“Fast 50’s” are a category of lens all by their own that needs little explanation. They are lenses meant to appeal to all markets of photographers, from casual to pro; choices from one manufacturer are numerous enough (Nikon alone has at least seven manual focus 50’s, and at least 5 autofocus 50’s). When all the other camera companies and third-party manufacturers’ fast 50’s are taken into account, the sheer amount of choice is daunting. For a lens to separate itself from the crowd, it has to have something special. For instance, the new SLR-Magic 50mm T0.95 Cine lens, reviewed back in February by Steve Huff, is one of the fastest 50mm lenses getting ready to be produced–faster than even the $11,000 Leica Noctilux (T-stops are faster than F-stops, that’s a concept to write about in and of itself…). That lens in particular is getting a lot of attention not only for its speed, but for its cost and performance compared to the Noctilux (will be priced around $5000 now).
So…where does the 50mm f/1.8 E come in then? It’s not the fastest production lens, even from Nikon standards (that would be the 50mm f/1.2 AI-s), it isn’t built like an AI-s Nikkor, and it isn’t a benchmark for other 50mm’s to stand up against (supposedly that lens is the Leica 50mm Summicron). Surely the above picture gives it away, this thing is TINY. So much so, it is weightless when mounted on the NEX-7 (really, any camera at all). The 50mm f/1.8 E is the smallest and lightest 50mm lens ever made by Nikon, and would be the smallest and lightest Nikon lens period were it not for the dinky and slower 45mm f/2.8P which nowadays is more of a collectors lens than a great Nikon optic. This compact size and lightweight (a characteristic shared by all of the Series-E lenses) is really the sole selling point for this lens. The “shootability” is through the roof, as it adds little length and virtually no weight to any camera. For me, it is a lens I will be keeping even if I get a “better” 50mm due to this shootability. For others, if image quality is the only thing that matters, the 50mm f/1.8 E might disappoint in a few categories.
Full Title: Nikon 50mm 1:1.8 Series-E (lacks the Nikkor designation)
Dimensions: 1.3 inches/33mm long, 2.5 inches/62.5mm in diameter, with a feather-weight of 5.5 ounces/155 grams. Compared to the already weightless NEX-7 (12.3 ounces/350 grams) it mounts to in this review, it feels like nothing is there!
Close Focus: Marked at two feet/.6 meters, and you can’t get any closer than that.
Miscellaneous: 7 straight-bladed aperture stopping down to f/22, 52mm filter thread, metal mount. On an APS-C camera, the field of view in 35mm terms is 75mm, or a short portrait/telphoto length. On a m4/3 camera, the effective 35mm field of view is 100mm, or a medium portrait/telephoto length.
I’m not going to spend too much time on this section as I usually do. The 50mm f/1.8 E is a simple but great lens in use.
- Is it built well? Yes, most all parts are high-quality plastic, with a metal mount. However the contstruction isn’t as good as the AI-s’ due simply to the materials used.
- Does it shoot well? Indeed, mechanically the lens is sound, with a solid-clicking aperture ring, and smooth-as-silk focusing throughout the range.
- Just how light is it? Imagine shooting your camera without a lens on it. That’s exactly what it feels like. DSLR, NEX/NX, or m4/3, it’ll feel like varying degrees of nothing.
- Are they cheap? You bet, I got mine in mint condition for about $50/€40.
As mentioned above, I love the 50mm f/1.8 E. It was one of the first lenses I ever got for my camera, and is my go-to choice whenever I need a compact and lightweight kit. Functionally, I couldn’t ask for more. Optically, there are some things to be desired (better flare control, equal aperture of peaked sharpness and contrast), but even then, I still love using it. It’s one of those lenses that helps you just “go out and shoot”. Now, the “my kit is too cumbersome to take out” idea can no longer apply. Following this new thought process, more opportunities for photography will open up as the camera will be with you more often. That’s a stellar reason by itself to own this lens. Regardless, let’s now look into each technical aspect in detail.
