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.
5) Lens Sharpness, Contrast and Color Rendition
So how does the Noct 58mm f/1.2 perform optically when it comes to sharpness? Nikon says each sample was thoroughly tested for sharpness, but there are a couple of dilemmas – first, at the time the lens was made, Nikon did not have a digital camera, which means that the sharpness of the lens was optimized for film rather than digital. If you are wondering why this is a problem, here is a quick recap – film surface is quite different compared to digital image sensors: it is not as flat and there is no low-pass filter in place, which basically translates into potential sharpness issues anywhere outside the focused area (particularly in the corners). Second, modern high resolution digital cameras like the Nikon D810 are much more demanding in terms of resolving power. At the time Nikon was evaluating sharpness, it was impossible to see how a lens would do on such cameras in the future. So you have to keep all this in mind when looking at classic lenses like the Noct. I would not expect such lenses to do well evenly across the frame on digital cameras, particularly at wide apertures.
So let’s see where this leaves the Noct 58mm f/1.2 in terms of resolution. I put my copy on my trusty Nikon D810 and carefully measured its performance at all apertures using Imatest, just like I do with other lenses (and by the way, I believe I am the first person to measure the optical performance of the Noct using Imatest):
And exactly as I expected, the Noct NIKKOR 58mm f/1.2 does indeed perform accordingly – the center resolution is very high, but mid-frame and the corners look very weak. This is due to the pronounced field curvature, in addition to the fact that the lens is not designed for digital, so the low-pass filter thickness, along with the lack of curvature of the sensor have direct impact on anything out of the focused area. In a way, you can think of field curvature as intentional part of the design, because this particular lens (similar to the 58mm f/1.4G) is optimized for only one area of the frame to be sharp, while everything else disappears into smooth blur.
Now let’s take a look at how the above data compares to that of the Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G:
We can see a drastic departure in numbers here – being a much older lens, the Noct 58mm f/1.2 completely overruns the modern 58mm f/1.4G at the maximum aperture – this lens is sharper at f/1.2 than the other lens at f/1.4G, which is pretty incredible. The Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G never really gets incredibly sharp at any aperture, while we can see that the Noct is pretty amazing starting from f/2 and reaches its maximum resolving power at f/4. At the same time, that older film design definitely leaves a mark on the mid-frame and corner performance – the Noct looks far worse in comparison for that reason. The 58mm f/1.4G reaches excellent mid-frame performance at f/2.8 and although its corners don’t look very good (again, by design), it still out-resolves the Noct at every aperture.
But does any of the corner performance data matter? Not really – both of these lenses were made for portraiture and I personally find the corner data to be completely irrelevant for most people. What’s more important is the resolving power in the focused area and that’s where the Noct clearly excels.
When it comes to color rendition, the Noct 58mm f/1.2 yields very pleasing images and the colors appear very natural – something to expect from such classics.
When it comes to rendering background highlights, the Noct 58mm f/1.2 surely does not disappoint, particularly at the widest aperture. I specifically wanted to showcase images in this review at the maximum aperture to demonstrate the rendering capabilities of the Noct and as you can see, such smooth and pleasant rendering of background highlights is only reserved for high-end, large aperture prime lenses:
There is a bit of an outline for subjects appearing in the front-focused area, but it does not bother me at all:
And when the background has some colors and outlines, you can see just how soft and smooth those transitions can get:
Let’s take a look at how the lens does in terms of vignetting:
The lens certainly does show pretty significant amounts of vignetting, but that’s only true when one focuses at subjects focused at infinity. At distances near close focus, which is where you will be using the lens mostly, the lens exhibits pretty moderate amount of vignetting – the extreme corners get at most 2 EVs of darkening compared to the center. That’s not bad, although the newer Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G certainly does a bit better in this regard, showing 1.52 EV at the maximum aperture. Still, one should not necessarily look at vignetting as something negative on portrait lenses, because it can actually be translated as a “characteristic” of the lens. I personally rarely ever remove vignetting in post, because I love the look it gives to images.
8) Chromatic Aberration
When it comes to lateral chromatic aberration, the Noct Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 certainly does not look as good as the new generation Nikkor lenses:
The Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G clearly shows better CA handling, particularly at large apertures. The Noct needs to be stopped down to the f/8 range to yield CA lower than a pixel. Chromatic aberration is not a huge issue though and it can be dealt with in post-processing.
Distortion on the Noct 58mm f/1.2 is a non-issue. Imatest measured barrel distortion at 1.33%, which is lower than 1.45% the 58mm f/1.4G measured at. If you want a distortion-free lens, you should take a serious look at the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art.
10) Ghosting and Flare
If you are worried about ghosting and flare, you should avoid the Noct and most other Nikkor classics. There are several reasons for this – Nikon in the past did not have advanced coating technologies like Nano-coating to apply to lenses and as a result, ghosting and flare can certainly present some serious challenges. In addition, if the copy you have has a lot of dust between lens elements, light will bounce all over the place and give you some crazy results. If you like photographing back-lit subjects, I would watch out for very bright sources of light reaching the front element directly – you might need to reframe your subject to reduce ghosting and flare.
Without a doubt, the Noct Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 is a very special and truly legendary lens. Almost forty years have passed since Nikon first invented the Noct and to date we have not seen a true equivalent – the latest generation 58mm f/1.4G cannot be considered as a replacement, because it lacks the sharpness the Noct is able to produce, particularly at the maximum aperture, as shown in this review. As I have previously explained, it would be incredibly difficult to make an f/1.2 lens with AF capabilities for Nikon, due to the smaller diameter of the Nikon F mount, incredibly shallow depth of field and the complex formula required to reach such optical excellence. Because of this, we may never see a Noct f/1.2 equivalent in the F-mount, which makes this lens even more unique.
At $3K and higher prices we see today in the used market for a relatively good copy, the Noct is surely not something most people can afford to own. Being a manual focus lens, precise focusing with a DSLR can surely be frustrating, particularly for someone without much experience. At the same time, if one is willing to put some extra effort and take things slower than usual, the results can be rewarding. Personally, I have been really enjoying the Noct for this reason alone.
In all honesty, I have not had a chance to use the Noct as much as I would like to – busy schedule and other gear that I have to test being the main reasons. However, I currently have no plans to part with this gem and I am planning to update this review with more images and information in the future. If you have never tried a Noct and you have the means to do so, I would highly recommend to give it a try – it will surely leave you with a unique experience.
12) Where to Buy
The Noct Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 is only available in the second hand market. I personally purchased mine from eBay and you can look at the current listings of the Noct Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 to see what’s available. From past history, don’t expect to pay anything less than $3K for a good copy – I bought mine for a good price, but it took quite a bit of time to find what I wanted.
13) More Image Samples
Nikon Noct-NIKKOR 58mm f/1.2
- Optical Performance
- Bokeh Quality
- Build Quality
- Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating