The Nikon 50mm f1.4G sits at the top of the Nikkor 50mm lens pile; currently available alongside the f1.4D and f1.8D versions. The 50mm lens has traditionally been a workhorse for many photographers, so it’s great to see Nikon continuing to update the classic formula with new technology.
The exterior of the Nikon 50mm f1.4G is made of high-quality plastic, which isn’t quite up to the full metal design of the tank-resistant 85mm f1.4 or Nikkor lenses of the past, however the construction is spot-on given the materials. It’s reassuringly solid.
The quality feeling is reinforced whilst comparing the 50mm f1.4G to the cheap plastic 50mm f1.8D (loveable nonetheless). The lens seems so well put together that you could forget its price tag is only around £280 – affordable when compared to the eye-watering prices of f2.8 Nikkor zoom lenses.
The Nikon 50mm f1.4 G features a Silent Wave Motor (SWM), reflected in the AF-S label. Having the autofocus motor integrated into the lens means it can be used with all Nikon digital SLRs – including the D40/x, D60, D3000 and D5000. Adding a SWM to the 50mm line-up is Nikon's first step in addressing the concerns of many Nikon photographers over the lack of AF-S prime lenses.
The autofocus performance of the 50mm f1.4G was always adequate for the task at hand (in this case a fast-paced wedding), it’s an accurate combination the MultiCAM3500 in the D700, but I wouldn’t describe the speed as blisteringly fast. The autofocus of my old 50mm f1.8D felt marginally faster whilst testing the lenses side by side on a D700 and D200, albeit creating baby-waking decibels in the process.
The 50mm f1.4G produces spectacular images; they’re sharp, full of contrast and well saturated – and so they should be – these are all qualities you expect from a 50mm prime. I found the lens to be rewardingly sharp: If your technique is spot on then it won’t let you down.
The fast f1.4 aperture is a potent combination for low-light photography when mixed with the full-frame D700. In extremely dark situations creative options are still wide open. For images where I didn’t need to use the lens at f1.4 its light gathering capabilities still have an underrated benefit; a brighter viewfinder, which assisted composition in the dark.
In bright scenes the lens produces a subtle ‘dreamy halo’ effect at f1.4, which disappears by f2.8. A quick Google revealed the effect to be the result of Longitudinal Chromatic Aberrations (LoCAs) - great another acronym to remember! LoCA is where different wavelengths are focused at a different distances from the lens. Personally I quite like the effect – it adds a nice touch to portraits – however it may not be to the taste of optical purists. One aspect of getting the best from your equipment is understanding it’s characteristics under different settings & scenes, and in this case I’d describe the LoCAs under bright conditions as a benefit in the pursuit of producing flattering portraits.
The 50mm f1.4G is left in a dilemma; entry-level DX digital SLR users will most likely be just as happy with a 35mm f1.8G for learning & day to day use, yet at the same time the 50mm f1.4G has a limited appeal to enthusiasts and pros who already own a 50mm f1.4D. To tempt the latter group I suspect Nikon would’ve had to make this lens a little bit more special, adding Vibration Reduction (VR) or an f1.2 aperture to the mix.
If you don’t own a Nikon 50mm lens then the f1.4G is a superb choice – it was a blissful combination with the full-frame D700. For f1.8D owners I’d still say “upgrade & enjoy” because the extra low-light capabilities, quiet autofocus and superior build quality are three compelling reasons.