THE BEST 50MM LENS FOR NIKON DSLR
I will preface this by stating the contents of this article may annoy a lot of the fan-boys and gear-heads out there but, hey-ho. I'm writing this from a logical standpoint, for the majority of photographers, who are amateurs and newcomers. Coupled with the way the global economy is, most of us are probably a bit more budget conscious to boot anyway. So if you are the former, look away now or prepare to get a little bit outraged and butt-hurt!
The fast prime market has long been a hotly contested one, with maximum aperture and sharpness being pushed to extremes and likewise the price tags. OEM manufacturers battled it out over the decades in a bid to outdo one another and attract buyers to their products, with third parties tossing their hat into the ring along the way.
In recent years, Sigma has been the golden child in the low-light prime class. Often regarded as the poor man's alternative in times past (as all third parties were at one point), Sigma worked hard to cast off this label and has been producing very high quality optics and developing real product innovation with the Art range of glass. Their 35mm and 50mm f/1.4 lenses have achieved a cult-like status with many photographers and videographers. Not content to rest on their laurels, Sigma revamped the 50mm f/1.4 to include it in the Art stable too. The internet had been like a cat on a hot tin roof in anticipation of its arrival ever since news of its optical prowess was leaked, with pixel-peepers feasting on review articles, as and when they appeared.
Unfortunately, at the time of writing this, there is no DXOmark test results on the lens, so I cannot make a direct comparison with the new 50mm Art against its counterparts. Sigma also hasn't sent me a free lens to play with. What's up with that guys? I'd return the box to you. Probably minus the lens but, still. What we do know is that it is exceptionally sharp and not far off the performance of the 55mm f/1.4 Zeiss Otus - which is one fine, but damned expensive bit of kit!
The point of this article isn't to focus solely upon MTF curves to crown a winner. It's a foregone conclusion what lens would win. The aim is to enable you to snap back to reality and look at the real world practicalities and benefits over the perceived ones sold to us by the marketing gurus.
Now there is certainly no argument from me about the quality of the Zeiss Otus 55mm. I have included it in this article because the focal length falls in the 50mm prime catergory. Wide open at f/1.4 the centre and edge-to-edge sharpness is nothing short of spectacular. They really went to town on this lens. You can see this yourself by comparing the Otus to the Sigma 50mm f1/.4 HSM and Nikon 50mm f/1.4G on DXOmark. You'll then understand why this lens commands a price tag almost £3k more expensive than the other two, despite being a manual focus. Optically, it obliterates them. Even stopped down to their edge-to-edge optimum apertures of f/5.6, they still do not beat the resolving power of the Otus, 4 stops brighter, wide open. INSANE! It's enough to make you want to trash your 50mm lens in disgust.
Few individuals can afford a £3000+ Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4. More importantly, the overwhelming majority of photographers just don't need one. Stop and think about it for a moment. Most people just upload photographs to social media on the Internet, whether that's Facebook, Flikr, Google+ or your own website. These images are resized to a smaller resolution so that they can be viewed on multiple platforms like PCs, iPads and smartphones. As such, the detail is compressed and lost anyway. I have uploaded family photographs that the focus had missed and the full size image was soft as a result. The compressed version on Facebook looked razor sharp. Essentially the optics and camera resolutions we use today are complete overkill for the medium we display the images upon, even commonly available poster/canvas print sizes.
If what we have seen from the example images taken with the Sigma 50mm Art are indeed true, then we can expect a relatively similar performance to the Zeiss. Still this amazing performance is beyond the budgets of most DSLR owners, at £670. Again, it's overkill for all but a few - but you'll still want one! Hell I'll admit the same! I love a new toy!!
Getting our feet back on the ground though, thinking logically and practically for a moment, with the above caveat of the medium in which we display our images. Our high resolution sensors and optics are way over the top and basically unnecessary for the most part. By the time you've downsized your resolution for social media and web colour, in Jpeg format, you've ditched a huge part of the information anyway.
So let's look at the more wallet-friendly options for a fast aperture prime. For this I've chosen the Nikkor f/1.8D, f/1.4G and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 HSM (the non-Art version). The results will probably be quite surprising for some. Again we go to DXOMark for a sharpness comparison.
All 3 lenses were tested on the D800 for consistency. Wide open, the Sigma has the best centre to mid-image sharpness, although it softens majorly in the corners. The two Nikkors are pretty mediocre at maximum aperture, with the 1.4G having a slight lead over it's older, slower brother. By f/2.8 things improve dramatically all round. The Sigma still heads the pack, with the Nikkors pretty much neck and neck. By f/5.6 though, the cheapest of the bunch has the best centre and edge to edge sharpness. For a lens that cost just a little over £100 new and can be had for £30-40 less than that secondhand, that's pretty darn good.
The 50mm f/1.8D was pretty much always on the front of my Nikon D90. I shot a lot of child portraits of my young nieces and nephews while I was learning photography and it taught me a lot. Firstly is that you never shoot it wide open, unless by some miracle the child is stationary. Secondly is never shoot it wide open, unless the child is stationary!
This isn't anything to do with sharpness, as I found it acceptable out of camera and of course tweakable in post processing. The reason for not shooting it wide open is solely to do with depth of field. It's just far too shallow for moving kids. I always shot it at f/4. Making it lovely and sharp and giving me a greater chance of nailing focus.
Did I miss the AF-S motor?
No, I found the lens pretty fast to focus on the D90. It's even faster on the D800.
Did I miss instant manual focus override?
No. I shoot in AF-C mode with back-button focus. If I tried messing about to correct focus manually, the child would have run off playing anyway. So while these features are included on the newer "G" lenses, they aren't something that affected my photography.
Did I miss the extra 2/3rds of a stop of light that the f/1.4 offers?
No. I always shot at f/4 and if I was shooting something in light levels low enough to warrant f/1.8 - I'd use a tripod anyway.
By now, you've probably guessed that the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D will get my vote for the Best 50mm lens for Nikon cameras. Well, those with a focus motor in the body anyway. If not, then the f/1.8G. It's a bloody sharp lens. It's not the sharpest wide open but, the overwhelming number of photographers aren't going to need the resolving power of a Sigma Art or Zeiss Otus. We just don't display our images large enough to warrant it. The fact it's 2/3rds of a stop slower than a f/1.4 is the difference between ISO 100 and ISO 160 - IE. No big whoop with modern DSLRs and if you have time to use manual focus, then you can simply disengage the motor on the body to do so.
It's great bang for buck at almost 1/3rd the price of the other two, allowing you to save money without much in the way of compromising performance. It's £550 less than the Sigma Art and £3k less than the Zeiss Otus. To give you a metaphorical example, it's like driving down the motorway in your Ford Fiesta on a Sunday afternoon. In the lane next to you is a Ferrari F-12, a vastly superior and more expensive car. You look at it enviously for it's beauty and known capabilities but, from a practical standpoint it's no better than your fiesta. Both cars are restricted to a 70MPH speed limit, regardless of their capabilities.
On a race track, the Ferrari will of course beat the pants off you. If you're simply posting photos at reduced resolutions and compressed formats to social media - that's your speed limit. When shooting massive prints or product shots for clients that demand exceptionally sharp and large images, then you need that sports car because you're in the big leagues. Like I always say, camera equipment is just a tool and like any tool, you select the right one for the job.