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Zenit MC Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5 (2015 version) review

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_04

If you only interested in camera lens with flawless optical design, skip this review as you won’t like the Helios 40-2.
But if photography to you is more like art than a photocopy machine, please keep on reading and see if the Helios is a lens you may fall in love with.
The Russian lens manufacturer Zenit has recently released an updated version of their MC Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5 lens. It is a manual focus lens and the original version was released back in around 1950s. While many different versions of this lens have been released in the last sixty years or so, the optical formula remain fundamentally unchanged, and that includes the latest version. Some said the optics design is a copy of the Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 75mm f/1.5 but basically it is a simple Double-Gauss lens.
While the optical design seem to be the pretty much identical to the older version, the external appearance of this new version is quite different. The new version looks more modern and has a big “Zenit 1.5/85 1.5” engraved onto the focusing ring. But frankly I prefer old the version’s more classic design.

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_06
It looks more modern now, but I prefer the old classic design

The new Helios 40-2 is slightly lighter than the old version, but at 800g it’s still pretty heavy. The heavy weight is because the Helios 40-2 is mostly made of metal, even the lens cap is made of metal.  As a comparison, the Nikon AFS 85mm f/1.4G is just under 600g. The metal construction makes the Helios feel very solid.
The lens has a long throw focus ring, approximately 270 degree from closest focus distance (0.8m) to infinity. This allows easy and accurate manual focus adjustment which is very important for a fast prime with really shallow depth of field.
But while the focus ring is dampened, it’s not buttery smooth like some of the more expensive manual focus lenses.
Overall, it’s a solidly built lens, but it lacks refinement and definitely feels a bit rough when you hold and shoot with it.

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_08 ISO 100 f/1.5 1/1600s
From one of my recent photo session. It’s not easy to nail the focus at f/1.5, at least the long throw focus ring make it easier to focus accurately.

The Helios 40-2 has a pretty special aperture control system. There are two control rings on the lens to control the aperture. The ring closer to the camera body is to select the actual aperture you want to use. While the other ring that is closer to the front of the lens is like an aperture limiter, which limits the usable aperture range. For example, if you set the limiter to f/2.8. It means you can use the other ring to adjust the aperture between wide open (f/1.5) to f/2.8.
It may take a bit of time to get used to it but it is not too hard to understand.

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_20Do you know what aperture is the lens set to? (Answer below)

But to make it more confusing, neither the white dot nor the red dots on the limiter ring can directly tell you what aperture you are shooting at.
To figure out what aperture you are using, you need to first look at the position of the two red dots on the lens, then reverse the numbers on the aperture scale between the two red dots, then the white dot will tell you your aperture setting.  So in the example photo above, the lens is set to f/2.
And since the lens doesn’t have electronic contacts, you can’t rely on the camera to tell you what aperture you are using either.
But maybe it doesn’t really matter as you’ll be shooting at wide open 99.999% of time anyway. (continue reading to find out why)
As mentioned in the beginning, the optical design is pretty much the same as what it was in the 1950s. It may work quite well back in the days with the film cameras but it’s showing its age when used with a modern DSLR.

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_19ISO1800 f/1.5 1/160s

First thing you’ll notice is the sharpness, or lack of sharpness from this lens.
At wide open, the center sharpness is not too bad especially if your camera has a low pixel density sensor like the 16MP D4/Df or 12MP D3/D700. Anything outside the center region is soft and it becomes really soft near the edges. Stop down to f/2.8 would improve the center sharpness quite a bit, but the edges are still very soft until you further reduce the aperture to around f/5.6 or so. But the problem is, this is a lens you should only shoot at maximum aperture.  (yes keep reading, and i’ll explain why)
And if your scene has strong light source or is very high contrast, there would be some very noticeable glow that makes the image quite soft. I also found that shooting far away object would quite often result in very soft image.

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_02
It’s a dumb lens, there is no electronic contacts, and you can’t tell what aperture you are using from the camera.

