Quick Thoughts on Eight of the Nikkor Nifty Fifties – by David Hume

Several months ago I wrote a piece on my newly acquired Nikon Df. The piece was OK, but I’ve thought since then that I didn’t really do the camera justice. My thoughts on the camera continue to evolve, as does the way I use it. But I guess what interests me most is how I can use this camera – or any camera of course – to get the look I’m after. It’s very personal.

To me the way that a sensor plays with a lens is key to image quality, and the reason I bought the Df in the first place was that I wanted to pair its sensor with 50mm Nikkor lenses because that focal length is really all I have shot in my film Nikons for the past five years when I started shooting film again.

I wanted to experiment with what the Df sensor would give me compared with what film would give me. I guess I’ll keep saying, “this is very personal” a lot, but if I’m shooting a Df with a 50mm on the front then the whole experience is very similar to film except for the means of capture – ie digital sensor or film. It’s worth mentioning speed/ISO here: as we know, digital can shoot at way higher ISOs than we get with film, which makes it much easier in many situations, but if we’re comparing digital with film then I think it’s important to use the same ISOs for each. This way you get the same issues of shutter speed, apertures, motion blur etc with each. One nice thing about the Df/D4 sensor is that the base ISO is 100, so I can pretend I’m shooting Sensia 100 or Portra 160 without dipping below base.

Christmas Snap – Nikon Df with the AF Nikkor 50 f1.4 D at f2. Not taken by me – taken by Jack’s brother Fred.
The sort of stuff I’ve been doing recently. Nikon Df before dawn. Nikkor – H 50mm f2 at 1/6s – all shots here handheld.
More clouds – Nikon Df early light. Nikkor – H  50mm f2 at 1/3s handheld

It’s easy to get hung up on shooting charts and brick walls, and I guess one thing I would say, is when you analyse your own shots and the shots of others consider how much the lens character plays a part. Sometimes it will, but apart from the big things like is it wide or tele, I’d say way more often the lens character not really a determining factor. I mean, to take an extreme example, suppose you sold a kidney and bought a Leica Noctilux and when people saw your shots they went; “Wow! Shot on a Noctilux!” I think I’d feel if that’s  the FIRST thing they noticed then maybe I should have made a shot that was a bit more interesting.

A while ago I went as far as setting up a test scene and shooting it on a few different Nikkor 50s. I satisfied myself that:
a) at f1.4 they were a bit soft and less contrasty, and
b) any 50mm shot at f2 was okay.
That’s essentially it. This whole piece really says just that in a very long-winded form.

The corollary to that is to pick a lens that you like using; whose ergonomics allow you to get the shot you want. Different lenses will help you in different ways, but in the case of the Nikkor 50s the differences are in weight, size and ergonomics – not so much in optics.

Back in the day – probably my first Nikkormat around 1989 – a 50 of course but I don’t know which one. In those days I was really just shooting as a record and not really thinking much about it. I did like I bit of blur though, and I think I worked out that 1/60s or so was about right. (as in dog’s feet)
Same trip, same camera. Note 7 aperture blades and slight blur in the pigeon. maybe 1/60s?

BUT: I thought to myself that I can’t really make such an assertion unless I’m prepared to back it up, so I set up another test scene and shot the whole lot again, both wide open and at f2. And guess what – I was really surprised at how close they all were. I’d forgotten about the vignetting at f1.4; that was massive, but again, all the 1.4s were about the same – a bit soft and less contrasty wide open, and at f2.0 all the lenses; the 1.4s, 1.8s and 2.0s were pretty equal.

As I’ve said, I’m finding that in 35mm film in an SLR I really have shot nothing but a 50mm lens for the last five years. I’ve shot various film compacts of course with their own lenses, and on my Fuji X-Pro3 I favour a 35 or 40mm equivalent to allow for more cropping, but that’s another story.

Anyway, I had been sitting on this idea for a while when a new comment on the old Df post appeared and spurred me into action. The comment went like this:

“I for one, would love to read your opinion of various Nikon 50s on the Df (and in general) I now find myself with quite the selection of Nikon 50 mils to choose from & while I agree they are “all good” I would really value some of your insights on your experience with them & comparisons when used on the different mediums.”

OK – Let’s go then.

It’s very personal

It’s already the third time in this piece I’ve said that… I think that anything is fine – if you want to take three zooms as a minimum on your hiking trip then go your hardest. It all depends on what you want. If you only ever use one lens that’s also perfectly fine. (Slight disclosure of bias – using only one lens is cooler.)

Nikon F4 with Velvia 100. AF Nikkor 50mm 1.8 D. Reflections in glass.
Reading Christmas books on Christmas eve. Nikon Df. AF Nikkor 50mm f 1.4D at f2, ISO 100.

It depends what you shoot

Nikon Df with the manual focus Nikkor 50 f 1.4 Ai. F1.4 at ISO 100 and 1/6s. Motion blur, but George the dog’s eye is sharp.
HP5 in Nikon FM2 with 50mm f1.8Ais Either 1/4 or 1/8s I think.

