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!
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!
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.
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.
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:
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:
Now compare the image to another one shot at 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.
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:
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:
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.
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…
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
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.