Reposted from my own blog. [LINK]
Ask anyone who’s asked for gear advice. I could (and most likely still will) talk your ear off and go on forever. I’m a total gear head… and I’ve decided I want to do some brief write-ups about some stuff in my bag of tricks. I’m going to stay away from techno mumbo jumbo charts and graphs… and I just really talk like I’m your friend who just also happens to be an obsessive nerd.
Today I want to introduce the wonderful Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-S. If I had to chose one word to describe the only* truly pro 50mm in Nikon’s lineup, it would be: Cinematic.
“Did he just insinuate that my AF-S 50mm f/1.4G is not a pro lens?” Yes. Yes I did. But hear me out. I’m not saying professional photographers don’t use the 50mm f/1.4G. Of course they do. Many of them do. If I used 50mm as a staple focal length (which I definitely do not), I’d be using the AF-S because at a wedding, speed counts. And anyone else who’s honest will tell you it’s only their choice because of auto focus. My beef is this: We have 85mm AF lenses that are machined metal with near flawless optics, nano coatings, ED glass, the works. We have 24mm and 35mm AF lenses that are machined metal with near flawless optics, nano coatings, ED glass, the works. And I won’t even talk about the myriad of zooms that have the same quality attributes. The 50mm f/1.4G is plastic. No special contrast improving glass or glare reduction. And it’s a boring focal length. *yawn*
MTF charts and vignetting diagrams and sharpness charts won’t tell you why this lens is amazing. It has what most lenses (especially at 50mm) don’t have, and that’s a character. The 50mm f/1.2 AI-s is the only lens I own that I fight myself to not edit images. They look spectacular straight out of camera. The colors are rich and warm and the image pops without being clinically sharp. Couple that with a build quality in the same class as Nikon’s best… with a true cinema glass feel… and you’ll see where that “cinematic” word came from. This manual-focus lens feels like it was machined out of a solid piece of metal. And the focus ring… well… if you’ve never used a manual focus lens, you may not understand. But I’ll put it this way. All modern autofocus lenses have a focus ring… but there’s a good chance you’ve never used it. I don’t blame you. I almost never do, either. Well if you were to use it, you’d find that it’s very light and easy to move with very little tactile feedback… which is exactly the opposite with the lens in question. There’s no motor. There’s not even a zoom ring. They designed this focus ring to perfection. It feels amazing. It’s incredibly deliberate in its movement, with a buttery smooth, yet incredibly tactile feel. It’s seriously lens feel at it’s absolute best. It gives you the confidence required to manually focus at razor thin depth of field. But I digress… in the end it’s about the photograph… and this lens produces images that look like stills from a masterpiece of cinema. The depth of field isolation with all these wonderful traits does truly appear to stop time in a gripping fashion.
As far as sharpness goes, there is a difference between “soft” and “out of focus”, and it is quite easy to be the latter. As someone said before, many times it is best to do a bracket of focus when you can as the 3-segment meters on most digital cameras aren’t accurate enough for f/1.2. Now, as far as softness when focus is nailed, it is absolutely nothing some mild sharpening in post won’t fully correct… that is, if you want it. While some subjects call for it, I find the slight softness to be very pleasing and complimentary to the colors and overall impact of the capture.
And did I mention that when stopped down to f/2, this is Nikon’s sharpest 50mm lens? Yes, sharper than all modern AF ones… and even sharper than the legendary $3500-if-you-can-find-one Noct-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2… and would you believe me that Nikon STILL manufacturers this lens to this day? They *DO* make them like they used to! Too bad they can’t do it on more lenses.
Hopefully I have your mouth watering or your significant other hiding the checkbook… but a few words of caution: It’s difficult to focus on a standard focusing screen. This issue will be compounded significantly on any camera that is NOT full frame. That means D7000, D90, D300 and lower. Full frame cameras have larger viewfinders making it quite a bit easier. Another significant issue is CPU contacts. Most lenses have a computer chip in them that tells your camera body all the info about the lens, such as what lens it is, it’s current focus, distance to subject, aperture, etc… well, this bad boy has none of that, which means you have to shoot 100% totally manual with NO metering support unless you have a D7000 or higher. On pro level bodies, you can program in lenses with no CPU data which enables metering support. So there’s no confusion, all manual focus lenses without CPU contacts are this way, but on most of them you can have them “chipped” where this CPU and contacts are added to your existing lens. Chipping on some *really* old lenses also allows the lens to be indexed (max. and min. aperture used to have to set, or indexed, manually every time you put the lens on) automatically, too. It’s a matter of being extremely technically inclined, or sending it out to someone who specializes in it. BUT, sorry, the 50mm f/1.2 AI-s has SUCH large rear-element glass, there is no room for CPU contacts.
OH! You’re still there… if you’ve read this far, then you probably would be interested to know that there are some pretty credible rumors that Nikon is developing an AF-S version.
And here I leave you with some samples of images I have taken with the 50mm f/1.2 and a Nikon D700.