Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D

Introduction

Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D is one of two 50mm primes that Nikon currently offers in its modern lineup. The second 50mm prime is the slightly slower Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D. The current version of the 50mm f/1.4D was first released in 1995, replacing the fully manual version of Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 Ai-S. Well, technically speaking, the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D replaced the older auto-focus AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4s lens that was introduced circa 1986. It is also worth mentioning that Nikon actually continued offering Ai-S and AF-D lenses side by side for quite some time, and only recently (circa 2006) discontinuing all manual focus lenses. At ~US$270 (as of August 2008), the lens remains quite affordable for mainstream users.

The optical construction of the lens consists of 7 elements in 6 groups. This mirrors the optical formula of the previous version of the 50mm prime, Nikon 50mm f/1.4 Ai-S, which leads me to speculate that these two lenses are probably identical in optical performance, with the newer version just adding an AF. There are actually some other, non-optical changes as well - the body of the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D is plastic, with pretty cheesy overall look and feel, whereby the older Ai-S version sports a fully metal barrel. The AF version no longer has a meter coupling shoe, so if the lens is used on a pre-Ai Nikon camera, all metering information will have to be entered manually. But with plastic barrel comes lighter weight - the lens weights only 230g (9oz) and measures 66 x 43mm (2.5 x 1.7in), although the lens extends slightly during focusing towards closeup (still remaining quite compact by all standards).

Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D, like all AF-D lenses, does not have a dedicated auto-focusing motor. The auto-focusing is performed mechanically and is possible only on cameras that have a focusing drive screw. The drive screw locks into a slot on the base of lens mount and rotates the lens to move it into focus. As of August 2008, only Nikon D40/D40s and D60 cameras did not incorporate the focusing drive screw - the lens would have to be focused manually on these cameras. The lens supports both electronic as well as manual aperture control. The dedicated aperture rings moves from f/1.5 to f/16 in one full f-stop increments. To control the aperture settings from the camera, the ring first has to be moved to the f/16 position and locked in that position using a tiny switch right above the ring itself. While in electronic aperture control mode, the lens fully supports program, aperture and shutter priority modes.

The lens sports a DOF scale, however, the scale has only two markings at f/11 and f/16, which makes the scale not so useful in general. The lens incorporates ROM contacts, which transfer distance information from the focal plane to the object to allow for advanced 3D Matrix Metering. The minimum focusing distance is 45cm (1.5ft), where the lens has the maximum reproduction ratio of 1:6.8. The front element of the lens does not rotate during focusing, which allows using circular polarizers. The filter thread is 52mm.

Image

The factory box includes Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D lens, front and rear lens caps, manual and registration card. The lens is compatible with optional HR-2 metal lens hood. Like all AF-D lenses, AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D is a full frame lens, so if the lens is used on an APS-C body with 1.6x crop factor, its field of view will resemble that of a 80mm prime on a full frame body. Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D is easily adoptable to a number of alternative mounts, including Canon's EF/EF-S and Olympus' Four THirds. Within the scope of this review, the lens was tested on a full frame Nikon D3 as well as full frame Canon 5D and APS-C type Canon Digital Rebel XTi. When testing the lens on Canon bodies, I relied on generic, non AF-chipped Nikon F to EOS adapter.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 7 elements in 6 groups
Angular Field 46 degrees
Minimum Focus 45cm/1.5ft
Focusing Action AF/MF
f-stop Scale f/1.4-f/16, camera/manual
Filter Size 52mm
Lens Hood HR-2 (optional)
Weight 230g/9oz
Dimensions 64.5x42.5mm/2.5x1.7"
Lens Case None

 

Field Tests

Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D is a typical AF-D lens. Hence it handles pretty much like any AF-D lens. And like all AF-D lenses, 50mm Nikkor offers both manual as well as auto focusing and electronic aperture control. However, it feels like both auto focusing, as well as electronic aperture control were sort of an after thought for Nikon lens designers. And by all accounts, they actually were, since Nikon chose to make all AF-D lenses fully compatible with its extensive range of cameras of that time, which pretty much rules out any drastic changes to the mount or the lenses. Hence all AF-D lenses are essentially Ai-S lenses that have a slot on the base to allow the in-camera screw drive control the focusing by moving the lens elements in and out of focus until the camera's AF confirmation catches the focus. Since the lens does not have a built in motor, the AF system performance mostly depends on the camera itself. At least on Nikon D3 focusing was more or less smooth. I say more or less because once in a while the focusing system hunted back and forth before settling in a position. And unlike silent ultra sonic motors found in many modern lenses, AF-D lenses focus with a pretty loud noise - there's a distinct 'vzhiiik' that can be heard every time the camera screw drive rotates in-lens mechanics.

