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Nikon 50mm f1.8 AI-S ‘Pancake’ Lens Review

It would have been nice if I could have had this review completed in time for Shrove Tuesday, including some crepe puns in the writing would have been fun, but maybe I’ll whisk slipping in the odd egg-selent joke here and there anyway.

Intro

I’d been thinking about a physically smaller Nikon F lens, I had looked at the 45mm f2.8 AI-P as a nice compact lens, something that would make the FM3a very portable & this lens was indeed launched to compliment the FM3a, but I was put oeuf by the current market price, it’s not horrendously egg-spensive, but I shoot mostly in the 24-35mm range so laying out a lot on an ordinary 45-50mm was difficult to justify. However, I was aware that some of the 50mm f1.8 lenses were quite compact, and that they could be picked up at reasonable prices, especially the black E series, so this is when I began investigating this particular group of lenses.

The Nikon 50mm f1.8’s

At last count I think there had been 11 different versions of the Nikon 50mm f1.8 F mount lens. Apart from the G lenses, they are 6 element 5 group arrangements, with a 7 straight bladed aperture. All the AF versions have a fairly respectable close focus distance of 0.45m, although as you might expect all those AF versions are a touch larger at 39mm deep. Of the manual focus versions though, four out of six of them more or less qualify as pancake lenses ranging from 24 to 27.5 mm deep. No match for the tiny 45mm f2.8 lenses in terms of size, but still pretty small when mounted. In my opinion though, there is a downside to this group of small, economic, relatively fast nifty-fifties. That’s the close focus distance, at 0.6m thats a tad longer than I like for some of the compositions I look for, just pushing me slightly further back from the subject when I’m looking to use the depth of field to isolate it.

Nikon FM3a & 50mm f1.8 AI-S shooting Tri-X on a relatively dull day at St. Peters, Heswall.

That is except for one version, and that’s one of the the 50mm f1.8 AI-S lenses, a version made specifically for the Japanese market between 1980 and 1982, this one combines the small size at just 27.5mm deep, but with the close focus distance of the AF lenses at 0.45m, that’s only 150mm or 6 inches batter than the other MF versions, I know it’s a small difference, but it matters to me, especially when you can have the choice to have either, I know which I would choose.

Nikon FM3a & 50mm f1.8 AI-S shooting Tri-X on a relatively dull day at St. Peters, Heswall.

I started looking to buy one, unfortunately with it being made specifically for the Japanese market, finding one in the UK was not possible in a reasonable time frame. I was therefore forced to look abroad, and as you might egg-spect they were mostly to be found in Japan, the thing was to make sure I was getting the correct one, as there was another similarly sized 50mm f1.8 AI-S made at a later date, but that one had the 0.6m close focus distance. The only reliable way to tell was by the serial number, between 2050001 – 2268017 then I was sure to get the one I wanted. Once I knew that, it was relatively easy to find a nice egg-sample and I found one for around £100, and it was delivered within a week even with the global pandemic going on.

Nikon FM3a & 50mm f1.8 AI-S shooting Tri-X on a brighter day at Arrowe Park.

Methods

Mounting it on the FM3a it gave a nice small profile, it also felt solid in the usual way that AI-S lenses do, the combination slipped into my tiny Think Tank Mirrorless Mover 10 bag with plenty of room to spare. Loaded with a roll of Tri-X, I shot the roll over few days during my daily egg-sercise walking Brian the dachshund in our local park and cemetery.

Nikon FM3a & 50mm f1.8 AI-S shooting Tri-X on a brighter day at Arrowe Park.

The results you can see throughout this review were arrived at by developing in HC110 dilution E incubated at 20ºC for 8mins with inversions for 10 secs every minute. The negatives were scanned with a full frame DSLR and 1:1 macro lens at full extension, processing the images in Lightroom and Negative Lab Pro plug in.

Nikon FM3a & 50mm f1.8 AI-S shooting Tri-X on a brighter day at Arrowe Park.

Results

Nikon FM3a & 50mm f1.8 AI-S shooting Tri-X on a brighter day at Arrowe Park, demonstrating to some extent the busier bokeh quality.

The photos you see throughout this review I think demonstrate that the lens is indeed sharp and contrasty, and I am sure I am not the first person to make these observations. I was interested to see how the out of focus areas stacked up to other versions, in my opinion as long as the OOF area was not too busy, then the results were quite appealing, but with lots of specular points then those bokeh balls became somewhat distracting. Rather similar to the AF-D version I would say, and perhaps that’s not too surprising. Gaining that level of performance in a smaller & better built package though, is a package worth having in opinion, and if you really want super bokeh, then you can always flip the pancake & there’s a whole load of 50mm f2.0 Ai and Pre-Ai to choose from.

© Copyright owner Steve Starr. First publication 24th February 2021.