I've bought and traded in so many 50mm lenses that I thought I gotta go see a shrink. Nuts some may say and nuts I may well be, but up to now it just didn't ever "click" (pun intended). Until Nikon´s 58mm f/1.4 found me! Please read on if you want to know the 5 reasons why this "normal" lens ain't so normal at all and has achieved for me what no other lens has been able to do!
I've always loved "normal" lenses (focal length approx. equal to length of image frame diagonal) coz of the authentic way they render the world around us, without perspective effects distracting from the image content. It ain´t for nothing these type of lenses have been a continued favorite of famous reportage photographers, their natural field of view ideal for unbiased documenting of our environment
For my people photos the 58mm's focal length enables me to be at just the right distance from my subjects, allowing sufficient intimacy without being too intrusive. The frame covers the subjects' head & upper body and I'm just far enough away to prevent distortion. All this delivers more informal & natural looking portraits, better able to depict a person's character & posture than more tightly cropped headshots (which sometimes do tend to look a bit like passport photos ;-)
Normal lenses normally also have large apertures, which allow for a bright viewfinder image and dissolve out-of-focus areas with a pleasing bokeh, which helps to focus the viewer on the intended core image content, as you can see in the following image:
So, over the years whatever camera system I had, I tried all them normal lenses, but searched in vain, from Minolta´s 50 f/1.2, Nikon´s 50 f/1.2, Hasselblad´s 80 f/2.8, Leica´s 50 f/1.4 Summilux, Canon´s 50 f/1.2L, to Fuji´s 35 f/1.4 (53mm full frame equivalent) ... Somehow always something was missing. Then around 6 months ago I went from APS-C back to full frame for its shallower depth of field, desperately on the look out for a fast normal prime ...
First I tried Sigma´s 50mm f/1.4 ART, after reading its rave reviews on the net. However, even though it was phenomenally sharp, I just couldn't come to terms with its IMO terrible 'onion ring' shaped bokeh. And what a monster it was too (as big as my 24-120 f/4 Zoom Nikkor and even 100g heavier!). Images were rendered too "clinical" for my taste ... My next attempt was Nikon´s 50mm f/1.8 but that one was decentered and quite soft until f/2.8, so it was a case of "return to sender".
What to do now? Can't live without no normal lens, and the only remaining option of Nikon´s 58mm f/1.4 was not exactly looking like a bargain at around 1,700 US$ ... (apart from it getting many mediocre reviews on the net). Anyways, after a significant amount of contemplation I finally decided to take the plunge and order one (trading in several bits of my Fuji kit in the process), dreading to realize I´d made a mistake. So it was with sweaty, shakin' fingers that I pressed the image review button on my D850 after taking the first shots, and ...
Damn. It was soft. Everywhere. OMG, so did I now need to start the roulette game of trying out various samples until I´d find one acceptable copy (btw this was the reason I ditched Leica in the end ...)? In my despair I did some test shots and found there was sharpness to be found, just not where I was expecting it! So after some fiddling with the AF fine-tuning (+6 if I remember correctly), I hit the jackpot - whammo! Tack sharp on a razor thin plane, exactly where I wanted it and dissolving into butter soft unsharpness immediately before and behind it, see the image below ;-)
So I've identified five, let's say features of Nikon's 58mm f/1.4 lens, which in their combination differentiate it from all the other 'nifty-fifties' out there and have made me fall absolutely in love with the character of the images it produces (especially at larger apertures):
- Slightly longer focal length than normal "normal" lenses:
Finally I found out why I never liked the other 50mm focal lengths on 24x36 full frame. IMO 50mm's a touch too wide for upper body portraits, requiring me to come a bit closer to the subject. This already makes distortion visible and slightly reduces background separation
- '3D' look of the images it produces, especially with portraits:
It seems the inherent curvature of field of the 58mm kinda 'bends' the sharpness plane around the 3 dimensional shape of the subject's head (if the head is not too far out of the image centre). This combined with the smooth out-of-focus rendering gives images a subtle '3D' effect, which I never seen before with other lenses
- Tack sharpness in a razor thin focal plane at larger apertures (f/1.4 - f/2):
The only other lens which was tack sharp wide open was the Summilux, the others I mentioned above all were too soft for my taste until around f/2 - f/2.8. After all, what's the point of having a large aperture prime if you can't use the large aperture?
- Transition from in-focus to out-of-focus areas, with just enough bokeh smoothness:
The Sigma had a clinical, razor sharp transition from sharp to unsharp, giving the image a kinda artificial look. The 58mm has a hardly perceptible change over from a tack sharp focus plane to a 'swirly' out-of-focus area which gives the image a dreamy overlay. The slight structure of the bokeh, combined with the not too long focal length is what gives the 58mm's bokeh a special look, still allowing you to imagine your subject's environment (not so on an 85mm or a 105mm)!
- Last, but not least a slight vignette at largest apertures:
Similar to other fast primes the 58mm has a slight vignette at larger apertures up to f/2, but in the combination with the curvature of field and the 'swirly' bokeh it just looks that much better, see image below (look also at the detail in the tablecloth!):
As I mentioned earlier, several of the aforementioned 50mm primes demonstrate some of the 5 features, but only Nikon's 58mm f/1.4 magically combines all of them in one lens to deliver a unique & gorgeous rendering. These 5 reasons are why I love this lens so much, and it for sure ain't normal ;-)
One more feature, kinda like a bonus: Like its ancestor, the famous NOCT Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 AI-S the 58mm f/1.4 AF-S is optimized to minimize sagittal coma flare. This means that point light sources are actually rendered as point light sources in the image, rather than looking like bats the more you move toward the edges of the frame. Results in especially clear night images, I'll post some examples in a future post!
Mr. Haruo Sato, the designer of this lens once said: "I hope people will think of this 58mm as a ‘three dimensional hi-fi lens’. I’ll be very happy if people understand this. It allows the point of focus to have as much sharpness as possible while still having a gentle, continuous bokeh"
I found the diagram on the left at The Imaging Resource's Nikon 58mm f/1.4 review (chart reproduced here with their kind permission), showing the distribution of the sharpness over the Nikon 58mm f1.4's image plane (the darker the blue, the sharper). I think the shape of this distribution is the main reason for this lens' 3D character! Mr. Sato, I think I can say I have only just started to understand ... I sure got a long way to go & so much to learn until my imagery will truly do this special lens' capabilities justice! I can only recommend the Nikon 58mm if you're looking for a fast, (not so ;-) normal prime to capture unforgettable documentary style images!
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