There are many “normal” 50mm prime lenses available for the Nikon F-mount. So many, that it can be difficult deciding for yourself which lens is right for you. Differences in performance as well as price are abound. Our goal in this article is to compare the 7 most common 50mm prime lenses from Nikon and well known third-party manufacturers.
These lenses are all excellent in their own rights. In most cases, it really comes down to how you’ll employ the lens. What’s important to a landscape photographer is not usually important to a portrait photographer, unless the lens will serve as a multi-purpose lens. Each photographer will have different needs and thus be looking for different qualities in a 50mm prime. By the end of this article, we hope you’ll have a better understanding of what each of these lenses has to offer and which is the best value for you.
Because each lens was designed to be used on FX DSLR and 35mm film SLR bodies, this test was performed on a 12.1MP Nikon D700 FX (Full-Frame) DSLR camera. This is to show each lens’ true performance, corner-to-corner. If you're shooting on a DX (APS-C) body, you're using the “sweet spot” of the lens. The DX sensor crop will show less vignette and more corner sharpness due to said sensor crop of the image circle. Note for DX users: Due to a 1.5x crop of the image circle, a 50mm lens is actually 75mm in FX equivalency. This means a 50mm lens is no longer a “normal” prime and is now in the short telephoto range.
To keep article size as small as possible and easy to follow, we will only go over basic qualities in the “Size/Ergonomics/Build Quality” category. Focusing instead on the performance aspects of each lens. We'll close the article with a summary and rating of the lenses according to their performance, as well as offer our own favorite picks.
- Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM EX ($499.00)
- Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4G ($439.95)
- Nikon Ai-S 50mm f/1.4 manual focus ($469.95)
- Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZF.2 manual focus ($725.00)
- Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G ($219.95)
- Nikon AF 50mm f/1.8D ($124.95)
- Nikon Ai-S 50mm f/1.2 manual focus ($699.95)
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM EX: The largest of our tested lenses, the Sigma features a 77mm filter thread (the only one in its class). Its ergonomics are great with a large focus ring at the front of the lens. The focus ring can be used at any-time, without the need to switch to MF mode, yet does feature a M/A switch. The HSM AF is very fast and very accurate. The lens is made of polycarbonate and features a nice matte finish. Weighing in at 1.11lb (505 g), this lens is the heaviest of the lenses tested. I find its weight and heft to be perfect and actually prefer a larger 50mm prime. It’s a substantial bit of glass. It also comes with a nice/large plastic hood. The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 features a 9 rounded blade diaphragm.
Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4G | Nikon AF-S 50mm f1.8G: Both the Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G and the Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4G feature a 58mm filter thread and are also about the same size. The 50mm f/1.4G does weight a little more than the 50mm f/1.8G, though. Ergonomics are in-line with Nikon’s typical AF-S primes. The lens is made of polycarbonate and features Nikon’s usual signature finish. Auto Focus is fast and accurate on both lenses; Although, the focus is significantly faster on the newer 50mm f/1.8G. As with most AF-S lenses, you can grab the focus ring at any time for MF. These two lenses are the only lenses to feature a rear mount gasket for improved weather sealing. The f/1.4G features a rounded 9-blade diaphragm and the f/1.8G features a rounded 7-blade design. Both lenses share the HB-47 lens hood.
Nikon Ai-S 50mm f/1.4 Manual Focus | Nikon Ai-S 50mm f/1.2 Manual Focus: The Nikon Ai-S lenses are built like tanks. Due to being a MF lens, their all-metal construction features extremely smooth focus rings. These lenses are a real joy to shoot with and are some of my favorites of all time. As expected, the 50mm f/1.4 is slightly smaller than the f/1.2 version. Both have 52mm filter threads. Both lenses have aperture rings with an Ai coupler pre-installed. The f/1.4 features a 7-blade diaphragm and the f/1.2 version features a 9-blade design.
Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZF.2 Manual Focus: Like the Ai-S lenses, the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZF.2 lens is built from solid metal and is manual-focus. It’s also a real joy to shoot with and is very accurate due to its large ratio focus ring. This lens features a 58mm filter thread and comes with an all-metal bayonet lens hood. The Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 features a rounded 9-blade diaphragm.