However, the fact that AF-D lenses were designed to be fully backward compatible and therefore retain manual focusing as well as aperture control rings makes the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D a good candidate for adoption to alternative mounts. Naturally, when used as an alternative lens on say a Canon SLR, you would loose both AF functionality as well as automatic aperture control. And while AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D is a pretty bright lens, you should still consider investing in an AF confirmation adapter or at least a focusing screen to make focusing easier.

Performance-wise, AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 showed rather mixed performance in the field. The lens performed quite poorly at wider apertures, particularly at f/1.4 on both full frame as well as APS-C cameras, where both center as well as borders were noticeably soft. Image quality did improve by f/2.8 and from that level on remained quite good with no major visible difference between the center and borders.

 

ISO 400, 1/250, f/1.4, 50mm (Nikon D3)
ISO 400, 1/250, f/1.4, 50mm (Nikon D3)

 

When shot with wide open aperture, the lens produced well rounded out of focus highlights that carried sharply defined outlines - typical of lenses with over-correction for spherical aberration. On the positive side, there was no sign of double-edging around OOF objects and contrast transitions in near/far OOF areas were pretty smooth.

 

Vignetting @ f/1.4 - full frame vs 1.6x crop
Vignetting @ f/1.4 - full frame vs 1.6x crop

 

The lens showed pretty noticeable vignetting on a full frame camera at f/1.4. Light falloff was still quite noticeable at f/2 and even f/2.8, finally disappearing around f/4. The lens behaved much better on an APS-C, showing only minimal traces of vignetting at f/1.4, which were pretty much gone by f/2.8.

Regretfully, the lens fell prone to pretty heavy flare at wider apertures with strong, direct light sources positioned in or near the picture frame. In the shots below, sun rays were hitting the lens at ~45 degree angle. As can be seen from the shots, the lens produced both flare as well as ghosting at f/1.4. Flare greatly reduced contrast across the entire frame. However, amount of flare was greatly reduced with stopped down aperture and at f/8, flare, while still visible, did not cause as much damage as with wide open aperture.

 

Top: ISO 200, 1/8000, f/1.4; Bottom: ISO 200, 1/2500, f/8 (Nikon D3)
Top: ISO 200, 1/8000, f/1.4; Bottom: ISO 200, 1/2500, f/8 (Nikon D3)

 

Color reproduction was also a mixed bag. At wider apertures, particularlyat f/1.4, the lens produced images with somewhat washed out colors. A significant contributing factor here was the lens' pretty low resolution across the entire frame, which obviously also reduces the amount of contrast, making the pictures look lifeless. Things actually improve quite drastically around f/2.8, with both color and contrast returning to pretty normal levels. Other then that, the lens showcased good handling of color fringing, including axial CA.

 

ISO 200, 1/8000, f/1.4, 50mm (100% crop)
ISO 200, 1/8000, f/1.4, 50mm (100% crop)

 

Lab Tests

Please note that MTF50 results for APS-C and Full-Frame cameras as well as cameras from different manufacturers are not cross-comparable despite the same normalized [0:1] range used to report results for all types of cameras.

 

Nikon APS-C: Coming soon...

 

Nikon FF: Nikon AF Nokkor 50mm f/1.4D showcased somewhat mixed performance on a full frame Nikon D3. The lens shows clear weakness at wider apertures, where both center as well as border performance are pretty dismal. Image quality steadily improves with stopped down aperture, but center performance does not reach solid levels until f/2.8 and border image quality does get a good boost until about f/4. From f/4 through the rest of the aperture, image quality remains excellent across the entire frame. Performance in this range actually remains well balanced with no major gaps between the image center and borders. Conclusion? Disappointing performance at f/1.4 and f/2 in general and somewhat disappointing border performance at f/2.8. It is in general expected that ultra fast lenses will show some border weakness at widest apertures, but AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D does not impress even at f/2.8, which is rather hard to swallow.

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm

 

The lens showed pretty minimal levels of chromatic aberration in the center, where CA never exceeded ~0.3px. CA around borders was slightly higher, but even there it never exceeded ~0.7px across the entire tested aperture range. So it should not be a major issue in general.

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 50mm
Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 50mm

 

Here are 100% crops taken with a full frame Nikon D3, comparing images at f/1.4 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8
Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8

 

Canon APS-C: The lens performance on an APS-C camera was quite decent. f/1.4 remains the weakens point with both center as well as border image quality suffering quite noticeably. Quality does improve with stopped down aperture and at f/2 center is already quite solid. Borders however are still lagging and performance here is not very impressive. But stop down to f/2.8 and image quality gets a significant boost - both center as well as border performance from f/2.8 through the rest of the tested aperture range excellent. Moreover, performance in this range is very well balanced across the frame. The lens performance is at its best from f/2.8 through f/8, where it is capable of delivering excellent 19in and decent 24in prints. Conclusion? The overall performance is quite good, despite the weakness at wider apertures (which is by the way sort of expected).

