To repeat myself in all my long-term review articles: This is not a scientific review with detailed graphs, charts, numbers and corner crops. There are already plenty of these on the internet. I believe those kinds of reviews fulfill a necessary function, but we don’t use our equipment in a laboratory. We use lenses to capture all manners of three-dimensional subjects in a multitude of environments at different distances under myriad lighting conditions. Since I always find myself looking for such actual end-user experience impressions, I decided to do one myself. 🙂
I bought the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G (abbreviated 50G) together with the AF-S Nikkor 28mm f/1.8G ED (reviewed here) at the end of 2013, so I have been using it for more than 2 years prior to this review.
Like all of Nikon’s 1.8G prime lenses, the feel of the 50G’s built materials won’t fill you with awe. These fast auto-focus lenses are also not made for manual focus accuracy. It is not fully weather-sealed, though the mount enjoys that privilege. Despite this, it is robust enough for the usual daily rubs and knocks.
The most outstanding physical characteristic of the 50G is of course its light weight and compact size. Weighing only 185g, The advantage and convenience of this cannot be underestimated. The 50G is so small that I can just stuff it into the corner of a bag with little cost in space and weight, whether or not I think I want to use it for the day. Mounting it onto a camera body is also quite liberating, as I am so much less encumbered while wielding my camera that it practically translates to subtle and much-appreciated improvements in freedom of movement. It may not look or feel impressive, but its small size allows it to score a home-run in real-life practicality during actual use outdoors, especially in urban areas.
The 50mm is a classic focal length, especially popularized by street photography master Henri Cartier-Bresson. Some people consider it the “standard” focal length that provides the “standard” field of view (I disagree with that, since “standard” is subjective.). The optical formula of a 50mm lens has remained relatively uncomplicated through the decades, and lens makers have been able to produce high-performance 50mm lenses at very affordable prices. (Although more complex and expensive 50mm lenses are also available.) For these reasons many well-meaning photographers recommend a fast 50mm prime lens as the first prime lens for a new photography initiate.
The problem is that a lot of people actually don’t know how to use a 50mm prime lens.
When I step into a second-hand lens shop, 50mm lenses make the longest rows in the shelves. When a new 50mm was released among rave reviews and praises of the photographic community, within a year I can see numerous listings of the same item on second-hand gear forums.
How did the “standard” focal length become so unappreciated? For the simple reason that I suggested earlier – “standard” is really not so standard after all. 😉
Consider this scenario: You are having a good time with family oand friends around a table. You want to take pictures of the people beside you or opposite you and you have a 50mm on your camera. You put the viewfinder to your eye. Then you realize you need to stand up. Then after standing up and putting the viewfinder to your eye again, you realize you need to move back. And move back again. And move back some more. Then you run into the possibility that you do not have a lot of space to move back, and start thinking about how inconvenient this “standard focal length” is.
That pretty much describes a 50mm lens. It does not give you a perspective that allows you to take casual shots of the scene before you, as the FOV is actually noticeably more narrow than that of a normal human’s FOV. This is why you find a lot of people saying that the 35mm lens is the better general purpose focal length for their use. Which is actually true for most people.
In summary, the 50mm perspective is neither wide enough for convenience and drama nor narrow enough for creative compression or flattering portraits. Despite this, photographers have found a use for it. It can be useful for environmental portraits. Some wedding photographers also use it by making close shots and leverage on that narrow FOV and DOF to create nice bokeh and reduce background clutter. Others find it useful for their non-macro food photography. It can even be useful in architecture photography.
An interesting use of the 50mm is found in the work of the man who popularized it – Henri Cartier-Bresson. HCB is the kind of street photographer who prefers to be un-noticed so he can capture scenes of people and life in its most natural and uninterrupted form. Hence, a little distance between him and his subject is necessary. The 50mm’s slightly narrow FOV gives him better reach than say, a 35mm. However, he also needs some coverage of the environment to provide context and depth to the entire image. This is when the 50mm’s reasonably wide FOV gives him the coverage he needs. Yes we have a paradox! The 50mm delivers a FOV that is neither too narrow nor too wide. To many photographers, “not too narrow, not too wide” sounds like a boring perspective that will create boring images. To HCB, it was just right. Everyone just needs to find out what works best for the way they approach their art.
