Nikon 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S Review

This is an review of the classic Nikon NIKKOR 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S by one of our readers, Christian Duguay from Montreal, Canada. A quick note from Nasim: while I was going through testing some of the older manual focus lenses (including the 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S), Christian contacted me via email and sent some of his thoughts on the lens. After a couple of emails back and forth, I requested him to write a review of the lens, so that we could share it with our readers. Christian accepted the challenge and we both agreed that it could be a good idea if we both worked on it – I would provide all optical test results, while he would write the text and provide sample images. So in a way, this is a collaborative effort between the two of us. Enjoy!

Nikon 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S

1) Overview and Specifications

When I read a few weeks ago at Photography Life that Nasim wanted to review some of the Nikkor Ai-S manual focus lenses, I was really pleased by the idea. In fact, I was longing for that since the summer of 2012. At that time, I was looking for a 28mm prime and although Nikon had launched a new 28mm f/1.8G in April of that year, I opted for an all-manual f/2.8 Ai-S lens. The reviews I read about it were interesting and convincing, so I decided to order one new from the US, because it was not available in Canada. When I received the lens, I was totally amazed by its high quality, intrinsic beauty and special craftsmanship. This was my first contact with these old Nikkor Ai-S lenses.

If you browse through Nikon’s catalog, you will realize that the company actually has 8 manual focus lenses in their line-up ranging from a 20mm f/2.8 to a Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8. Surprisingly, theses lenses are still in production today in the “Land of the Rising Sun”. They can all be purchased brand new in the US with a regular Nikon Warranty. Amongst them, there is quite an interesting prime: an ultra-high-speed 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S. This is the fastest lens currently made by Nikon and there have never been an autofocus version of it. Because it’s a manual focus lens released in 1981, it gets little attention nowadays, especially since cameras have high ISO performance and most of us don’t shoot with film anymore. So, this 50mm prime has stayed in the shadows in recent years and unfortunately, few people know about it. It is therefore worth making an effort to rediscover what this unique and unusual lens has to reveal and to shine the light on it in this review!

Sheep farm at Iron Hill in the Eastern Township @ f/8

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. It is also in production for more than 30 years, thanks to its impressive f/1.2 aperture and superb performance. 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 minimum aperture of f/16 is standard for a fast prime. The front element of the lens extends for about 1 cm when focusing but does not rotate. It sports a 52mm filter thread as most of the Ai-S lenses do. The lens is available from Nikon’s retailers and the street price in the US is about $699. In Canada, you can get it for $599. By the way, this is the only Ai-S lens distributed by Nikon Canada. It is available on special order only and comes with a 5 year warranty. This lens is pricier than the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G but still affordable for such an ultra-high-speed prime, especially since the new Nikon 58mm f/1.4G sells for one thousand dollars more.

As Nasim wrote in his review of the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, “the focal length of 50mm lenses was considered a standard or normal focal length, because it closely resembles the perspective of the human eye. These lenses were widely popular on film cameras and the focal length was ideal for portraiture and everyday photography. As digital SLRs and zoom lenses started taking over the market, popularity of 50mm primes also decreased. Now that full frame digital cameras are getting more and more affordable, the once forgotten 50mm lenses are regaining their popularity among many photographers”. I agree with Nasim. This focal length is really versatile for a lot of photographic applications ranging from landscape to portraiture. I think we need to work again with it and not snob it. It’s what I’m now rediscovering with this 50mm f/1.2 lens.

Tableau automnal @ f/1.2

2) Handling, Build and Focus Performance

The Nikkor Ai-S series is made up of all-metal manual focus lenses which are manufactured in Japan. They all have click-stopped aperture rings and engraved markings. They have smooth brass helicoids that enable precise manual focus. Theses primes are compact when compared with today’s lenses and it’s one of their characteristics I appreciate the most. They have a tough and high quality build and they are a real pleasure to use and to handle. The series compares really favorably to Zeiss and Voigtlander manual lenses in term of quality and aesthetics. There are no electronics on board and these lenses will serve for years to come.

