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Got one at last! AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G

Posted by Dogbytes, 28 December 2020 · 114 views

Some years ago, I was in Paris and I happened to meet up with some friends who fancied visiting the Louvre. I’d never been much impressed with the Mona Lisa. Like most people I’d only see pictures of it and they always seemed to be a muddy brown colour. Also, for as long as could remember, all I’d ever read about it was how much smaller it was than people expected and how the vast crowds flocking to admire it were hurried past its sanctuary behind bullet proof glass, at the end of a long dark corridor. Imagine my surprise, therefore, to find it in the middle of a spacious gallery, where I and the other three or four viewers could stand within about three metres of it and gaze to our hearts’ content. And gaze I did, it was worth a gaze of two. Having been conditioned to expect something about the size of a postcard, I was pleasantly surprised how big it was - and how colourful! I can only imagine that the pictures I’d seen over the years were some old library pic and the actual item had since received some TLC. It is a genuinely lovely piece of work. Sometimes, things just get a bad rap.

I’ve used a lot of camera systems and I’ve always liked 50mm lenses. I’ve had some good ones - an Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/1.2 produced some great results but my favourite was the 1953 Leitz 5cm Summicron collapsible I had on my Leica M3. For the last six years I’ve used Nikon DSLRs, a D610 first and now the D850. I tried a 50/1.8D and then a 50/1.4D on the D610 and then, when I got the D850, having read all the learned reviews, I went with the AF-S 50mm f/1.8G. Smaller, cheaper, lighter and sharper than the 1.4 version, don’t you know. It is the most boring, characterless lens I’ve ever had the misfortune to own. Nikon’s list of recommended lenses for the D850 didn’t include ANY of their standard lenses - now that’s a condemnation if ever there was one. In fact the nearest it came was the notorious AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G.

I had always fancied trying the 58mm f/1.4 but there were two flies in that particular ointment - it has the reputation for being (1) expensive and (2) not particularly good. Now, the expensive bit is indisputable, it’s about £1700 RRP, four or five times the price of the 50/1.4G and six times the price of the 50/1.8G! However, although 80% of reviews pretty much condemned the 58mm either completely or, at the very least, on a value for money basis, the remaining 20% were pretty insistent that it was the best thing since sliced bread - although they mostly agreed it wasn’t worth the money too. There is always the second-hand market but the 58/1.4G doesn’t appear very often, it seems that when people do buy them, they keep them. That, at least, has to be encouraging.

My feeling was that the bad points that the reviewers talked about, I could probably live with, whereas the good points, I’d be really keen to have. However, a new one would be completely out of the question. I’d need to be able to get all or most of my outlay back if I decide I hated it. Then, recently, well last weekend to be exact, I found a minty mint used one at a price I could manage if not exactly afford. What I tend to do, in these cases, is buy them at a good price, do the job / get them out of my system, as appropriate and then sell them to cover my costs. It’s cheaper than renting!

Here’s the thing. People like Nikon do not set out to design a lens and then accidentally produce a piece of crap - especially not when it comes to their built-in-Japan, gold-ringed, prestige glass. Once you start building things to perform better in one area, it is likely to develop certain issues in another area. Such is the nature of specialism. If your average reviewer comes along and expects said specialist kit to behave like an all rounder, then those issues are likely to become, well, an issue. There are exceptions of course but they fall within the remit of things like the £4K Zeiss Otus and £7k Leica Apo Summicron Aspherical lenses, a sub-£2k Nikon is not going to compete with either those and why would anyone expect them to? It’s worth mentioning that neither of the two exotics mentioned even have autofocus. You know, just in case that’s an issue...

The bit that swung it for me, was that I don’t tend to use my 50mm as a general purpose lens. My general purpose lens is my other one (I only have two at any one time) the 70-200mm f2.8E FL which is, incidentally, the best lens I’ve ever used. You see, I take most of my pics outdoors - of dogs, wildlife and random rural stuff. The 50 tends to get used at indoor events, parties, etc. So it hasn’t had a lot of use at all this year! I do take pics of the dogs indoors but they tend to be portrait type things with the dogs in repose.

