My addiction to buying photography has developed over the years, but one constant through the years has been the way I’m drawn to lenses with big bits of glass in the front. The F stop is my yardstick of quality and something I don’t compromise on (often at great expense!).
Up to a point it is a good measure to use. I tend to see f2.8 as a watershed, the point at which a lens is ‘serious’. I only own one lens that doesn’t go to f2.8 – the Nikon 16-35mm f4, the reason being that I use a wide zoom as my everyday lens and the otherwise ecellent 14-24 f2.8 is just a bit over the top for that use. Everything else is f2.8 or better, the size and weight doesn’t bother me (although my Nikon 80-200 f2.8 AF-D can be testing at times!) because the extra weight generally comes from increasingly solid build quality which makes these lenses a pleasure to use.
So, I thought I’d take this idea to it’s logical conclusion; ladies and gentlemen, I present the Nikon AI 50mm f1.2 – the fastest lens Nikon has ever produced (among a family of other f1.2 50ish mm lenses).
And it’s a beast. It’s about the same weight as a Nikon F3 body, but boy is it nice. It’s basically just all glass, the metal casing can barely contain it all and the focussing action feels like it was engineered by Brunnel himself and all that glass shifts about inside the thing.
I have a bit of a collection of Nikon 50mm lenses at the moment. The f2 was a bought cheaply through necessity when I got my Nikon F as I didn’t have any lenses with the meter coupling prongs on them. The Series E f1.8 is an absolute gem of a lens that is almost ‘pancake lens’ thin and the AF-D f1.8 is a lens i’ve never really liked as it’s just horrible to use (basically it’s the series E optics in a cheap feeling plastic housing with noisy and slow AF). The f1.2 now sits at the head of the family and means I’ll probably sell off the rest apart from the Series E.
What does f1.2 mean? and is it really much better than f1.4/1.8? are two questions one could ask regarding this lens. There are four reasons you would buy a very wide aperture lens like an f1.2 (other systems/brands can go as far as f0.95);
1 – To shoot wide open in low light to allow you to avoid a tripod or flash.
2 – To shoot wide open in normal conditions so you can get super shallow depth of field.
3 – So that the sweet spot performance (usually two stops down from maximum) is still at a wide enough aperture to achieve the two point above – i.e. you buy a 50mm f1.2 because by f2 it is performing brilliantly (by comparison an f2.8 zoom lens at 50mm would need to be stopped down to f4 or f5.6 to reach the same levels of sharpness, etc. by which time you’ve sacrificed depth of field and low light performance).
4 – Ooh. Shiny.
To me #1 and #2 are important, second only to #4, obviously.
The only issue is that this is really a lens for film photography, not digital. My D800 does an excellent job of making a complete hash of images shot at f1.2 on this lens. It’s extremely tricky to focus when the depth of field is so small and you don’t have a split image focussing screen, but then when you do get it focussed it’s like an explosion of green and purple chromatic aberrations around everything that is sharp!
The image below was shot on a tripod using mirror lock-up and delayed release after focussing through heavily magnified live view with the focus set on the ‘F’.
Not exactly a masterpiece! However, if you look past the flaws there is some magic going on… the out of focus areas are lovely and smooth and the image has a real dreamlike quality to it. The lens plucks the subject right out of the background in a way lesser lenses couldn’t.
By contrast, the image below is the same shot stopped down to f2 Viewed at 100% on the screen it is obscenely sharp at the point of focus and pretty much all of the chromatic aberrations have disappeared. Depth of field is still very shallow, but the background is a bit more fussy and you can make out the shape of the stopped down 7 blade aperture iris in the highlights.
I’ve got a roll of Delta 400 waiting to be processed from a shoot with this lens mostly wide open on my F3 body. The results at f1.2 should be much more forgiving as the grain will mask some of the softness and being monochrome the colour fringing is not going to be an issue.
So this is very much a split personality lens, at f2 and above it’s a beautifully sharp and well corrected standard lens that is a match for a high resolution digital sensor, but crank it open to f1.2 and it is capable of producing some unique looking images that would otherwise take heavy post-processing to achieve.
The shot below was shot at f1.2 and is straight from the RAW file with only overall exposure and white balance tweaked. There is just enough sharpness to create focal point and then a gradual softening that gives depth to the composition (and a truck load of vignetting!).
I’ll post some proper images once I’ve processed the film, I’ve just got to put a roll through an Olympus OM-4 that I’m testing out first.