The 50mm lens; for decades it’s been the do-it-all piece of glass for countless photographers. From product photography to portraits, journalism to snapshots, 50mm lenses are so highly regarded on account of their compactness, capability, and typical low cost. While it may not be everyone’s favorite focal length, the 50mm is certainly an important part of most photo geeks’ arsenals.
I recently took a stroll through Boston’s re-energizing seaport district. There I found a number of dilapidated and decaying buildings, relics hunkered in a long-dormant district of town. These crumbling buildings make great subjects for the shooting, and since they’re all poised to be bulldozed to make way for a sudden influx of bio-med and pharma edifices, I’m happy to have taken some time to explore their guts. I brought with me a handful of Nikon’s most popular 50mm manual focus lenses; the Nikkor 50mm 1.2, 1.4, 1.8, and Series E 1.8, to see what kind of shots each could make.
The result? A few good photos and some solid information as to which of these lenses is the best in areas of sharpness, bokeh, price, and practical use. In all test images and performance tables it’s possible to click through to a larger image for close inspection. Keep in mind you’re reading CP, and this isn’t a lab test. Rather, it’s a useful examination of these lenses in practical terms, and the results can be counted on if you’re looking for a test done in real-world circumstances.
50mm lenses usually adhere to basic and effective optical fomulae. These time-tested constructs are generally expected to make sharp images, and Nikon glass has a certain reputation for excellence. So how sharp are these four 50s? And how do they compare when shot side by side?
When casually observing the shots made by these lenses, everything looks really good, and for most shooters any one of these four will be a winner. But at 100% magnification we begin to see which lens is actually a true performer, and which aren’t so great. The biggest surprise is the performance of the Series E lens. When it comes to sharp images, this thing is an amazing value.
But don’t take my word for it. Take a look. I’ve put together some tables below to show just when and where things resolve into those tack-sharp images we all love.
Shot wide open, all of the lenses make images that are surprisingly spongey throughout the entire frame, with the 1.8 and Series E 1.8 actually edging the much more expensive 1.2 and 1.4. The less expensive lenses seem to be sharper in the center of the frame, even if they’re all pretty soft on the edges. It’s remarkable how unimpressive some of these shots are, especially the Nikkor 1.4, which is widely regarded as one of the sharpest Nikkors in this focal length. While the wide open performance isn’t a completely fair test, due to the lenses’ different maximum apertures, we can stop each lens down to a relatively fast aperture of which they’re all capable. Although not displayed in a table above, the Nikkor 1.2 is the sharpest lens at F/2. It’s actually one of the sharpest lenses I’ve ever shot at this F-stop, and it’s pretty amazing.
If the performance of all of these lenses is lackluster at larger apertures, stopped down performance more than makes up for it. Rotate each aperture ring and things sharpen up almost immediately, with the 1.2 and 1.4 showing much finer detail throughout the frame at F/4. The 1.8 and E 1.8 are holding their own against the bigger guns, with similar center performance, but incrementally softer edge performance. Get to F/8 and all of the lenses are virtually indistinguishable, with impeccable sharpness resolving extreme detail from edge to edge. We start to see the most minute detail, such as the chicken wire obscured behind the pane of glass in the windows, and individual bolts and screws in the building structure. Rust spots, chipped paint, and mildew all pop out in stunning detail.
Notable is the fact that the 1.8 and E 1.8 are capable of reaching F/22, whereas the others are only capable of F/16, but in the case of shots taken at F/22, diffraction will cause problems for those obsessed with resolution.
When it comes to sharpness, all four lenses end up being pretty exceptional. But most astounding is the performance of the Series E lens. This bargain basement lens actually delivers more consistently sharp results than any of the others, and is the least expensive of the lot. For sharpness at a value, this is the winner. It’s also good to remember that the shots used in the tables above are displayed at 100% crop. The overall image is much larger, and the detail shot through these lenses only impresses further when seen on the whole. For reference, here’s a randomly chosen, non-cropped shot.
Bokeh, for those not in the know, is the term applied to the quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photograph. Meaning “blur” in Japanese, bokeh varies from lens to lens, and whether a lens makes good bokeh is a matter of personal preference rather than a quantifiable figure. Some shooters prefer interestingly textured bokeh, while others prefer bokeh that’s totally fluid in its distribution, presenting as one gigantic blur.
So that you can come to your own conclusion, I’ve laid out the bokeh produced by the four lenses below. The initial shot in each table is wide open and will provide the most radical bokeh of which each lens is capable. The subsequent two overlays show how the quality of the bokeh changes as the aperture is stopped down.