Even with the soft images output, chromatic aberration can still be quite noticeable when shooting high contrast scene.
Vignetting on the other hand is actually not too bad when compare to similar fast prime lenses. There is a bit of dark corner but nothing really serious.
The lens is multi-coated to help reduce flare. But I have to say this lens is absolutely horrible when it comes to flare resistance. Any light source in front of the camera would easily create a big big flare in your photo. Actually even light source from an angle that is not visible in the frame would also create a very visible flare and lower the photo’s contrast to a point that makes the photo unusable. I have never used a lens that is so prone to flare.  Be careful when you are shooting photos during middle of the day when the sun is high up in the sky as the sun/flare could easily destroy every single photo you took.
Don’t get me wrong, I personally don’t mind, actually love a bit of lens flare especially when taking portraits for artistic reasons, but the flare from the Helios can quite often completely ruin the photo so you have to be really careful when shooting with it.


Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_09
ISO 100 f/1.5 1/1600s
Flare, lots of them, and this photo is only a mild example 

For a lens that is so prone to flare, it really should comes with a lens hood. Unfortunately it doesn’t and Zenit doesn’t even make an optional one. So it is absolutely essential to get an aftermarket one in my opinion. Luckily there are lots of aftermarket lens hood that can fit onto the Helios’ 67mm filter thread.
If you are looking at buying an older version of the Helios 40-2, one thing you need to be aware of is that some of the older versions use a rare 66mm thread instead of the 67mm on the new version which makes it hard to install any filter or lens hood to it. If you end up getting an old version with 66mm filter thread, you can consider getting a 66mm -> 67mm or 66mm -> 77mm step up ring then get a 67 or 77mm aftermarket lens hood.
But keep in mind lens hood can only minimise flare caused by stray light. If you have a strong light source that is visible in the photo, you really need to adjust your camera angle or composition to minimise the flare. I also suggest switch to liveview mode when there is a strong frontal light source, this way at least you can easily see how the flare would affect your photo.
I guess it’s very obvious that the image quality from the Helios 40-2 just can’t be compared with any modern lenses. It’s also heavy and manual focus only. So why would someone even wants one while you have something like the Nikon AFS 85mm f/1.8G for just slightly more (brand new), which is a lot lighter and give you almost perfect optical image quality?

The answer is just one word: Bokeh!

Or two words: Swirly Bokeh!

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_17 ISO1100 f/1.5 1/160s
The world is spinning

The cat’s eye like swirly bokeh around the edges of the photo is pretty much the only reason why we would want a Helios 40-2. The swirly bokeh gives you that special, artistic touch that you would really fall in love with, or for some other people, make them feel dizzy and hate it.
If you are the former type, then the swirly bokeh is probably so attractive to you that you can pretty much forgive all the issues you can have when shooting with the Helios 40-2. And that’s really the whole point of this lens.
But the lens wouldn’t magically turn any background into swirly bokeh. You need to pick a background with lots of little but high contrast objects, for example, trees under sunlight. And you need to be careful with your subject/background distance so the background is blurred, but not completely blurred to create the swirly background.  It seems like you can get the most swirly bokeh if the foreground subject is at around 3-5m distance and your busy high contrast background is approx 20-50m away. It takes a bit of practice and experience to find out how to create the most swirly bokeh but the result is well worth the effort, assuming you like the swirly bokeh.

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_03

The swirly bokeh seems to only appear when you are shooting at maximum aperture. When you stop down to f/2, the bokeh already becomes a bit more round and if you go anything beyond that there is pretty much no cat’s eye bokeh at all. Because of that, you pretty much should only shoot this lens at f/1.5. After all, the swirly bokeh is the only reason why we want to shoot with this heavy, soft, super easy to flare, manual focus lens right?
That’s exactly why I said earlier you should and you would really only shoot this lens at f/1.5.
The lens has a pretty interesting aperture blade design. When the aperture is around f/4, the aperture hole becomes a unusual shape which gives you a special shape bokeh.

