Monday, June 13, 2011

In-Depth Review: Nikkor 50 f1.4D

The Nikkor 50mm f1.4D

Tech Specs
Focal Length: 50mm
Dimensions: 1.7 x 2.5 in.
Weight: 9 ozs.
Maximum Aperture: f1.4
Minimum Aperture: f16
Diaphragm Blades: 7
Front Element: non-rotating, extending
Optical arrangement: 7 elements in 6 groups
Autofocus Mechanism: Mechanical drive
Closest Focus: 18 inches
Maximum magnification: 1:6.8
Filter Size: 52mm

BackgroundTraditionally, 50mm prime lenses have been the most popular optics in the world, at least until the advent of crop-frame digital. Still, with all the film cameras still around (and with the advent of FF digital), the manufacturers are still cranking out such lenses. Want proof of how popular 50s are? Look at any manufacturer's lineup and you're all but guaranteed to see at least 1 fast 50 (Nikon makes 4). The lens we're dealing with today is the Nikkor 50 f1.4D mechanical drive AF lens, which can trace its optical design all the way back to 1977, a total of 18 years before this model commenced production in 1995. So, how does this decades old design fare in today's world of digital cameras? Read on to find out!

The lens grows slightly when focused at macro distance.
Build Quality 3/5
The Nikkor 50 1.4 D is a plastic lens built on a metal mount. Picking up the lens, one can't help but notice how tiny and lightweight it is. That said, the lens isn't poorly built. Yes, it's plastic, but the construction is of good quality and there is no wobbling whatsoever among the moving parts. Being a mechanical drive lens, there is no AF/MF switch as you control this on the camera. When focusing, the inner barrel extends about 5mm but the front element doesn't rotate. Speaking of focus, the well textured, rubberized manual focus ring spins during AF, so watch where you put your hands! In MF, the ring is silky smooth in movement. As an added luxury over the f1.8D version, the f1.4 has a distance window while the 1.8 only has painted markings on its barrel.

AF Performance 5/5No, the old 50 1.4D is not a sonically-driven lens, but it's still extremely fast as in faster than its new AF-S cousin. Why the speed? Simple, the lens only contains ### elements. With so little glass to move around, the camera's focus motor doesn't have to work all that hard with this little lens. Result: lightning fast focus. In terms of noise, this lens is very quiet for a mechanically driven design, far quieter than any camera save perhaps the D7000. Note: because this lens doesn't have a built in motor, it won't work on the cheapest Nikons as you'll need a D90/D7000 (or ancestors) or higher to have AF.

Optics: 3/5A lot goes into determining the optical quality of a lens, so let's look at them separately.

 Center of the frame

 Mid frame (corner DX)

Corner of the frame

SharpnessFor a f1.4 lens, the Nikkor 50 1.4D is not all that bad wide open. Sure, it's a little soft at widest aperture in the center of the frame but, with a little sharpening, can produce perfectly usable results. In regards to the center, it improves dramatically by f2 and is as sharp as it will get by f2.8. In mid frame, the story is pretty much ditto that for the center. The corners? Well, they're mush wide open and things really don't get acceptably sharp until f4. By f5.6 the lens is quite good, but peak performance isn't reached until f8. The good news: if you're shooting landscapes in bright light, stopping down will be no problem. DX shooters, consider the mid frame the corner, which means that sharpness will be uniform across the frame for you.


Corner shading disappears by f2.8. For DX shooters, it shouldn't be a problem even wide open.

A blue morning shot at f1.4, note the corner darkening?
 This lens vignettes noticeably when shot wide open, and this just isn't shooting a gray wall, either. Shoot at f1.4 in daylight and you will notice corner shading, no way around it. Stopping down to f2 improves matters quite a bit but to get rid of the shading, stop down to f2.8. The good news is that when used in its specialty, low light conditions, the vignetting probably won't even be noticeable as everything will be rather dark anyway. For DX shooters, there should be virtually no vignetting even wide open..
DistortionThere isn't any in practical terms.

Note: the CA is nowhere near as obnoxious as the 100% crop leads one to believe, but it's there.
Chromatic Aberration A somewhat disturbing finding with this lens is the fact that there is CA wide open in conditions that one would not think would be all that prone to color fringing (namely bright sunlight). Below, the cat photos were shot in a room lit only by light entering through a bay window. In short, the room was rather poorly lit. Unfortunately, the lens fringed big time where black and white fur meet. Stopping down to f2 dramatically cuts the problem and f2.8 kills it, but beware that this is a CA-prone lens!

A complete range of CA shots ranging from wide open to f4

Bright light, no ghosts, just beautiful diffraction spikes.
Flare/GhostingThe Nikkor 50 f1.4D is remarkably resistant to flare/ghosts. In the below night scenes, bright lights abounded, yet there is no flare, a very pleasant surprise considering that the front element is not recessed one bit into the barrel like it is on the cheaper 50 f1.8D. No hood was used for these photos, either. Note the beautiful stars around the bright lights, too.

This lens offers a lot of glass for only a little cash!
Value: 5/5
Simply put, this is a lens that anyone with a FX format Nikon camera should take a serious look at. Priced at around $375 new, this lens can do just about anything under any lighting condition, especially when combined with the stunning low-light capability of the D3/D700. In short, with its f1.4 aperture, this lens will smoke any (far more expensive) zoom, hands down, in low light conditions.

CompetitionIn camp Nikon, the 50 f1.4D is one of four 50mm primes, the 50 f1.8D and the new 50 f1.4 and f1.8 AF-S lenses that will work with all current Nikons. So, which one to buy? With the 1.8D, you pay only about a third as much but lose nearly a stop of aperture and the distance window. Moving up to the new AF-S version, you pay about $100 more, gain full time manual focus, a dust seal at the mount, and reputedly better corner performance. As for the 1.8 AF-S, you have a slower version of the f1.4, this one sells for around $250. Unfortunately, thanks to the in-lens focus motor, the AF-S versions are a lot larger than either of the 'D' lenses. Surprisingly, the AF-S lenses are reported to have slower focus speed, and, being a 'G' lens, it cannot be used on old Nikon film cameras. As for the 50 f1.4D, it's a Plain Jane lens that, though being over 30 years old in terms of optical design, can still deliver the goods shot after shot and is thus a very good investment.
Conclusion: 4/5The Nikkor 50 f1.4D is an oldie, but a goodie. The fact that Nikon has kept producing this lens (with a 30+ year old optical design) despite the introduction of the AF-S model a few years ago should tell you right there how highly regarded it is. Build quality is plenty adequate and focus is top-notch, The optics are a mixed bag, but the wide-open shortcomings (CA, corner softness, vignetting) can all be remedied by stopping down. Value? For FX/film shooters, this lens is a steal, especially if you can pick one up used, as it can do probably 90% of all your photography while still being able to fit in a pocket. Recommendation? A whole-hearted “yes” unless you absolutely need a dust deal, which would require the new version.

For more:f1.4 + D700 high ISOs = amazing hand-held results

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