A New Take On An Old Standby

During the height of the film era, single lens reflex cameras (or SLRs) ruled the roost, striking an appealing balance of portability, ease of use, and good-enough image quality. And the majority of these SLRs came bundled with a 50mm prime lens. Nifty-fifties, as they were affectionately dubbed, had a lot going for them: they were inexpensive to make (and therefore inexpensive to purchase); fast at f/1.4 or greater; and small, making them easy to chuck into a coat pocket or camera bag as a low-light companion to a telephoto lens.

One of the more notorious nifty-fifties was Nikon’s Noct-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2. I say “was” because the lens has been out of production for ages (since 1997) and was only produced in limited quantities throughout its production run. Today, clean copies fetch prices north of $3000.

As a tip of the hat to the legendary Noct, Nikon introduced the AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G towards the end of 2013. Since then, the 58mm f/1.4 found itself the David Lee Roth of the fast normal prime world. Love it or hate it, no one seemed ambivalent.

Having morphed from Canon to Fuji to Nikon over the past few years, I found myself missing a good 50mm prime yet again. I owned both of Canon’s fast 50s: the EF 50mm f/1.4 USM, and the EF 50mm f/1.2L USM. I found them both lacking in one way or another, so I didn’t use them very often. When I switched to Fuji, their 50mm equivalent—the Fujinon XF35mmF1.4 R—was better, but still not quite what I was looking for. (To be fair, if the Fuji’s sensor had had the resolution of Canon’s 5D MkIII, my opinion could have been different.)

When I purchased my Nikon D750 this spring, I picked up the version bundled with the AF-S Nikkor 24-120 f/4G ED VR, and grabbed the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G while I was at it. In all honesty, I would have grabbed the less-expensive f/1.8 G lens, but my local camera shop was out of stock.

The 50mm f/1.4 is a great lens, but I wanted to check out the 58mm to see what all of the fuss was about. And after shooting with it for awhile, I think I get it. It’s similar to Canon’s EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM in that it isn’t tack-sharp wide open, making it great for evening out skin tones and taking emphasis away from blemishes. I find it nails focus—even with its inherent softness wide-open—much better than the copy of the Canon 85mm I shot, but to be fair, we are talking different cameras and systems.

The 58mm Nikkor f/1.4 renders colors in a very filmic way, giving images a dreamy, vintage look. It also sharpens up really well stopped down, making it more useful for general photographic duties. Surprisingly, I often found myself really appreciating the extra 8mms of reach over the 50mm f/1.4, something I was expecting to be a hinderance.

While it isn’t as much a vintage Noct, the 58mm f/1.4 isn’t a cheap lens. I was fortunate enough to find a refurb copy when Nikon was offering an additional discount—it was if the Gods were smiling upon me. Which is good—I love the lens, but doubt I could have justified it at full price. If you’re thinking about purchasing one, I’d suggest renting one from Lensrentals first, or try to find a good deal on a used copy you could flip easily if you don’t jibe with it.