Nikon AF 50mm f/1.8D: A classic 50mm prime, this lens is made of polycarbonate and features a matte finish. It is the lightest of the tested lenses and also the smallest. It features a 52mm thread. While it is the cheapest of the tested lenses, this lens is still durable - yet has a very plastic feel when compared to the others in this class. Because it doesn’t have an in-built Silent Wave Motor for AF and is screw driven, the focus speed depends entirely on the body you’re using it. The focus ring cannot be turned manually without disengaging the AF screw drive via the AF/MF switch on the body, unlike the AF-S lenses. On the D7000 and D700, focus is very fast and accurate. This lens features a 7-blade diaphragm.
Each lens was tested in the following 5 performance categories (click on each image for larger view):
- Bokeh - The characteristics of the out-of-focus areas. Some lenses are smooth/creamy, while others have nervous/jittery characteristics.
- Bokeh Highlight - The characteristics of the out-of-focus areas at bright points of light when stopped down. This test is intended to show how well the diaphragm keeps it's "rounded" shape at smaller apertures. Apertures tested: f/2.8, f/4.
- Center Sharpness - Lens sharpness at the center of the frame.
- Corner Sharpness - Lens sharpness at the corner of the frame.
- Vignetting - light falloff at the corners of the frame.
Bokeh Highlight (f/2.8)
Bokeh Highlight (f/4)
Center Sharpness (f/1.2)
Center Sharpness (f/1.4)
Center Sharpness (f/1.8)
Center Sharpness (f/2.8)
Center Sharpness (f/4)
Center Sharpness (f/5.6)
Center Sharpness (f/8)
Center Sharpness (f/11)
Center Sharpness (f/16)
Corner Sharpness (f/1.2)
Corner Sharpness (f/1.4)
Corner Sharpness (f/1.8)
Corner Sharpness (f/2.8)
Corner Sharpness (f/4)
Corner Sharpness (f/5.6)
Corner Sharpness (f/8)
Corner Sharpness (f/11)
Corner Sharpness (f/16)
- The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 HSM EX DG was the only 50mm lens that wasn't a true 50mm. The Sigma tested more like a 45mm lens. This didn't effect it's performance, but was worth noting.
- The Nikon Ai-S Nikkor 50mm Manual Focus lenses don't have an f/1.8 aperture setting. Because of this, these lenses are absent in the f/1.8 aperture tables in the "Center/Corner Sharpness" categories.
- Our copy of the Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZF.2 lens over-exposed each shot by almost a full stop. This is not an issue, if you know to correct for it. We decided to leave the exposure compensation at "zero" during testing to show the lens' true performance without compensation. The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 had over-exposure issues too, especially at small apertures.
- The Sharpness tests were shot in the worst conditions possible - directly into bright sunlight. This was done on purpose to show the lens' sharpness and contrast characteristics in the least ideal conditions. This can actually be seen in the Nikon Ai-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.2/1.4 test shots when shot wide-open; there is a drastic loss of contrast, a massive lens flare and over-exposure. Another contributing factor: The Ai-S lenses don't come with lens hoods and their front lens elements are very close to the end of the lens barrel. These lenses will perform much better in more ideal situations and with the addition of a lens hood.
- All test images can be found also on flickr (grouped by lens):
- Sigma 50mm f/1.4 HSM EX DG
- Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G
- Nikon Ai-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4
- Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZF.2
- Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G
- Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D
- Nikon Ai-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.2
As you can see, these lenses perform very differently at each aperture. If you shoot mainly wide-open and don’t need to go faster than f/1.8, the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G is your best bet and was the sharpest of the lenses tested @ f/1.8. If you prefer a faster f/1.4 lens, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 HSM EX DG is great, as is the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G - both are sufficiently sharp at f/1.4 and sharpen up nicely as you stop them down. If you’re a landscape photographer, you’ll be stopping down most of the time; the Nikon Ai-S 50mm f/1.2 and f/1.4 were absolutely excellent stopped down and had the best contrast as did the Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D.
Best Lens Overall (Best Combination of Sharpness, Contrast, AF Speed/accuracy, Fall-off, Bokeh and Price)
- Nikon AF-S 50mm f1.8G (best performance per dollar spent)
Best sharpness wide-open (f/1.4 lens)
Best sharpness wide-open (f/1.8 lens)
Best sharpness stopped-down (f/4 and smaller)
Smoothest Bokeh (wide-open)
Most Nervous Bokeh (wide-open)
Best Contrast wide-open
Best Contrast stopped-down
Best Build Quality
- Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZF.2
- Nikon Ai-S 50mm f/1.2
- Nikon Ai-S 50mm f/1.4
- Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4G
- Nikon AF-S 50mm f1.8G
- Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM EX
- Nikon AF 50mm f/1.8D
My personal picks (if money is not an issue)