Lens Thoughts - 50mm

You might know I love 50mm lenses. Too much to be honest. I am actually considering buying that idiotically over-priced Nikon 58mm 1.4G. Not right now - I will probably wait until it's not cool any more and the price comes down to something I can easily rationalize. Like I did with the Nikon 50mm 1.4G I wish the 50mm lens acquisition craziness was my worst vice. I really have no particular use for the new better Nikkor. I have way way way more 50mm lenses than I can possibly use in every mount imaginable but I will still end up getting the new one in the long run.

The reason I bring this up today is urban myths. Collective insanity, the internet echo chamber, and self delusion. Let's call it the psychology of gear. Even I succumb to it in - not much any more but every once in a while it happens to well up. I typically do not actually take any action on it. I used to before I figured out that 90% of everyone is full of crap and/or has no idea what they are talking about and/or takes a particular anecdotal result and generalizes it in some strange self-delusion to justify their fantasized model of the universe on some particular thing - like the self delusion that something that costs a lot more money has to perform better than something that is cheaper.

I love my D600. I love the IQ of my D600. I am okay with the size of it. Part of the reason is that I do a lot of work on other people's RAW files. A lot of them happen to be from cameras like the D800 using the absolute most expensive glass. Guess what the IQ difference is between the D600 and D800 - hmmm none. At least in my observations. It's indistinguishable.

Not just at web sizes. In large - very large prints. Really. How can this be? For the most part it's due to the fact that the numbers of 24 and 36 are really not that different and certainly not night and day. They sound big but they're not. You all know why so I won't repeat it. Even knowing this for myself after lookin at and processing 1000's and 1000's of files - every once in a while I get a little hankering that I cannot explain - a nagging little doubt that somehow the bigger/bulkier/more expensive D800 might be better but I am just not seeing it - it must be me. Maybe I should get one. No.

What does this have to do with 50mm lenses? Well for the most part they are all very very good and the differences are nits that are overwhelmed by about 35 other factors before you are going to observe image quality differences between 50mm lenses. I have had the 50mm 1.4G for long enough and shot it under enough conditions to really get to know it and you know what… I love it. I have no complaints. It's probably better than any Nikon 50mm lens I own - not probably it is. All of them are good so it's not easy to tell. Certainly not in one shot - certainly not a few shots and certainly not in diverse conditions visually vs any other lens. So why doesn't it get praised and revered like some urban legends?

My Brick Wall Testing

Not only is it not revered - in general internet echo chamber reputation it's just okay, barely. Compared to what? In my experience it performs fantastically both on a microscopic pixel peeping level as well as a macro "what does the image look like" level. In just about every way I have found it's one of my favorites. My guess is two reasons - it's not crazy expensive and it's tiny - relatively speaking. It doesn't show a lot of glass out front. A mere 58mm filter and the front element is actually smaller than that by a decent margin. To add more "pro" insult to injury the front element is recessed like the old consumer slow f/1.8 $100 lenses. In fact you would have a very hard time knowing this was 1.4 fast ass glass from more than a few feet away. if you couldn't read what it said on the top you might just think it's a super-cheapo nifty-fifty. Now that wouldn't be good for your self-delusion and collective delusion influencing aura of all the rest of the photographers standing within 100' of you would it. If Nikon priced this thing at say… $1200 and the front element was say… 77mm but the performance was the exactly the same or even a tad worse I will bet this would be an object of desire for everyone - oh and it needs a big gold N.

What prompted me to write this today was a bit of shock when I went over to DXO to see if they had tested the new crazy expensive 58mm Nikkor. I was guessing that it probably had less fall-off wide open but not really anything else as my experience with the cheapy "non-pro" 1.4 has been so great. No dice - no tests yet - screw anecdotal reviews. What I did see surprised me. The lowly - non-glamorous 50mm 1.4G is pretty much a tie for the top two 50mm lenses you can slap on any of your Nikon cameras. D600, D800, D800E, whatever.