I know that fast 50s were around before the time of the SLR, but the lenses I’m interested in come in hand in hand with the rise of the 35mm SLR. It’s a news/reportage style of shooting: quick and immersive. It’s Swinging 60s British fashion. When Bailey famously first went to New York with the Shrimp to shoot a feature for Vogue in 1962 he shot much of it on 35mm and then duped it up onto 120 in order to satisfy the editors. “35mm is not lower quality,” he said later, “it’s a different quality.”

If I’m handholding a shot of clouds at f2 and 1 second, or San Marco in the dark at 1/4s then lens sharpness is the least of my concerns. Here the best lens is a manual focus with nice clear aperture clicks and a good hard stop at infinity. I’m often shooting when it’s too dark to read any of the numbers

Are aberrations good or bad?

I shot some of my paintings on a gallery wall recently and cursed every imperfection of the lens that I used. Why, on that day, had I not brought something decent with me? Well the reason for that was I was bored by the clinical sharpness of the XF 27mm f 2.8 I usually used on my Fuji and swapped it out for a cheap TT-Artisans with a bit more character. But of course character sucks if you’re doing reprographic work. I wasn’t expecting to do this reprographic stuff and I got caught out with the wrong gear. It’s a question of having the right lens for the type of picture you want to make. Personally I prefer a lack of linear distortions because I shoot a lot of horizons and I want them to stay straight lines.

Nikon Df with the manual focus Nikkor 50 f 1.4 Ai. Shot at f2 at ISO 100. A bit of chromatic aberration on Ruby’s leg, but I like it.

Sharpness is also about ergonomics

If you’re working handheld (and quickly) to get a shot, first you need to have it in focus if it’s going to be sharp, and the ergonomics of the camera, the quality of its viewfinder, its focusing screen and how that plays with the lens are all part of it. Let’s say you’re shooting 400 ASA and so that extra bit of speed to freeze the action can be useful and it might be more important than the softness that opening up an extra stop introduces into the lens. This is no longer the case with digital – we need to remember that an extra stop can be a big deal if you’re in low light shooting Ektachrome. With film you can’t just crank the ISO to decrease shutter speed.

The main thing about this shot is being ready to press the shutter when the child is off the ground (and the composition – which I think is OK but not great) Shot would have been better with some blur (says blur-man) HP5 in Nikon FM2 with 50mm f1.8Ais.

Focus throw matters

Well, it does for me. Some of these lenses I find really slow to focus because the throw from infinity to closest focus is too far. If I need two bites at it with the camera up to my eye it’s a real bummer. But when I actually measured it for this piece I found the differences in the lenses was much less than I had thought. The shortest was about 120 degrees (the pancake) and the longest about 190 (the f1.4 Ai) For some reason there was a point where it goes from feeling quick to feeling slow that is more than just a linear relationship to angle.
I think this will vary from person to person so I’ll not make too much of it except to say that I think it’s worth considering. It’s a case where you can’t just choose a lens based on specs; you need at the very least to have a play with it on a camera body.

It’s about style more than resolution

Let’s also be realistic that in 2020+ anyone who’s shooting 35mm film is doing so for the aesthetic and experience over ultimate resolution, or if they’re doing it commercially they’re doing it to differentiate themselves and their service by providing something that digital can’t. Let’s say you’re an Elopement Photographer (I only very recently found out that elopement photography is actually a thing) who shoots three kinds of film camera on a commercial shoot. It would be unkind to say this is done purely for the cool factor, and perhaps more accurate to say it’s done because it offers a unique aesthetic that cannot be matched by digital. The coda for this however is also that it’s cool. So let’s be frank here. Stylish gear is more fun than gear that looks boring. And I’m certainly not immune to this shallowness – I love a cool rig.

It’s film again! Nikon F4 with Velvia 100. AF Nikkor 50mm f1.8 D Reflections in glass.

It’s an aesthetic of culture

I guess I’d say that in shooting an oldish 50mm f1.4 at f2 I’m looking for a certain aesthetic that resonates with early Linda Eastman, David Bailey et al. A certain gonzo roughness and imperfection that makes the photographer a part of the photograph. The photographer’s in there – being a participant, not standing back, not removed behind the screen of a view camera. So it’s a cultural aesthetic more than anything objective. I don’t know if it’s something that other people even would pick up on or if it’s something that I just do for fun. And this is the stuff that I’m just doing to amuse myself. Sure, I want a record of Christmases and the odd family get-together but this is not commercial stuff. I’m not trying to create a brand aesthetic here – I’m just playing around with certain style that I like.

Grabbing a moment quickly. Nikon Df. AF Nikkor 50mm f 1.4D at f2, ISO 100.

Let’s meet the Lenses

First – a nerdiness disclaimer. All my lenses had been AI converted before I got them or were AI to start with. If you want to know more about that then you’re welcome to look it up, but I’m not going into it here. In practical terms it means that when mounting them on a the Df if I first tell the camera what the lens is, the camera will record that focal length and the aperture I’ve used in the Exif data. I can shoot manual or aperture priority but not shutter priority (S) or program (P). With the auto-focus lenses I can also shoot P and S, and these lenses also automatically tell the camera what lens they are. There’s way more to say here but I don’t really know it nor does it interest me so let that be enough.

NIKKOR-S Auto 50mm f/1.4

Camera porn pure and simple.