Though sharpness is supposed to be only a small component in a lens’ performance, many feel it is the deciding factor between a good or bad optic. I personally fall somewhere in the middle. I love seeing pixel-level sharpness (especially with a 24MP sensor), but it isn’t terribly important that all my shots are sharp when viewing at 100% on screen. With that in mind, I have tested the 50mm f/1.8 E to peak in contrast and sharpness in very different places. Even still, at the optimum sharpness aperture, I still don’t feel like the lens is getting razor-sharp, which typically is one of the staples of good fast 50’s. The following chart, available as a free download, was used to assess sharpness and contrast:
Let’s look at some 100% (meaning clicking on them will not make these any bigger) center crops by aperture:
Getting starting wide-open, there isn’t too much detail as I would hope to see, and contrast is low due to veiling haze. I wouldn’t want to shoot wide open unless I needed the absolute most light (night photography handheld) or the shallowest depth of field possible. By f/2, contrast has marginally improved. Strangely enough, at f/2.8, contrast has already peaked on the 50mm f/1.8 E (I found this out by comparing the amount of blacks that were “clipped” via Lightroom 4’s highlight/shadow clipping indicators) and sharpness is a bit better. At f/4, contrast has started to decrease, while sharpness increases. The same trend happens at f/5.6. By f/8 it sharpens up a bit more (contrast is still decreasing), reaching peak sharpness. From f/11 on diffraction sets in, further degrading both sharpness and contrast further. At f/22, sharpness and contrast is just about the same as wide open.
This is the first lens I have reviewed that suffers from focus shift in the centers. Before, my method was to get critical focus wide-open, and simply take the shot after each f/stop. As it turned out both times I ran the tests, the centers at f/4-5.6 noticeably decreased in sharpness. Thanks to a helpful criticism from a reader, I redid the test refocusing at each aperture. I managed a much different result. Though the contrast still peaks at f/2.8, sharpness showed incremental steps in improvement, as well as a faster peak in sharpness (f/8 versus the previous f/11). From now on, focus shift will be assessed by running the sharpness tests once through focusing only wide open, then another carefully refocusing at each aperture.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move to corner 100% crops:
For these comparisons, f/2 was not used as the corners look exactly the same. Full-frame designed lenses have a “sweet-spot” advantage when used on a camera with a smaller sized sensor, as the sensor is really using more of the sharp central portion of the lens, rather than the corners. This typically results in less corner smearing and improved corner resolution and contrast. The 50mm f/1.8 E is no exception here, even wide open (though detail is really lacking), there is no corner smearing, but the corners are dark due to vignetting. At f/2.8, detail and contrast improve to a “fair” degree. By f/4, contrast has peaked, and sharpness is still creeping up. At f/5.6, contrast is the same, while sharpness has increased a bit. The optimum aperture for sharpness is again reached at f/8, while diffraction effects start to take hold from f/11 on. Detail and contrast at f/22 is still acceptable, all things considered. Due to the smaller crop size, the corners when used on a m4/3 camera will be much better, as those corners are using even more of the sharper center of the lens than the larger APS-C sensor uses.
Unfortunately, there is no “optimum-range” of sharpness and contrast with this lens, as center contrast peaks well before sharpness (something I’m not used to seeing) in both cases, and there is only one aperture (f/8) where critical sharpness is achieved. Even at that, the corner resolution doesn’t quite stack up to the center at f/8. On the side, there is also some field curvature with the 50mm E (where not all objects in a perpendicular plane to the lens are in focus), but is only noticeable at the larger apertures. Even then, the effect is mild.
All this said, I don’t particularly care that center sharpness peaks at a “slow” f/8, I don’t feel sharpness makes a good photograph.
Sharpness at Infinity
To assess infinity-focused sharpness, this boring electrical box was shot against the sky:
Though critical sharpness at normal focus ranges is f/8, at infinity, optimum is at f/11 (though f/8 is just about the same). The difference noted between the corners and center even at optimum carries over to infinity. Even in these 100% crops, the center is visibly sharper than the corners (but not by much).
Sharpness at Macro
As mentioned, the close-focus of the 50mm f/1.8 E is not close-enough to be considered for a serious macro lens (nor is it particularly sharp enough for critical macro work, either). That said, sometimes you can only carry one lens with you, and when it is this one, close-focus performance should be noted.
