PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux

16Mar/092

Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D Review

The 50mm f/1.8D is a universal “first prime” for Nikon shooters. It is the least expensive lens in the lineup, with a price hovering just above $100 on the street. It is capable of great sharpness and low aberrations at smaller apertures which garner it unusual praise from its early adopters, but it is far from being a high-end offering.

All of the Nikkor 50mm lenses are minor deviations on the symmetric Gauss design of 6 elements in 4 groups, evenly divided and mirrored across the aperture. Nikon’s signature alteration is the separation of the front group (see above). The f/1.8D looks exactly like a down-sized version of the f/1.4D with an additional (7th) corrective element removed.

This is a lens which I bought under the same premise as everybody else – it’s cheap and it’s pretty good. For the longest time I hated it for being “the wrong focal length” on my D80, then when I got my D700 I reviled it for not living up to my Zeiss-inflated expectations. The bottom line is that I never liked this lens and probably never will.

Operation

The 50mm f/1.8D is a very small lens, only slightly larger than a pancake. Lacking a built-in motor, the barrel accommodates barely the optical elements, the aperture and a focusing thread. The mount is metal, as it should be, but absolutely everything else is (really cheap) plastic.

Focus with the camera body’s screwdriver is very fast, in fact it’s unlikely that a self-driven lens could focus much faster. The manual focus ring rotates and the lens changes dimensions while focusing this way. This is a bit of a flaw, but what did you expect for $100?

Manual focus is very difficult with this lens. The throw is short and not dampened by anything more than the friction of plastic on other plastic. The focus ring even has a bit of sticky-ness to it, requiring more force to set into motion than it does once it is moving. Together with the shallow depth of field of 50mm @ f/1.8, the lens is simply not suited to manual focus.

Drawing

This particular Nikkor is not a masterpiece. It’s okay.

Resolution in the critical f/2 - f/2.8 range is a mixed bag. There is enough in the central portion of the frame for current medium-resolution sensors. Outer zones and high-resolution sensors come into play only later, from f/4 down. At f/5.6 the lens is a very strong performer the way that all Gauss designs are.

The weakest aspect of the drawing has to do with coatings. In the presence of backlight, or just strong highlights, the lens blocks up shadows with all-over veiling. There are some fine creative uses for the effect, but it’s infuriating for shadow detail to disappear because someone wore a white shirt and stood in the Sun. That’s essentially how bad the situation is with this lens.

Conclusion

Ok, so I’ve tasted Zeiss and T* and the $100 lens just isn’t for me anymore.

Would I recommend this lens to other photographers? No. Get the 35mm f/1.8G or the 50mm f/1.4G. Or the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 or Zeiss 1.4/50.

If this information was useful to you, then act on it!

I take the time to learn to see the way that each lens sees, in the field, then I describe to you my mental model for the lens so you can know it too. That is a ton of work. Whew. Hey, I know of way you can help!

The next time you buy a nice lens from B&H, do it using my affiliate store. It won’t cost you extra and it tells B&H that you care about my reviews so they should support them. If you get yourself something nice this way, feel free to drop me a line!



Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I have to disagree with you on this one. I know it is not the equal of the Zeiss or even the Voightlander 58mm but it does a good job. Factor in the price and nothing else matches it. For portraits, I have always loved its backgrounds and I dislike the 35mm’s backgrounds.

    • Hi Burstmode,

      It does succeed on some things: basic performance, size, weight, price. For many this is what a lens is all about.

      My curse is that I look for more than that, with particular attention to: wide open drawing quality, usefulness with back-lit scenes, tactile support for manual focus. This lens is terrible at all three.

      The question is: does a low price make me forget that I don’t like it? It doesn’t. You don’t have to spend a fortune to find better – for the price of an average zoom lens you can get some fo the world’s best 50mm lenses.

      Cheers,

      Olivier


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