This came with my beautiful Nikon F, and it’s lovely to look at but I don’t like using it. It just feels so slow to focus compared to the f2 that it really is unnecessarily unpleasant. I find it big and heavy and maybe that extra stop over an f2.0 is really important if you are shooting Kodachrome 25 in 1970 but I think I get better shots shooting an f2 lens on this body and I certainly have more fun. Speaking of the Linda Eastman (McCartney) aesthetic – by chance I was watching a docco yesterday and here she is with this lens on her Nikon F so I grabbed a screen shot.

Looks like the Nikkor-S 50mm f 1.4 to me

NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4 AI

I bought this lens a while ago just because I never had one back in the day and I wanted to see what the 1.4 was like. I guess I might take it out again to shoot people on my Nikon F2 but now that I’ve got the AF version I’d probably pop that on my F4 so at least I’d get things in focus. Everything people say about the buttery smoothness of the focus etc etc is true; they’re all really lovely lenses but I guess this brings home to me that there’s not so much reason to go for the extra stop of speed. I guess it’s a bit like the other MF 1.4 – great to look at, less great when you’re trying to take photos with it.

AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4 D

I like this lens… I also like a lens hood. Hoods are a pain if you’re getting the camera in and out of a small bag with lens attached, but great once you’re using the camera.

I didn’t have this lens when I wrote the first piece on the Df. Now it is the default lens that sits on the Df unless I have a good reason to change it out. I would use the Df and this lens for family snaps, which is what I did last Christmas. I like stopping it down to f2 and getting a bit of retro 7 bladed aperture action In the bokeh balls or letting it flare up a bit with sunlight. It’s chromatic aberrations may annoy people but you don’t get them in faces so that’s fine for portraits and it just adds character. I think this lens has a lot more character than the f1.8 version. Shall I say again that it’s all personal preferences?
Even though it’s plastic it’s still nice and solid; it has a workhorse feel to it which I like. Yeah I’m really fond of this lens.

AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8 D

Light and plasticy, but a great performer

OK it’s uncool and I don’t really want to be seen in public with it. But if I’m at home shooting an atmospheric portrait then I would probably actually use this lens assuming I’m shooting 50 millimetre. The reason is I can shoot it wide open and get round bokeh and it’s sharp enough. If I shot the 1.4 wide open the DOF is a bit narrow (for a dedicated portrait) for my taste and if I stop it down to f2 I get aperture blades in the bokeh balls. Just depends on what aesthetic you’re going for.

AF Nikkor 50mm f1.8 D on a D700. Just about the cheapest Nikkor you can get at maybe $US100 NEW. And who needs a better lens than this?

I actually find this lens a bit light on the Df. I think the 1.4 AFD sits really nicely on the Df however. As an aside I have noticed this 1.8 AFD lens being bundled with cheap manual focus film cameras which really has me scratching my head. All this says to me is that it must be the cheapest 50 out there. In the hand it feels very cheap and plasticy but you don’t notice that so much when it’s mounted. It is not pleasant to manually focus it, but it’s such a competent lens in terms of speed, sharpness, or whatever you like that it almost hurts me that I would say anything bad about it.

NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8 AI-s (Pancake)

This is my gold standard 50. It’s the one that I shoot on my F2 or it’s the one that I take travelling on my FM2. The image quality is fine and the compactness actually does make a difference when putting the camera in a bag. It’s the fact that it’s a pancake that is the winner and it focuses pretty close too. There’s a lot of stuff out there about how you need to get the Japanese version (that’s this one) that focuses to 45 centimetres and not the version that focusses to 65 centimetres blah blah blah and I don’t know all about that but I would only say why not get the best lens when you’re still paying – what – about 1/5 the price of an R mount ‘Cron for it? Just make sure you don’t get ripped off with someone trying to pass off an E Series or a 65 as a 45 etc. The front element is exposed because it’s a pancake so I always leave a filter on but no cap.

NIKKOR 50mm f/1/8 AI

NIKKOR 50mm f/1/8 AI sitting on an FE. I bought this for my daughter after she wore out her FM and only got the lens because it came with the camera.

This is a nice lens and if the pancake did not exist then I’d never know and I’d use it and my life would be perfectly fine but why would I use it when I have the others? It came with a camera and that’s why I have it – I’ve never even used it. If I lost my pancake lens for some reason I just use this and not sweat it too much. The condition of mine is perfect and it is just lovely and smooth (because the grease is still good – some of my others could use a service.) Ergonomics are great; like I said I just use the pancake because that fits in a bag better.

