This past week Nikon announced two new full-frame mirrorless cameras, the Z6 and Z7, as well as the development of a new flagship lens, the NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct. The press release carried much fanfare about the future of Nikon photography and nostalgia regarding the famous Noct-NIKKOR 58mm f/1.2 Ai-S. This post will not be about either of those fine lenses, rather it will focus on what I would consider to be the poor man’s Noct, the NIKKOR 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S.
The 50mm f/1.2 is Nikon’s fastest F-mount lens currently in production. That’s its only claim to fame; on paper this lens is nothing special compared to today’s modern lenses, but there is something unique about using a piece of glass from the 1980s.
One of the reasons I picked up photography is the joy and excitement of getting to explore new places in search of unique images. Walk-around photography is strolling the streets or wandering the woods with your camera.
You’re not in search of anything in particular, you just want to get out of the house and take some pictures. The point of walk-around photography is to relax and have fun, and the 50mm f/1.2 can help you achieve this goal.
Its compact size makes the 50mm f/1.2 easy to store in a bag or throw over your shoulder when you go out. Also, the build quality of this lens is outstanding, giving you piece of mind should it get banged around a little while you’re on the go.
Photography has become a highly automated experience in pursuit of the best image quality with the least amount of effort. As a sports photographer, I greatly appreciate the speed and easy-of-use of modern lenses. However, there are circumstances when you may want to spend a bit more time to find your subject and compose it properly in the frame. This is where manual focus comes in.
I’ve used quite a few manual focus lenses, and I have no reservations saying that the 50mm f/1.2 has the smoothest helicoid mechanism I have experienced; it feels great to focus. You might be wondering, how do you get sharp focus, especially at maximum aperture?
DSLR focus screens tend to prioritize image clarity over focusing aids, such as a split prism. Nevertheless, your Nikon viewfinder has a handy focus indicator to help you get sharp images with manual focus lenses.
The 50mm f/1.2 was built with the ISO limitations of film in mind. For this reason, it is an excellent night and indoor lens; perfect for walk-around photography without a tripod. When it comes to low-light photography, there is nothing better than a fast fifty.
One area where the 50mm f/1.2 really shines is making portraits. At maximum aperture you can get some unique images with very shallow depth of field. Stopping down to f/2 or f/2.8 yields very sharp results while still isolating your subject.
The 50mm f/1.2 uses a spherical lens design with seven glass elements. This simple construction has pros and cons. Instead of getting into a lot of technical terms, I’ll explain how images look in the real world.
Don’t try shooting brick walls with this lens because it has some distortion. If you’re a pixel-peeper, then you may be disappointed because this classic lens lacks the optical corrections that are standard in modern designs.
On the bright side, color rendition, contrast, and sharpness are excellent. Your images will appear really natural and vivid. When shooting wide open everything except the center focal plane will be a bit dreamy. At f/2 and above you’re looking at Nikon’s sharpest 50mm, at least in the center.
I hope that you have enjoyed this brief photo essay about what I consider to be the ultimate tool for walk-around photography. If you have any tips for walk-around photography or have used the 50mm f/1.2 in your own work, please leave a comment!
This is an incredible lens. I have the Ai and Ai-S versions. It is also very frustrating to nail the focus when shooting wide open. I think I average about 50% success using the AF rangefinder in my D750 and D500.
If I could achieve perfect focus on every shot wide open, the 50mm f/1.2 might be my all-time favorite Nikkor!
I’ve been wanting to try this lens. But, man, that’s some nervous bokeh wide open. Looks great around f/2, but if I bought this, I’m using the thing mostly wide open, otherwise, what’s the point?
Wonder how it compares to the 55mm f/1.2.
Honestly, though, my next dream lens is the Nikkor 58mm 1.4G. I may be settling for the Voigtlander 58 1.4, though.
A casual table top shot
And it has won many accolades
This glass has some pixie dust as you wide open the door of its aperture, fairies come dancing in to paint your image
This glass means serious business for artistic big prints on d810/850 not at all for those pixel peepers who stare at images on their 4K massive screens at 400x
Very interesting article. I was thinking about this lens, but my experience with a Nikkor 24mm f2.8 D wondering me. I think all these old lenses from film time they aren’t designed for the modern digital cameras. For example my 24mm has very nice colors, very small distortion and jeneral is an excellent lens for architecture photography. But isn’t sharp enough compared even with the zoom lenses as it is a 24-120mm.
I am using special for street photography on D750, when my subject are buildings
Thanks, Kostas. I have not used the 24mm f/2.8D, but the 50mm f/1.2 is a very sharp lens around f/4. In the corners it is a bit soft, but the center is very sharp.
I have the Nikon 55mm f/1.2. I think mine is a late 1970’s model. I love that lens a lot. I sent it in and paid about $30 to make it an AI lens so it works well on pretty much any Nikon body or F adapter. It is very very soft at 1.2 — almost unusable if you can’t nail focus — but that creamy soft focus is what makes it unique and fun too.
I use mine more on my Fuji X-T20 now. With a cheap $12 adapter it works great, and focus peeking with it on a Fuji body is amazing. Peeking has made it so that nearly every photo I take is in focus, whereas I struggled using through-the-lens manual focusing on Nikons for years with probably only about 50% or less of my photos focused well (but many still usable).
I liked this article! I’d like to suggest that Photography Life run a continuing series focusing on particular lenses in this way.
Thanks! I like that idea too.
Having used both the 50mm f1.2 AI-S and the 55mm f1.2 SC Auto, I prefer the bokeh of the latter. Have you had a chance to use the latter (circa 1973)?
Cheers and good light, David.
I haven’t used that lens, David. Thanks for the comment though!
I’m looking at the 58mm f/1.2 Noct-Nikkor on this web page:
and the bokeh looks a whole lot nicer on that lens then on the 50mm f/1.2 we’re discussing here.
Indeed! The Noct has a better optical formula that uses an aspherical element. It is also about 10x more expensive than the 50mm f/1.2 on the used market.
I love to shoot with old Nikkor glass on my Sony a7Rii. The 55mm 1.2 is one of my favorite lenses.
Manual focusing an f/1.2 lens without magnification or focus peaking or 50 Shades of Pain for photographers.