About the Recumbent Reviews
Welcome to the the second in the series of Recumbent Reviews!
This series of articles will examine photographic equipment and accessories from the ordinary user’s point of view. You’ll find none of that snobby “I’m an expert so my opinion is the final word” guff you get from the professional reviewers you’ll find elsewhere on the interwebs. Here we’ll break new ground by throwing out a lot of opinion seasoned with speculation with a side order of silliness and whimsy.
Hopefully you’ll enjoy yourself while learning all about stuff that will help you take better pictures while draining your bank account.
Following my first Recumbent Review of the Nikon SB-900, I received a lot of e-mail from readers requesting that in future reviews I increase the photograph-to-text ratio and include more images taken using the actual equipment reviewed. Unfortunately for my ego, these requests did not come from lovers of pretty pictures but from English Lit. majors. I intend to use many photos in this post but I will, however, also try extra hard to increase the verbiage just to spite my critics. How do you like that, quillheads?
Warning: This section is intended for the most nerdy of camera geeks. If you begin reading this section and doze off, jump to the next section when you wake up.
The Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-S is Nikon’s fastest lens still being produced, but it wasn’t Nikon’s first f/1.2. In case you don’t know what “f/1.2” or “fast” means in terms of lenses, don’t worry… I’ll get into that in the “Why Nikon Made Them” section. I’ll do my best to make the explanation as painless as possible for the average non-photographer whose computer froze on this page and has no choice but to read this post.
The 50mm f/1.2 isn’t the fastest lens ever made by Nikon. They started making a production f/1.1 in 1956 and made a prototype f/1.0 in 1962 for their rangefinder cameras.
I’m a little unclear on when Nikon started making lenses of the f/1.2 variety for their SLRs — I looked around the notoriously unreliable internet for the info when I was seriously sleep deprived. I’m fairly confident that they were around in 1965, but that lens was a 55mm.
Then came a 50mm f/1.2 in ’78, then a pre-AI-S in ’79, then the first actual 50mm f/1.2 AI-S was sold in September of ’81. Wherever you want to draw the line, my lens’ family goes way back and the design has remained virtually unchanged for decades and decades, although I’ve heard some of the parts are made with even better more-modern materials than the earlier models. I bought mine in 2009 and found out it was manufactured in 2008.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, AI and AI-S are just different mechanical systems for the lens to communicate information about its focal length and aperture settings to the camera.
To go slightly off topic for a second, there was a significant variation of the lens introduced in February of 1977. This lens was called the NOCT-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2. What made this lens so different was that it contained aspherical elements, which means that some of the lens surfaces had fancy curves that tuned the lens to perform really well, especially in low-light conditions. This design also bumped up the price a whole lot. It also means that it while the non-NOCT 50mm is rated “Legendary”, the NOCT 58mm lens gets the highest rating on the HoaiPhai Scale of Admiration, “Mythological”. Unfortunately, they stopped making the NOCT in 1997 so if you want one, you’ll have to settle for a used one — they go for over $3,000 these days.
Back to the 50mm f/1.2…
Why Nikon Made Them
Nikon made 50mm f/1.2 lenses for two reasons…
Because the world needed “fast” lenses.
Because they could.
Seriously, a modern zoom lens for a digital SLR is usually somewhere around an f/4. An f/1.2 lens lets in about 11 times the light of an f/4 so you could use a shutter speed that is 11 times faster! You could even take pictures at night by the light of streetlights using 60s-era film, but it’s quite tricky to load 35mm film into a digital SLR so you may as well just take my word on it.
Why You Shouldn’t Get One
When this lens was first made, films were pretty “slow” and cameras didn’t have image stabilization or any of the other modern wonders that come standard even on today’s inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras. Fast lenses were the only solution to taking photos in low-light situations where you didn’t want to use a flash or tripod.
Today’s photographers are as spoiled as Paris Hilton’s chihuahua on its birthday. Advances in our understanding of physics, materials sciences, and electronics have made miracles possible. Today’s cameras are capable of automatically focussing, setting exposure, and balancing colour temperature. Most modern digital cameras are very capable in low-light situations and have image stabilization systems built-in.
My “kit lens”, a pretty nice Nikkor 18-200mm, has image stabilization that is supposed to give you 3 stops of extra playing room. At 50mm, the maximum effective aperture is f/4.8, which is 5 stops slower than my f/1.2, so taking into account the 3 stops image stabilization gives me, that means my picture with the zoom will be 2 stops underexposed. All I have to do is set the camera’s ISO, i.e. its sensitivity to light, 2 stops faster! I now can take pictures in the same light that my father could take using an f/1.2 lens in the ’60s, but I have a zoom lens, at f/4.8 I have a lot more depth-of-field, and the auto-focus system is taking care of critical focus anyway!
Granted, my 18-200mm zoom has a lot more distortion than the 50mm, but because we’re talking digital we have to put the photo on the computer where it is easy to correct the distortion.
