When testing out the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G, I really wanted to get a hold of the legendary Noct-NIKKOR 58mm f/1.2 lens to see how the two lenses from different generations compare optically. Unfortunately, I could not obtain a good sample of the Noct-NIKKOR at the time, but after scouting eBay for a while, I finally found a pristine copy of the lens from a photographer in California. Being a collector item, the lens was barely used and had been sitting for years in a closet – exactly what I had been wanting to get. I really wanted to make sure that the lens performed as close to its original specifications as possible, because I was on the quest to measure its optical performance, particularly at its super wide f/1.2 aperture. Let’s take a look at the lens in more detail.
The Noct-NIKKOR 58mm f/1.2 is one of the very few lenses that has had a very special status among all lenses manufactured by Nikon to date. It is the only lens in the world that is immediately recognized by a single word “Noct” (which stands for “Nocturne“) and experienced Nikon shooters typically have interesting stories and tails surrounding this little gem. In fact, even Nikon wrote about this lens in its “The Thousand and One Nights” series, covering the history of the lens, along with some details about how the lens was made and what made it so special.
1) Lens Overview
The Nikon 58mm f/1.2 was made in limited quantities, because the process of making this lens was so delicate and difficult. The front aspherical element of the lens was the most difficult part, because it had to be hand-ground, then once the lens was assembled, it had to be thoroughly inspected by special machinery for aberration issues. In addition, Nikon carefully tested every lens sample for resolution, putting extra effort in making sure that lenses did not vary in performance, particularly at the widest aperture. It was a very time-consuming process, which ended up putting a rather high price tag on the lens and making it rather cost-prohibitive for the general public. As a result of these manual processes, Nikon at the time created a very unique lens that had and still has no equivalents – the Noct is arguably the sharpest f/1.2 full-frame lens produced to date.
Here you can see the lens construction of the Noct, with the aspherical front element I mentioned earlier:
Although the above Gaussian-type design is similar to what you can find on a number of other similar focal length prime lenses, what makes this particular design different is the curvature of individual lens elements, which were optimized to properly handle the light rays that pass through the front aspherical lens element and reduce not only chromatic and spherical aberration, but also coma.
2) Lens Specifications
Here is a quick summary of the lens specifications:
- Mount Type: Nikon F-Bayonet
- Focal Length: 58mm
- Maximum Aperture: f/1.2
- Minimum Aperture: f/16
- Format: FX/35mm
- Maximum Angle of View: 40.8°
- Lens Elements: 7
- Lens Groups: 6
- Diaphragm Blades: 9
- Aspherical Elements: 1
- Autofocus: No
- Minimum Focus Distance: 1.9ft.(0.58m)
- Filter Size: 52mm
- Accepts Filter Type: Screw-on
- Dimensions: (Approx.) 63x74mm
- Weight: (Approx.) 465g
3) Lens Handling and Build Quality
Although most professional-grade Nikkor lenses today have a very sturdy construction, if you have never handled a classic all-metal lens, it would be hard for you to understand just how solid classic lenses are compared to the modern versions. When you have one of these classics in your hands, it feels like you have a large chunk of glass covered by metal – I guess the words “built like a tank” are reserved to describe such well-built lenses. The Noct was designed to last for generations and it is one of those lenses that I would proudly pass on to my children, knowing that it will serve them well – something I doubt I could do with modern lenses that have so much plastic and electronics – components that are prone to aging and malfunction. Although the lens was discontinued in 1997, I expect good copies of this lens to reappear in the used lens market for many years.
The new Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G is nowhere close in build quality in comparison. With its plastic barrel and hood, the 58mm f/1.4G feels cheaply made – it gives a completely different feel when you hold the two in your hands. With the front element recessed so deep in the lens barrel, it is hard to believe the 58mm f/1.4G has more lens elements packed inside. A quick look at the 58mm f/1.4G diagram reveals the fact that the physical size of glass used on both lenses varies significantly, with the Noct having much larger and heavier glass elements in comparison. While this is expected, given the differences in maximum aperture, it certainly gives a feeling as if Nikon cut some corners with the 58mm f/1.4G design. And it is partially true, as Nikon executives openly stated that the 58mm f/1.4G was not designed with sharpness in mind, whereas the Noct was.
Handling the 58mm f/1.2 Noct is a breeze. Although at 465 grams the lens is far from being light for its compact size, it balances quite well on most Nikon DSLRs. The aperture ring clicks to a stop at every f-stop and my copy also has a hard stop at f/1.4, although it is not marked on the ring. The focus ring is extremely smooth to rotate. At the minimum focus distance of 0.5m, the lens barrel extends by approximately 5mm. The front element does not rotate during focusing, which works out great if one intends to use a polarizing filter.
4) Manual Focusing
Focusing with manual focus lenses using a viewfinder is tough as it is on DSLRs and even more so with the Noct 58mm f/1.2, thanks to such a wide aperture. At close distances, depth of field is so shallow, it is practically razor thin! This makes it incredibly difficult to nail focus when you are doing a close portrait, without using additional tools such as the DK-17M magnifying eyepiece. And even with additional magnification, you might get quickly frustrated with how difficult it is to nail focus – that’s just the nature of using such a lens on a DSLR! My personal method for nailing focus with this lens has been to use Live View. Basically, I move my DSLR away from my body, fire up Live View and while I ask the subject to be patient and stand still, I zoom in to 1:1 view, then rotate the zoom ring until the exact part of my subject is in focus. Then I fire away without leaving Live View. I do this very carefully, because even a slight rocking of my or my subject’s body back and forth can cause focus errors. I personally found this method to work the best and although it slows down everything considerably, I have been able to use the Noct at its maximum aperture quite a bit, as the images in this review showcase. Until Nikon releases a mirrorless camera that could deliver manual focusing through the EVF, I guess there is not much one can do to get around the difficult focusing issues. In fact, if you are seriously considering the Noct, you might want to give the Sony A7R II a try, as you can get excellent results when using an adapter, without having to resort to Live View focusing.