It’s a pretty lens. It’s well-proportioned, a decent size without being too big and solid without being too heavy to carry in conjunction with a biggish DSLR. The front element is well recessed and has that gorgeous green tint that the Nano-coated lenses do. That front element is a fair old size compared to the 50/1.8 I’ve been using. It’s nicely built too. I can’t help but laugh at the the idiots that mention, disparagingly, the fact that the shell of the lens is plastic. It’ll be polycarbonate, a very strong, stable and highly durable material capable of being easily formed into shapes it would take a five-axis mill to replicate in aluminium/magnesium/brass. The reduction in cost here can manifest itself in a lower cost lens or an expensive lens with a greater proportion of the cost being invested in the glass, where it really counts - or a combination of the two. Did I mention the shell is plastic? The focusing ring is the very nicest focusing ring I’ve ever encountered on a Nikon AF-S lens, it is very good. No, not as nice as a high end MF lens but very close. Speaking of focusing, AF performance is respectable. Actually it’s a bit weird, all AF f/1.4 lenses are going to be fairly slow - they have to be pretty finely geared to be as accurate as they need to be at f1.4. This one is as quick as my AF-S 50/1.8 in certain conditions but a bit slower, not much slower, in others. From memory, it’s a bit quicker than my old 50/1.4. It isn’t going to catch my Lurchers heading directly towards me at 45mph once they get within 10 or 15 metres but other than that it’s perfectly fast enough. It’s quiet too, the only Nikkor AF lens I’ve ever owned that focussed this quietly was one of the AF-P stepper-motored zooms. I guess it’s got a proper ring motor rather than a micro motor but you’d have to check.

I can’t delay any longer, we have to talk about how it performs...
First, a word about the 58mm thing. Yes,I know it harks back to the 58mm f/1.2 Noct. of myth and legend but still, at first glance, it seems an odd choice. In my considered opinion it’s where most of its problems originate. What I mean is it’s in the 50mm range, therefore people will assume it’s a ‘standard’ general purpose lens - and it just isn’t. If they’d called it the AF-S 60mm f/1.4G they might have done it a favour. In fact, 50mm is not really the ‘standard’ length on 35mm/Full Frame anyway. That is usually considered to be the diagonal of the frame, which in the case of 36x24 would be about 43mm (which would be a nice length for a general purpose lens, if you ask me) so 58mm is about 33% longer than that, which for me places it firmly in short telephoto territory. Now, if you start talking about it as a short telephoto, then portraiture springs immediately to mind and everything about it starts to make a lot more sense. Well, perfect sense, actually.

I’ve read the reviews, all of them, more than once. Most, written by pixel peepers and therefore not really concerned with actual photography. However they do throw up some odd results. For example I’ve seen the contrast test with the black and white chart shot at various apertures. They all show a clear difference in contrast between the lens at f/1.4 and, say, f5.6 which simply doesn’t exist in real life. Wide open, this lens is more contrasty than I need and I usually end up toning it down a bit in post.

AF Fine Tuning. This lens, or to be precise, my copy and all the others I’ve read about, require some fine tuning of the focus. At about 3 metres, mine back focuses a bit and +5 on the fine tuning scale seems to have it sorted out. The thing with the AF Fine Tuning thing is that, of course, it only fixes the issue at the range at which you test the lens. You really have to decide where you’re most likely to use it and adjust for that - or test it at several distances and remember the settings so you can adjust to suit. Again, this really disappears, as an issue, if you’re a professional portrait photographer, working at pretty much the same distances all the time.

Sharpness. The elephant in the room. Straight off the bat, it’s not the sharpest lens in the world. Compared to my 70-200/2.8E FL it is soft. How soft? Well, enough that I keep thinking it just isn’t quite in focus. I have the same problem with my 50/1.8G, maybe not quite to the same extent but it’s only a matter of degrees. Stopping down just means that even more of the image has the appearance of being not quite in focus... Nikon make an AF-S Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8, it’s a macro lens and it’s razor sharp, frankly, it’s not a great portrait lens. The 58, well, that’ll get enough details in a portrait subject’s irises to keep you happy and anything more than that is the purview of other lenses. After all, Nikon currently list over 60 FX-format F-Mount lenses, there are plenty to choose from.

