A review of the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AiS lens
Keywords: nikon, nikkor, 50mm, jonnadelberg, used_gear
Build quality | Bokeh | Sharpness | Out-of-focus highlights | Conclusion | Questions?
January 2021. This article is specifically about the great manual focus Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 - You may also be interested to look at our overview of used manual lenses that can be had a great value, which includes a checklist for buying lenses, and our checklist for used cameras.
Fifty-millimeter lenses have always been a staple of SLR and DSLR photography. They are very popular as they are small, (often) inexpensive, and generally of very high optical quality. They also have become more popular in recent years thanks to providing for a good portrait lens when used on DX cameras with their crop factor turning them into effectively approx 75mm, though with a greater depth of field than the equivalent focal length on a FX camera. Other good reason for the 50mm lenses are that they can provide for great cinema-like quality when used in video production.
All camera makers make some version of this type of lens, and it originally was the lens you would get when you purchased a kit of camera and lens together. Meanwhile the kit lenses are some relatively inexpensive zoom's such as 16-50mm or 18-55mm.
Nikon makes quite a few versions of the 50mm lens. In the year 2021, we have seven F mount and two Z mount to choose from, and in addition there are also some Nikkor primes being close at 50, such as the Z 58mm f/0.95, the 58mm f/1.4G and the Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8. These are excluded from the listed below.
Nikon produces 50mm Nikkor's from the inexpensive AF 50mm f/1.8D that can be had for a bit over 100 dollars up to the latest Z mount monster, the Z 50mm f/1.2S coming at a street price for approx $2,100 US. This is the current list:
- AF-S 50mm f/1.8G (in production year 2021, retails at ca $217 USD)
- AF-S 50mm f/1.8G Special Edition (cosmetically altered to go with the Nikon DF, in production year 2021, retails at ca $277 USD)
- AF-S 50mm f/1.4G (in production year 2021, retails at ca $448 USD)
- AF 50mm f/1.8D (in production year 2021, retails at ca $132 USD)
- AF 50mm f/1.4D (in production year 2021, retails at ca $350 USD)
- MF 50mm f/1.4 (in production year 2021, retails at ca $460 USD)
- MF 50mm f/1.2 (in production year 2021, retails at ca $700 USD)
- Z 50mm f/1.8S (Z Mount, in production year 2021, retails at ca $550 USD)
- Z 50mm f/1.2S (Z Mount, in production year 2021, retails at ca $2,100 USD)
This review is about the MF 50mm f/1.2. Nikon began making the AI version in 1978 and the AiS in 1981 which replaced it and have never stopped making them since. This AiS manual focus lens is one of the fastest Nikkor lenses and at a retail price of $700 USD it is still a bargain compared to the Z f/1.2S. The least expensive 50mm from Nikon is the AF 50mm f/1.8D that can be found new at +100 USD. Since this article is about the F mount lenses only, we are looking at a price difference of close to $600 USD between the two extremes. So what do you get for that money?
Build Quality of the AiS lens
When you first take this lens out of the box, and hold it in your hand, you instantly see that this is not the same sort of lens design as the modern Nikkor's. You can see why Nikon has for so many years meant top-tier for craftsmanship and quality.
This lens is an absolutely jewel to behold. It looks and feels like something from another, better era when things were made to last, and were made with care and pride. It is heavy. It is made out of metal and a big hunk of glass, weighing nearly a pound (359g, with 454g to a pound) all by itself. The weight, though, is all strictly lens. No AF-S, AF, or VR to increase the weight.
The movement of the focus barrel and aperture ring are buttery smooth, and have a solid feeling to them that many modern lenses do not have. The depth of field gauge on this lens is printed in multiple colors for instant ease of use. It also has an IR focusing dot at f/5.6 which you just don’t see on lenses anymore, either.
The lens is a beautiful mechanical marvel of seven lenses in six groups. This is fewer than e.g. the G series lenses. The less glass in a lens usually results in a better image. The f/1.8 D, for example has six lenses in five groups, and it’s a much sharper lens than the f/1.4 models. This lens is great for collectors, and it is the single nicest looking lens I have ever owned. But what sort of images can it capture?
Depth of Field and Bokeh
The closer you focus, the less depth of field you have. Closest focusing at 0.5m/1.7 feet with this lens gives a depth of 6mm (about a quarter of an inch). To put it in human terms, this is about half the size of an average human iris. While not good for some applications, there are many instances where this can be put to use. Here are some examples of extremely shallow depth of field.
As shown above, bokeh is really quite smooth, which is critically important due to its shallow depth of field. At f/1.2 very little is in focus, and good bokeh becomes very important as most of the frame will not be sharp.
To get an idea of the narrow depth of field, in the next image shows a wick on a candle in focus, with the small area before and after within the focus area.
Depth of field increases as you increase focus distance, so even though you get a narrow depth of field focusing close at f/1.2, when focusing at ca 3.5m (10 feet), you get about 0.3m (1 foot) of depth of field. If you stop down to f/2 at ca 3.5m (10 feet), you get approximately 0.5m (1.5 feet). These values are all for 35mm and FX cameras.
As this is a manual focus lens, focusing at apertures larger than about f/2 becomes difficult with modern DSLRs. Viewfinders at apertures of f/1.2 to f/2 do not give good depth of field visibility which can ruin your image if you are not careful. For larger apertures, it’s best to use live view for focusing.
Generally, the wider the opening on a lens, the less sharp lens performance is going to be. Lenses in general are not at their best wide open. Neither is this one. The lens is older in design, and wide open, it will have some coma and other issues.
At f/1.2, the center is quite sharp, but as you move to the edges, you get a distinct loss of sharpness. But considering the very shallow depth of field, it actually works well, and produces the dreamy and glowing type of image shown above. At f/2, however, the image becomes very sharp and is better at f/2 than the f/1.4 or f/1.8 lenses are at f/2 to the edge of the frame. Truthfully any of these 50mm lenses will provide an acceptably sharp image at f/2, but this lens is sharper faster. As you stop down any of these lenses, by f/5.6 they all look equally excellent. But you don’t buy this lens for f/5.6 which you can get another lens, and for much cheaper. You buy it for its characteristics at f/1.2. The photo below shows some branches at f/5.6.
The next image is a 100% crop.
Out of Focus Highlights
The lens has a nine-blade diaphragm which produces some very nice effects. At f/1.2, you get a cat’s eye type of highlight, but that disappears by f/2. Out of focus highlights and bokeh are shown in the next few photos.
With cameras now easily going to ISO 3200 and higher, you don’t really need an f/1.2 aperture over f/1.4 or f/1.8 for speed. That’s not what you buy this lens for.
This is also a manual focus AiS lens. To use it on a modern camera, you need to set the non-CPU lens data for it. You have to focus it by hand, and at f/1.2 it can be tricky, requiring the use of Live View. If you require autofocus, you don’t want this lens.
The price is high. It’s one of Nikon’s most expensive 50mm lenses. It’s also one of their best 50mm lenses, and for that money, you get a lens built with such incredible quality that it shames many of Nikon’s more recent offerings. It also truly produces. You can judge the image quality for yourself in the images here.
It is important, however, that you know how to use it and what it can do. If you are expecting the same old thing, using it wide open will not be what you want. If you just want a sharp 50mm lens, you can get one of Nikon’s other great offerings that will do the job for you for much less money, and they also can autofocus for you. You buy this lens for its image quality and its ability to do things that Nikon’s other 50mm lenses can’t do. If you do that, you’ll be very happy with it.
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Originally written on January 4, 2018
Last updated on January 30, 2021
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User on January 9, 2018
Great lens, great review. I have this lense, and have used it on FM2, DF, D810 and even on my Leica M (240) with an adapter. I find it useful that some of these old-timer lenses of hight quality are brought forward and given place. They are marvels pieces of kit that still does a good job.
Miguel Lecuona (miguellecuona) on January 7, 2018
Thank you for posting this excellent piece. I have been interested in this lens, having purchased a few Zeiss manual lenses in 2017. The build quality and ergonomics of these old (and modern Zeiss Distagon) Manual lenses are a joy to work with, and they have their own impact on your work, independent of the lens itself. And you're absolutely right in comparison to today's amazing technology AF VR lenses, which you don't really have to touch, the feel of these is so precise and a joy to work with. Since the lens is so simple, and dependent on your own creativity and skill to use, it links you in a way to your subject that you can't appreciate in AF, so you approach assignments and opportunities with a different level of attention. The pacing, the interaction, the deliberation, all are critical elements to successful MF photography. And in my interactions with portrait subjects, it shows, as we have more dialogue and an interesting connection while shooting, as I am looking to achieve a very specific outcome and often need their attentiveness to be at a level it might not otherwise reach. I think this mindset also shows up in the final image quality. Makes me think Nikon has an opportunity to put forth a Manual Focus tuning kit for the D850 that includes focusing screens, viewfinders, and other features to encourage MF use. I would buy such a kit or a camera to get the most out of my growing collection of great old (and new) MF Glass. I need and use AF, but I want to use MF even more, for the sheer joy of the art of photography.
Robert L Howard (bobeck4950) on January 7, 2018
Have a 50mm f1.4 and still use it,
James Gould (jgould2) on January 6, 2018
Nice review Jon. I love mine. JIM
KENNETH JACKSON (f5titan) on January 5, 2018
In the 1980's and 1990's in central North Carolina there was a wedding fad where the ceremonies would take place at midnight and the only light in the sanctuary was candle light. I had a Nikkor 55mm f1.2 SC lens that I acquired in the 1970's and none of my wedding photography competition could match what I could do with that lens! I'm about to acquire another FX body and I'm seriously considering the 50mm f1.2 to use with it. Using such a fast lens takes practice but the effort is worth it.
Alan Dooley (ajdooley) on January 4, 2018
I got into 35mm photography with a camera that featured ONLY a 50mm lens. For many of us, we composed and "zoomed" by moving loser or farther away. Every once in awhile, I put a Nikon 50mm f1.4 AF-D on my D4 and spend time out shooting with it. It takes me back to simpler days and makes me grasp how much the newer equipment has brought to photography -- but some of the pictures are really good with the "fixed" 50mm!