This is an in-depth review of one of my favorite prime lenses – the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, which was announced back in September of 2008. For many years 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. The smaller size of APS-C sensors made the field of view of 50mm lenses narrower, while the flexibility of zoom lenses and their low price drove the demand towards convenience. Now that full frame digital cameras are getting more and more affordable, the once forgotten 50mm lenses are regaining their popularity among many photographers. In this review, I will provide a thorough analysis of the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens, along with image samples and comparisons against other 50mm lenses from Nikon and Sigma.
The Nikon 50mm f/1.4G is a professional-grade lens for enthusiasts and pros that need a high quality lens for portraiture, food and everyday photography. Its large aperture of f/1.4 is great for low-light photography and the shallow depth of field helps isolate subjects from the background, beautifully rendering background highlights, also known as bokeh.
The Nikon 50mm f/1.4G replaces the older Nikon 50mm f/1.4D model (introduced in 1986). Compared to the AF-D version that has 7 optical elements in 6 groups, the new 50mm f/1.4G has a completely different optical design with 8 optical elements in 7 groups. Thanks to this new optical design, the front element of the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G does not extend or rotate, making it easy to use circular filters. The lens autofocus motor has also been replaced with a Silent Wave Motor (SWM / AF-S), making it possible to use the lens on entry-level Nikon DSLRs like Nikon D3100, in addition to being able to manually override focus at any time. The Nikon 50mm f/1.4G features a rounded 9 blade diaphragm, which creates more circular bokeh shapes rather than the typical heptagon shape you see on the 7-blade 50mm f/1.4D version. Just like the older AF-D cousin, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G also features Super Integrated Coating, which helps reduce lens flare and ghosting. The lens is designed to work on both Nikon FX and DX sensors, although it is certainly better suited on FX sensors for everyday photography. On DX sensors, the lens is equivalent to a 75mm lens, which is perfect for portraiture, but a little too long for other types of photography.
1) Lens Specifications
- Fast f/1.4 prime Nikkor lens that is perfect for low-light conditions, general and travel photography.
- Nikon Silent Wave Motor (SWM) enables fast, accurate and quiet autofocus.
- Rounded 9-blade diaphragm renders more natural appearance of out-of-focus image elements.
- M/A focus mode switch enables quick changes between manual and autofocus operation.
- Nikon Super Integrated Coating (SIC) enhances light transmission efficiency and offers superior color consistency and reduced flare.
- Close focusing to 1.5 feet for extended versatility.
- Mount Type: Nikon F-Bayonet
- Focal Length: 50mm
- Maximum Aperture: f/1.4
- Minimum Aperture: f/16
- Format: FX/35mm
- Maximum Angle of View (DX-format): 31°30′
- Maximum Angle of View (FX-format): 46°
- Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 0.15x
- Lens Elements: 8
- Lens Groups: 7
- Compatible Format(s): FX, DX, FX in DX Crop Mode, 35mm Film
- Diaphragm Blades: 9
- Distance Information: Yes
- Super Integrated Coating: Yes
- Autofocus: Yes
- AF-S (Silent Wave Motor): Yes
- Minimum Focus Distance: 1.5ft.(0.45m)
- Focus Mode: Auto, Manual, Manual/Auto
- G-type: Yes
- Filter Size: 58mm
- Accepts Filter Type: Screw-on
- Dimensions: (Approx.) 2.9×2.1 in. (Diameter x Length), 73.5×54.2mm (Diameter x Length)
- Weight: (Approx.) 9.9 oz. (280g)
- Supplied Accessories: 58mm Snap-on Front Lens Cap LC-58, Rear Lens Cap LF-1, Bayonet Hood HB-47, Soft Case CL-1013
Detailed specifications for the lens, along with MTF charts and other useful data can be found in our lens database.
2) Lens Handling and Build
The Nikon 50mm f/1.4G has a solid build, with a plastic exterior and a metal mount. Size-wise, it is a little bigger than the newer Nikon 50mm f/1.8G (Left: Nikon 50mm f/1.8G, Right: Nikon 50mm f/1.4G):
Like the other prime AF-S cousins, the 50mm f/1.4G comes with a rubber gasket on the lens mount, which provides good sealing against dust making its way into the camera. The rubber gasket definitely helps not only in reducing sensor dust, but also in reducing the amount of dust that could potentially end up inside the lens. As I explained in my “what to do with dust inside lenses” article, it is quite normal for lenses to suck air in and out when focusing or zooming in/out. Although the front part of the lens does not move when focusing, the front lens element does move in and out inside the lens barrel. If you want to reduce the chances of dust and moisture making into the lens through the front of the lens, I would recommend to get a good 58mm clear/protective filter such as B+W 58mm MRC clear filter and leave it on the lens at all times. Not only will it help protect the front element of the lens and reduce dust, but it will also make it much easier to clean the lens when needed. It is definitely painful to clean the front element of the lens without a filter, because it is slightly recessed inside.
As for weight, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G is 50 grams heavier than its predecessor and 95 grams heavier than the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G. Filter size also increased from 52mm to 58mm, which is not good news if you already own the older 50mm f/1.4D and bought specialized filters – larger 58mm filters would have to be purchased separately.
I have received several inquiries from our readers about weather sealing on Nikon 35mm and 50mm lenses. The short answer is “No”, these lenses are not weather sealed. While I have been using my Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens in hot/cold/dry/wet weather conditions and never had any issues, Nikon lenses without gold rings are not designed to withstand tough weather as professional lenses. That’s why Nikon does not specifically mention weather sealing in their marketing materials on these lenses. If you take a good care of the lens and use a protective filter in front of the lens, you should have no problems with using it in various weather conditions. Just remember to take extra precaution when changing the lens in very dusty/windy conditions. Since the rear lens element moves in and out during focusing, get used to rotating the focus ring to the infinity mark before mounting or dismounting the lens.
As for the focus ring, it is conveniently located on the front of the barrel, making it easy to manually focus with a thumb and index fingers while shooting images or video. The lens comes with the same “HB-47” lens hood as on the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G (both 50mm f/1.4D and 50mm f/1.8D are not shipped with lens hoods). The hood snaps on the front of the lens and sits tight without wobbling like some other Nikon lens hoods. The M/A and M switch on the side of the lens allows autofocus with manual focus override and full manual focus operation. The latest Nikon DSLRs like Nikon D5100 immediately recognize the focus position and provide notifications on the information (“I” button) screen.
3) Autofocus Performance and Accuracy
Despite having the new Silent Wave Motor, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G unfortunately autofocuses slower than both its predecessor the Nikon 50mm f/1.4D and the new Nikon 50mm f/1.8G. When going from infinity to close focus and back (with the lens cap on), I was surprised to see the 50mm f/1.8G perform almost twice faster than the 50mm f/1.4G:
This is a huge disadvantage to the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, making it the slowest of the Nikon 50mm lenses. On the other hand, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G is certainly the quietest of the group – the slower AF motor is literally near silent. AF is accurate and focus tracking works quite well in continuous focus mode (AF-C) once the subject is in focus. Under very dim lighting conditions, the lens has a hard time acquiring correct focus, which is normal. Turning the AF-assist lamp on in AF-S mode helps a lot and AF accuracy is good from that point on.
If you cannot consistently get accurate focus in daylight, your lens sample might have a front/back focusing issue.
4) Lens Sharpness, Contrast and Color Rendition
The performance of the 50mm is generally good, but a little disappointing when compared to the new Nikon 50mm f/1.8G lens, as revealed further down in this review. Let’s take a look at how the lens did in my lab:
The optical performance of the lens at wide apertures is not particularly impressive – you can see how weak the lens is from f/1.4 all the way to f/2.8. Once stopped down to f/4 though, the lens yields very impressive sharpness across the frame. By f/5.6, the lens reaches its maximum potential, with very good center performance and fairly good mid-frame and corner performance. The sharpness distribution is fairly even at smaller apertures, which makes this lens a good candidate for environmental portraits and landscape photography needs.
Bokeh is a very important characteristic of 50mm lenses. I would be ready to pay more for a lens that can yield better bokeh, even if it performed slightly worse than others at very large apertures.
Here is the full image from which I made the below bokeh crops:
You can see where I got the center and corner crops from. The corner crop is really not a corner, but rather an area taken from the left-center of the image. Let’s take a look at how the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G compares against the Nikon 50mm f/1.4D and Sigma f/1.4 at f/1.4 away from the center:
The older Nikon 50mm f/1.4D looks the best, followed by the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G. The Sigma definitely has the worst bokeh here; it looks as if the highlights were cut on their right side and the bokeh refractions, also known as “Onion Rings” or “Onion Bokeh” are too visible when compared to other lenses.
Now let’s take a look at the center:
Very similar results in the center as well, with the Nikon 50mm f/1.4D taking the lead in terms of “cleanness” of the background highlights. It is worth noting that the Nikon 50mm f/1.4D looks much different when stopped down beyond f/2.0 – its bokeh shape takes a form of a heptagon, due to the straight 7-blade diaphragm of the lens. Here is a more comprehensive bokeh comparison with lenses stopped down to f/2.8:
The benefits of a 9-bladed diaphragm start to become obvious when lenses are stopped down. As you can see, lenses with straight 7-blade diaphragms have a defined heptagon shape. Here is the center area crop from all lenses at f/2.8:
Which bokeh rendering do you like the most? All lenses seem to now have pronounced edges that look more or less the same. The AF-D lenses have a somewhat smooth bokeh on the inside, while refractions on both AF-S lenses are visible. When it comes to bokeh shape, I do prefer the rounded bokeh of the AF-S lenses. The heptagon-shaped bokeh on AF-D lenses looks a little distracting to the eye. But that’s me – I know some photographers actually prefer heptagon-shaped bokeh. The Sigma, again, is the worst here.
Most prime lenses heavily vignette when shot wide open and the same is true for the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, so no surprises here. The good news is that as you stop down to f/2.0, vignetting decreases significantly. At f/2.8 vignetting is almost invisible and by f/4.0 onwards it is completely gone. Take a look at lens vignetting at different apertures shot on FX:
This type of behavior is expected from large aperture lenses, especially when they are mounted on full frame cameras. Other Nikon 50mm lenses and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 also show heavy amounts of vignetting at maximum aperture. Enabling lens correction in Lightroom will take care of vignetting issues.
When mounted on a DX camera, the amount of vignetting is much less pronounced, with only a slight darkening of the edges at maximum aperture.
Here is how Imatest measured vignetting levels:
Here is the worst case scenario, shot at f/1.4:
7) Ghosting and Flare
Ghosting and flare are controlled well, but worse than on the new Nikon 50mm f/1.8G – see the comparison below. I performed a couple of tests with the sun in the frame and both AF-D lenses show some nasty ghosting and flares, while the newer AF-S lenses almost have none. I specifically removed the lens hoods from the AF-S lenses during this test, to show how well they perform in comparison. Part of the reason why the AF-S lenses are so much better, is because the front element on the new 50mm lenses is recessed much deeper inside the lens barrel.
If you keep the lens hood on the lens, you will get even better results when shooting against a bright source of light. Please note that the above images were taken without any filters. Using UV and other filters can potentially introduce more flares and ghosting to your images.
Unfortunately, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G has a rather strong amount of distortion, which is very noticeable in images with straight lines. Imatest measured 1.42% barrel distortion, which is quite high for a 50mm prime (the older Nikon 50mm f/1.4D has much less distortion in comparison). The good news is that Lightroom’s Lens Corrections module or Adobe Camera RAW can take care of the distortion issue with a single click. Here is how the image looks like without any distortion corrections applied:
Note the curved lines on the top and on the bottom of the image.
Is distortion a problem? No, not at all – it can be easily fixed in post-processing software like Lightroom and Photoshop (as explained above) without losing much of the original image.
9) Chromatic Aberration
Lateral chromatic aberration is controlled well, even in high-contrast situations. The amount of longitudinal chromatic aberration (LoCA) is moderate (which is the effect of color fringing in front of and behind the focused area). Take another look at the LensAlign crop:
The above image was shot at f/1.4 and lit with 100 watt directional lamps. Stopping down the lens to f/2.8 and beyond dramatically reduces longitudinal CA.
When compared to other 50mm lenses, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G is on par with the Nikon 50mm f/1.4D in terms of LoCA and slightly worse wide open when compared to both 50mm f/1.8 primes. Sigma is again the worst performer here.
Here is how Imatest measured chromatic aberration levels:
10) Nikon 50mm f/1.4G vs Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM
The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 has been quite a popular lens among many photographers ever since it got introduced to the market. As you have seen earlier, the lens is the biggest of the 50mm bunch that I tested and has some impressive features that sets it apart from the competition. It is a large aperture f/1.4 lens with a quiet autofocus motor, a large front element with a 77mm filter thread (which is unusual for a 50mm lens – even the Canon 50mm f/1.2 has a 72mm filter thread) and is available for all major DLSR mounts including Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sigma, Sony and Four Thirds. I decided to do a thorough comparison of the Sigma against the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, so let’s see how it performs. It is important to point out that the Sigma 50mm has a wider field of view compared to Nikon 50mm primes – equivalent to approximately 45mm in focal length. I had to move my setup about 6 inches closer to the target in order to get a similar field of view.
We can see that the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM is not a very sharp lens, particularly at its widest aperture. Here, the 50mm f/1.4G beats the Sigma easily. However, once stopped down to f/2.8, the Sigma shows much better sharpness in the center and in the mid-frame – the difference is very obvious. Stopped down to f/4 and smaller apertures, both lenses perform very well, but the Nikon clearly excels in the corners.
11) Nikon 50mm f/1.4G vs Sigma f/1.4 Vignetting
As I have pointed out before, the Sigma’s strength is in the low amount of vignetting, due to the large front lens element and lens barrel. As you can see below, the vignetting levels wide open are like the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G stopped down to f/2.0. Sigma leads all other 50mm lenses in terms of vignetting here:
It is also worth noting that vignetting is even less pronounced on DX sensors – all of the above tests were performed on an FX sensor.
12) Nikon 50mm f/1.4G vs Sigma f/1.4 Distortion
Barrel distortion level on the Sigma is low in comparison to the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G:
13) Nikon 50mm f/1.4G vs Sigma f/1.4 Conclusion
While being the largest, heaviest and the priciest of all 50mm lenses I have tested, The Sigma f/1.4 EX DG HSM simply fails to deliver. Its high levels of purple fringing and low sharpness in the corner frame are disappointing. Longitudinal chromatic aberration levels are the highest as well, and as you have seen earlier in this review, the bokeh just looks ugly in comparison to Nikkor primes. In addition, the Sigma f/1.4 I tested was the only lens in the group that was heavily front-focused, which shows just how bad the QA of third party manufacturers can be. I would personally send it back to Sigma for readjustment and calibration right away, but I did not bother, since it was loaned to me for a month anyway. Sure, its vignetting/distortion levels and AF performance (when properly calibrated) are impressive, but those are the only positives I can think of. Considering the size and weight, it almost feels like an 85mm prime rather than a 50. Its corner sharpness looks better on a DX camera, but not by a huge margin.
Don’t waste your money on this lens – it is simply not worth the $500 Sigma is asking for.
14) Nikon 50mm f/1.4G vs Nikon 50mm f/1.8G
I have already pointed out earlier that the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G is in many ways a better lens than the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G. Although I have been using the 50mm f/1.4G ever since it came out and I have been extremely happy with its performance, I was surprised to see the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G outperform it in sharpness, vignetting, distortion and flare/ghosting tests, as seen below. Here is the comparison of both lenses in terms of MTF:
Without a doubt, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G delivers a much better value than its bigger brother. You can see here that the 50mm f/1.8G outperforms the 50mm f/1.4G at every aperture, especially in the corners. It delivers better sharpness not only at maximum aperture, but also stopped down.
15) Nikon 50mm f/1.4G vs Nikon 50mm f/1.8G Vignetting
While the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G has a very heavy amount of vignetting at f/1.4, the effect of vignetting is less pronounced at f/1.8 when compared to the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G. Similar to the Nikon 50mm f/1.4D, vignetting is heavily reduced at f/2.0 and completely disappears by f/4.0:
16) Nikon 50mm f/1.4G vs Nikon 50mm f/1.8G Distortion
Again, it is not a big deal – small amounts of distortion as above can be quickly fixed in post-processing software like Lightroom and Photoshop. Enabling lens correction in Lightroom or Camera RAW painlessly fixes distortion issues on both lenses.
17) Nikon 50mm f/1.4G vs Nikon 50mm f/1.8G Conclusion
Once again, it is shocking to see the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G outperform the supposedly better and more expensive 50mm lenses, including the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G that Lola and I have been heavily using for our photography. As you can see from the above crops, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G is sharper than the 50mm f/1.4G at pretty much all apertures in the center and at largest apertures in the corners. The two thirds of a stop difference between the lenses is simply not worth the price difference. I do not know what Nikon was thinking when they released this lens – the sales of the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G will be severely impacted by the 50mm f/1.8G once everyone figures out that the latter is a better buy. Although the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G has a 7-bladed diaphragm versus 9 on the 50mm f/1.4G, the bokeh it produces is very comparable to the bokeh on the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G (thanks to the rounded blades). So, it is not like the f/1.4G renders a much better background either. In addition, LoCA seems to look worse on the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G.
Since 2008, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G has been a workhorse lens for both Lola and I. At the end of every year I go through image data in Lightroom and find out what lens was used the most. The Nikon 50mm f/1.4G always tops the list, surpassing all other lenses by a huge margin. It is lightweight, compact and renders beautiful colors and sharp images. Lola loves it so much, that she often refuses to use anything else. When we come back from a wedding or an engagement session, it is typical to see more than 90% of her images shot with the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G. While I am out hurting myself with heavy gear like D3s and 70-200mm f/2.8G, she prefers to stay light with the D700 and 50mm combo. And she takes better pictures. Always. The 50mm focal length just seems to be perfect on a full-frame body. Before the 50mm f/1.4G AF-S came out, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4D was our favorite lens for the same reasons. But the newer AF-S version made the AF-D obsolete and once I showed performance differences between the two to Lola, we made the switch. And this year Nikon gave us another pleasant surprise with the announcement of the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G, which as I have shown in this and other reviews, pretty much outperforms all other 50mm lenses, including the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G. Lola and I have already switched to the 50mm f/1.8G and we love the results we are getting. The 50mm f/1.4G has been gathering dust for a while now… If you are looking for a 50mm portrait lens now, go for the newer 50mm f/1.8G lens, it won’t disappoint.
19) Where to buy and availability
B&H is currently selling the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens for $439.95 (as of 11/15/2011).
20) More image samples
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Nikon 50mm f/1.4G
- Optical Performance
- Bokeh Quality
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating