Nikon 50mm f/1.8D (First Impressions)

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Cheap and easy: bad in people, great in lenses.

The Long Version: A few weeks ago I went on a bit of a rant about 50mm lenses, so I thought it would be fitting that I hurry my review of the Nikon 50/1.8. I've only owned anything Nikon for just a few days, so even though that makes me an expert in Ken Rockwell's world, this is really just a 'first impressions' review of the whole new-lens experience.

I wasn't planning on buying the Nikon 50/1.8, or any 50mm lens, when I bought my new D700. It's not a focal length that I've ever used, as I prefer to be at a longer telephoto or just ridiculously wide. I've never really gone for the whole Rangefinder Mystique thing - even though I own a pair of old Yashicas with fixed 45mm f/1.7 lenses - and for me, 'street photography' means actually taking photos of the street. I really just bought the D700 to put it behind a Nikon 85mm PC-E Micro, and the 50/1.8 was a 'what the heck, it'll autofocus' impulse decision.

The 50/1.8 is a bad lens. Or at least, it's really not a great one. It's soft wide open, soft in the corners until it's stopped down to f/umpteen, vignettes heavily to about f/4, the focus ring rotates, the DOF scale is useless, and the aperture ring is a vestigial flipper that serves no purpose except to give the lens a big "don't work" button. The instruction manual, should anyone actually read it, was probably last updated in 2005 - it mentions the F6 but also says that it will autofocus on all Nikon AF cameras except for the F3AF, so it predates the decision to not include a focus motor in the body of the D40/D40x/D60/D5000. If one of those is your camera, have a look for the twice-as-expensive af-s 35mm f/1.8 lenses that are just starting to emerge from the factories in China.

But there's one compensating factor that overcomes all of my 'bad lens' concerns: this sucker is cheap. Really cheap. B&H, a benchmark American source, currently has it for $135, while the free-with-purchase 52mm lens cap costs $15 on its own. (Vistek, a moderately expensive Canadian retailer, sells the lens-with-cap for $160 and the cap-only for $13.) And Nikon lens caps are among the very best on the market: I bought them for my Olympus 14-54 and 50-200 lenses. Granted, the Nikon 50/1.8 comes with a cheap unbranded push-on tail cap instead of the more luxurious LF-1, but what do you expect for $135-$160?

The first sample photo, "Out", was shot at f/1.8 and shows some pretty significant vignetting. I can see that I'm not quite square to the wall, so the corners are being affected by the short DOF as much as optical softness, but even the centre of the image doesn't have much snap. But who cares? At f/1.8, you're either desperate for light or shooting a portrait with fuzzy ears, so softness won't really matter. The second photo is at f/2.8, and the centre is better, vignetting is more mild, and the corners are less dreamy. The flowers are shot at f/4, and here the boke(h) is very nice and the sharpness is excellent. The near flower is actually at about the 1/3 point in the original frame, and I wouldn't hesitate to put critical subjects there. For less than twice what a cable release costs, there's not much to complain about here.

I've spent years using some of the best lenses ever made for digital SLRs, and now I'm putting the second-cheapest Nikkor in front of the second-most demanding sensor in the Nikon lineup. This lens was never meant to cover a digital 135-format sensor, and it shows. For the first time, I'm having to deal with a lens that I have to think about. It's the exact opposite of the Olympus 50/2, which is so perfect that it actually gets a little boring - the Nikon has real character. So what if I can't just shoot wide open with critical detail in the corners any more?

This 'nifty fifty' is cheap, small, and light. There's never going to be a reason to leave it at home. With an FX camera, it's a nice break from the monster glass and easy to justify owning even if it won't get used much. (It's also much better built and better looking than the Canon 50/1.8II, which looks dorky on anything that's not a Rebel.) For a DX camera with an AF motor, it's a substantial upgrade from the kit lenses, and can easily go on vacation alongside the 18-200 f/dark lenses of the world. My only hesitation would be for those with a camera that doesn't have a built-in AF motor, because their viewfinders are so bad that manual focus is practically impossible. On the other hand, it's still far cheaper than a lensbaby, and will give you similar-or-better results. So why not? You can probably even get them second-hand and save a few bucks.

Someone once told me that photography can be fun even if it's not expensive. I still have my doubts, but I'm starting to see the possibilities.


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