Introduction:


Nikon announced this premium optic in late 2013, a supposed homage to the late great NOCT Nikkor 58mm f/1.2. While many will dispute the notion of it being the modern equivalent of the NOCT, it’s undoubtedly a well corrected optic for low light photography, with virtually no sagittal coma flare and little vignetting. Nikon’s design concept also extends to the rendition of the out of focus regions of the lens, achieving “...beautiful bokeh with soft, natural edges that diminishes smoothly away from your focal point.”


These objectives require a more complex optical formula compared to those of Nikon’s other fast 50mm primes, thus demanding a premium price. At almost four times the price of the AF-S 50/1.4G, it’s arguably difficult for many to justify. Nikon makes mention that the AFS 58G’s performance is difficult to quantify only with conventional test measurements, which makes the lens seem deceptively unimpressive until reviewing one’s images.


General impressions and opinions:


The AF-S 58mm f/1.4G shares a lot of it’s appearance and haptic with that of Nikon’s other premium fast primes. While it shares a similar size with these lenses, there’s perceptively little inside the body in terms of lens elements and weight. The smallish front element is deeply recessed in the body of the lens, even at close focus. A little puzzling is why they didn’t make the lens smaller to fit a more common filter thread size of 67mm. The AF-S 35 f/1.4G has a 67mm thread, the AF-S 24mm f/1.4G has a 77mm thread, and the AF-S 85 f/1.4G has a 77mm thread.... so whats the deal with the 72mm thread of the AF-S 58mm f/1.4G?


The AF-S focusing speed is not bullet fast, but fast enough. The use of a Micromotor SWM - like the other f/1.4 primes - makes the trade of focus speed for better accuracy without the need for a big, powerful and very expensive Ring SWM motor. The permanent manual focus override is very nice, offering easy and smooth focusing without any gap when switching focus directions.


The lens is deceptively light for it’s size, and also not cool to the touch like that of a metal body lens. Therefore, it comes across as a little unsubstantial and the impression of build quality feels less than it really is. It’s a well made lens, and I don’t have any doubts about it’s longevity.


When I ordered the lens, I had my reservations regarding it’s performance, and I was prepared for the likelihood of having to sell it again. Looking at my first shots, I couldn’t help feel a little confused as to why anybody would call it soft. Shooting at f/1.4 on my D810 resulted in sharp images, more than sufficient even for large print work. With utmost respect, anybody who claims it’s sub-standard should get a reality check. To quote Louis CK, “Everything is amazing, but nobody is happy.”



The 58mm focal length does quite a lot to change the perspective of a standard 50mm lens, and as trivial a difference it may seem, it feels much more like a medium telephoto lens than a standard lens. This, together with the merits of its optical design, makes it positively the most even-tempered and versatile fifty-something lens I have ever shot with. Effectively, it’s replaced my 50mm and 85/1.4mm lenses. While I loved my AF-D 85/1.4 - which I preferred over the AF-S 85/1.4 - I’ve since sold it to make space for the AFS 58mm, and I don’t regret the decision. Perhaps it has to do with my slight dislike of the 85mm focal length for portraits, where a 100mm or 135mm lens would be better suited.



As Nikon mentioned, the AFS 58mm f/1.4G is supposed to pay homage to the classic NOCT Nikkor 58mm f/1.2.  I have used the NOCT a few times and have done extensive homework on it some time ago. I don’t think the NOCT is under any threat by it’s newer counter part. In fact, the only things the two lenses have in common are their focal length and ability to keep sagittal coma flare well controlled for low light photography. The personality of the NOCT has not made it’s way into the 58G, and this is neither good nor bad. I find the 58G to be a better lens, technically speaking, but it hasn’t got the calling card signature and drawing style of the NOCT.





Imaging Characteristics:

(Please NOTE, unless otherwise stated, the opinions expressed are based on experience using a full frame 36mp digital camera. Also, click images to view them larger in a zoomable format)



It’s evident Nikon’s design concept for this lens somewhat ignores modern trends for super high localised contrast, biting sharpness and hard edged focus planes for über subject isolation. I’m glad Nikon has taken the more grown up approach here, and designed a lens that has it’s own deliberate aesthetic. As a result, this lens is very appealing for some, and not for others. It doesn't have the sterile feel of a lens made by ze Germans in ein Lab, but rather transcends something warmer and more alive. Today’s race for perfection and pixel peeping has lost some of the the romanticism of photography as an art form, and the AF-S 58mm f/1.4G restored some of that imbalance.


