Saturday, June 11, 2011

Manual 50mm Lens Observations

Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-S lens mounted on Nikon D700.I’ve been thinking about putting more of my thoughts together on my new Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-S manual focus lens for a couple of weeks already, but I wanted to provide a good number of sample shots along with it. I believe I have enough material now. A collection of photographs taken with this lens can be viewed in the posts tagged with 50mm f/1.2 tag.

The Feel

Looking through the lens at f/1.2.The first big surprise with this lens to me was its weight. My old Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D lens used to weight 156 grams. This one weights 360. When you take it out of the box you realize right away that you are holding something special.

The lens which was in production since 1981 is still made of all metal — black enamel over black anodized aluminum and stainless steel. All the markings on the lens are engraved and filled with paint. When you look through the lens at wide open you see a lot of glass and very thin lens walls. It’s an illusion caused by optics. It’s not really as thin as it appears.

Focusing ring is rubber covered metal. Each lens has a serial number engraved on the front of the focusing element. Numbers after 400,000 denote lenses produced after 2006. They are still made in Japan.

Manual Focus

Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-S lens mounted on Nikon D700.This is the fastest lens that Nikon currently makes and the only available version is a manual focus one. There is no auto-focus. This makes it a specialty lens. Majority of people most probably are better of going with the latest 50mm f/1.4G lens or a very good and cheap 50mm f/1.8G or f/1.8D lenses.

I wasn’t sure how manual focus would work out for me as I never had a lens specifically made for focusing manually. I had very little luck focusing my old 50mm f/1.8D lens by hand. This lens’ focusing ring however can’t compare to any of the lenses made for AF. Even my $2,000 Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G lens’ focusing ring feels extremely cheap compared to this retro manual marvel.

The focusing ring movement is very smooth. The ring provides a very pleasant tactile feedback-resistance. When you rotate the ring fully you get a nice distinct ding sound and a dead stop of the ring — no play whatsoever. All this gives you an ability to be very precise and at f/1.2 it means everything.

Camera indicates that the lens is in focus with a green dot.However the best part for somebody as inexperienced with manual focusing as I am is the fact that D700 light meters and focus confirms through this lens just fine. What that means is that when I get the lens in focus it will show me a green dot on the LCD screen. If it’s not in focus it will show an arrow pointing left or right, telling me which direction to rotate the focusing ring in. And from experience it seems to be pretty accurate.

Lens is not in focus and the focusing ring should be turned left as indicated by left pointing arrow.Having said all that it is close to impossible to use on fast moving targets like kids and animals. Nor Aroshka nor Shublik are photographable with this lens in most situations. Although with a little bit of practice now I do manage to catch Arosha’s eye in focus in time on some occasions. Also one must keep in mind that at minimal focusing distance of 50cm at f/1.2 the depth of field is under 7mm. So even if you do get focus confirmation, but you or your subject moves you will lose focus.

Overall it came out to be much less “scary” than I thought it would be and the lens is very much usable and fairly easy at that. And it will only get better with practice.

Performance, Rendering & Bokeh

The quality of bokeh and general image rendering is a very subjective topic and you should make that determination yourself by looking at the sample photographs. As for myself — I am pleased with the results.

Taken at f/1.2.Alёna was doubting my decision to buy a manual lens, but after looking at the results I can’t tell you how many times she has said that the photographs taken with it are top notch.

Taken at f/2.As for sharpness of the lens — I did not do any sciencific tests. Just by reaching f/2 lens seems to be alreading performing at its peak. Having said that I will say that I am very happy with the results starting right from f/1.2. A lot, if not majority, of my shots were taken wide open.

Taken at f/1.2.The only negative is the amount of purple fringing that the lens is producing wide open. It’s easy to fix in post-production, but some basic proficiency with Photoshop is required. Left uncorrected fringing will surely ruin the shot.


Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-S lens. Too bad I forgot to take off the back cap before taking the photo.I’m very happy with my purchase. I’ve already taken several great photographs with it that I added to my portfolio. The fact that you have to manually focus the lens makes you think more about the composition which in turn makes you better with the craft of photography, instead of just pointing and shooting.

For most people one of the AF versions of 50mm will work better, but the artistic possibilities that this lens opens the door to are vast.

Article Illustrations

Most of the shots for this article were taken with my old (t)rusty Nikon D70. The LCD shots were taken directly through the viewfinder of D700, hence the “awesomeness” of the quality.

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