OK, coming off the heels of a review of the $6,000 200mm f/2, I figured it was time to look at something a little more practical, a little lighter, a little cheaper, and so…
The lens on the right, next to the 200mm behemoth, is Nikon’s new 50mm f/1.8G, the latest iteration to the moderately fast normal lens, perhaps the most popular class of lens of all time because it’s versatile, light, and inexpensive. Even with modern-day coatings and modern-day pricing, this lens stands at just over $200. In other words, you could buy almost 27 of these for the cost of the 200mm.
When Nikon took the screw-drive autofocus motor out of entry-level bodies like the D5100, lots of people rightfully complained about losing AF in their old lenses. But one of the happy effects of this is that Nikon has been forced to update the designs of their cheaper lenses, and make new ones like the popular 35mm f/1.8. And so the old “nifty fifty” gets a makeover with new coatings and a new optical formula including an aspherical lens element to cut down on aberrations (especially at the corners of an image).
Can a new lens this cheap be any good? Happily, the answer is yes.
The first thing I noted when I put the lens on is that the autofocus is nice and zippy, faster even than my expensive 35mm and 24mm f/1.4 lenses. This is important because the most popular complaint about the “big brother” 50mm f/1.4G is that the AF is too slow for some uses. With that, and a price tag half that of the f/1.4, it’s a tempting option if you don’t need the widest apertures.
How are the optics?
Very good, with a great price/performance ratio. Wide-open it’s already sharp — not perfectly sharp, but more than sharp enough — as this shot at f/1.8 shows:
100 percent crop:
In terms of out-of-focus rendering, I tend to give 50mm lenses a low bar, since the old, cheap optical design often lends to very choppy bokeh. The 50mm clears the low bar — it’s still a bit busy, perhaps not as smooth as the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 or as most fast telephoto primes, but it tends to look pleasant and not-distracting in real-world pictures. You can click on the two flower snapshots below for full-resolution samples at f/1.8 and f/8:
Here’s a shot that shows off the bokeh characteristics well:
Flare resistance is also really good, likely due to coatings and the tiny front element. Here is a heavily backlit scene as it appears out-of-camera:
For reference, here’s an out-of-camera photo from the same spot with the older 135mm f/2 D DC
Who should buy this lens?
I think this lens should be in a big percentage of modern photographers’ bags, simply because it’s cheap and incredibly light, and is guaranteed to autofocus with any current or upcoming Nikon camera. If you’re big into old manual film cameras, this isn’t the lens for you, but you can find plenty of manual-focus 50mm lenses that are virtually free on eBay. For amateurs on a budget, this is a great addition to a couple kit-zooms so you can trade off versatility for depth-of-field control and a big boost in low light, and you can stick it in a small camera bag without even knowing it’s there. With a small DX camera you have a decent half-torso portrait lens, and even with expensive pro line-ups it’s great to have a light, cheap normal lens you can toss in the bag as a back-up.
Even though the 200mm f/2 is just about perfect in every way on paper, this is the lens I want to keep around. It just works, it gets out of my way, and for my work I actually like most of the photos I get from it more. Buy it here.