I had thought about it for a while, but finally I had recently acquired a Nikon 50mm f1.2 AI-S, and that meant I now had 4 different 50mm prime lenses to shoot on my Nikon bodies. Two with auto-focus and two manual lenses:
Nikkor 50mm f1:2 Ai
AF Nikkor 50mm f1:1.8 D
AF Nikkor 50mm f1:1.4 D
Nikkor 50mm f1:1.2 Ai-S
So which of these should I be shooting and when, who knows, I could probably use any of them at any time, especially as most of the Nikon bodies I had were pretty accepting of different types of Nikkor lenses, and the AF ones are D type, so they have an aperture ring, making them handy to use on a wide range of Nikon bodies.
I therefore had an idea to do a quick comparison, to see what characteristics each lens may have, mostly closer focus as I tend to work that way quite a lot, plus I expected them all to have pretty good performance stopped down at longer distances anyway. I perhaps should have done this on digital, to exclude the vagaries of film and processing, I may come back to that another day, but as I shoot mostly film I decided that was the way to go, as well as to use colour to see if there was any difference in colour rendering, so Ektar it was, after all it’s supposed to have the world’s finest grain !
The test shots were made at box speed using a Nikon F6 on a Benro tripod, using matrix metering, single point focus (where applicable) and aperture priority to try and give some consistency while allowing for the different apertures. The film was processed in Tetenal C41 chemistry, scanned with a Nikon D750, and processed in Lightroom with Negative Lab Pro plug in.
So here are the results I got, each slideshow below is in the order of the fastest lens first and the slowest one last, so they go in the order f1.2, f1.4, f1.8, f2.0
⬆ Slideshow 1. Daylight, all wide open.
⬆ Slideshow 2. Daylight, all at f5.6
⬆ Slideshow 3. Daylight, all at f11
⬆ Slideshow 4. Artificial light 6500k bulbs. All wide open
⬆ Slideshow 5. Artificial light 6500k bulbs. All at f2.8
⬆ Slideshow 6. Artificial light 6500k bulbs. All at f2.0. Light points moved further away.
Well I could go through these slide shows one by one, and point out what you can see for yourself, and I think it would make pretty boring reading. For me the main takeaways are to do with equipment other than the lenses on their own. First off, those daylight shots, I think to get the best out those shots, really I needed appropriate lens hoods for that part of the shoot, the Spaghetti tin looked washed out in many of the shots, I’m sure a lens hood would have improved the contrast, a rookie mistake and I really need to improve my collection of lens hoods for sure, thats part of the problem buying used lenses, they often don’t come with all the bits they were originally supplied with.
Second point, my eyes are not what they used to be, and even with appropriate diopter adjustment its more difficult for me to nail manual focus these days. So the manual lenses, the f1.2 and f2.0 were at a disadvantage in my hands for sure. The F6 does have a focus confirmation dot, but on some surfaces and lighting such as the Spaghetti tin in this case it can get confused, and the best you can get is a simultaneous flashing of both over and under arrows, without the confirmation dot giving you a firm decision. However, from experience with both these lenses on camera bodies of their own age, such as an F2, with split image focussing, they can give tack sharp focussing, even with my malfunctioning eyesight.
In terms of the quality of the out of focus areas, this is a subject which I think is quite subjective, and depends on what you are looking for. Personally in this test I only found the f1.2 to give any of that painterly soft blending that I find attractive, but again from experience I know that the f2.0 can give that sort of result also, given the correct conditions, and perhaps the last slideshow 6 demonstrated some of that, as it was only the f2.0 that had nice round bokeh balls, perhaps not surprising as it was the only one wide open in that test. In practice though, how often can you shoot at f1.4 or f1.2, given the restrictions of ISO, available light and shutter speeds, and this may explain why the f2.0 can be a very usable lens in real world conditions.
And what of the AF lenses ? Well I have to say, that in future I will think twice about selecting the manual lenses on the F6, and will leave them anchored on the manual bodies. And in fact they both performed well, I think they demonstrated improved sharpness and better contrast, no doubt as well as the AF, the modern coatings had some influence on that point too. The f1.8 had a bit of a hiccup on slideshow 3, I was surprised by the lack of contrast in that shot, and I suspect user error. Having said that, it is a perfectly usable lens, and is a great place to start your Nikon prime collection and at a bargain price too. However if you can spare the extra money the f1.4 is to me streets ahead in image quality, the smoothness of the out of focus areas in particular when wide open, to me would be worth the extra money.
So which do I like best ? Well I will say straight away I’m going to cop out on this one, because the answer is, it depends ! For manual bodies I wouldn’t want to part with either the f1.2 or the f2.0, the f1.2 has the best bokeh of these 4 lenses, but I know that the f2.0 can be just the lens for a characterful result, particularly for flowers and country scenes, plus it’s a touch lighter to cart round than the f1.2.
As for the two AF lenses, I very much appreciate the f1.4, while the f1.8 is not as good and has no other advantages to offer, so I may part with the f1.8, although I wouldn’t get a lot for it so it just may stay in my collection as a spare.
If you got this far then I hope you found my meandering thoughts useful, if you have any questions that I may be able to answer please don’t hesitate to send a comment.
© Copyright owner Steve ‘Stig’ Starr, first publication 8th November 2020.