Like other Ai-S lenses, the 50mm f/1.2 is a wonderful piece of craftsmanship made of metal and glass. It weighs 12.7 oz (360 g) which is heavier than the 50mm f/1.4G (9.9 oz or 280 g) and almost identical to the new 58mm f/1.4G (13.6 oz or 385 g). The rubberized focus ring is conveniently located on the front of the lens barrel and operates very smoothly, thanks to its helicoids mechanism. The tactile feeling we experience when rotating the ring with the thumb and index fingers is an important part of the pleasure shooting with this manual focus lens. Till now, this 50mm has the best focus ring I have experienced, better than my Zeiss 35mm f/2.0 or my Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai-S.

But there is something else about this lens, “un je-ne-sais-quoi”, which makes it unique and more appealing. Maybe it’s the combination of the compact size and reasonable weight for such a fast lens that allows it to balance extremely well on the camera body and makes it a joy to use. Maybe it’s the rather big front element for a lens with a 52mm filter thread that gives it its bold look and its attractiveness for shooting with it. Maybe it’s the feelings of awe and desire we have in face of the challenge that lies ahead in order to master this peculiar lens. In any case, we cannot remain indifferent to this little beauty.

Campagne paisible a Bromont @ f/8

Many photographers may be scared to engage with this 50mm or any other manual focus lenses and prefer to stay away from them. It’s quite understandable, but they miss an interesting experience. It was not in my mind at first to return to a manual lens when autofocus is so convenient. But I decided after some reflections to accept the challenge three years ago and I made the move with a Zeiss 35mm f/2.0. This decision changed my photography work in two ways. The use of a fixed focal lens has forced me to compose and frame my subject more dynamically than before. Then the fact of manually focusing has slowed me down and has let me think more before pressing the shutter. It has given me more control over my work and has contributed significantly to improve my photography skills. Moreover, manual focus is easier than it seems, particularly for landscape, portrait or architectural photography. For sport, action or moving subject, I would stay with autofocus lenses. Modern Nikon DSLRs have an electronic rangefinder with a green dot focus confirmation and arrows (> O <) in the viewfinder that helps to acquire focus. I also recommend buying the Nikon DK-17M Magnifying Eyepiece (for D1 to D4 series and D800, D700) which increases the viewfinder magnification by approximately 1.2x for added viewing precision.

I must say that even if it can be challenging to nail focus at f/1.2 because of the thin depth of field (DOF), I was surprised how relatively easy it was with practice to get it. Even if 50% of the shots are off focus, the results are great when we get it and it’s really rewarding! It just needs time and practice and to take more shots than with an autofocus lens. There seems to be some focus shift occurring between f/2 and f/4 and the lens was back focusing a little with my D3 camera. However, I noticed no focus shift at the widest aperture (f/1.2).

3) Optical Performance and Quality

Now, we are entering the most interesting part of the review. How this 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S fixed focal lens with an optical design dating back to 1981 with no aspherical element or ELD glass performs with modern DSLRs. Nasim conducted Imatest tests that provide the most recent data about MTF Performance, Chromatic aberrations and Vignetting for this lens. Here is how it performed according to Imatest:

The results are astounding. This old 50mm f/1.2 beats the modern 50mm f/1.4G lens in the MTF performance in the center from f/2 to f/4 and equalizes it at f/5.6! So, its reputation for being the sharpest Nikon’s 50mm at f/2, thanks to its high performance, seems not overrated. Peak performance is reached at f/4.0 where the lens passes the 3600 mark in the center (which is even higher than the excellent Sigma 35mm f/1.4), and the best overall performance is reached at f/5.6, where the lens shows very good sharpness throughout the frame. Contrasts are really good and color rendition is superb.