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_05
Interesting aperture blade design and this is the bokeh @ f/4

The Helios 40-2 certainly isn’t a lens for everyone. Manual focus a 85mm f/1.5 lens is not easy. The lens is soft and really prone to flare. It is heavy and big. The 85mm focal length also makes it not a very versatile lens. I almost never use it indoor for example.

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_01

If you are a beginner, I won’t recommend you getting this lens. Get the Nikon AFS 85mm f/1.8G for similar price and that one is a much easier to use and a lot more forgiving.
If you are crazy about that swirly bokeh? Just go and order a Helios 40-2 now. It’s not the easiest lens to use. But once you managed to conquer it, you’ll love the photos from the Helios 40-2!

 

Reviewer: Richard Wong

Richard is a multi-award winning wedding/portrait photographer based in Auckland, New Zealand.  Richard’s website is www.photobyrichard.com and his facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/PhotoByRichard

Richard is also a contributing writer for a few photography magazines. 

Some more sample photos: (All photos shot in RAW and edited to taste in Lightroom)

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_07 ISO720 f/1.5 1/160s

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_10 ISO 100 f/1.5 1/250s

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_11 ISO1800 f/1.5 1/160s

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_12 ISO900 f/1.5 1/160s

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_13 ISO14368  f/1.5 1/160s

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_14 ISO2200 f/1.5 1/160s

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_15 ISO100 f/1.5 1/3200s

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_16 ISO1100 f/1.5 1/160s

Zenit_MC_Helios_40-2_review_18ISO100 f/1.5 1/1600s

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Nikon / Sigma 50 and 58mm lens comparison review

50mm-lens-comparison-review

If you have a DSLR, there is a good chance you have or had a 50mm prime lens in your camera bag,  After all, the 50mm standard prime lens is one of the most popular prime lens because of it’s close to human eye vision angle and it’s relatively affordable price.

There are quite a few different 50mm prime lens options available on the market.  So in this review,I am going to compare the three current model 50mm autofocus prime lenses available for Nikon DSLR:

  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G (Nikon 50mm f/1.4G)
  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G (Nikon 50mm f/1.8G)
  • Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art (Sigman 50mm f/1.4 ART, reviewed previously here)

We also included

  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G (Nikon 58mm f/1.4G, review here)

in this comparison test as the 58mm focal length is close enough for direct comparison.

So let’s start looking at the obvious things like size and build quality first.

 

Size and weight:

These are the four 50mm lenses (ok one is 58mm, but i’ll pretend it’s also a 50mm lens in this review), from left to right:

Nikon 50mm f/1.8G, Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, NIkon 58mm f/1.4G, Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART.

50mm-lens-comparison-review-2

As you can see from the photo,  the two Nikon 50mm lenses are smallest and of very similar size.  The Nikon 50mm f/1.4G and f/1.8 lenses both have fairly simple design (8 elements/7 groups and 7 elements/6 groups respectively). They are pretty light weight at 185g and 280g respectively.
The Nikon 58mm f/1.4G is noticeably bigger than the two 50mm Nikons and has a slighly more complicated design with 9 elements in 6 groups. But at 385g, it still doesn’t feel too heavy.  The heavy weight champion definitely goes to the Sigma which weights at 815g. It is almost as heavy as all the three Nikon lenses added together. Actually the Sigma is only a little bit lighter than the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 and the size is almost exactly the same as the Nikon AFS 24-120mm f/4 VR.  The reason why the Sigma 50mm f/1.4ART is so big is because it has a really complicated 13 elements in 8 groups optics design. 

Results:

1. Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, Nikon 50mm f/1.8G (The f/1.8G is lighter but the f/1.4G is 2/3 stop faster)
3. Nikon 58mm f/1.4G
4. Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART

 

Build Quality:

Just like most modern lenses, I didn’t find any build quality issues with any of these four lenses. The cheapest Nikon 50mm f/1.8G is clearly the most plastic lens out of the four and the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G has a more solid build than it’s 50mm Nikon brothers. But I just really love the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART’s build quality and design. I guess it’s 800g+ weight also help making you feel it’s a very solid lens as well.

