Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-s Review and user experience - Part 1 plus D800E compared to Sigma DP2 Merrill

Yes you did read that right, I am about to start a multi-part review of a manual focus lens that was first sold in 1981. However this is no antique or legacy lens. Nikon still make and sell them, though prices vary wildly. Here's a price from a respected UK dealer but you can buy them new on ebay for about £400-450 or so. The one in the pictures above used to be mine, that I bought second-hand on ebay. I used it for quite a while and it was very useful both for stills and video at weddings. When that stopped, my nephew bought it for low-light video use. At the time I had other super fast primes such as a Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95 for m4/3 and a Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1 for Leica and m4/3 via an adapter. My nephew is now thinking about selling it and I'm considering buying it back since I can use it on most of my cameras. Nikon DSLR's, and m4/3 and Sony NEX via adapters. 

As well as still being the fastest lens Nikon have ever made its also super-sharp right up to f/11. It works beautifully on my D800E and D600 with a focus confirmation dot in the viewfinder display that is spot on. I do very little low light work but it is a beautiful lens for many different uses and after a gap of 2 1/2 years I'm seeing if I want it back in my collection. Consequently I'll be trying it, for stills and video, on most of my cameras in the upcoming days. So since I'll be doing that I thought that I would share the experience.

Lenses like this still have a place in modern photography and particularly because of DSLR / CSC video becoming so important. Very few of us can afford a £19,000 Zeiss cinema lens, but the cost of a Nikon manual focus lens with all of the advantages that has for serious video work is a fraction of that. I would argue that the difference in quality is also minimal, if it actually exists at all. The Nikkor MF range are beautiful lenses. I remember that when I had my Leica M9 and a Nikon F to Leica M adapter I tried this lens on it. I was absolutely blown away by just how sharp it was combined with the M9 sensor (when I worked out how to get it in focus!) and while it was completely impractical for that camera because of its total incompatibility with the rangefinder system, the newly announced Leica M with the same adapter and that cameras newly added EVF will allow it to be used in the same way as it can be used on m4/3 and NEX cameras. It would be interesting to see how it performs on that camera. 

Even odder than reviewing a lens this old is the fact that I'm going to start with showing something thats sharper than this lens on a D800E.

Firstly, I must say that some tests I've already carried show this 50mm f/1.2 to be the sharpest lens I've ever used on my D800E. Indeed the sharpest lens I've ever used on any CMOS sensor camera. However even with that in mind, its still "beaten" in terms of sharpness by my Sigma DP2 Merrill, even when the Sigma files are upsized to 36MP.

Here is what I shot as a test subject. (You might have seen these before!!)

I then upsized the tiff I created in Sigma Photo Pro, which of course has no sharpening, and compared it with a raw file shot with the 50mm on a D800E processed via ACR in Photoshop 6, again with no sharpening added. For optimum quality I used f/8 and ISO 100 for both camera / lens combination. This is what I got.

OK, thats got that out of the way. Now lets get back to the real world. CMOS sensors work in a variety of situations such as low light. Sigma Foveon sensors don't. CMOS sensors can handle virtually every kind of photographic situation. Sigma Foveon sensors can't. In fact they can't really handle much at all if it requires anything other than ISO 100. Absolutely sensational when used in that way, but more or less useless for anything else. 

There is still no such thing as a free lunch however, and to enable this usefulness and versatility, files from CMOS sensors HAVE to be sharpened. Well every one I've used anyway. So lets have a look at a 100% blowup from the D800E again, this time with some sharpening added for print reproduction.

As I said the real world. Now I have a beautifully crisp sharp file that will look superb when printed or reproduced in a book or newspaper. (Assuming I get round to cleaning my guitar that is!!)

So, while I may coo about the Sigma, the end result works perfectly for the commercial clients that I sell my work too. Plus there is no doubt that the D800E is a far more useful camera than the Sigma. That doesn't mean that somebody shouldn't try to produce something like the Foveon system, I'm glad that they do, but it doesn't suddenly make all other cameras, even if used at ISO 100 almost exclusively as in my case, redundant.  

Getting back to what this post is all about, I think this shows just what the 50mm f/1.2 is capable of. I've been out shooting landscape with it this afternoon, and I'll sort those pictures out and post tomorrow. (They look superb by the way) Then its on to low-light use and seeing what its like on my current m4/3 cameras, such as the Olympus OM-D and Panasonic G5. Plus of course my NEX-7, which is something new, since I don't think that system even existed when I sold the lens. Then of course some video with it operating in a similar way to 75mm or 100mm lens on the 4/3 and APS-C sensors.

I must admit, whether I decide to re-buy it again or not, I'm looking forward to using it again. I only parted with it knowing that it was somewhere close and I always wanted first refusal if it came on the market again. I hope those of you who are interested in what the best looks like, will find this as fascinating as me. For those who have known nothing else but mass-produced plastic lenses, this is something different. Its metal, its pretty heavy for its size, its built to last a long time and its designed to make superb images. And yes you can sort of carry it in a pocket, but it deserves much better than that. It deserves to be on the front of a camera that does it justice, and I hope to do just that.

For the rest of this Review and User Experience of the Nikon 50mm f/1.2 CLICK HERE

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