Another thing is that modern digital SLRs are designed to take modern lenses that tend to be auto-focus, so cameras’ focussing screens are not designed to help you focus — they’re more of an optical display panel on which you can compose the shot. With really fast lenses, modern focussing screens won’t show what will end up in the final image. You’ll really have a tough time accurately focussing an f/1.2 wide open with a digital camera and OEM focussing screen.
For about the same money, you could buy a zoom with image stabilization that most non-pros would be more than happy with.
For those of you who are looking for a practical prime (i.e., non-zoom) lens, Nikon has two auto-focus 50mm f/1.4 lenses for less money than the $650 I paid for my manual f/1.2, and f/1.2 is only a ½-stop faster than an f/1.4! The D Series is $390 (but has seven aperture blades) and the G Series has nine blades (for lovely bokeh) and a state-of-the-art “silent-wave” focussing motor.
Nikon also has a brand new 35mm f/1.4 auto-focus aspherical (remember the NOCT?) that covers the same angle on a DX camera that my 50mm will cover on a full-frame camera that it was designed for. This new 35mm sounds like a honey of a lens but it costs $2000.
Why You’d Want One
There are a few reasons to pick up one of these f/1.2 lenses…
Incredibly sharp image! In fact it is reputed to be the sharpest Nikkor when shooting at f/2.
- Shallow depth-of-field! With the aperture opened up, just your subject is in focus allowing for some really artsy shots. It’s also great for blurring distracting background details. I bought a custom-made focussing screen from KatzEye Optics that not only works great with this lens opened up, but also makes focussing my long telephoto very easy and accurate.
Beautiful bokeh! Bokeh is the blurry out-of-focus stuff in the picture. This lens has nine aperture blades that form a round opening so bokeh is rendered buttery smooth.
Bred for low-light! It’s super fast and would be great for street photography.
A “people lens”! On a DX cropped-frame Nikon, it’s a terrific portrait lens.
Bracketing advantages! When exposures reach longer than about fifteen seconds, my D300 spends about the same amount of time as the actual exposure to process the image before saving it. So if I want to take a bracketing set and the exposures are longer than fifteen seconds, I’m doubling the time I’m out there waiting for the camera to finish up. If I can keep the exposure time under a thirty-second maximum, then not only am I not standing around for a couple of minutes waiting for someone to walk into the shot and spoil the picture, but I can use the auto-bracketing feature and not have to fiddle with the camera between exposures. A fast lens like the 1.2 can help me get in, take the shots, and move on to my next picture (or drink).
It’s manual! Break free of having your camera in the driver’s seat — take the wheel for a change. Because there’s no auto focus and you have to dial in the f-stop manually with a mechanical dial on the lens, you are forced to take control not only of exposure but your own creativity. You can still have your camera select the shutter speed.
It’s an AI-S! Even though this is truly an old-school lens, if you have an advanced D-SLR you can set up a lens profile in the camera so that metering will be tailored to the lens and all the exposure info will be recorded in your photos’ metadata. Check your camera’s manual for compatibility before you buy!
Build quality! This is the real deal! It’s metal and glass — nothing cheap, plastic, or flimsy about it. David could have faced Goliath with a “Big Glass”, flung it at him with his sling, bopped him in the head (or leg as some believe), and then used the very same lens to take a couple of shots for the medical examiner! The focus is smooth and stops at infinity (so you can take in-focus pictures of the stars easily). The American astronauts took these things to the Moon.
Satisfaction! It’s a pleasure to use and the results are great.
Even its flaws have character! The lens suffers from coma (no, not like Goliath’s coma, this is a type of distortion of the light coming off of bright objects) and that can sometimes be a disappointment. But like that funny hairy mole on your spouse’s neck, it’s a small price to pay for something wonderful. This lens’ coma even has a nickname…”angel wings”. I’ve included a picture that shows angel wings.
Five year warranty! Yup, it comes with a five-year warranty right out of the box, just like all lenses sold through Nikon Canada. Americans have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get their five years… I guess the Japanese are still steamed about Lost in Translation. The Nikon websites list the price being $75 cheaper in Canada, too!
It’s a classic! It’s not often that you hear that something’s a classic, is still in production, and is for sale to the public. With the two new 50mm f/1.4 lenses, the 35mm f/1.4, and the fact that now on the Nikon websites they state that the f/1.2 is “special order only”, I’m beginning to wonder if they are going to be discontinued soon. If only I had the cash to buy a second to sit on the shelf in its original packaging… I could probably triple my money in less than a decade after they’re pulled from the shelves.
The Field Test
I think I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking from here on in…
If you liked this post, you might enjoy reading my other Recumbent Reviews:
- Which NIKKOR Lens Type is Right for Your D-SLR? (nikonusa.com)
- Prime Lenses (nikonusa.com)
- How to Read Your Lens Barrel (nikonusa.com)
- What If You Could Only Have Two Lenses? (tlsphotography.wordpress.com)