Normal Lenses For Nikon 'F' Mount
Evaluations By Bjørn Rørslett
For rating criteria, please see the Lens Survey Page
[test lens version(s) given]
|45 mm f/2.8
lens is an enigma with its "retro" looks and
purely manual operation. With its superb precision
construction in bright, satin-finished metal, it is an
endearing contrast to the current breed of plasticky,
wobbling AF lenses. The focusing throw is very short so
focusing is fast and positive up to the 0.45m near limit.
The lens is so short that the focusing and aperture rings
are closely adjacent and thus need to be very narrow. To
make handling the lens easier, the rings are conveniently
ribbed and the inner aperture ring is slightly wider,
thus easier to locate by touch only. To top it all, there
is a peculiar-looking (shaped like a reversed funnel)
sunshade that allows the special grey lens cap to be
mounted with the shade in place. The sunshade is quite
inefficient in keeping sunrays and raindrops from hitting
the front element, however, so adding one or more K-rings
to push it further out from the lens front is advisable.
Like its predecessor, the venerable GN-Nikkor 45 mm f/2.8, this lens has a simple Tessar optical design. This means just 4 elements (in 3 groups) are used and thus the reflecting surfaces are fewer than in most other lenses. In shooting against bright light sources, a small ghost spot occurs, but flare is otherwise quite well under control.
I have compared the new and old 45 mm closely and conclude that their designs are not identical, although both are Tessars. The new lens has a bigger exit pupil to make illumination more even over the entire image. It also focuses closer. Colour rendition is superb and image contrast is quite high, although slightly softer than most modern Nikkors. There is no ED glass in this lens, but colour fringing is perfectly controlled nonetheless. The aperture has 7 blades and is nicely rounded, this combines with the simple Tessar design to give excellent smoothness ("bokeh" is the buzz word) in the out-of-focus zone of the image. Geometric distortion is virtually absent so this is a perfect lens for architecture and similar applications.
This lens obviously is targeted for the new FM3A camera, but attaches to any Nikon body to make a splendid travel companion. It is small, inobtrusive, and capable of producing sparkling images. Equipped with a CPU, it will make the most out of all Nikons, even the most modern camera such as D1/D1X.
A final point: this lens is so small you can easily misplace it and never be able to locate it again. I hate to admit this has happened to me, so I'm on my second sample now. You are warned!
IR: The performance is excellent and no issues with hot-spots are observed on any camera tested so far.
|50 mm f/1.2
4.5 (S3Pro UVIR)
replaced the older 55/1.2 and besides being neater and
lighter, also offered a much better performance even at wide apertures. There is
an endearing slight softness (bokeh) when the lens is
deployed on a D1/D2-series camera and shot wide open, but
the image even at f/1.2 has plenty of detail. Stopped
down in the range f/2.8-f/5.6, image contrast is
enhanced, sharpness is very good to excellent, and
veiling flare has gone entirely. Quality deteriorates
rapidly as expected with the lens stopped down beyond
f/8. I suspect the corners at wide settings would be soft
with this lens mounted on a 35 mm film-based camera, but
haven't tested this so far.
The 50/1.2 is less troubled by hight-contrast and against-the-light shooting than many of its brethren, and the propensity to flare is kept well under control. Occasionally you can get a greenish ghost spot when the sun is placed towards the frame corners, though.
Image contrast even at f/1.2 is higher on the D3, so pictures come across crisper and appearing sharper with this camera. Focusing the lens on a D3 was easy.
IR: The performance is troubled by a strong tendency for a central hot-spot on several cameras, but not on the S3Pro UVIR (?). Strange.
|50 mm f/1.4
|Nikon actively developed their fast normal lenses throughout the '70s. The coatings were improved and the basic double-Gauss formula was trimmed to squeeze even better performance out of the 50/1.4. The last version before the AI epoch featured a shimmering red front element and sported a very capable performance. Wide open there is some softening in the corners that disappears by f/2.8, At f/4 it gives excellent images, and the quality stays basically the same up to f/8. Beyond that f-number the performance declines perceptibly. Flare levels are low, but ghosting can be provoked by pointing the lens towards bright light sources.|
|50 mm f/1.4
|This AF lens
is encased in a dreadful plastic barrel, but manages to
focus quite smoothly with my preferred manual operation.
It delivers crisp and sharp images even set wide open,
and by f/4 the sharpness is all you could wish for. Image
contrast and detail hold up well to f/11 and just begin
to lose "bite" at f/16. Vignetting is minimal
on the D1X and so is the geometric distortion, which is
of the barrel type. Mounted on an F5, however, the barrel
distortion may be a bit more visible.
The lens focuses quite close, but when shooting up close the images loses some of its crispness. Not entirely unexpected for such a fast lens.
Fast lenses tend to be susceptible to flare and the 50/1.4 AF is no exception, so you should shield the front element from being hit by direct sunlight if at all possible. Ugly ghosts are easily invocated if there are any dust specks left on the front element, so keeping the lens immaculately clean is mandatory.
The rendition of the out-of-focus areas can be nice when aperture is large, but tends to be much harsher when the lens is stopped far down. You definitively need to watch the background rendition using the DOF preview .
With the FX:D3, performance is excellent but I have reduced the rating a trifle since corner fall-off is slightly more in evidence on this camera.
IR: Definitively not recommended for IR use since there is a nasty central hot spot.
|AFS 50 mm f/1.4 G Nikkor||
|An update of
the older "screwdriver" 50/1.4 Nikkor was long
overdue. The new model, largely finished in lightweight
material of an organic nature, sports an improved 8/7
optical design and at last, AFS operation. But unlike
other recent new Nikkors, there is no nano-coating and no
ED glass inside. While the lens barrel does not extend
during focusing, there is no internal focusing (IF) to
work its magic (and sometimes, adding colour aberrations)
- the inner unit moves back and forth as an entity. Thus,
the autofocus operational speed won't set a world record,
but for most purposes it suffices well enough. A side
effect is that the outer casing needs to be pretty big,
thus a 58 mm filter thread is used. This breaks the
earlier pattern of normal lenses (by Nikon) being served
by 52 mm filters. However, in a predominantly digital era
in which filters see much less use than before, this
disruption of old habits might be easier to accept. One
gets a better fitting lens hood and since it flares just
a little, the front element is deeply shaded. Towards the
rear there is a rubber gasket to provide weather sealing.
Corner fall-off is visible when the lens is set to the widest apertures, but less annoying than seen with the earlier AF-D model. Fall-off will of course be most visible on the FX cameras. From f/2.8 onwards vignetting is negligible on DX and FX alike. The barrel distortion, typical for this class of lens, is kept under good control. Field flatness also is better than shown by most fast lenses. Image quality is quite good in fact at f/1.4 although some blue fringing can occur at high-contrast transitions, increases to f/2.8 accompanied by a rise in contrast and reduction of fringing, and really gets into its stride in the range f/4 to f/9 or so. The smallest apertures see more softening of the image and a reduction in contrast, so only stop down to f/16 if you desperately need the increased depth of field, or like to shoot into the sun. The aperture opening is nicely rounded and the out-of-focus rendition (bokeh) is softer and less harsh than seen with the older 50/1.4 AFD model. However, the 50 mm lenses are too short to really throw the background way out of focus unless you shoot fairly close and have the lens nearly wide open. So don't expect the image to "pop" like it often does with a telephoto lens.
Colours are rendered vividly saturated and come across crisp and clear. On some subjects, however, one can detect a slight longitudinal colour aberration leading to reddish fringes to the foreground and greenish fringes towards the background. Even in this respect the new lens does better than the predecessor so this behaviour should be interpreted in its proper context, and many shots will not show this problem at all.
Although nano-coating is missing, the new lens handles awkward backlighting and point light sources better than the model it replaces. Ghosting is usually minimal, but when shooting straight into the sun, you tend to be rewarded by a big blur rather weak blue ghost spot. Flare is well controlled, though, and I did not encounter situations in which flare was an issue for my shooting with the AFS 50 G.
The new model is an evolution of the older lens, so you don't need to rush out to purchase it unless you can only work with AFS. Anyone looking for an excellently performing normal lens should consider the "G" carefully. It complements the high resolving power of the D3X in a nice fashion too.
IR: Not a good candidate for IR use since there is a central hot spot when the lens is stopped down.
|Zeiss 50 mm f/1.4 ZF (Nikon mount)||
big companies also produces big surprises, such as Zeiss
of Germany starting to deliver ZF lenses for the
"F" mount. Now, these lenses are not really
German as such since they obviously are made in Japan by
Cosina, but the engraving on the ZF 50 follows European
style in using "1,4" instead of
"1.4", just to take one example. And you can't
eliminate the possibility than German engineers have been
present somewhere, or sometime, along the production
The ZF 50 /1.4 is very nicely made and its aperture ring turns smoother than on most Nikkors. It uses a non-standard (in the Nikon line) 58mm filter thread and the curved aperture blades form a smooth circle. Thus you would expect it to deliver a pleasant bokeh.
Direct side-by-side shooting with the ZF 50 and the Nikkor 50/1.4 AFD demonstrated the following: For distant motifs, the ZF was sharper and distinctly showed more contrast than the Nikkor at f/1.4 and f/2. From f/2.8 the difference started to decline and from f/4 onwards differences, if any, were negligible. Same trend occurred for close subjects, but here the quality difference was much smaller and the ZF had occasionally more CA issues than the Nikkor as well.
The biggest surprise occurred when I tried to evaluate the bokeh of the ZF lens. Let me summarise this by stating that at f/1.4, the Zeiss exhibited a weird or downright ugly bokeh with pronounced double lines and harsh edges. The transition from sharp to unsharp is abrupt. The Nikkor on the other hand delivered pleasantly soft-looking backgrounds without any harshness to them. Stopping further down the picture tended to change, thus the Nikkor gets harder and harsher and the ZF availed itself of its very circular aperturte to give less harsh backgrounds than the Nikkor. But having heard a lot of hype regarding the alleged superiority of the ZF line in terms of bokeh, I have to admit that the Zeiss lens was a clear disappointment. The reason for having a superfast lens is amongst others to use it set more or less wide open. I quickly stopped using the ZF 50 in that fashion and decided not to keep the lens for myself. I give the ZF 50 due credit for its sharpness qualities, but be warned that its bokeh can give nasty surprises if you shot the lens wide open. At the very least, do try out the lens before you commit to purchasing it.
|50 mm f/1.8
(AIS version: F4, D1, D1X)
cheap and unobtrusive lens with an outstanding optical
performance - can anyone wish for more? This petite
Nikkor delivers the goods with a snap and clarity many
lenses could - or better - should, envy. Wide open there
is a trace of softness into the corners that disappears
by stopping down to f/2.8. From f/4 to f/8 its
performance hardly can be improved. I have obtained
decent results even at f/22. The multi-coating layers on
this lens gives it much better contrast and colour
saturation than the E-series derivative.
According to my sources the AF and AF-D versions of the 50 mm f/1.8 are virtually identical to the MF lens, so can be safely recommended as well (if you stand the plasticky feeling of the newer versions, that is). However as more and more Nikon cameras become crippled when an older lens is mounted on them, we should at least be thankful that some of the best optical designs survive into the brave new world.
The earliest AIS version of the 50/1.8 delivers a truly stellar performance on the D2X. The field is admirably flat, too. There is nothing more to be said here. As perfect a lens as anyone could imagine. What a shining little star this lens proved itself to be.
The modern, plasticky and cheap-looking AF 50/1.8 ("Made in China") also gives excellent central image sharpness, but not so set wide open, you need to go to f/2.8. Field curvature is more prominent on this version and the corner performance a little less convincing than with the MF model, but when you factor its low price into the equation, you do get a lot more quality than you have bargained for.
IR performance: When used for IR photography on some DSLR bodies, the newer AF versions can show an occasional "hot-spot" in the image centre. The MF lens, or at least my sample, isn't troubled with this at all. I've downgraded this lens a little for IR to indicate the potential issue. So don't tell you haven't been warned.
|50 mm f/1.8
Nikon Series E
|This economical version, made for the EM and FG cameras, was virtually identical to the Nikkor 50/1.8 in optical design, but built even more compact than the Nikkor. It came in a cheaper-looking (and -feeling) barrel and lacked multi-coating and an aperture coupling prong. Sharpness is very good, but contrast and colour saturation result in images that do not quite match the clarity of the Nikkor.|
|50 mm f/2
genuinely surprised with the test results of this humble
normal lens. It delivers sharp and contrasty images
already at wide apertures. Even at f/2, there is just a
trace of flare and corner softness, and beyond f/2.8 it
renders excellent image quality. Despite its
multi-coating, some flare and ghosting result when the
lens is pointed towards the sun, so be careful in that
situation. The 6-bladed aperture can give some
not-so-nice ghosts and while these normally are well
controlled, they become much more obvious for IR
To show age doesn't mean a thing, this lens is probably one of the sharpest Nikkors I've deployed on my D2H. A pity it isn't comfortable with my D70 because of the AI construction.
For use on the D2X, you should be aware of the less than perfectly flat field of this lens. Centre of the image is very very sharp with D2X, but you can see a slight deterioration of quality towards the corners, thus preventing the lens from getting a perfect score with this camera.
The earlier, non-AI models are engraved "H" or "H·C", the latter being multicoated. Optically, both are fine performers as is the AI model.
IR performance: Not giving a true hot-spot, but I've seen some unevenness of light across the frame, so have adjusted the rate to reflect this observation.
|55 mm f/1.2 Nikkor-SC||3.5
not tested on DSLRs
|This lens is impressive to behold, but image quality is modest when it is used wide open. There is a veiling flare from internal reflections that softens the image and coma is apparent at f/1.2. Residual optical aberrations lend a softness to the corners until the lens is stopped down to f/4-f/5.6, at which point it becomes a capable performer in terms of sharpness. Image contrast picks up beyond f/2.8 and is very good at f/8 to decline when the lens is stopped more down than this. Note that the 55/1.2 is susceptible to knocks from the side, such abuse can misalign the optical elements.|
|58 mm f/1.2
|The 'Noct' designation
calls attention to the main application area for this
super-fast lens, viz. its intended use in low-light and
night photography. The front element is hand-polished to
give its aspherical shape and this by necessity inflates
the price of this infrequently seen optic. Improved
control of coma and spherical aberration is the main
reason for including the aspherical element in its
optical design. This effort pays for itself by giving
very sharp pictures even when the lens is used nearly
wide open. In fact, performance is good even at f/1.2,
really picks up at f/1.4 and simply is marvellous at
f/2-f/2.8. Flare control is very good, but some ghosting
can occur when extremely bright spots are included in the
picture. Unusual for a normal lens, field curvature is
readily apparent and focusing it closer exacerbates the
situation. The prominent curvature of the field can
explain why the 'Noct' scores low in tests: the corners
simply are not brought into focus at wide apertures when
the lens is focused on a test target. This is not the
proper lens for copying or close-up photography. For
shooting 3D objects however, the field curvature isn't a
big issue. Beyond f/4 the image contrast also begins to
decline slightly and there is a significant drop in
optical quality beyond f/8. The 'Noct' is built for speed
and should be used for its targeted purpose. End users
also may be attracted to its special image rendition, the
texture of which has an appealing 'creamy' smoothness
D2X and D200 mercilessly show that focusing accuracy is critical in order to get the maximum quality from the Noct-Nikkor. The new high-resolution D3X further underlines this fact. With such a bright lens as the Noct, manual focusing is really difficult using these cameras. This is counter-intuitive but unfortunately true.
On the other hand, if the image is properly focused, and you are aware of the strong field curvature and its possible effects on the rendition of your subject, you are rewarded with excellent sharpness and very high image contrast at settings from f/1.4 to f/4. Beyond f/4, image quality declines, after all this is a specialised design not a "normal" lens. This is further witnessed by the very good image rendition at f/1.2.
IR performance: Seems to be equally good to the visible light rendition. At f/16, and under strong contrast lighting, you might just notice the first sign of a hot spot. However, since this stopped-down setting is off-limits territory for the Noct anyway, I haven't emphasized that too much.
Last Update 15 January, 2009