NIKKOR 50mm f/2 AI

50mm f 2 AI sitting on an FM. Jack had grabbed my FM off a table and was already holding it up to his eye so I gave him some extra instruction. This is a beach house rig – not precious.
Shot on a D700 with the good old Nikkor 50mm f2 Ai

Well,  it’s a bit irrational and I have no proof of this but I think this is my favourite rendering lens of all of them. Is there something about the 50mm f2 wide open? If I do a test I can’t objectively see it but then sometimes if I’m going through my catalogue I’ll come across an image and I go “Wow,” check the lens Exif data and it was this one. I don’t think it’s scientific but I’m really fond of it. This lens I actually got for free because when it arrived it was wonky and the seller refunded me the cost and after that I managed to fix it. This copy is a bit of a beater but shoots fine and the front element is well hidden away so I don’t bother with a filter. A sentimental favourite except for… (wait for it)

NIKKOR-H Auto 50mm f/2


Okay, maybe this one is my fave. I think it’s super cool and this is the lens I use on the Df when I’m out shooting seascapes. I like that the front element is safely tucked away and that means I don’t feel a need to use a filter on it unless I’m shooting in the rain or seaspray. It’s just really nice in the hand and I like the way it looks cool on any camera. Even just a year ago only I paid  $AU100 for it.

The tech

So – by the time you get to f2 all these lenses are, for me, optically petty much the same. Like I said though – I felt I needed needed to back up my assertions, so I ran some tests.

Now – before you beat me up and say, “This is not a lens test!” – I know it isn’t. But hear me out.  I’m checking to see – for the WAY I SHOOT in the CONDITIONS I’M INTERESTED IN how the lenses perform. And I was surprised at how similar they all were in terms of colour rendering, centre sharpness and bokeh. Hard to get a struck match between them. Here on the site you’re looking at 1920px jpegs that have been further mangled by WordPress so the only point in showing these really is to show what I did. You can’t pixel-peep these. There are 14 shots in my test but I’ll only show three here.

What I DID find interesting is that doing any kind of testing is good, as we (as in me) tend to get confirmation bias with gear when we read reviews. Going through this process made me much less precious about results, and more trusting of deciding whether or not a particular lens suits me. Here – with a Nikkor 50mm on full-frame dig  or 135 film I want nice ergonomics and a certain aesthetic. It’s up to me.  What I’ve established to my own satisfaction that whichever I choose the optics will be okay, so just use the one I like.

Some people might find the following obsessively nerdy, others might see it as totally slapdash and cavalier. Whatever; I’ll share the process so you know what I did and it might be useful or at least entertaining.

I just made a test scene with a range of strong colours, reds, greens, blues and yellows to check colour rendering, then put some glass and metal in for reflective and transparent objects to look for CA, and put the ruler in at 45 degrees to the camera axis to check the point of focus and to compare centre sharpness. The F1.4 and 1.8 lenses I shot wide open and also f2, and the f2 lenses just at f2.

I shot manual mode and doubled the exposure time going from f1.4 to f2.0. I shot the f1.8 shots at the same speed as f 2.0. I made full size jpeg exports  of the raws from LR with no changes. These are shot on the Df as ISO 100. I used natural window light near midday on a cloudless day and completed the test within 15 mins so the light would be constant.

This is the 50-C 1.4 wide open
The 50-C f1.4  at f2.0
And here’s the 50 H f 2 at 2.0
A peek into the lab…

Final Words

The Df was released with a special version of the newer nifty fifty – AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G that does not have an aperture ring and had new optics with an aspherical element. That lens has never interested me. Likewise the 50mm f1.2 AI-s which is total overkill and a step backwards from what I need in a lens, so I never looked at getting either of these lenses.

I’m talking Nikkors here and I made the decision to use Nikon when I took a photography course in the late 1980s, but I think my views are not limited to any one brand – correct me if I’m wrong.

You might notice a certain aesthetic in my colours and I guess that was formed when I used to shoot editorial food and lifestyle magazine work in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a natural light, no flash, transparency film aesthetic because that’s what I did back then. Later when I switched to digital things got easier because you could just crank the ISO to 800 on a D700/D3 and I used AF zooms for everything.

Now that I’m just shooting for myself and my people shots are for fun I’ve only shot 50mm primes on my Nikons. I’ve made my own LR preset for this stuff called “Filmo Davo” that I often use on digital.

Professionally I shoot fine-art, mostly landscapes but I use a whole bunch of other gear and techniques for that. Thanks for reading!

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42 thoughts on “Quick Thoughts on Eight of the Nikkor Nifty Fifties – by David Hume”

  1. Great experiment, thank you Dave! Back in the 80s, when a 50/1,4 was basically glued to every Nikon body when you bought them. I completely ignored them and made the 24 my »Normal« lens. Like you got a 50/2 for free, it came as a gift with an FE a couple of years ago. After your review I will give it a closer look. Eric Clapton took that picture of Linda, by the way.

    1. Funnily enough Thorsten, when I shot commercially with an FM in the 1990s I didn’t even own a 50 and just used a 35 f2.8, which I had because it was cheaper than a 2.0. This was dumb luck on my part – it was a great lens for food/lifestyle/portrait stuff on tranny that I used to shoot. But I have not touched that lens since my return to film. I guess that also coincides with giving up commercial work and just doing it for fun.

      Thanks for the tip on the photo of Linda – I was slack and did not reference the video I pinched it from. I should go back and try to find it for completeness.

  2. As an owner of a Nikon FM2 this article is really amazing David! I only have the 50mm f/1.8 pancake lens that came with the camera from West Yorkshire Cameras, Leeds and I LOVE that little lens. I just know that this article will be SO useful to those looking for another nifty-fifty – and who knows, maybe I need a ‘backup’ fifty, y’know… for science…haha

      1. My Df has both a split image/microprism screen and an eyepiece magnifier, which I put on all my round eyepiece Nikon’s, so it focusses more easily than my F2a, really try to grab one quickly as apparently Nikon have stopped making them.
        Don’t diss the 50/1.2 at f2 it is the sharpest 50mm Nikkor made and using it at various points from f1.2 to f2 will dramatically change the look. I particularly like it at f1.4 as you lose the glow but it is not yet clinically sharp.
        My personal favourite is the f2 non Ai.
        I have a D2x, D3s, Df, D810, D500, but all nikkor 50’s look better on my F2a or F, just my opinion.
        All the best, Mark

        1. Cheers Mark – thanks; yeah, that reminded me that I did actually try to find an eyepiece magnifier for my Df, but the genuine Nikon ones seemed to be heinously inflated in price, (just checked and there’s one in box on eBay for A$ 250. Are yours genuine, or have you found a reasonable alternative?) and then I stopped looking. I guess part of the reason I stopped was I just decided that I’d use the AFD 1.4 if I wanted easy focus. Hmmm you’ve got me thinking though. I remember when I got the D700 in 2008 I just gave up on MF glass really, because the viewfinder seemed so much smaller than a film Nikon (but then the D4 viewfinder is small too)
          I am intrigued by the f1.2 but I’ll resist. Not dissing on it – just not for me. I think I’ve settled in to how I use this stuff now.

          I also have the 60mm f 2.8 AFD Micro for sharpness, but I only use that for copy/reprographic work. Cheers.

          1. Hi, Yes mine are all genuine but I bought all of them several years ago when you could buy them for Au$40.
            Apparently Nikon stopped making them recently and everyone on Ebay instantly took the piss on price. Very sad as I could do with another.
            Cheers Mark

          2. Your comment prompted me to look them up again… There’s a generic zoomable one that goes from 1.08 to 1.5 and costs $40. I might just buy one and see how it goes. In the grand scheme of things, there is no reason I could not buy a genuine one for $250 but I can’t bring myself to do it. It’s like letting the terrorists win.

  3. I have an f1.4 Nikkor-S, an f2 Nikkor-H and the Japanese pancake AI-s f1.8. I’ve found that I rarely ever use the f1.4 unless I really, REALLY need that extra stop. The pancake sits on my F2AS because it’s the only AI(-S) 50mm I have – and it does make the rather bulky camera a bit more compact. But I’ve got to confess that the ever so basic, old and humble f2 Nikkor-H is just so very nice. And while I do often need that F2AS for low light shooting, in brighter light there isn’t really anything more satisfying than the most basic kit of a Nikkormat FTN and the f2 Nikkor-H.

    Yes, the Olympus OM series is nice and small, and there’s nothing wrong with a Spotmatic or a Minolta SRT… but considering their reliability in the long run (hey, all these cameras are at least about half a century old by now), in my opinion nothing comes close to the rock solid 1960s-70s Nikon quality. Make your pick between F/F2 or Nikkormat FTN/FT2/FT3 and pair it with that cheap and humble but oh! so sweet and sturdy Nikkor-H and that really is all you might ever want for your (film) photography needs.

    Unless, like me, you like to mostly shoot with rangefinders… but that’s another story 😉

    1. Cheers Marcus – agreed! I’m not a rangefinder guy, and part of that is due to being left-eye dominant, but I guess it’s mostly fear of what might happen if I bought my first Leica M!

      I did, however, just yesterday put a roll through my beautiful Nikonos III while kayaking. Ah, what a lovely, simple, fully manual camera that is. (And I can read the numbers without glasses)

  4. Love the care and detail you put into describing your process and motivations for using all these different 50mm lenses. Everyone is different. While I also think it’s cool to use only one lens, I’ll apply a caveat here by saying that I think it’s cool to use one lens at a time, for the day. But I love having a variety of different lenses of varied focal length and prime vs. zoom to choose from. I personally have a copy of the 50mm f/1.4D that you enjoy using and I agree with your assessment that the lens is kind of a workhorse. I’ve used it on both my D700 and FE2. I agree that any Nikon D lens is not terribly sweet to manually focus. I also have a copy of the Nikkor 50mm f/2 lens you like. However, mine is just a bit older than yours and has the weird combination of, having the rubber focusing ring, but still retaining the old pre-Ai aperture ring. The only Nikon camera I can use this lens on is my Nikkormat because I have not done an Ai conversion. I also adapt these 50mm lenses to my Fuji mirrorless camera, but they’re no longer effectively 50mm in that case.

    1. Cheers Lee; yeah, I’ve tried putting Nikkors on my Fuji XP3, and they are just so big and cumbersome that I stopped very quickly! I love the form-factor of the TT Artisans 25mm f2 on the Fuji and have considered stumping up the $1K for the new voigtlander with coding… but sheesh that’s a lot of money in comparison to the TT

  5. Great piece, and the timing is interesting for me. I’ve recently acquired a Df to complement my FM3a and F4 cameras. The Df has me trying out many of my old lenses (mostly 50s, but also a 105 Sonnar and a very early 35mm f2). I’ve been more than pleased with the way the Df’s sensor plays with this vintage glass. I have a few of these older lenses that I think are actually “better” on film – the 55/1.2 for instance – but for the most part it’s been a positive exploration.