[EDITED 21 Nov 2014] Our reader Guido points out an important fact that the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G is the only lens that has weather seal.   Thanks Guido!

Results:

  1. Nikon 58mm f/1.4G
  2. Sigma 50mmf/1.4 ART
  3. Nikon 50mm f/1.4G
  4. Nikon 50mm f/1.8G

 

Autofocus performance:

While Sigma have a reputation of inaccurate and inconsistent autofocus performance, surprisingly the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART’s autofocus accuracy is just as good as the Nikons and there is also the optional Sigma USB dock for fine-tuning the autofocus settings.
It’s actually the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G that I had some autofocus issues. Fortunately after a bit of AF fine tune adjustments on the D810 body seem to have fixed it.
Sigma’s autofocus speed appears to be slightly faster than the three Nikon lenses. The autofocus operation is quiet and smooth for all the four lenses.

Results:

1. Sigma 50mmf/1.4 ART
2. = Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, Nikon 50mm f/1.8G
4. Nikon 58mm f/1.4G

 

 Maximum Magnification: 

magnification

All the photos above were took at the closest focus distance. You can see the Nikon  58mm f/1,4G is the last lens you would use if you want a small object to fill the frame. The two Nikon 50mm lenses have virtually same maximum magnification while it’s the Sigma that give you maximum magnification.

Results:

1. Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART
2.= Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, Nikon 50mm f/1.8G
4. Nikon 58mm f/1.4G

 

Price:

The easiest comparison in this whole review. All prices are based on local (NZ) price from official dealers
The Nikon 50mm f/1.8 is by far the cheapest lens out of the four. The Nikon 50mm f/1.4 is still quite cheap, but is approximiately double the price of it’s little brother. Sigma 50 1.4 ART’s price is almost the price of the two Nikon 50mm lenses added together. And last the Nikon 58 f/1.4, it is definitely the most expensive out of the four, and will cost you roughly the total of the three 50mm lenses (Nikon 50mm f/1.8G + Nikon 50mm f/1.4G + Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART) in the review

Results

  1. Nikon 50mm f/1.8G
  2. Nikon 50mm f/1.4G
  3. Sigma 50mmf/1.4 ART
  4.  Nikon 58mm f/1.4G

 

 

Next we are going to compare the image quality from the four lenses.  All the comparison photos were taken at each lens’s maximum aperture, which is f/1.4 for the all the lenses except the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G. This means the f/1.4 lenses has a 2/3 stop advantage or disadvantage over than Nikon 50mm f/1.8 depends on how you look at it.

Let’s start by comparing the image sharpness.

 

Center Sharpness:

centre-sharpness centre-sharpness2

 

(click on the photo to see it at original size)

Looking at the 100% crops, you can see the two Nikon 50mm lenses are softer than the Sigma and the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G. Between the two Nikon 50mm lenses, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G is slightly sharper than the 50mm f/1.4G. But remember the photos were taken at each lens’s fastest aperture, i.e. f/1.8 for the Nikon f/1.8G and f/1.4 for the Nikon f/1.4G respectively.  If the 50mm f/1.4G stop down to f/1.8, the sharpness is pretty much the same as the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G at f/1.8.

For the other two lenses, there really isn’t much difference between the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART in terms of centre sharpness. Both are really very sharp.

Results:

1= Nikon 58mm f/1.4G, Sigma 50mmf/1.4 ART
3= Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, Nikon 50mm f/1.8G

 

Corner Sharpness:

edge-sharpness

 

Once again, the two Nikon 50mm lenses are not as sharp as the more expensive Nikon 58mm f/1.4G and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART. The Nikon 58mm f/1.4G’s corner sharpness is really good, just marginally not as sharp as the monster Sigma. The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART is amazingly sharp at the corner, almost as sharp as the two Nikon 50mm lenses at the centre. The amount of details the Sigma can capture at f/1.4 is really incredible.  That probably explain why the Sigma is such a huge lens with such complicated optics design!

