Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Fast fifty – the original all-purpose lens.
The Long Version: Fast primes aren't my usual thing, so while the Nikon 50/1.4G AF-S lens isn't my first, it did take me quite a while to decide to buy it. I was initially looking at the 60/2.8G Micro lens as a new standard for my Nikons, but after a lot of reading and test drives, I surprised myself by picking the smaller and faster option as the lens that just felt right.
The 50/1.4G is a modern mid-range Nikkor, which means a lot of plastic, but even by that standard it's a very light lens. Its front element is deeply recessed, and while it comes forward when the lens is at its 45cm minimum focusing distance, it never advances beyond the front of the focusing ring. With its metal lens mount and so much of the glass at the rear of the barrel, the lens's centre of gravity is about where its full name is written out behind the focusing distance window. Having its weight so far back means that on the camera the lens just disappears: it's exceptionally transparent to work with.
Naturally, the 50/1.4G comes with a plastic bayonet-mount barrel hood that can cut down its tendency to flare. This adds almost nothing to its weight but increases its length by two thirds, which still leaves it quite small and easy to carry. Given how deeply recessed the front element is I'd almost consider it optional, but I'm such a rule-follower that the idea of not using it never even occurred to me. If nothing else, it keeps me from getting my fingers in the shot.
Blue, Nikon D700, 50/1.4G at 5.6, 1/60s, iso1250
Lens reputations are a funny thing. The 60mm f/2.8G has been called one of Nikon's sharpest, while the 50/1.4G tends to leave pundits less impressed. But trying the lenses and squinting at the number-crunching review sites that I trust, like Photozone and SLRgear, shows a slightly different story. At the apertures that they share – f/2.8 to f/16 – the 50/1.4G is either very close to or actually sharper than the 60/2.8G. Of course the 50/1.4G is softer wide open, which seems to tarnish its forum cred, but it's letting in two more stops of light. That doesn't seem unreasonable.*
By taking the 50/1.4G over the macro lens I do have to accept a certain amount of barrel distortion, which bothers me. But now I routinely use DxO's "Optics Pro" software on all of the worthwhile photos from the D800. That goes beyond Lightroom 4 in correcting for poor corner sharpness, vignetting, and distortion. It's not perfect, and it's not as good as starting with an exceptional lens, but it does a nice pre-polish on the 50/1.4G. What can I say? Every compromise has its compensation.
The frustrating truth is that there is no 'best' lens, and in reality peak sharpness isn't everything: it's more important to have the lens that's right for the photographer. Looking at the photos that I've taken with the 50/1.4G shows that one-quarter of the time it's set faster than f/2.8, and that's not something I'd be willing to give up. And it's not just in "low light" conditions, either – I've come to embrace the lens's character at wide apertures and enjoy a certain loss of definition.
Gray/Staso, Nikon D800, 50/1.4G at 1.4, 1/8000, iso100
There are certain lenses that are so predictably and uniformly excellent that they're almost boring to use – the 50/1.4G is not one of those lenses. Wide open it has a bit of bite in the centre, but it covers only a small portion of the frame. (Unhelpfully, I've actually softened this area in the Gray/Staso photo, as it's distracting in the full-sized image.) By f/2.8 it's quite well behaved, and is most consistent around f/4-5.6. Even then it's still not perfectly uniform, but it's not going to start any fist fights.
In an ideal world, every lens would have fast and accurate autofocus. But if I need to choose between the two, I'll take accuracy over speed any day, and I suspect that the Nikon designers made the same decision. Focusing the 50/1.4G is slow enough that it's noticeable, but it has never let me down. I've used the lens on my D700, D800, F100, and F5 – all great cameras, to be sure, and it's absolutely solid on all of them. Naturally, I use the AF fine-tuning on every camera that supports it, and it can make a huge difference with such narrow depths of field. Highly recommended.
I don't suppose many people would be using a 50mm lens for fast action, and the lens is quick enough when making short adjustments. It just takes a beat to reset if it misses and has to come back.
While the lens is said to have some focus shift, I've never seen its effect in my photos. That's not to say that it isn't there, since focus shift is an optical fact and not a matter of sample variation, but rather that it's subtle enough that it's being disguised within the depth of field and/or my typically poor shot discipline. This makes it pretty much irrelevant on the D800, because if I deeply care about critical sharpness – and I'm using the 50/1.4G anyway – then I'll be using a tripod, live view, and contrast-detection autofocus, which focuses the lens directly from the image sensor at the shooting aperture. That makes most softness problems, including focus shift, go away.