    (Incidentally, I have the AF-S 50/1.8G that came with my Df, and it is a wonderful lens, but very modern in its rendering)

    One question I am pondering now is focusing screens. I find the Df is mostly easy to manually focus, but not as easy as my F4 (which gets used almost exclusively with AF-D lenses), and certainly not as easy as my FM3a. I wonder if one of those aftermarket, third-party focusing screens would be a worthwhile investment?

    1. Hi Hank – someone did post a comment on my original Df post about getting a split prism screen on his Df and said it was great. (Go check it out) I have a split prism on my D4, and offer this: I’ve decided to leave the Df as-is for now. The main reason is that I think it would be a bit odd to have it there with the movable AF points; it makes sense on the F4 which only has the central AF point.
      I think I’ll leave it that: The early AFD lenses are great, and cheap, so if I want a 35 I’ll buy one (I traded a MF 85 for an AF 85 but have not used it) Apart from that I’ll use AF for portraits/snaps and MF for seascapes.
      The screens on the F, F2, FM et al are just so much bigger and nicer for MF that I’ll use one of those if I want to manually focus portraits.

      What you say about the AF-S 50/1.8G reinforces my lack of interest in it; but that may change I guess. Good to know.

  6. Interesting sharing of personal experiences (as announced). It has been an entertaining reading, thank you for your time and efforts. Having used Nikon since 1973, I have also been surprised by the quality of an older 50 mm I got a few years ago with a Nikon F (I acquired to get the whole range of professional Fs on a shelf ;o)). But once compared for flare and color accuracy, and then corner details with the latest 50 mm, it did not really hold. It had (to put it in nowadays’ PC language regarding optical flaws) “character” ;o) Now something of my personal pet peeves for the past few years is reacting to the assertion regarding film that it has “a unique aesthetic that cannot be matched by digital”. I find it misleading if not erroneous. Granted out of the film can or the SD card the same subject under the same light with the same lens will look different (as it will taken with different digital cameras / sensor / lenses), but digital can easily emulate film, film cannot imitate digital. [as a note, the same issue is true when comparing CCD sensors (Leica M8 and M9) to more recent CMOS sensors used on current Leica Ms… the M8/M9 “look” (which is not very accurate in fact in terms of color rendition) or “character” is easily reproducible from a CMOS file—as an example look at David Farkas test on the reddotforum website). My conclusion (based on my own practice and that of others too who may be more technical experts than I am) is that the digital medium is more versatile and offers more options than film and can mimic “the character” of film or older (faulty) lenses if need be, Moreover if I may still shoot film, I will process it and print it, most people nowadays seem to scan their film, which completely defeats the point they make of a non-digital look, the fallacy is almost naive and amusing.

    1. Cheers Bruno, the care and thought of you comments is always appreciated. To expand on a point, I use in my piece the example of a commercial elopement photographer (!) using the assertion that because they shoot on film the aesthetic will be different, to make their services attractive to prospective clients. The aesthetic to which I refer is an aesthetic of the whole experience of the shoot as well as the final shots. (including in their case the use of Instax.) I’m obviously being a bit tongue-in-cheek here and and poking a slight bit of fun at the cool factor, but clearly it works for that photographer. (And are aesthetics subjective or objective? Ah! the times we’ve had…)
      And I also believe that film has not been successfully emulated by digital. I’m not talking colours here; it’s all in the grain. Of course it’s technically possible, but film grain is not the same as digital grain; It’s to do with quantum interactions of photons being different with halides than it is within the sensors to produce signals. You’ll have to forgive me; my bachelor’s degree is in mathematical physics and I have a bit of interest in quantum electrodynamics that some might find a tad dry. Of course it COULD be done in theory; if something like Fuji’s Across grain simulation that ties noise to luminance were repeated over three colour channels and recombined that would have to be close, but I’ve not seen it done and made only very rudimentary investigations myself. I think the colour part is easy. I guess there’s also a philosophical point too, and here we all have our own positions. Personally I’m happy to throw a film simulation over a Df file for a family snapshot – but only if I shot that at film ISOs with a suitable lens. Running a film sim over something I’d shot on an iPhone would curl my toes. On the other hand when it comes to the stuff I shoot as a basis for my artworks I’m a bit more fussy. I have a personal preference for not trying to emulate film with dig with that, and so I shoot film if I want it to look like film. etc. (There’s a piece I wrote over on emulsive.org about grain if you are interested; it’s not very techie though.) Cheers.

  7. Thank you, David, what a timely article!

    I was just looking at purchasing a 50 mm lens for the F2 I recently purchased, looking at the Zeiss Planar 50/1.4 or 50/2.0M, and maybe even the Milvus 50. But then, that would quite a bit of money. So I decided to start with an old Nikkor, and based on your article I finally decided to buy a NIKKOR 50mm f/2 AI which seems to be in pretty good condition – and only 99 Euros!
    Looking forward to using it.
    But the 1.8 Pancake and Nikkor-H also look very nice indeed.