Now, how the lens performs wide open, for which it’s the main reason to purchase this ultra-high-speed 50mm. Although the lens suffers from noticeable spherical aberration issues at the maximum aperture of f/1.2 and f/1.4 that lower the contrast and limit its performance across the frame, photographs show really good results in the center, where what is in focus is quite sharp:

Golden rod @ f/1.2

Thistles in the soft autumn light @ f/1.2

For me, the weak corner performance at f/1.2 doesn’t matter because at this aperture, everything is out of focus except what it is intended to be. And even if the center is a little soft and has less contrast, it’s what gives the lens its strong appeal and makes images shot with this prime so attractive. But depending on the subject, the light and the distance from the subject, spherical aberration and coma can occur in a very specific way in what I call a “glowing effect” that gives an ethereal or “dreamy” look. Here is an example that shows this, shot at f/1.2:

Birches in the autumn light @ f/1.2 (with spherical aberration)

Now compare the image to another one shot at f/2.0:

Birches in the autumn light @ f/2.0

As you can see, stopping down makes the image appear completely different. Personally, I love the 3D-like images that you can get at f/1.2. This effect can be sought after, but it can also be undesirable. In those cases, changing the diaphragm to f/2 will surely get rid of most of the “glow”. But this can be the stumbling block for some that prevents from buying this lens.

3.1) Distortion

Distortion is a little on the high side for a lens of this class. Imatest measured barrel distortion at -1.55%. Unfortunately, since neither Lightroom nor Camera RAW have built-in lens profiles for this classic, all distortion corrections have to be carried out manually.

3.2) Chromatic Aberrations

Chromatic aberration levels are moderate. Imatest measured CA at about 1 pixel at the larger apertures, averaging 1.5 pixels at smaller apertures, as shown below:

3.3) Vignetting

As expected, vignetting is quite strong at the largest apertures, reaching as many as 2 full stops of difference in the corners. The good news is, vignetting is cut significantly at f/2.0 and practically disappears by f/2.8:

Here is an illustration of the worst case scenario, shot at f/1.2:

Nikon NIKKOR 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S Vignetting

And although vignetting is quite strong wide open, this feature contributes to one of the hallmarks of this lens. It can be used on purpose to give a more dramatic atmosphere to the photos or to emphasize the main subject. Or it can be easily corrected with Capture NX2 or other software.

Common Milkweed @ f/2.0 #2

Finally, to conclude, I want to quote what Michael Reichmann wrote in May 2012 in The Luminous Landscape about this lens: “This lens sings its most beautiful song wide open, where the combination of ultra-shallow depth of field, lovely bokeh due to its nine blade shutter, and coma along with CA allow for the creation of dreamlike images, with strongly out-of-focus backgrounds and foregrounds”. That says it all…

4) Summary

The 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S manual focus is a unique lens amongst all Nikkor lenses. This is the fastest lens Nikon produces today, but for how long? Because of its peculiar characteristics (spherical aberration, coma, focus shift), this 50mm has to be fully understood in order to be fully appreciated. That’s why it’s not a lens for everyone. We have to know exactly why we want to shoot with this prime and to be prepared to spend time to tame and master this lens. Then, it can be really rewarding. Its sharpness in the center from f/2 to f/4 beats newer lenses and its special behavior at f/1.2 and f/1.4 gives it a unique signature. This 50mm is a wonderful tool for achieving artistic work and to unleash creativity in our passion for photography. It took me several months and I read many reviews before I made my mind and decided to buy it, but since I have it, this lens has not disappointed me. Quite the contrary, its versatility serves incredibly well my purpose of improving my photography skills and to shoot better images. I hope you will share my enthusiasm for this little beauty!

5) More Sample Images

Birches and grasses @ f/1.2 (with spherical aberration)

Birches and grasses in november light @ f/1.2 (with spherical aberration)

Birches in the grasses (with spherical aberration) @ f/1.2

Common Milkweed @ f/2.0 #1

October Sky @ f/8

Still Life @ f/2.8

All Images Copyright © Christian Duguay. No reproduction of images without written permission from the owner.

6) Where to Buy

B&H Photo Video sells the Nikon 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S with US warranty for $699, brand new.

Nikon 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S Review4Nasim Mansurov2013-11-03 17:15:58This is an review of the classic Nikon NIKKOR 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S by one of our readers, Christian Duguay from Montreal, Canada. A quick note from Nasim: …
Optical Performance
Build Quality
Handling
Bokeh Quality
Value
Features
Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating

Avatar of Nasim Mansurov About Nasim Mansurov

is a professional photographer based out of Denver, Colorado. He is the author and founder of Photography Life, along with a number of other online resources. Read more about Nasim here.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Frank

    Thanks, Nasim. It’s nice to see modern review of some old lenses. I hope to see more in the future.

