Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-s Review

 

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This lens is build like a tank, it is small but heavy

 

Fast lenses are what most photographers lust after, and the 1.4f lens is the standard fast lens for most Nikon photographers but we salivate at Canon and Leica 1.2 lens. I learned my photography on Pentax and switched to Nikon when the  D700 came out, many years ago, so I had no idea that nikon produced a 1.2f lens. Once I found out about the Nocta 58 1.2f lens, I jumped online and my heart sank. For an old manual focus lens, it is incredibly expensive. After doing some more research, I found the Nikkor 50mm 1.2f lens, that is still produced by Nikon and it is so much cheaper than the Noctua 58mm lens, so I ordered one and waited very patiently for it to arrive.

 

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The 50mm 1.2F lens was used a lot in the beginning with my digital cameras but it slowly moved over to my film cameras because of focusing issues.

 

My first impression of this lessons was wow…..it is so heavy, the focus ring is so smooth, I just want to go out and shoot everything at 1.2 with this lesson and blow away everything with that depth of field and this is where I fell flat onto my face. I went out shooting that very evening and almost everything I shot was out of focus. I had been shooting my Nikon 50mm 1.4D lens and manually focusing it, so I thought that the difference cannot be that great between the two lenses and I was so wrong. The depth of field at 1.2 is tiny, and the focusing screens in modern Nikon lens just cannot handle it. I had to buy a cats eye focus screen, and a magnifying eyepiece to help me try and manually focus this beast. And trust me, I call this lens a beast and its name is well deserved, it is heavy and hard to get into focus in the beginning, but once you get used to it, it becomes much easier to use and you can get some really special images from this lesson.

 

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This is the very first shot I took with this lens. I took it out at night in China and found a new British style fake telephone booth and shoot it in the dark. This was about the only shot I kinda got into focus that evening. Focusing this lens was not easy.

 

This lens feels much better on a bigger camera body. Only my smaller Nikons, it made the camera feel front heavy and off balance.

Now let’s take a look at the lens specification first, before we dive into the way it renders and how sharp it is.

Technical Specifications

Focal length 50mm
Maximum aperture f/1.2
Minimum aperture f/16
Field of view 46 degrees (on FX)
Weight 359g
Dimensions 68.6 x 48.3mm
Optical construction 7 elements in 6 groups
Aperture blades 9 traditional blades
Filter diameter 52mm
Minimum focus distance 50cm (20cm from the front element)
Hood  HS-12, optional
Mount AI-S, no CPU

 

 

The 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S has 7 optical elements in 6 groups and uses a traditional spherical design which can explain the relatively reasonable price. The lens weighs in at around 359g but it feels much heavier than that. The lens has a 9 blade diaphragm that allows for a more pleasant and creamier bokeh, which is an important feature in a wide aperture lens where a shallow depth of field is sought-after. The lens has a minimum aperture of f/16, which is standard for a fast prime. So to sum up the boring specification, it is not a complicated lens, it has 9 aperture blades to keep the bokeh nice and smooth and if you stop it down to f16, then you should get some nice sun stars(if that is your type of thing you like to shoot).

 

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This lens is all glass and metal. I love the big wide open elements at the back of this lens.

 

The lens handles really well, and as like I mentioned above, it is a compact, heavy lens so it works well on heavier cameras like a full frame body of the D3s, D4, D5 bodies as well as the older heavier film cameras. The manual focus ring is buttery smooth and it makes my other manual focus AIS lens seem like they were constructed in China, as this one just glides into focus. Not to stiff, not to lose, just the perfect amount of tension of the focus ring.

 

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The large focus ring is perfect for me. Manually focusing it is easy but nailing the focus is a different story altogether.

 

As good as the focus ring is, focusing the lens is not easy. The digital rangefinder is not up to the job, and even when using a split screen or live view, it was extremely difficult in the beginning. It was on my old film cameras that I got used to focusing this lens as they have much better viewfinders for faster lens, and I slowly learned how to use this lens probably.

 

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This lens tends to sleep a lot on my Nikon F2. The Nikon F2 is my favorite camera to use outside of work so the 50mm lens gets lots of exercise.

 

So how does this lens render? There are so many rumors about this lens. Some people say it is soft when shot wide open, some people say it is the sharpest Nikkor lens at F2, other people say the lens is ghosty and flairs wide open, no one seems to have the same opinion on this lens. All I can do is give you my impression of the lens and tell you why I use this lens a lot.

 

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Shooting this lens wide open is a challenge, and so many people say that the lens is soft, but I disagree somewhat with this statement. The lens is not tack sharp at 1.2f but it is sharp enough. I think most people who complain about this lens being soft at 1.2 have simply missed focus. Your depth of field is so shallow that when shooting at f1.2, that even swaying at your hips a little when shooting will be enough to shift the focus plane. You have got to be very still when using this lens. I find that I get my sharpest results from this lens when using it with my Fuji XE3 and using focus peaking. That way, I can tell exactly where my focus points are at all times. So my impression of this lesson wide open is that the lens is sharp enough but when shooting this lesson wide open, you will find the magic that the lens offers to so many people. The lens has a nice 3D pop and creates some nice separation for the subject as the background melts away.

 

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One of my drone buddies. We often go flying together here in China. I shot him with the 50mm lens on my fuji XE3, wide open. This is more than sharp enough for me.

 

If you stop the lens down and shoot at F2 or more, the lens is sharper, there is no doubt about that, but when you do that, you lose some of the glow or pop that the lens has. For me, the magic of this lens is at 1.2, it is not always easy to get that magic to appear with a focused image, but the magic is there.

 

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Shooting into the sun as it was setting. Again shot wide open with the Fuji XE3. You would expect some chromatic aberration but I could not find any. You will notice that a lot of the digital photos will be shot on the Fuji XE3 because focus peaking is so useful with a fast lens like this.

 

Does this lens vignette wide open? Yes. Does it matter? No. This is the fastest lens for Nikon at the moment and it is not supposed to be perfect from edge to edge. The canon 1.2 lens is not perfect wide open either. I am not sure about the Leica 50mm lens but you don’t buy a super fast 50mm lens to shoot architecture. This lens is meant to be used when you are walking around the street or when you are shooting portraits or even some landscapes, so a little vignetting is not the end of the world.

 

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This was shot with the Nikon D500 at f2. Focusing this lens on an object blowing in the wind at 1.2 with no focus peaking would have been impossible. You can still notice some vignetting in the shot.

 

Color fringing or aspherical aberrations can be found when shooting this lens wide open, it is not had but if you are shooting into bright light, and you look close enough, you will find some. It is not as bad as the Fujifilm XF 18mm F2 lens, but once again this is not the end of the world. Fixing color fringing is easy now in a photo editor so I seldom worry about this now.

 

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One thing I did notive about this lens, is that once you stop down past f8, you start to lose a little contrast in the shot.

 

This lens was made to allow film guys to shoot film at night and on my 3Ds, I thought this was a light monster, and I tried to use it in the dark a lot when I first got it. The fast aperture does help when shooting in the dark but low light is still low light, and your camera’s ISO abilities are more important than the lens now, in the age of digital photography. The difference between 1.4 and 1,2 is not that great in terms of light gathering, and you might get some comma from bright light sources in the background. I never really had a problem with comma but if it does drive you crazy, then you can always buy the crazy expensive cousin of this lens, the 58 mm 1.2.

 

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My idea of a low light monster in 2014.

 

Shooting this lens on a film camera is a lot easy than a digital SLR, as it is easy to get focus. The focus screen on my Nikon F2 blows the focus screens on my modern DSLR’s away, so this lens spends a lot of time on my Nikon F2. It is easy to focus with now, just using a split screen and your eye and it renders black and white photos really nicely. I cannot say tell you what it looks like on color film as I never shoot color film.

 

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Shooting the 50mm lens wide open on a film camera is much easier than a digital camera. I can usually nail focus with my Nikon F2

 

This is by far my favorite 50mm lens that I owned or have used. It is my go-to lens when I have the time to manually focus and if I had to compare it to the Nikon 50mm 1.4D lens that I owned before this one, I would say that it is sharper, renders better bokeh, has less color fringing and it vignettes about the same when both lenses are shot wide open. I cannot compare it to the newer Nikon 50mm 1.4G lens as I hate the G lens. I cannot use them on my film cameras so I try to buy the older prime lens so that they can do double duty for me.

 

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You can melt a lot of the background away with this lens and I like the look of the bokeh. Most clients don’t care about bokeh but it is important for photographers.

 

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This is an example of the shallow depth of field and how narrow the focus plane really is.

 

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I have always enjoyed shooting into the sun with this lens.

 

The last thing that I want to talk about this lens, is how it performs when you adapt it across to a different camera system. I primarily use it with a Fujifilm XE3 and I use it with two lens adaptors. One is a just a dumb adaptor and the second one is a lens turbo and reduces the focal length down to around 50mm. The Nikon 50mm 1.2 lens performs well on both adaptors and it is easy to focus with focus peaking. I do prefer the lens with the lens turbo though, as the field of view is closer to a 50mm lens and I am more used to this field of view. Shooting it on a crop body means the focal length is around 75mm so it to long for me.

 

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Shoot a Nikon D500, into the sun.

 

Using this lens for video is not easy, the depth of field is tiny, it has no VC, so unless you are on a tripod, good luck. The fast aperture also means you need to stop the lens down a lot during the daytime or you have to use ND filters. I am not much of a video guy so I seldom use the lens for videos but if you were crazy enough, then I am sure you could squeeze some magic out of this lens when shooting it wide open.

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A quick grab shot of my friend, again shot wide open. Nailing the focus wide open is not impossible and you can get fast at it with some practise.

To sum up this review, I love this lens, It is always in my camera bag, I use it whenever I am trying to separate my subject from the background or when I am trying to blur something away that is distracting. If I lost this lens, I would order another copy immediately and I can easily say that this lens comes highly recommended by me.

To give the lens a score,

Sharpness 3 out 5 when shot wide open and 5 out of 5 after you hit f2.

Build quality 5 out of 5

Rendering 4 out of 5

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