    1. Cheers Erik. I think the thing is, until you try them you’ll never know; and that’s the problem! Why do I have eight lenses??? Oh well, it’s good fun and buying and selling them is not really too expensive. (But I am hopeless at selling and rather too good at buying) One thing I did not mention and only noticed when I was out shooting yesterday was that the Nikkor H-C f2 only focusses to 65cm not 45 like the f2 Ai. IMHO 65 is still fine for portraits, but that may affect your choice.

  8. Nice article, David. Years ago, when I had a Nikon F2AS, I bought the Nikon 50mm f2 lens to use as my standard lens on it. It was a great lens and perfect for the camera. Both those have been gone for many years now.

    1. Thanks Steve – yes, I have the feeling that the first Nikkor 50s I had back in the day with my Nikkormats would have been the f2, but back then I did not even think about such things!

  9. Very interesting look at a wonderful variety of lenses. At one point or another, I’ve owned just about all the 50mm SLR lenses made by Nikon, except the very exotic ones. I never really got on with the pancake versions. I prefer the 1.8 standard size or the 1.4 Ai or Ai-S for their size and ease of use, but also the way they render. But I’ve found that sample variation can have a pretty big effect on the look one gets, especially when you’re dealing with lenses that are decades old now.

    1. Cheers Gil. I’m not sure if I didn’t get on with the 1.4 manual focus lenses because I came to them so late? I’m sure lots of people love them and indeed I feel as though I owe it to them to spend a bit more time trying to get on.

  10. Hi David, Loved this post! I have had a Df for several years and still love using it along with some much Nikon film gear. I have both 50s you’re not interested in, the “special” G f/1.8 and tghe AIS f/1.2. I think you should reconsider trying them. I find them both outstanding. That said, I love choosing from several others, both pre-AI and AI, and the f/1.4D (which gets bashed but has been so useful to me).

    In any case, I’ll re-read your post more than once, I’m sure. Great to meet another fan of the Df!

    1. Thanks Reed! Yeah, I know… I shouldn’t dismiss these lenses when I’ve never even tried them. I think I was just feeling that I’d tried enough and found what I was happy with. That’s the good and bad about writing one of these I guess; you get extra input that makes you reassess. Cheers.

  11. Very interesting. My first Nikon was a Nikkormat FTn and a Nikkor-H 50 f/2 that I bought in 1968. I used it all over the world with never a failure, and the lens was fabulous for Kodachrome 25. The Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 of that era had a similar reputation for excellence. I still use a Spotmatic with the 55 – how would a newer and “sharper” (whatever that means) lens make a meaningful difference?

    1. Indeed. I guess these days with super high-res 35mm sensors there are interesting things that can be done with super-sharp and fast 50s for portraits etc, but it’s not really my bag.

  12. Dear David,
    Thanks so much for your article. You expressed so many great thoughts in an understandable way.
    I can sometimes feel a little basic w my Nikon FE and AIS 50mm pancake but you got it spot on that the images that simple combo can get are pure magic!
    How much money have I spent and hours have I wasted, yet I still return to the FE/50mm package!

  13. Thanks David for a great article. I’ve recently added a nice F2 to my small `Nikon selection. Of the fifties you have compared I’ve the AfD 1.8 and a very battered Nikkor-S Auto 50m 1.4. I’m tempted to get a better copy of the latter as it clearly gives a very different look from most 50s. The Nikkor-H might be a good alternative . I’ve got a Micro-Nikkor 55/2.8 if I want perfect but I’m more interested in lenses that bring something different. T

    1. Hi Adrian; I think I’m pretty bad at advising AGAINST any of these Nikkors. (I did have one of those 55/2.8s for a few years but don’t think of them as a nifty fifty – pretty slow and considered in use for me) Battered lenses are cool though IMO. I’m thinking of getting a couple mine services so they are like new to use – when they’re working with that silky smoothness they’re just a joy.

  14. Thank you David, your experiment is very useful. I, too, have a Df and after using various digital cameras over the years (including mirrorless) still rate it as having the very best sensor out of them all. Like you I rate the 50mm f2 H as one of the best 50’s produced by Nikon and it suits the Df wonderfully. Having said that I find myself using the 50mm f1.4 AFD the most, simply to make life easier for my ageing eyes. I don’t rate the AFS version as it has no aperture ring, an odd (for Nikon) filter size (58mm) and is a “plastic fantastic” made in China.

    Have a look at a website created by Richard Haw, he repairs older Nikkors but before explaining how to repair a lens, provides details of its model history and a review of its performance on digital and film. Ironically, he too uses a Df! Richard has reviews of all the various 50’s from f1.2 downwards plus other focal lengths in the Nikon range. His website is well worth a visit.

    1. Cheers John! Thanks for all that. It seems your experience aligns closely with mine and I very much look forward to checking out John Haw’s site. It’s odd to think that one could feel nostalgic about a digital sensor, but that’s close to my feelings for the Df/D4. All the best.

  15. Nikon 50s… just a bunch of interesting options, and lovely work you’ve done on the bunch of them. And I happen to agree with the key conclusion on the f/2 lenses 🙂 They’re underrated gems.