Looking at the images taken with the lens, it’s evident that some optical aberrations are well controlled while others are not. I’m guessing that this was a very deliberate fine balancing act of compromises, in order to achieve a type of render style without increasing costs exponentially.

There is virtually no lateral chromatic aberration, however there’s evident longitudinal chromatic aberration and out of focus colour fringing. For the lack of ED elements, these colour aberrations seem to be very well controlled, especially considering the imperceptible longitudinal chromatic aberration. The use of two aspherical elements further tackles optical aberrations, especially those that can crop up at the periphery of the frame, such as sagittal coma flare.


Bellow is a comparison of the bat wings rendered at f/1.4 by both the AF-S 58mm f/1.4 and the Ais Nikkor 50mm f/1.2. It’s pretty obvious how well corrected the former is for sagittal coma flare! These are 1:2 magnification crops of the far frame edge.




As Nikon claims, out of focus areas do diminish smoothly from the focal point. It’s quite different to what I’m used to, and at times it can play tricks on the mind... The focal plane is narrow, however, it appears larger than it really is. Subjects immediately behind or in front of the plane will still hold detail, however, they are covered by a soft veil. For most subjects, this transition from front to back focus is virtually seamless, and the focal point doesn’t appear abruptly between them. It’s one of my favourite aspects of this lens, however, it doesn’t work for all subjects.


 
 


Contrast and colour reproduction is consistent and rich throughout the range of apertures. No purple or violet haze wide open. Centre sharpness is high at most focusing distances, especially medium to far. Details are well defined through most of the frame, however, field curvature needs to be taken into consideration. While field curvature isn’t severe, it changes slightly at different focusing distances, so a focus and recompose technique isn’t recommended. At closer focusing distances, image definition becomes a little softer due to an increase in spherical aberration, however this can be quite nice and I don’t consider it a drawback.  Bellow is an image representing the field curvature pattern at f/2.8, at roughly 20 feet focus. Consider this just a rough depiction, as it was shot hand held and the subject was not a perfectly even interlock driveway.




One thing that does bother me a little is the out of focus colour fringing. While not bad, it can get a bit much in very high contrast scenes, and one has to do the unthinkable and stop down to f4 or smaller ;) My friend calls these “Big boy apertures” and I agree that we tend to be a little too obsessed with wide apertures and shallow depth of field. This colour fringing presents itself in the standard magenta and green form, where the foreground blur takes on magenta fringing, and the background green fringing. The rendering of the foreground is a little harsher and more edgy than the background blur, but luckily this isn’t obvious in most cases. The use of aspherical elements also has a slight drawback in that they can affect the quality of blur in some situations. If faced with high frequency detail that is just slightly defocused and strongly lit, in and around the outer third of the frame, a somewhat busy and nervous rendering may occur. This problem varies depending on the light intensity falling on the blurred areas. Also, within this mid-zone (half way between centre and far edge) the plane of focus undergoes a slight increase in edginess at wider apertures. It’s often not noticeable, but I suspect it’s from the use of aspherical elements. This is readily apparent with the AF-S 28mm f/1.8G shot at wider apertures.


In very harsh contrast situations, where specular highlights are rendered in the background out of focus areas, both green and magenta fringing can be seen in the blur discs when shooting wider than f/4. The discs take on a green outer ring, and a magenta fill on the inside. Now, most rational people would know that it’s very ambitious to get good results with fast glass in extreme lighting situations, even with the Otus 55mm f/1.4. Bellow are perfect examples of how not to shoot this fast glass, where one must simply suck it up and use big boy apertures. Bare in mind, these are extreme lighting situations that will make even the best lenses look bad...

 
 



The AF-S 58mm f/1.4G features Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coat, a sophisticated anti-reflective coating, which not only helps improve colour and contrast, but notably improves resistance against ghosting and flare. I’ve not come across any situations where images were affected or ruined by unexpected flare. Pointing any lens towards our handy fusion reactor in the sky is quite a tough ticket, and flare will occur, however it’s remarkably well controlled with the AF-S 58mm f/1.4G. Bellow are two high contrast situations that would prove very demanding for most lenses. The left image was shot at f/1.4 and the image on the right was shot at f/11.



