Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4G Lens Review
Nikon's latest take on the classic "fast fifty" knocks it out of the park.
When evaluating any lens, we focus on four key areas: sharpness, distortion, chromatic aberration, and bokeh. A perfect lens would render the finest details accurately, wouldn’t distort straight lines or produce ugly fringing around high-contrast subjects, and would create smooth out-of-focus areas.
The designers behind the Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4G had to balance two opposing forces: the drive to create a lens that's as sharp as possible, and the softening effects of an f/1.4 maximum aperture.
The result is that the 50mm f/1.4 isn't quite as sharp as the less expensive, simpler Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G at its widest aperture settings. But by f/4 they're equally, incredibly sharp from edge to edge. There's other good news, too: the lens produces minimal distortion and chromatic aberration with bokeh that is simply to die for.
A lens's sharpness is its ability to render the finest details in photographs. In testing a lens, we consider sharpness across the entire frame, from the center of your images out to the extreme corners, using an average that gives extra weight to center performance. We quantify sharpness using line widths per picture height (LW/PH) at a contrast of MTF50.
The Nikon 50mm f/1.4G has a typical performance profile for a fast prime lens. As tested on a Nikon D810 in our labs, at f/1.4 it's sharp in the center of the frame (resolving around 1,500 lines) but softer (around 1,000 lines) in the corners. Compared to many prime lenses mounted on a D810, those results aren't stellar, but they're good enough.
As you stop down the aperture, center performance steps up considerably, peaking at 2,450 lines at f/8. The corners also improve dramatically as soon as you move past f/1.8, topping out at well over 2,000 lines around f/8. Even at f/16, the performance is remarkably good—2,000 lines across the frame. That makes this lens an excellent choice for landscapes and product photography, as even the smallest details will be accurately rendered.
We penalize lenses for distortion when they bend or warp images, causing normally straight lines to curve.
There are two primary types of distortion: When the center of the frame seems to bulge outward toward you, that’s barrel distortion. It's typically a result of the challenges inherent in designing wide-angle lenses. When the center of the image looks like it's being sucked in, that’s pincushion distortion. Pincushion is more common in telephoto lenses. A third, less common variety (mustache distortion) produces wavy lines.
As we'd expect from a 50mm "normal" prime lens, the AF-S 50mm f/1.4G handles geometric distortion well. In our labs, we saw about 1.55% barrel distortion—actually a little more than we typically see in this class, but well within acceptable bounds and easily correctable with photo editing software.
Chromatic aberration refers to the various types of “fringing” that can appear around high contrast subjects in photos—like leaves set against a bright sky. The fringing is usually either green, blue, or magenta and while it’s relatively easy to remove the offensive color with software, it can also degrade image sharpness.
While there's some chromatic aberration evident in our test shots, it's well-corrected compared to some other fast primes and certainly within normal tolerances. Color fringing is most visible near the corners, especially at f/1.4 and f/2, but it's easily correctable with some minor post-production work.
Bokeh refers to the quality of the out of focus areas in a photo. It's important for a lens to render your subject with sharp details, but it's just as important that the background not distract from the focus of your shot.
While some lenses have bokeh that's prized for its unique characteristics, most simply aim to produce extremely smooth backgrounds. In particular, photographers prize lenses that can produce bokeh with circular highlights that are free of aspherical distortion (or “coma”).
As you can see below, the 50mm f/1.4 produces a bokeh with a nice, consistent shape across the board. These are usually quite round, but certain points of light can take on a football shape near the corners (visible below). These points also have a slight highlight around the edges, though it's so minimal that it doesn't cause too many problems.
While the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G doesn't blow by the cheaper Nikon 50mm f/1.8G in most performance metrics, it absolutely crushes it in terms of the quality and character of its bokeh. If we're nitpicking it can occasionally look a little on the busy side, visible in the shot below where the flags in the background take on a "jittery" effect. But that's the only thing separating this lens from the very best bokeh we've seen.
The 50mm f/1.4 produced consistently smooth bokeh across most of the frame, with only minor aspherical distortions. This blur is only distracting when high frequency, high contrast patterns are involved—something even so-called "cream machines" can struggle with. If you want an affordable Nikon lens that can produce beautiful out-of-focus areas while isolating your subject, this is the one to get.
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