Lenses with a higher number of aperture blades or rounded blades will produce rounder bokeh highlights when stopped down. Typically cheaper lenses have fewer blades, and will produce harsher “highlight bokeh”, the bright bits that shine through the out-of-focus areas of a shot taken at smaller apertures. These show up in the form of hexagons, or octagons, which we can see in the Series E lens especially. Generally this type of bokeh is regarded as unpleasant, but I don’t give much weight to rules and opinions in photography. If you like hexagons, more power to you.
To my eye, all of these lenses are very capable at subject isolation and blurring the hell out of a background. I definitely have a favorite, but take a look for yourself, and make up your own mind about which lens makes the best blur.
Optics and Practical Use
All four lenses are remarkably consistent when it comes to the way in which they render images. There’s nothing here that’s going to surprise anyone who’s familiar with shooting Nikkors, and the three Nikkor lenses featured here (1.2, 1.4, and 1.8) share many of the same capabilities in mitigating optical issues. Flaring and ghosting are essentially nonexistent with all three lenses. Pointing directly at the sun causes no problems, but rather creates a surreal and dreamy backlighting that’s perfect for certain types of photography. Color and contrast throughout the three Nikkor lenses are predictably nearly identical.
Focusing with the Nikkors is also pretty uniform, with each offering a 1.5′ or 1.65′ minimum focus distance. This makes them operate close enough for product photography, and helps bokeh-masters achieve bonkers subject isolation when shooting up-close subjects.
Another quality shared by the three Nikkors is less easily defined, but may be the most important characteristic of all. All three of these lenses share a certain rendering of depth-of-field that’s truly unique. Other lenses seem to create images that transition from in-focus to out-of-focus precipitously. In lesser lenses it’s common to find one area of the image is sharp as a tack while everything else is indistinguishably blurred, with no gradation between the two areas. It’s a difficult thing to convey in words, but the Nikkors seem to blend more gracefully, creating an organic transition from in- to out-of-focus elements of a shot. This gives images a certain “3D-ness” that’s difficult to put into words, but obvious to the eye.
Yes, the three Nikkors share so many traits that they almost defy differentiation, but look closer and the singularity of each becomes clearer.
The Nikkor 1.2s greatest selling point is, in theory, that super-fast aperture. But in use, this isn’t really the case. Shooting at F/1.2 yields a depth of field that’s so unbelievably shallow that it’s virtually impossible to get anything in focus, especially in the dark, when focusing is made even more difficult. While it’s nice to be able to use available light in dark situations, what’s the point if everything’s blurred?
If shooting at F/1.2 is not the massive lens’ bread and butter, what is? For me, the best aspect of the ultra-fast Nikkor is the fact that when stopped down to F/2.8 it’s the sharpest of the bunch, unrivaled by its peers at this still-fast aperture. It also benefits from having 9 aperture blades, the most of any Nikkor 50mm, which yields lusciously round and beautiful bokeh highlights. These present as those glowing round bokeh-balls glistening through the dark points of a shot. It’s a beautiful effect, and the only lens in this group that gives consistently lovely bokeh-balls through every F-stop.
The Nikkor 1.2 also suffers substantial light falloff at the edges of the frame when shot wide open. This isn’t a massive liability since vignetting can now be so easily corrected in every photo editing program. Even without the aid of Lightroom or Aperture, the situation naturally rectifies itself as the aperture is stopped down past F/2.8.
The Nikkor 1.4 is essentially a less expensive version of the 1.2, with only minor practical differences. It shares the same optical prowess of the 1.2, offering decent low-light performance and creating excellent images in almost any lighting situation. Light fall-off (vignetting) is slightly less prevalent than the 1.2 when shot wide open at F/1.4, and while it can’t match the 1.2’s sharpness at F/2.8, things get just as sharp with the 1.4 once stopped down to F/4 and higher. It uses only 7 aperture blades, so bokeh highlights won’t be as perfectly blended as they are with the 1.2, but it does share the same feel of quality as its faster apertured comrade.
These pros and cons in mind, the 1.4 costs about one-third the price of the Nikkor 1.2, and gives much the same experience. It’s not technically the best, but it’s pretty damn great. For great performance at a more reasonable price, the 1.4 is likely the way to go.