       





The out of focus rendering of the AF-S 58mm f/1.4G has an appealing silky smooth feel. Wider apertures often contribute a slight swirl to the image, largely caused by the cat-eye effect - a side affect of optical vignetting and the shape that blur discs obtain from light entering the lens from off-axis angles. All this works in harmony to create a look or drawing style unique to the lens. The only Nikkor lens that comes close is the AF-S 85/1.4G, which is one of Nikon’s finest. It’s difficult to quantify, but it’s quite recognisable to a keen eye. The quality of the blur is an order of magnitude better than most fast 50mm lenses, especially those of Nikon’s current line up. With these lenses it’s easy to provoke a harsh and nervous rendering of the background out of focus areas. I will mention again that I think the AF-S 58mm f/1.4G is the most even tempered fifty-something millimetre lens Nikon has to offer. Whether it’s price justifies this, only you can determine.


 
 



As one would expect, stopping down the AF-S 58mm f/1.4 increases sharpness across the field, eliminates vignetting as well as colour fringing, and mostly reduces the effects of field curvature. The stopped down sharpness of this lens is very high, but not Otus good, which isn’t surprising. Field curvature at infinity focus, runs inwards towards the periphery of the frame. It’s important to keep in mind that for landscape shots with only distant scenery, a balance of centre and edge focus needs to be found. This usually necessitates focusing the centre a little beyond infinity, and therefore choosing a suitable aperture value to bring the entire frame into acceptable focus. In the images bellow, the left one clearly shows an uneven focus plane, where as the focus of the right image was carefully balanced for even sharpness.


     



The only other draw back I can think of is that of distortion. The slight barrel distortion doesn’t often become an issue, but it’s something to be aware of. It’s just a little less distortion than that of the AF-S 50mm 1.4G, but still more than the AF-S 50mm f/1.8G and a whole lot more than my $100 AF-D 50mm f/1.8, which has virtually zero distortion. Luckily, the distortion is easily corrected, but I tend to not apply lens corrections other than lateral CA removal. Light fall off is also kept to a minimum, much less than the AF-S 50mm f/1.4G and especially the Ais Nikkor 50mm f/1.2.


When I first got the lens, I didn’t really have the need to AF fine-tune my copy. To nit pick, I have this lens’ value set to +2 on my D810. While the D810 is a remarkable improvement over the D800 and D700 with regard to AF accuracy and especially AF consistency (talking about the D800 here), I do notice that even the D810 struggles a tiny bit at times. Shooting wide open, these errors are usually so small that it has never cost me a shot, and honestly, it’s often more accurate than Live View contrast detect AF... as mentioned before, the focus plane is narrow, but deceptively so. I’m not surprised that occasionally the camera will focus a hair in front or behind the perfect focus point, based on differences in subject colour and the fact the lens isn’t an APO design.




Conclusion:


For weekend warrior reviewers, it’s easy to rate this lens down as an expensive piece of kit with average performance. It’s definitely not a lens for everyone, since its design goal is different to what is currently trending, but for reasons I don’t quite understand this lens gets a lot of unsubstantiated flack. People love to hate it.


That aside, it’s easy to fall in love with the lens. For some, it’s proven to take longer than expected, so it’s advisable not to draw hasty conclusions. It’s unique drawing style is unmatched, and nobody can argue with the amazing results achieved with it by photographers out there. While the aspects that make this lens special are sometimes subtle and difficult to appreciate, one shouldn’t discount the fact that it’s special. There is nothing wrong with admitting the lens is not suited for your needs, and that expectations and presumptions are not met. There are other choices after all!

The AF-S 58mm f/1.4G is a versatile and even tempered normal lens, but it demands the user to understand it’s strengths and weaknesses. Otherwise, the perceptive differences to other much cheaper lenses will diminish, making it harder to justify. I hope I’ve provided enough examples showing the lens’ strengths and weaknesses for you to draw your own conclusions.


I’m grateful that Nikon has made a new lens with a deliberate and unique design aesthetic. It gives the lens a character that is difficult to quantify, but is readily apparent in it’s drawing style. I’ve enjoyed shooting with the Sigma ART 50mm f/1.4, it’s by all accounts very impressive, but for me it’s a lens that lacks personality. I’ve often considered buying it, and in certain respects it’s better than the AF-S 58mm f/1.4G, but I just don’t want it.


Keep in mind that I went into purchasing the AF-S 58mm f/1.4G completely blind. The lens wasn’t available in South Africa to try, either by rental companies or retailers. It was ordered from overseas, and took two months to get to me, so I didn’t have the luxury of returning something I didn’t like. I was prepared for any outcome, fully aware of the likelihood of disliking the lens. It’s not perfect, but I like it very much.


Thanks for reading. I hope it helped. There are more sample images on the next page...