Results:

  1. Sigma 50mmf/1.4 ART
  2. Nikon 58mm f/1.4G
  3. Nikon 50mm f/1.8G
  4. Nikon 50mm f/1.4G

 

 

Bokeh:

It’s not unusual to use 50mm prime lens to shoot portrait. You can easily create foreground isolation by blurring the background. The quality of the bokeh is an important characteristic of the 50mm prime lens.

Here are some 100% crops comparing the bokeh from the different lenses. All photos were taken from the exact same location at maximum aperture.

Centre Crop:

boken-center

At wide open, all the lenses creates smooth circular  bokeh. The bokeh from the two 50mm Nikon lenses has strong highlight around the bokeh edges which could make bokeh look nervous. The Nikon 58mm f/1.4G and Sigma f/1.4 ART are both much smoother and a lot more pleasant looking in comparison.

Note: The bokeh from the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G is the biggest because of it’s longer focal length

And below is a crop near the corner:

bokeh-corner

The corner bokeh is quite different from all the four lenses. The bokeh from the Sigma 50mm f/1.4G still look almost like a circle,  while the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G is a bit more distorted but still roughly a circle shape.  The bokeh from the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G and Nikon 58mm f/1.4G are both rugby shape/cat’s eye. Once again, the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G and the Sigma bokeh have a smoother transition around the edges while the two Nikon 50mm lenses have pretty strong edge halos.

 

boken-centerf4

Above is a comparing when the lenses aperture is closed to f/4. The Nikon 58mm f/1.4G look relatively smooth and have minimal halo around the edges. The bokeh from the Sigma turns slightly into a polygon but it’s the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G that looks really like a polygon with all the hard straight edges. This is because the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G only has 7 diaphragm blades while the other three lenses all have 9 blades.  Interestingly, it’s the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G that renders the best looking bokeh that is round with almost no visible halo around the edges.

Results:

  1. Nikon 58mm f/1.4G
  2. Sigma 50mmf/1.4 ART
  3. Nikon 50mm f/1.4G
  4. Nikon 50mm f/1.8G

 

Chromatic Aberration

ca

Chromatic aberration is quite visible for all the four lenses at maximum aperture. But this is pretty common for most fast prime lenses anyway and it is usually not a huge problem unless you are shooting very high contrast scenes.

Out of the four lenses, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G appears to have the most visible CA. The 50mm f/1.8G is slightly better than the 50mm f/1.4G, but it’s the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART and Nikon 58mm f/1.4G that have the best overall CA control

1.= Nikon 58mm f/1.4G, Sigma 50mmf/1.4 ART
3. Nikon 50mm f/1.8G
4. Nikon 50mm f/1.4G

 

Flare Resistance:

flare

The Nikon 58mm f/1.4G is the only Nikon lens that has the nano coating and the Sigma has something called “Super Multi-Layer Coating”. If you look at the comparison photos above, you can see the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART does have much better flare resistance than the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G. But surprisingly, there isn’t much flare visible in the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G photo despite it does not having any fancy coating on the elements.

Results:

  1. Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART
  2. Nikon 50mm f/1.8G
  3. Nikon 58mm f/1.4G
  4. Nikon 50mm f/1.4G

 

 

Coma:

coma

One of the biggest selling point for the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G is the lens is highly optimized for handheld night landscape photography because of it’s excellent coma control. And it does show in the comparison photo above.

Not as good as the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G, but coma is still reasonably well controlled with both the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART and the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G.

Unfortunately, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G shows some pretty nasty  comatic aberration, it’s almost like the city was under attacked by lots of glowing bats!