    • You are most welcome! And a lot more of this is coming, especially some really old lenses from 1962 :)

  2. 2
    ) Jocelyn Sophia

    Yup, I have read a lot of reviews on Amazon & B&H about this lens, all of the reviews say the lens is best at f/2.0. I am dreaming of buying this little jewel and the New Nikon Df to use as walk around gear.

    • Jocelyn, it will perform admirably on a 16 MP sensor. Just need to learn how to use the lens as pointed out in the article.

  3. The pictures wide open are phenomenal! They almost jump off the screen as a 3D image.

  4. 6
    ) Marian Kostadinov

    I have the lens and I agree with the observations in this review.
    What I can add is that the lens is optimized for shooting in the range 1.5-5m where it has almost no spherical aberration and the results are sharp even on the cropped D7000. That range is chosen intentionally as most of the portrait shots are in that range.

    • 8
      ) Christian Duguay

      Thanks Marian for your comment about the optimized shooting range of the 50mm f/1.2. I understand better now why photos in this range has less spherical aberration. Nevertheless, at close range, I observed aberrations also depending on the light and the subject, especially with tree leaves. Do you have other comments about this phenomenon ?

      • 9
        ) Marian Kostadinov

        I don’t know. Probably it is just a standard “bad” case for such bright lenses.

        What I could add about the wide open behavior is that the lens is a kind of “two lenses in a single package” – the lens has very different out of focus renderings if f/1.2 and f/2 are compared. Depending on the way the photographer wants the rendering, he can choose between those two.

        Also, on D7000, f/2.8 is perfectly fine in terms of sharpness. The only reason to go down to f/5.6 is if it is two bright and 1/8000 doesn’t work or just to reduce the subjects that are not in focus.

        • 10
          ) Christian Duguay

          Thanks Marian for your contribution for better understanding this unique lens !

  5. 7
    ) nestor

    Hi Nasim, nice lens, nice review, but I am not so sure about technical matters.
    I don’t have one, and if I would have one I wouldn’t dare to dissassembly in order to check if this has a brass helicoil, lot of nikkors DO NOT use brass at all, they use aluminiun helicoils.
    In order to avoid frozen helicoils one side is simple aluminiun, and teh other one is anodized aluminium.
    I am not saying this is the case with this lens, but if you didn’t check you can’t be sure.

    Anyway this is a comment which doesn’t change at all your review.

  6. 11
    ) FrancoisR

    Nice reading and from very close to boot. Great team work, thanks to Christian and Nasim. It’s interesting to get fresh data from these lenses. Nasim you say “it will perform admirably on a 16MP sensor” how will it do on on 24 or 36?
    thanks

    cordialement…

    • 12
      ) Christian

      May I reply to you François, the Imatest data performed by Nasim were with a D800E. The photos I took were with a D3. As you could read, this lens is sharper from f/2 to f/4 than the newer 50mm f/1.4G. So it performs really well for an optical design dating back to 1981.

  7. 13
    ) Matthew

    I’m currently in the market for a 50mm lens that has an aperture ring and having a hard time deciding (camera is an FM2). I’m open to something newer like the 50m 1.8D but the 50mm 1.2 ais keeps coming back, despite it’s higher pricetag. Have you compared the Voigtlander 58mm 1.4?

