September 19, 2010

Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AF-S “G” Lens

A Tale of Two Lenses

Yep once again we are talking, a 50mm lens.  This time however it is about two 50mm lenses.  So this will be a little bit of a review and a little bit of a comparison of the two lenses.  The title I suppose could have read, “this one is for fun and this one is for work”.

Recently I had an assignment to shoot some baby portraits (about two months old).  As this was to be somewhat informal, I brought along only my 50mm f/1.4 AF-D lens and a 105mm micro lens (maybe the topic of another blog entry).  After setting up my lighting, I began shooting and was once again put off by the “hunting” aspect of the old AF-D lens.  For sure you can get really good results from this lens, but the AF in some cases leaves a lot to be desired.

Having come to the decision (finally) to sell off my D2X and replace it with a D700, I thought why not also replace the 50mm AF-D lens with a new AF-S 50mm.  And that is exactly what I did.

The Review Part

So first the review part.  There were a few problems with the AF-D lens that is immediately apparent, have been addressed.  First the horrible plasticky exterior finish has now been replaced with a matte stipple finish with gold lettering.  Which adds a “professional” looking touch.  Next when in AF mode the barrel does not move like the AF-D version.  For those of you that have not experienced this, it may be hard to appreciate how annoying it could be.  Of course like in all AF-S lenses, you can instantly manually override the AF, by simply going to the rubberized focusing ring.  Which feels and works much better then the previous version of this venerable lens.  Using the focusing assist “dot” in MF mode, I have not experienced any problems in achieving accurate focus.

There has been a lot of talk on the internet about the “slowness” in AF of the new AF-S lens compared to the AF-D lens.  Unfortunately since I sold the AF-D just prior to acquiring the new lens, I cannot make a direct comparison.  However even if it is a bit slower it seems to actually acquire accurate focus quicker, at least to this reviewer.  Maybe it is just my wanting to justify the acquisition.

Where the new lens really shines is at wide open apertures.  It is far far superior wide open compared to the older model.  Seriously this is a huge improvement and for me well worth the added expense that I have had to come up with.  It makes me wonder, that if the difference is as great in the new 85mm f/1.4 AF-S G lens vs. the older AF-D model, then perhaps that might be worth a serious consideration.

The Comparison Part

By now you may have thought that the comparison suggested from the title was about the AF-S and the AF-D models.  Nope!  This is about two different animals altogether.  The comparison is between the 50mm f/1.2 AIS lens and the 50mm f/1.4 AF-S G lens.

The main difference is of course auto focus and manual focus.  Nothing to ignore.  There is of course build quality and the newer lens design.  Which helps in diminishing certain problems associated with wide aperture lenses, mainly spherical aberrations.  The f/1.2 lens wide open and stopped down to f/1.4 is loaded with spherical aberrations, where as the AF-S G lens exhibits much less.  When we talk about build quality, for me the AIS lens is “way” better, there is just no comparison here.

As noted earlier the new lens focusing very accurately in either AF or MF modes.  The older 50mm f/1.2 needs much more patient in focusing at wide apertures to overcome the spherical aberration problem (in fact it can be quite difficult).  If you have not read my review on the 50mm f/1.2 AIS lens, then here is a short explanation.  When focusing at f/1.2 or f/1.4 on that lens, I found that the green “dot” and right side arrow both must be flickering in order to achieve accurate focus (the closer the subject the more exact you need to be).  I found this to be the same in my D3, D2X and now the new D700 cameras.  When accurate focus is achieved you are rewarded in a very special way (however the spherical problems persist in the form of veiling or focus haze).  As I said in my review of the f/1.2 lens, it comes down to  personal taste.  On the other hand the AF-S lens performs right out the gate, with a much clearer and more contrasty images.

In the following examples, I have done side by side comparison shots using both lenses and giving the new D700 some exercise.  Which is better is totally up to the individual viewer.  All of the images were made at the maximum aperture for each lens.  The AF-S lens can focus 5 cm closer, though I did try to keep subject size the same in both examples.  All images were shot handheld as I feel this gives a more accurate gauge to what can be expected in field use.  However a tripod and using “live view” would be advisable.  All images were shot NEF and processed through Nikon NX2.





For 2 Horizontals


fence post
2 examplesf-1.2
2Ex AF-S


As you can see there is definitely a “personality” difference between these two lenses.  At present I have no inclination to ridding myself of either one.  The new AF-S lens will be for my work.  Like I said before I just don’t have the confidence to manual focus on moving targets.  Also I feel the “cleaner” look of the new lens will be better received by the majority of my clients.  The f/1.2 AIS lens has a very special character to it, at least from my viewpoint and it will be my “fun” lens.  For me the AIS lens is really two in one (at wide open it has a very ethereal quality and stopped down produces exceptionally sharp images).  So this is the lens I will be shooting either for myself or for those clients that might appreciate the special qualities that this lens possesses.

In Nikon Rumors there was this blog posting: .  Which of course has sparked considerable interest with the Nikon aficionados.  How would this lens compare to the two lenses discussed here is a mystery.  Would it have the best of both lenses?  Hard to say especially considering those differences.  Would it be more like the legendary 58mm f/1.2 asp. lens?  (Here is a review by Ken Rockwell on this lens: ).  Maybe it is all speculation at this stage, but it would be very exciting if Nikon did decide to produce this new lens and I for one would be very interested in acquiring it.  Until that time I will content myself with these two very different and very exceptional lenses.  And thus I give my highest recommendation to either one, depending on one’s needs and applications.