Results:

  1. Nikon 58mm f/1.4G
  2. Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART
  3. Nikon 50mm f/1.8G
  4. Nikon 50mm f/1.4G

 

Vignetting:

At maximum aperture, vignetting is quite obvious for all the four lenses. The Nikon 58mm f/1.4G has the least amount of vignetting compare to the three 50mm lenses.  But this is pretty common for most fast prime lenses anyway and can be improved by stopping down to around f/2.8-f/4.

Results:

1.Nikon 58mm f/1.4G
2. Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART
3.= Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, Nikon 50mm f/1.8G

 

vignetting

 

 

 

Conclusions:

I was going to added up the result from each individual comparison and use the total score to rank the four lenses. But I decided not to do that in the end as even though they are all 50mm lenses, each of them were created with very different goals and requirements. So to pick the “best” lens, one must understand what are the pros and cons of each lens and depends on what is most important to you then you can find the most suitable 50mm lens for you.

 

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G
The cheapest, smallest lens out of the four, and the only f/1.8 lens in this review. The price is definitely one of the most important design factor when Nikon was creating this lens. So it’s not really a surprise that this lens doesn’t give you the best picture quality or build quality when compare to the three more expensive 50mm lenses. But it’s sharpness is not bad at wide open and easily beat the three other lenses in terms of size, weight and price.  If you have a very tight budget and don’t mind a slightly plasticky lens, this is probably what you should get. For the best bangs for your buck, you can’t beat the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G.

 

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G
The Nikon 50mm f/1.4G is an interesting lens. It is the cheapest f/1.4 lens in this review, and is also the smallest, lightest (current model)  f/1.4 lens for your Nikon DSLR. This alone is already a very good reason for you to get this lens. But on the other hand, the picture quality  doesn’t really stand out and you can even argue the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G gives you better overall image quality at the maximum aperture. One thing you need to remember is that the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G offer you an extra 2/3 stop of speed when compare to the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G . And with the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, you can always stop down to f/1.8 and get better image quality while you can’t do the reverse with the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G. This lens doesn’t have exceptional image quality, but it is exactly what a 50mm lens should be, small, light and cheap (for a f/1.4 lens).

 

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G
If you have read my Nikon 58mm f/1.4G review (here), you should know I absolutely love this lens. It renders picture beautifully and it is a lens with special characterisitc and look.  While the Sigma maybe a tiny bit sharper, the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G beats the Sigma in terms of bokeh, coma control, I think the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G is the best lens out of the four in terms of overall picture quality. Unfortunately it’s huge price tag means not many of us can afford this beautiful lens from Nikon.

 

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
The Sigma delivers exceptional image quality and is sharp like a Japanese sword. If you want the sharpest possible photo with your D810, you don’t need to look any futher, this is the lens you should get. (Unless you can afford the mega expensive Zeiss Otus 55 1.4)
Autofocus was one of the biggest problem with the old Sigma lenses, but it appears Sigma have completely nailed it this time in terms of autofocus accuracy and consistency.
Before Sigma announced their new ART series lenses, it was hard to imagine a Sigma lens that is more expensive than the equivalent lens from Nikon. But the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART is more expensive than the Nikon equivalent and by looking at the comparison photos in this review, you will agree the price is well justified. The Sigma’s picture quality is simply exceptional. Amazingly sharp, with decent bokeh (but not as good as the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G) and performs very well in pretty much every area. The biggest problem (no pun intended) with this lens is it’s enormous size and weight.  A 50mm lens that is as big and heavy as a med size zoom lens means the lens may end up sitting on your shelf instead of travelling everywhere with you.

 

 

So which is the best 50mm lens?

It really depends on what you want.  They are all good in some areas but none of them are perfect.

 

 

 

 

Reviewer: Richard Wong

Richard is a multi-award winning wedding/portrait photographer based in Auckland, New Zealand.  Richard’s website is www.photobyrichard.com and his facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/PhotoByRichard

Richard is also a contributing writer for the D-Photo magazine and Pro Photographer magazine.