The Nikkor 1.8 is similarly capable as far as optics are concerned. It shares all the same qualities of the 1.4, with 7 aperture blades, quality construction, and Nikkor multi-coating. With a more reasonable wide open aperture of F/1.8, it doesn’t suffer the tiny depth-of-field and softness problems of the faster Nikkors when shot wide open.
It makes images that are less distorted than any of the other 50mm lenses we’ve shot, and shares the other Nikkors’ uncanny knack for exceptionally deep imagery. The most user-friendly of the bunch, this is the 50mm Nikkor for those who want to shoot a photo and know they’ve got an excellent shot, without having to worry too much about post-processing each and every frame for maximum effect.
Another of the 1.8’s notable differences from the pack of Nikkors is its size. This is the smallest of the 50mm Nikkors. It’s the only lens in the group of Nikkors that’s comfortable with being shoved into a pocket. It’s also the most comfortable of the Nikkors when mounted to the new generation of popular mirror-less cameras. This thing’s so compact that it’s not uncommon to find these lenses listed on eBay and elsewhere as “pancake lenses”; though Nikon’s never called them that. Lighter, smaller, less expensive, and showing superior sharpness than the 1.4 at certain F-stops, the Nikkor 1.8 is one of the best values in vintage Nikon lenses.
Nikon Series E lenses were never intended to compete with Nikkors, which is why the 50mm 1.8 E has been such a surprise. While it suffers a bit in terms of optics and build quality, it’s much more capable than expected, and may just be the best value of the bunch.
Unlike the Nikkors, which benefit from multi-coated optics, the Series E lens is only single-coated. This can result in flaring when pointed at a bright light source, and pretty prevalent chromatic aberration (the color-fringing found at the high contrast points of an image). While this chromatic aberration is easily correctible in post-processing through Photoshop, Aperture, or Lightroom, it’s going to be an issue for those who aren’t familiar with the ways in which it can be mitigated.
Also worth keeping in mind, the E lenses aren’t as well-made as the Nikkors, which is most clearly felt in the focus ring. Unlike the Nikkors, which rotate with a perfect balance of fluidity and weight, the Series E focus ring spins freer than the exercise wheel of an over-caffeinated hamster. It just doesn’t feel good, which is a shame, because the lens makes images that are only slightly inferior to its Nikkor 1.8 brother.
Sharpness, color, and contrast are all easily comparable to the Nikkor 1.8. In fact, the Series E 50mm is sharper at maximum aperture than the 1.2 and 1.4 at F/1.8, and suffers less vignetting. Pretty amazing for an entry-level lens. It’s also the lightest of the group. Making it the perfect single lens to bring on a vacation.
The Series E 50mm is a bit of a paradox. It’s not as glamorous or sophisticated as the Nikkors but produces (sometimes) superior images, renders bokeh that’s nothing to be ashamed of, and costs less than $80. It’s tough to argue against the Series E, it’s just a shame that it feels so cheap.
So which lens is best for you? Good question.
The answer is simple if price is your chief concern. The Series E is the least expensive. It’s also a perfectly adequate optical tool, and a fantastic lens for the non-obsessive. For the frugal photophiles among us, there’s nothing wrong with the Series E glass.
If you’re the type who wants the best in an entry-level model, then you’ll want to upgrade to the Nikkor 1.8. While it’s marginally more expensive than the Series E, it offers better image quality and substantially improved build quality. It’s also nice to have that famous “Nikkor” branding to remind you that you splurged a tiny bit.
Paying a little more will get you a faster apertured bit of glass and the same Nikkor bragging rights, if you choose the Nikkor 1.4. This is a lens that’s exceptional in every way. It’s superior to the 1.8 at available-light shooting, perfect for street photographers who ply their craft at dusk, or prowl the city streets at night. It’ll suck in enough ambient light from streetlights and sunsets to allow candid, hand-held shooting, while still retaining enough sharpness to filet the lids off those little white eyeballs.
If you’re the kind of shooter who has to have the highest specced lens whether it’s practical or not, and don’t mind spending, then the Nikkor 1.2 is the lens for you. It combines all the best elements of the other three Nikkors, with only a few niggling issues. But if you want the best you won’t care about these issues. A little weight, and some smudgy wide open action never hurt anyone. The amazing performance of the Nikkor 1.2 at F/2 and higher is enough to make you drool. You need it, and you won’t be complete until you’re stroking that massive and glimmering chunk of glass.
Whichever you choose, you really can’t go wrong with Nikon’s manual focus 50s. They’re among the best in vintage glass. Get one, and get shooting.
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