Seems To Work Okay

What were was the other one? Well that was the first lens I considered - the Sigma 50mm 1.4. I would buy that lens as well. Also cheap at $399 new. Out of seven lenses they have tested on both the D600, the D800, and the D800e guess which one comes out dead last - every time… The way more expensive Zeiss Planar 50mm 1.4 ZF2. No kidding. Now I am not all about the numbers as you know. I am far more into how a lens looks in use. I have shot the Zeiss 50/1.4. It's fine but no better than any of my other Nikons. No magic properties. No magical rendering that somehow makes it look way different - unless you are delusional. All that aside - do you somehow think it might perform better technically than the Nikon 50/1.4G? Do you think somehow DXO got it completely wrong on a bunch of different tests and all the Zeiss buyers that gush about how superb it is got it more right? Unlikely - not saying it's bad.

Maybe the focus ring feels really good and that's your priority - have at it. I like good feeling focus rings too. Bet you my 50/1.2 Nikkor AIS feels better but I am not delusional somehow translating that into mythical IQ performance. Being curious I looked up a couple other 50mm lenses and compared those testing results to the Sigma and the Nikon. I just had to compare the mythical, legendary, Canon 50mm 1.2L - couldn't help myself. It's better than the Canon 50/1.4 in overall score but actually it's worse in a few categories - it wins by a whole one "perceptive megapixel" in sharpness and 0.2 stops in measured T-stop light transmission. It is however 0.3 stops worse in fall-off and literally twice as bad measured CA.

How does it compare to the lowly Nikkor 50/1.4G umm worse. Funny part is the T-stop is actually only 1.4 and based on my experience the DOF/background rendering of 50mm 1.4 vs 1.2 is ummm not much. Actually I could demonstrate that you cannot tell the difference in most cases even close up - oh the Nikon focuses closer too which will impact shallow DOF far more than 1.4 vs 1.2. Again not a bad lens - actually a good one but mirrors my own experience shooting with it - meh… $1600 hmmmmmm. Maybe the new $2100 mk II is way better. Unlikely. So why is it the object of desire that it is? Well for one it is better by a hair in one dimension than the Canon 50/1.4 it's just not as good as the Nikon 50/1.4 both of which are better than the Zeiss. Well it's over $1000, it has a red stripe, and it has a giant piece of glass in the front. You can tell from far away that it's "pro".

So as of right this second if you are using the Sigma or the Nikkor 50/1.4G you can feel pretty good. They are about the best things going. If you like the look of a giant hunk of glass go for the Sigma. If you like small and light then go for the Nikkor. Yea - the non-pro look to the Nikkor has some advantages like smallness and lightness. Truth be told the image performance appears to be about the same with both of them with the Sigma having a slight advantage in fall-off - or lack thereof.

Do I have any criticisms of my little non-pro looking (nothing to do with build/performance/etc - just the fact it doesn't have a big gold N and a huge diameter front) little 50mm? Well I have to agree with the internet mob - first impressions are that it focuses slow. Not horribly so but certainly not any faster than the old AF-D screw-drive version. I think that's where there was a missed expectation rather than some huge problem. In the past when a lot of screw drive lenses were replaced with AF-S lenses they were really really zippy. Nikon probably could have made the 50/1.4G more zippy - I am dying to find out if the 58mm/1.4 is.

The question is if actually presents a real problem - well not really. I guess it could be if your camera is hanging by your side and you grab it to take a shot but then you are a bigger problem in not being ready… far more so than the AF-S motor speed. If you are in the habit of alternating shots between the closest focus distance and infinity than I guess that could be an issue. In real use it takes NO time to focus between shots for me since I am at similar distances shot to shot. I haven't really been able to determine if someone jerking themselves as fast as they can as far away and as close up at close distances because that doesn't really happen in any shot I am actually going to try to make - I guess if I were to do that I could blame the focus speed but I doubt the fastest lens in the universe would solve that for me… The bottom line is that the 50/1.4G is not the fastest focusing but in use it has zero impact on me.

Do I still want the 58mm Nikkor? Yes but not because I am delusional as to what it's going to change. It's because I have this 50mm fetish thing. I am curious to see what, if any performance dimensions are actually improved and by how much at 4x the price. At least I am not into planes or super-tele glass - that's really an expensive proposition.


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