Nikon F2,
Zoom-NIKKOR Auto 43-86mm f/3.5
(Focal length used : 50mm),
Aperture : f/5.6,
Shutter speed : 1/250 sec.,
Film : FUJI RA
(C)1999 OHSHITA, Kohichi
Sample 2
Nikon F2,
Zoom-NIKKOR Auto 43-86mm f/3.5
(Focal length used : 86mm),
Aperture : f/5.6,
Shutter speed : 1/125 sec.,
Film : FUJI RA
(C)1999 OHSHITA, Kohichi
Sample 3
Nikon F2,
Zoom-NIKKOR Auto 43-86mm f/3.5
(Focal length used: 60mm) + BR-2A ring (approx. 0.7x magnification),
Aperture : f/5.6 and 1/2,
Shutter speed : 1/125 sec.,
Film : FUJI RA
(C)1999 OHSHITA, Kohichi

Let's take a look at how this lens performs.
It is a feature of zoom lenses that performance varies not only with aperture, but also with focal length and distance from the subject being photographed, and so describing performance in the limited space available here is even more difficult than for fixed focal length lenses.
But if pushed for a snap assessment, I think that the most appropriate single word would be "practical".

When you consider that the lens was designed with small size and low cost in mind, it is not surprising that some sacrifices were made where performance is concerned. Vignetting and loss of definition towards the periphery are in fact very conspicuous when distant scenes or definition charts are photographed at maximum aperture, but if you go out onto the street and take some snaps with aperture stopped down a little, such effects are not nearly as noticeable, probably as a result of some skillful aberration correction.

((Photo 1.)) was taken at a focal length of about 50mm.
The lotus leaves in the foreground on which the focus was set are very sharp, while those in the distance maintain their outlines even while being a little blurred.
The smoothness of the blurring in the distance is a beneficial effect of incomplete correction of coma, so as you can see, not all aberration is detrimental.
The distortion is however a little disconcerting. Both barrel distortion at the wide angle end, and pincushion distortion at the telephoto end of the focal length range is present, and fairly noticeable particularly with straight-lined photographic subjects. In fact, my intention in zooming in a little to 50mm in Photo 1 was to render this distortion less conspicuous.

((Photo 3.)) was taken by using Macro Adapter Ring BR-2A to mount the lens in reverse.
Using a BR-2A macro adapter enables the creation of larger-than-life images, by turning the lens (and not just this lens) in effect into a micro lens.
Since this is not what this particular lens was designed for, it is unreasonable to expect the kind of results one can get with a Micro-Nikkor lens, but insofar as the ability to zoom makes it possible to adjust the degree of magnification, this is a very convenient combination.

As the above examples show, despite being an old lens, the 43-86mm gives excellent color balance.
However it was created in the days before multi-coating, and so very blatant ghost images and flares often appear in slightly back-lit situations, making the use of a lens hood almost essential.
Among presently available hoods, the HN-3 is compatible.

Zoom Nikkor Auto43-86mmf/3.5 (1976) (8-group, 11-element)
Colorful depth of field indicator lines

This lens was the only small and inexpensive standard zoom lens of its time, and sold very well as a result.
In 1974, eleven years after first appearing, the multi-coated version was produced, and then 1976, when it was reborn with a new 8-group, 11-element optical configuration to improve peripheral performance and reduce vignetting, it gained even more adherents. In 1977 it underwent a model change to become the AI Nikkor, and continued to be produced right up until the Nikon F3 and Nikon EM appeared.

While there is no denying that its performance does not match that of its contemporary fixed focal length lenses or the latest zoom lenses, the 43-86mm instigated the development of the whole standard zoom lens genre, and deserves our esteem as the lens which more than any other popularized the use of zoom lenses by allowing the man on the street to experience the convenience and joys of zoom photography. It is still an eminently usable lens which if used skillfully can provide a unique and evocative quality unattainable with today's lenses.

This lens, with its trademark array of colored, engraved lines indicating depth of field over the zoom range decorating the lens barrel, is definitely one of the great lens to bear the Nikkor name.

The short-lived 35-80mm f/2.8-4 standard zoom lens

1:2.8 f=3.5cm - 1:4 f=8.5cm
Auto-NIKKOR Telephoto Zoom
85mm f/4-250mm f/4.5
(Designed by HIGUCHI, Takashi)
mounted on a Nikon F body
Auto-NIKKOR Telephoto Zoom
200mm f/9.5-600mm f/10.5
(Designed by HIGUCHI, Takashi)
mounted on a Nikon F body

The 43-86mm f/3.5 was not in fact the first standard zoom lens to see the light of day at Nippon Kogaku K.K..
In 1961, the birth of the Auto NIKKOR WIDE-ZOOM 35-80mm f/2.8-4 was announced alongside that of the Reflex-NIKKOR 500mm f/5 reflex telephoto and other new lenses.
This zoom lens was a revolutionary product insofar as it was the first ever lens of the concave-convex 2-group zoom type which is now the benchmark configuration for today's standard and wide angle zoom lenses.
HIGUCHI, Takashi was at the time tackling the development of this new genre, the standard zoom, from two completely different approaches, the 43-86mm f/3.5 3-group zoom type, and the 35-80mm f/2.8 2-group type.

However the 35-80mm f/2.8 zoom was never mass-produced or sold, despite the announcement of its creation. According to the May 1961 issue of Japanese "Shashin Kogyo" ("Photography Industry", pub. Shashin Kogyo Shuppansha) magazine in which the announcement appeared, the lens had an 8-group, 13-element configuration, length of 95mm, maximum diameter of 90mm, weight of 1.1 kg, and a filter attachment size of 82mm diameter , making it a behemoth of a lens.
Even though the f-numbers and other specs differ slightly, you can get an idea of exactly how unwieldy it would have been by comparison with the latest AI AF Zoom-Nikkor 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6D

(8-group, 8-element, length 88mm, maximum diameter 65mm, weight 265g, filter attachment size 58mm diameter).
It seems that sheer weight and size were among the main reasons that production was called off.

But this did not signal the end for HIGUCHI's revolutionary 2-group zoom design.
Far from it, the concept remains alive and flourishing in fact in the form of the AI Zoom-Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.5 put on the market in 1977, right through to the AI AF Zoom-Nikkor 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6D being sold presently.