The 3D effect is actually a thing! Obviously not as in the subject moves relative to the background, like the perspective effect on your iPad but neither is it just the normal separation from the background, which you’d expect from a wide-aperture lens, that I was expecting when I read about it. There is a definite, if somewhat indescribable ’wrap-around’ of the main subject. It is very cool!

The lens does have one glaring technical fault. LoCA, longitudinal chromatic aberration, purple fringing - and it is BAD! I know it’s bad because people write about it in connection with other lenses and I never notice it. On this lens I notice it, wide open against the light, tree branches don’t have purple edges - they’re completely purple. I believe it can be easily removed in Photoshop or Lightroom, I wouldn’t know, I use neither of them but I’m sure Affinity Photo could remove it too - if it bothered me that much. This is a lens which produces images which I find suit monochrome particularly well. Purple? What’s purple? You might suggest that purple fringing isn’t so obvious through rose-tinted specs, I couldn’t possibly comment...

This lens has character. Proper, genuine, love it or hate it, inspiring and frustrating, character. My AF-S Nikkor 70-200E FL ED VR is, without the slightest shadow of a doubt, the best lens I have ever owned. It performs miracles flawlessly and utterly reliably BUT, and this is the dangerous bit, the AF-S 54 f/1,4G could well be my favourite lens ever. Yes, more than my Olympus’s, more even than my old Leitz M glass, and that’s saying something. I might even finding myself keeping the 58 and selling my 70-200 and that would not be very sensible. Here’s the thing though, for the last couple of months I’ve found the D850 and the 70-200 somewhat sterile. Yes, I truly believe that the D850 is the best all round camera in the world and the AF-S Nikkor 70-200E FL ED VR is the best of its kind in the world but I want something more interesting, something a bit quirky and I’d pretty much made up my mind to sell up and buy a Sigma FP. Now I’m thinking I could live very happily with just the D850 and the 58/1.4.

We can’t talk about an f/1.4 lens without talking about bokeh. The character of out-of-focus highlights. We all talk about it, we all know it when we see it but it’s a bit like fine wine - you start to get a bit fussy about it. For me, good bokeh is essential but it’s not enough. I mean, not all out of focus areas are highlights, what about the big, neutral bits? Also, what if the highlights are IN focus? How does the lens deal with that? I know these characteristics are a bit less intrusive than out of focus highlights but still, once you notice them you can’t really un-notice them. Some lenses are well known for their abilities in these regards. The Leica Noctilux, for example renders point light sources beautifully, in or out of focus, right to the edge of frame. The App Summicron Aspherical is noted not only for the beauty of its out of focus rendering but the speed at which the focus ‘falls off’. you might not notice these things when you look at a photograph but you’ll notice the overall effect. They just look ‘nicer’.

The very first thing I noticed about the out of focus areas of the 58/1.4G, shot wide open, was that they’re not so much out of focus as rendered as sort of soft abstract pattern that looks like a painting. Completely unrecognisable as what they might actually be. It’s a subjective thing but I love it and I’ve never seen any other lens do it. Maybe the 200/2 can, but I doubt it (besides which they’re hardly comparable).

It came as no surprise to find, during the course of writing this article, that lens designer Haruo Sato also designed the very highly regarded 35/1.4 and 105/1.4. They are both great performers and critically acclaimed lenses but they are more, well, conventional in how they do what they do and I can’t help feeling that Sato san’s best effort was the 58/1.4 - although it is probably also his most misunderstood.

A nice post about a woefully misunderstood lens. It reminds me more of the Xenotar 80/2 I use and love on my Rollei 6008i than any other current 50-ish AF lens. 

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Always liked the look of the Rollei but I’ve never used one. 

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Very good review, well written and articulate. 

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January 2021

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