Distortion is not noticeable in most real-world use, and the built-in lens correction profiles in the camera or in the major RAW converters will correct it easily. I took one image at f/1.8 in a shopping mall and CA is noticeable along the edges of lights and electronic signboards on close examination. However this is absolutely acceptable performance for a lens of this price and correctable during post-processing. In general, CA on the 50G has never really caused me much inconvenience. With regards to flaring and ghosting, there was only been one instance in all my 2+ years of using the 50G where a lamp shinning into the lens from a corner caused some slight ghosting. Other than that, this has never been a problem.
In terms of resolution, the 50G can produce some surprisingly good results even wide open as long as I can nail focus. Let us take a close look at an example at 1-1 magnification.
Stopped down sufficiently, the 50G can resolve very good amount of detail through the frame. The lens is sharpest between f/5.6 – f/8. Let us take a look at another example.
This crop is taken near the bottom-right corner of the image. There is enough detail here to reliably identify individual persons!
I don’t make a habit of scrutinizing resolution in the corners at wide open apertures, since I am actually hoping that every thing else except my subject will be blurred out. In general I have never been disappointed with the sharpness of the 50G where I need it. The only criticism I have is that the 50G lacks “character” compared to the 28G and the 85G, both of which I have used. The 28G has a wondrous way with light-and-shadow transitions and produces pixels that I could only describe as “pleasantly rendered”. The 85G has more CA than the 50G wide-open, but has a magical way with rendering colours that are unlike every other lens I have used before. The 50G is capable of creating high-resolution results like its siblings, but renders pixels in a somewhat harsh manner in comparison. I’ll call it “a little unrefined”. However we are getting a light, compact lens capable of excellent sharpness at a very affordable price. So it is quite reasonable to overlook this drawback which most people may not notice anyway.
I recommend all beginning photographers to shoot with their zoom kit lens for at least a year before picking a prime lens. In this way, you are making a well-informed and confident choice for a prime lens from the best work you have produced. Ignore the internet rabble who are obsessed with shoving various prime lenses at you to “elevate your photography to a new level”. You will be surprised with how many people end up NOT choosing the “standard focal length” 50mm as a preferred prime lens.
With that warning out of the way, the 50G is light, compact and offers great performance at a very affordable price. You could probably find a used 50G at a shockingly low price – since many people never follow my advice in the previous paragraph and ended up adding another entry to the rows of used 50mm lenses in second-hand shops and used-gear forums. ;D
Those who genuinely enjoy using 50mm and want better-performing options have many choices to pick from. The AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G has a faster aperture, but has slower AF. Its resolving power is also reportedly lower than its slower sibling at wide-open apertures until around f/4, where it starts to pull ahead. The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART is widely praised for its performance, but is significantly more expensive, is larger, and weighs 830g versus the 185g of the 50G. Zeiss offers a 55mm f/1.4 Otus, but that is even more expensive, larger, heavier and manual-focus only. Nikon has an AF-S 58mm f/1.4G, but that is also very expensive and is a specialty lens built for rendering aesthetics instead of resolution. Tamron has a 45mm f/1.8 with VC that offers excellent performance, but is slightly over twice the cost of the 50G, though still easily more affordable than the alternatives from Sigma and Zeiss.
With such a wealth of options to choose from, my recommendation to 50mm users is to identify your needs and wants. If you are not really making money from photography, or if you do not identify yourself as wealthy, or if you prefer something small and compact – the 50G is a fantastic lens and many working photographers are actually using it to deliver paying work. Conversely, if you are in the photography business and need the best results you can afford, or is happy to spend money on an expensive hobby – feel free to consider other higher-performance options.
Update: Also see comments section for advice about FOV from a reader.