    • 14
      ) Christian

      Matthew, like you, I thought buying the Voigtlander 58mm 1.4 before I opted for the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2. I read some reviews about the Voigtlander which seems to be a reallly good lens too and with a more modern optical design. If you want to know more about it, you can check Lloyd Chambers blog site (diglloyd.com). But finally, I decided for the f/1.2 because of its really good sharpness at f/2.0 and the dreamy look of the images at f/1.2. It’s a matter of personnal choice in the end. Each lens has its benefits and weaknesses. We just need to know them and to learn how to work with them and make the best of it. No lens is perfect unless with pay an astronomical price and even though, they were be some compromises too…

  8. 15
    ) ATP

    I own the Ai version of this lens. It’s built tougher but only have 7 blade aperture with the same optical formula. It’s much cheaper but i believe perfoms at about the same level as this Ai-S version

  9. 16
    ) Kristofer

    I just bought mine new from HK, guess it’s because of all the talk about the 58 1.2 now when they released the 58 1.4..
    Any way, after four days of shooting and two of them with a split screen, let’s say it’s hard to focus!
    It sure is better with the split screen but still not that easy.
    I do have the DK-17M and a split screen (F6-A) but still it’s the liveview that gives the most keepers.
    Who would like to use the liveview all the time?!

    Any way, it’s a beauty, I love the colors and bokeh, the colors are way better than my 50mm 1.4.

  10. 17
    ) Héctor

    I’m thinking about buying this lens for a D800, however I´m still not sure if I should get the 1.4G instead. Im still quite amateur, however I want to take the next step with a proper equipment….

    Great review… is really usefull. I would really appreciate your comments regarding the main difference between this 1.2 and the 1.4g…

    Thanks!!!

  11. 19
    ) Razvan

    I’m so happy to read and re-read older and newer reviews about this lens, and see people still getting excited about either using it or getting one soon. I bought mine brand new from Adorama for $645 about 14 months ago to use with an FM10. The FM10 was the first camera I got after 25 years of “temporarily” putting my photographic hobby aside. Pictures taken with this lens came out amazing, even from a cheap film camera like the FM10, but I really felt like it deserved more, and being also eager to see immediate result coming out of this jewel, I have upgraded to a D7000. For almost 8 months, this 50mm / 1.2 was my only lens. Later on, I got another old (g)oldie, the 80-200 f/4.5 Ai-S n, which is as pleasant to use as this 50mm. There were times when I felt a bit frustrated by the manual focus, especially since my sample seems to have a slight focus shift on my D7000 (< + focus dot does the trick for me). Also this lens turned out to NOT be great for shooting action. Not to mention those times I had to hand over the camera to random people to take pictures of me… It was only after I owned my first AF lens (the otherwise great 35mm f/1.8 DX) when I really understood the value and built quality of this 50mm. It gives a much brighter view in the viewfinder, focus is a breeze (after you do your homework and learn to harness it). Now I already have a wide zoom (the Tokina 12-28 f/4) and a tele (the Nikon 80-200D-ED) and I can tell you that this 50mm is still the king amongst them all, and by far my favourite lens. Besides, when I look through all my photos in Bridge, I can easily spot the ones that are taken with this lens without peeking at the EXIF data. Being a fan of classic cars too, I would compare this lens to a 1975 Mercedes, which if found in good shape, has more class, elegance and character than most other newer cars, despite all the appealing technology found in the newer models, and will also last you a life time if well taken care of.

    • 22
      ) jim archer

      I agree with your take on the Nikon 80-200 2.8D…..

  12. 20
    ) NancyP

    This is a fun lens to use on Canon 6D FF camera with an adapter, but it is seriously challenging to focus using the standard digital bright screen. It is a good relatively compact and medium weight lens for “intimate landscape” (foreground object prominent) and typical infinity focus landscape use.

  13. 21
    ) jim archer

    Great review of the 50 1.2…..I am ordering one today. I learned photography on a manual 50. My site is not asgood now so I am a little concerned about focus crispness.However,the pics that I have seen make me want to give this beauty a try.On another note,I miss your e-mail up-dates…JIM…..I ordered one of yor sticky-gel pens…..

  14. 23
    ) Al

    Hi guys

    I am considering getting a new camera altogether and looking at the Canon 6D and Nikon D610. One aspect that bothers me with the Nikon even though it has the wining reviews, is that it seems there are more lenses for Canon than Nikon, and they seem less expensive. also, the Canon has a 50mm F/1.2 with autofocus while the corresponding Nikon lens is only manual. The canon lens also has manual over ride … so, what do you guys think ? Thanks

    Al

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