    I used to own the less-nifty 50, the Ai-S 50mm f/1.2. It was a really good lens from f/2 on. Comparing it to a 50 f/2 Auto-H on a Nikkormat, though, it didn’t really justify its extra weight, size and cost. The sub-f/2 performance has its charm but somehow I never really made it work for me. I like character lenses, but this one is a bit a complicated character I think (more here: https://www.ww-web.nl/seriously-good-with-a-twist/). Since I mainly shoot a FM2, I changed it to the Ai 50mm f/2… to me eyes, it has all the same treats as the older pre-Ai lens.

    The f/1.8D, though…. perhaps it is sample variation, but I won’t use that for wide-open or near wide-open, and never for bokeh reasons. To my eyes, the ugliest rendering of the bunch and not a great performer below f/4. While I get why it is excluded from your list, the 50mm f/1.8G might well be the sweet spot for AF lenses. Lots of performace for the price.

    1. Thanks Wouter – I’m going to investigate that 1.2 further; thanks for the link. I very much doubt I’ll get one. (I keep hoping my new lens days are tailing off, but there always seems something new to check out). As for your f/1.8D; Hmmm – maybe your eye is more discerning, or maybe you got a dud? I think the optical formula is the same as the later 1.8s, (but I have not recently checked that) and I find mine very good. They’re only low res images as I’ve said, but the roll of Velvia 100 I put through the F4 was mostly wide open with that lens, and I really liked those – there’s a 5frames from that roll here on the site too if you want to see a couple more. Cheers.

  16. Great article David! I would add to your reply about film versus digital that if the only goal was the print, then yes, maybe shooting film and scanning anyway is a bit silly. This is not the case if part of the motivation is just to experience shooting film and intentionally challenging yourself to capture a competent image. Sometimes I feel like digital can be “too easy”, setting aside for the moment the obvious challenge of good, exciting, compelling etc., composition. The technical challenges are greatly diminished, and unless shooting in manual and something other than matrix metering pattern, you don’t have to think about analyzing the scene and remembering that the meter reads in 18% gray, and then making good choices from there. Having just acquired a Df (after a suitably long period of longing and planning) and most of the same 50’s as you, I am now incentivized to go back and do my own comparison of which combination I like best. Cheers.

    1. Thanks David. Yes I agree; the very first piece I did here was about shooting environmental portraits on E6 back in the 90s, and that process involved me spending the first 10-15 mins of any shoot just wandering round looking for decent light. Of course there is no reason NOT to do that on dig, but when it’s easier not to the temptation is not to bother.

      Personally (that word again) I like to use both together, as each informs the other. The temptation to bang off a frame anyway on dig can be good – if I had not pushed my dig shots into things like 3s handheld exposures I would not have seen the immediate results of that and then ventured into film with them.

      I also would not have started to learn about how sensors and film pick up cool things in very low light, and how they do that differently (to my eye). One thing I could have further said to Bruno is that it seems to me that as light levels change it seems that sensors and film respond differently. A LR preset that works in bright light won’t work in dim light etc. You only learn that stuff if you try it out.

      I hope you enjoy your Df – this article has made me rethink, or rather refine, my own views. The only thing I have against it at the moment is that it’s a bit bulky, but I can forgive it that given it’s the smallest FF DSLR Nikon made. And it is a bit tricky to learn. I gave mine to my daughter who has only shot an FM and FE, and she struggled because the kept pressing buttons by mistake and could not manually focus as easily.

      I wonder if I’ll end up getting a split screen and magnifier – I doubt it. I think I have found the sweet spot using AFD lenses for people and MF for my seascapes. Cheers.

  17. One of my favorite lenses on my D700 is my pre ai Nikkor H Auto 50mm f2 that I converted. It’s the silver nose version with the single blue coating. Absolutely gorgeous lens with the knurled focus ring.

  18. I really enjoyed this article. I’m not that much of a 50mm user myself, I did use a Series E for years but eventually discovered that 35mm is my favorite all around focal length. That said I’m also a fan of the f/2 Nikkor-H. I bought an Ai converted copy that came with the original hood, it’s really gorgeous looking. It’s so light that I always carry it.

    1. Thanks Neilson. I know I had an E Series on at least one of my cameras but I can’t remember which it was. All credit to Nikon for putting the same great optics in a lighter, less expensive lens. As I mentioned in some of the other comments I was a 35mm focal length guy for all the time I shot commercially on film until I changed to digital and had a pro short 35-70 f 2.8 zoom. I didn’t know much about lenses in those days and I still don’t. I guess I got lucky in my choices. PS those early metal hoods are the last word in cool I think.

  19. Great read, thanks David. I have a number of those lenses and, sadly, don’t have the eye to differentiate (Yet?). [if you’re not learning, you’re…]. I’ve tried them all on my XP2 and keep coming back to Fujifilms 35 1.4…I need to get out more. Cheers from sunny Toowoomba.

    1. Cheers Mark. That Fuji lens is one I have not tried. I think what puts me off is the size and price (and that I have too many lenses!) At first, I thought I would love, adapting Nikkors to my Fuji, but the bulk killed it for me. The form factor of the Fuji 27mm pancake really makes it a great package IMO. I’ve never been to Towoomba as it happens – and it’s been 40 yrs since I drove to Brisbane. I still remember the January heat though.

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