Cinder Blocks, Nikon D800, 50/1.4G at f/11, 1/200, iso100
I'm lucky enough to have been able to compare the 50/1.4G to most of its alternatives, so here are some thoughts on the competition:
Nikon 50mm f/1.8 AF-D: The 50/1.8D is a funny lens – almost unreasonably cheap, and at f/5.6 it's one of the best Nikon lenses out there. I've already written a long-form review of it, but compared to the 1.4G, the cheaper lens has less geometric distortion, much faster focusing, and performs just as well when stopped down. Officially I sold the 1.8D because I wanted better performance at the wider apertures, but since I use the 1.4G at f/5.6 for half of my photos, I have to confess that its cheapness is ultimately why I replaced the 1.8D. I just felt silly putting something so small and inexpensive on a top-end camera – it didn't make me happy, no matter how good it actually was.
Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-D: While the little 50/1.4D really isn't as good wide open, and is never quite as sharp, the screw-drive AF has a 'snap' to it that the AF-S lenses lack. It's not just that the autofocus of the AF-S 50/1.4G is slower, which it unquestionably is, but the silent drive and lack of feel makes it less satisfying to use. The little 1.4D is the lens that I really want to put on my film F5 – but the better optics of the 1.4G are a better match to the D800.
Untitled Blue-Green, Nikon F5, 50/1.4G, probably f/5.6, Kodak's New Portra 400
Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G: The newer AF-S 50/1.8G is a bit faster to focus than the 1.4G, although still no match for the AF-D lenses on a strong screw-drive body. It doesn't have quite the peak central sharpness of the marginally brighter lens, but trying to spot the difference between the two in a print would probably require a loupe. And it's almost exactly the same size as the 1.4G, so it looks perfectly at home on any modern Nikon. If both lenses were sitting on the table in front of me, I would probably take the 1.4G, but I'd have to think about it. But if both lenses are sitting on the shelf at the store, then the 1.8G is only half the price of the 1.4G, and there are a lot of other fun photographic things that $250 could buy.
Sigma 50/1.4 HSM: This is really a very different lens from any of the Nikons. Much bigger and heavier, this lens shows less vignetting than the Nikon 50/1.4G, and is beautifully built. But the Sigma is clearly optimized for portraiture – that's the polite way of saying that wide open the edges and corners are unequivocally soft, while the central sharpness is about the same as the Nikon, and it never really gets as sharp across the frame even at its best. The Sigma is not a general-purpose lens the way the other 50's are, but it is perfect for the right people.
PSA: Keep in mind that reading quick summaries – or long-form reviews, or lab tests – is a poor alternative to actually trying different lenses in person. Please support your local camera store if you're lucky enough to still have one.
Exceptionalism, Nikon D800, 50/1.4G at f/2.8, 1/500, iso100
I picked the AF-S 50mm 1.4G to be my main lens for my D700 – before the 1.8G was announced – and now it's providing solid service on my D800. It's the lens that's always on the camera unless there's a specific reason to use something different, although occasionally my F5 is allowed to borrow it. It's easy to carry, pleasant to work with, and has a very useful focal length. This is a lens that I like, both on the camera and in its results, and ultimately that trumps any test-bench report.
If money is no object, then the 50/1.4G is still the best 50mm lens that Nikon makes, and it is a very good lens. But ultimately it's still only a midrange fast prime: a solid lens to have in the lineup, a staple that shouldn't be overlooked, but not outstanding in its own right. The fact that the 50/1.8G comes so close to its performance – and surpasses it in some ways – is quite remarkable for the cheaper lens, but not flattering for its big brother.
If Nikon were to come out with a premium fast 50mm lens that improves on the 1.4G's weaknesses – snappy autofocus, sharper and more consistent across the frame, less distortion, weather sealing – I would be on it in an instant. They can keep the f/1.4 aperture and double the price: I don't mind if the performance is exceptional from 2.8 and merely excellent below that. But until then, I'm happy enough. I haven't found a whole lot that this lens can't do.
*Mea Culpa Update: I've re-run some tests with the AF-S 60/2.8G Micro lens on the D800. I can see a slight difference in their sharpness both at f/2.8 and f/5.6, the two apertures that I tested, and the 50/1.4G isn't the winner. The macro lens also has faster autofocus and fewer aberrations of all kinds, with the sole exception of vignetting. My point about choosing the right lens remains, and the extra brightness is also a huge differentiator between the lenses, but for the best performance at f/4-5.6 I would pick the 60/2.8G.
last updated 19 july 2012