However, even wide open at f/1.8, results at close-focus look just fine in this “real-world” shot:
“Bokeh” is an artistic term of Japanese origin for the character of anything in the image that is not in focus. Typically, smooth bokeh, where out of focus objects and highlights seem to “melt” into the background, is favorable. In regards to the 50mm f/1.8 E, bokeh in general is pretty good. The quality of the blur is very smooth at most apertures, and the handling of out of focus highlights are okay as well.
So let’s look at some NON-100% crops to see how bokeh in the back/foreground appears:
There’s not too much to discuss here as far as bokeh smoothness. I’m pleasantly surprised at how smooth everything is. Backgrounds blur out in a nice gaussian fashion at all apertures, while foreground bokeh is smooth at all apertures save for f/5.6-8 where some doubling seems to be present. Color me impressed!
Now, onto the out-of-focus highlights. To assess this characteristic, a sparkled decoration was defocused to get as many point sources of light as possible. By aperture:
Just as in basic bokeh quality, where bokeh will really matter in normal-distance photographs will range from wide-open to f/4. This is great, as at these apertures, out-of-focus highlights range from okay to great! Wide-open and at f/2, bokeh highlights have distinct but thin rings, and the color of the highlight ranges slightly depending on where you look. At f/2.8, bokeh highlights look their best, with soft edges, solid-colors, and no artifacts. Good news since contrast also peaks here (noted in the sharpness section), f/2.8 may be the aperture to shoot for general photography. At f/4 the highlights are still pretty solid in color with no artifacts, but the edges start to appear again. By f/5.6-8, highlights have more defined edges and contain nasty-looking artifacts (though they are at least solid in color). It is worth noting if just a few out-of-focus highlights are in an image (such as streetlights), editing them in Photoshop is possible, but when there are very many, such as in high-contrast scenes with many bright objects, it just isn’t worth the time. Also, these crops are at 100% (after clicking on them, anyway), so actually seeing these at normal printing sizes simply won’t happen (I would still prefer to shoot at f/2.8, though!).
In this “real-world” shot, bokeh smoothness and highlight handling is observed:
A form of chromatic abberation (a type of distortion where certain colors do not hit the image sensor at the same convergence point), purple fringing is typically seen in fast lenses at their wider apertures when shooting scenes of contrast, such as branches against sky. Though purple fringing can be cleaned up very well in post processing nowadays (see my detailed post on that here), it is still an important point to take in consideration if one either doesn’t have the time to post process, or has purple objects in the frame that does not want to be desaturated. To assess purple fringing, I used this scene of high contrast:
And now for some crops taken from the center. Pay attention in these sets to the branch to the right (the focus point):
Even at f/1.8, the purple fringing isn’t all that bad, here’s a 15-second fix in Lightroom 4:
As I have said before, the fringing sliders in LR 4 are life-savers for purple-fringing prone lenses. I love the feature. Also, remember that this test was the absolute worst-case scenario. Seeing this much purple fringing in general photography, even wide open, would be very rare.
Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration
Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration (also known as “bokeh fringing”) is another form of aberration that is mainly prevalent on large aperture lenses in areas that are out-of-focus (hence the bokeh designation). A lens that suffers from LoCA has objects in the background tinged with green, while objects in the foreground are tinged with purple. Stopping down a lens only marginally helps in reducing LoCA’s, all stopping down really does in most instances is bring more objects into focus (anything out of focus will still have the aberration). Usually the purple hue on foreground objects is of a different hue than purple fringing, so foreground LoCA can be very difficult to remove in post-processing. Fortunately, Lightroom 4 also has a dedicated aberration slider for the green hue, so at least foreground LoCA’s can be removed easily. If you take a look again at the “fixed” image for purple fringing in the last point, you can see very easily that the branch in the center has purple LoCA, while the branches to the left have heavy green LoCA. I must point out that purple fringing is technically a form of LoCA, but is often treated and thought of as a separate fault in lenses (hence my adherence with the norm). Anyways, here is a minute’s worth attempt at fixing these other aberrations:
One of the cost-cutting measures for the Series-E lenses was to only single-coat the lenses. Lenses that are single-coated tend to not have very good flare control due to many internal lens reflections. Nikon eventually started to give multi-coating to some of the later Series-E’s, but many only got the single treatment. I can say without a doubt that the 50mm f/1.8 E is only single coated. Flare performance is awful. Internal reflections become visible when the sun (or other very bright sources of light) is within 180 degrees of the lens. This means that if you are trying to take a picture of something and the sun is to your immediate left or right, it will most likely affect your images. Instead of a series of pictures, I shot a short video showing all the reflections.