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 50mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 50mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm

 

Chromatic aberration on an APS-C type Canon Digital Rebel XTi quite low, never exceeding ~0.5px in the center and ~0.8px around borders. Border CA was highest at f/1.4, where it reached ~0.75px, but then dropped to a much more manageable ~0.55px by f/8. Center CA was more or less stable throughout the aperture range, although CA actually increased ever slightly around f/11.

 

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 50mm
Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 50mm

 

Here are 100% crops taken with an APS-C type Canon Digital Rebel XTi, comparing images at f/1.4 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8
Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8

 

Canon FF: Regretfully, the lens did not manage to hold its ground on a full frame Canon 5D and its overall performance was somewhat similar to that shown on a Nikon full frame camera rather then cropped sensor Canon 400D. Image quality at wider apertures clearly suffered - both center as well as border performance at f/1.4 are rather dull (mildly speaking). Even f/2 is not much better. Center performance here reaches an OK level, but border quality still lags. By f/2.8 performance in the center finally reaches outstanding levels, with border quality also finally 'turning the corner'. From f/2.8 through f/11 image quality is quite good, and actually from f/4 through f/11 is simply outstanding. Well, there are no major surprises here. Performance in the wide aperture range is the major problem. Other then that...

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm

 

The lens showed somewhat high amount of barrel distortion - at ~1% distortion can be visible in certain shots. This is rather unexpected and disappointing, considering that we're dealing with a standard prime here.

 

Distortion (FF) @ 50mm
Distortion (FF) @ 50mm

 

Chromatic aberration on a full frame Canon 5D was more or less under control. CA in the center was quite low, never exceeding ~0.5px across the tested aperture range. Surprisingly, CA in the center creeped up a little bit towards f/11 - nothing serious, but still... CA around borders was ~0.8px at the widest aperture, slowly dropping to ~0.55px by f/11. Overall, nothing to worry about.

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 50mm
Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 50mm

Here are 100% crops taken with a full frame Canon 5D, comparing images at f/1.4 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8
Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8

Alternatives

Nikon currently offers one other 50mm prime, the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D, which does not really offer any major benefits (except price obviously) when compared to its faster version. In search for alternatives, you can obviously consider 3rd party lenses, such as Sigma's 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM, or its slower, macro version, Sigma Macro 50mm f/2.8 EX DG. Speaking of macro lenses - if you don't mind using a slightly slower lens that also combines macro capabilities, then Nikon AF Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8D offers an outstanding image quality at reasonable price. Ultimately though, your choice of auto-focusing lenses in Nikon F mount is somewhat limited. That is of course unless you are willing to consider manual focus lenses, in which case your choice can include a number of quite interesting lenses. The first on that list is Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 ZF and its macro version Carl Zeiss Makro Planar T* 50mm f/2 ZF. Both lenses were introduced relatively recently. Both lenses offer superb image quality combined with excellent build quality, albeit at a rather high price. Another interesting option is Cosina's Voigtlander Nokton 58mm f/1.4 SLII, which replaces the older, discontinued Voigtlander Topcor 58mm f/1.4 SL, and slightlly shorter Voigtlander Ultron 40mm f/2 SLII. Both lenses sport superb build quality (no wonder since Cosina is also the manufacturer of all new Carl Zeiss lenses) and image quality that matches that of the best in this class. Also don't forget Nikon's older, discontinued manual focus primes, including the trio of 50mm lenses - Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S, Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 Ai-S and Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 Ai-S.

If you are a Canon user, considering AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D as an alternative to your native gear, you might wonder how this lens performs against a native 50mm Canon lens. Well, below are two charts comparing Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D to its Canon competitor, Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM.

 

Normalized MTF50 (Center) - Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D vs Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
Normalized MTF50 (Center) - Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D vs Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

 

Normalized MTF50 (Borders) - Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D vs Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
Normalized MTF50 (Borders) - Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D vs Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

 

As can be seen from the chart, each lens has its own strengths and weaknesses. Canon's lens excels in the center at wider apertures, while Nikon's prime outperforms its competitor at wider apertures around borders. But from f/2.8 through f/11 performance of both lenses is very similar - a bit better here, a bit worse there.

 

Recommendation

Despite the aging design of the lens, AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D remains a pretty strong contender in the world of 50mm primes. The lens is not without weaknesses - image performance at wider apertures, especially f/1.4 leaves quite a bit of room for improvement. Vignetting on full frame cameras, as well as pretty nasty flare with wider apertures cause some concern. Heavier then expected barrel distortion and pretty low levels of contrast at wide apertures are two other points to dwell about. Ultimately though, at less then US$300, the lens remains a pretty attractive choice for photographers of any path.