…Seen it? Saw how many reflections there were? I know! Flare performance is the one truly awful area this lens performs in. A hood may help, but attaching one of those negates the unique compactness of the lens. Oh well. If possible, just make sure to keep the sun or other bright sources of light behind you for your photography.
Vignetting, to put it simply, are darkened corners as a result of shooting near the wide open aperture. Another result of the “sweet-spot” advantage, most full-frame lenses tend to have little to no vignetting problems when used on an APS-C or smaller sensor. The 50mm f/1.8 E doesn’t have any real-world problems with vignetting, but there is some that is noticeable if shooting a solid color wall wide-open:
One of the many advantages to using a prime lens over a zoom, distortion is usually well-corrected (save for wide-angles). Distortion with the 50mm f/1.8 E is absent. Completely. There is absolutely no barrel or pincushion distortion to correct. Don’t even worry about it, you’ll never find any. I mistakenly noted in my review on the 105mm f/1.8 AI-s that this lens had more distortion. This was a mistake, the appearance of distortion was due to a false interpretation of shadows from an off-camera source light (to keep shutter speeds high). Apologies. :) That review has since been edited.
Now let’s hit the old recap:
Pros and Cons
- “Shootability” is extremely high, the lens feels like nothing when mounted on any camera, and is extremely small by itself
- Good build quality despite the use of a lot of plastic, everything feels machined tightly
- Operation in all aspects is smooth, from focusing to aperture control to mounting
- Sharpness at optimum aperture is good. It is sharper than the 135mm f/2.8 E is at its optimum, but less sharp than the 35mm f/2.5 E at its optimum
- The corners never smear, but have relatively low resolution at the larger apertures
- Center contrast peaks at the large f/2.8 aperture (f/4 in corners)
- Performance at close-focus and infinity are equally good
- Bokeh is exceptionally smooth with the exception of busy foregrounds at f/5.6-8
- Out-of-focus highlights are rendered great from f/2.8-4
- Even in worst-case scenarios, purple fringing isn’t an issue from f/2.8 on
- Other longitudinal chromatic aberrations are easy to deal with
- Vignetting is unnoticeable in actual shooting, unlike the 35mm f/2.5 E
- Absolutely no distortion. Zip. Nada. Shoot buildings all day long.
- Coming in at only $50/€40, it’s generally a nice performing lens that won’t cost a fortune
- It’s not made of metal, but then again, it wouldn’t be so light if it was.
- Center sharpness peaks at f/8, more than 4 stops down from wide open. Many zooms peak at f/8, for comparison.
- Corner sharpness peaks at f/8 (but never get truly sharp), but isn’t as sharp as the center
- Since contrast degrades from f/2.8 on, perceived sharpness can be affected at all stopped-down apertures
- Focus shift a problem at f/4-5.6. Not noticeable at other apertures.
- A little bit of field curvature
- Close-focus distance is disappointingly long
- Out-of-focus highlights at f/1.8-2 and f/5.6-8 are distracting
- Terrible purple fringing wide open, still a big problem at f/2
- Flare control is awful, adding a hood may help but would defeat the point of having such a compact kit
The Bottom Line
I can’t recommend the 50mm f/1.8 E high enough to anyone needing a lens for general photography. The versatility of the large aperture, the compactness and lightweight, the good performance (and great in some, like bokeh), and the cheap cost combine to make it a winning lens that should be in any photographers bag that still uses manual focus lenses for a short telephoto (APS-C) or medium portrait lens (m4/3). However, those that demand pixel-level sharpness in a wider aperture range, tend to avoid using the preview button (applies only to SLR shooters), and often shoot with sources of light in the frame, should look elsewhere–the 50mm f/1.8 E was never designed to be a critical 50mm benchmark.
Now for some samples:
That’s all for this review, hope you found it interesting and informative. Getting ready to start shooting with the 100mm f/2.8 E, that should be a fun little lens as well, I can’t wait to compare it against the 105mm f/1.8 AI-s. Who knows? They may be comparable! Anyways, thanks for dropping by. Comments are welcome, and as always, have a great one!