 

 

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Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G Review

nikon58mm01

Nikon released the Noct-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 lens in 1977. Apart from it’s really fast f/1.2 maximum aperture, it is also a lens specially designed for night photography and hence the word “Noct” in it’s name.

Because of it’s exceptional image quality, the Noct-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 is considered one of the legendary Nikon lens by a lot of Nikon users. Only around ten thousands copies were ever made (including the original and the later Ai-S version) and if you really want to get one today, prepare to pay at least NZD$5000 for a good condition second hand copy. In comparison, a brand new Nikon 50mm f/1.2 AIS can be bought at around NZD$1000.

So what is so special about this “Noct” lens and what does it mean when they said it’s designed for night photography?

Take some photos at night time with a fast prime lens at it’s maximum aperture, you will notice all the tiny point light sources near the corner of the photo are rendered as comet-shape blurs. It’s called coma and to reduce that problem you usually have to stop down your lens quite a bit.

nikon58mm16

Is it a bird? Is it a bat? No, it is coma!
(And it’s NOT from the 58mm f/1.4G)

Having to stop down the lens to get rid of coma really affects how you can shoot your night scenery photos especially when you don’t have your tripod with you. But it’s not a problem tho if you are shooting with the Noct-Nikkor. Even when shooting at maximum aperture, you get very good image quality without those nasty looking coma . But it’s not an easy task to achieve, one of the thing Nikon did was putting a large hand polished aspherical (read expensive) lens element at the front to assure optimum correction for coma.

Nikon discontinued the Noct-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 in 1997, just when the Nikon DSLR era began. Since then a lot of people has been waiting for a new Noct lens from Nikon, but it’s not until late 2012 we knew a new 58mm lens could be coming soon as Nikon had submitted quite a few 58mm f/1.2 and f/1.4 design patents. Finally, at the end of 2013, Nikon announced the new AF-S 58mm f/1.4G. While there is no “Noct” word in the official name, Nikon told us the AF-S 58mm f/1.4G is indeed paying homage to the legendary Noct-Nikkor.

As mentioned above, Nikon has submitted patent for a few 58mm f/1.2 and f/1.4 design, and in the end they decided to go with the f/1.4 instead of the f/1.2. This move must have disappointed quite a few people. But I believe Nikon have compared all the various prototypes and options and there are some solid reasons why they picked the f/1.4 design and not the f/1.2. So let’s have a look at this new “Noct” lens.

Build and Design:
The Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4G looks quite similar to the Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4G but on steroids. It is a bit bigger and a bit heavier. If you are concerned about the weight and size, don’t worry as it’s still one of the smallest golden ring f/1.4 lens. It’s nowhere as big as the ginormous Sigma 50 f/1.4 ART.

nikon58mm15

The optical formula is more complex than the typical 50mm lenses. It consists of 9 elements in 6 groups including two aspherical elements. The shinny golden N label on the lens reminds you about it’s Nano coating element.
Build quality is typical Nikon professional quality, solid and well made. With the front element deeply-recessed in the barrel, it’s quite unlikely you’ll damage the front glass even if you don’t use the supplied lens hood.
Just like most Nikon lenses, a lens pouch and lens hood are both included in the box.

Sharpness:
Before doing this review, I’ve read quite a few comments saying the 58mm f/1.4G is just not sharp at all. Some even said it’s little brothers Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4G and AF-S 50mm f/1.8G are both sharper than this 58mm lens. Is the 58mm f/1.4G really such a softy?
To test the sharpness, I used the highest resolution and most demanding DSLR that is available on the market today, the 36MP Nikon D810. I also took a number of comparison photos with other 50mm lenses, including the Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4G and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART and load them all up on my computer and compared them side by side. (A more detailed 50mm lenses comparison review comparing a number of latest 50mm lenses is coming soon to www.nikonjin.com ), so how does the Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4G perform?
The AF-S 58mm f/1.4G is a pretty sharp lens and contrary to what some people said on the internet, I found it definitely sharper than the AF-S 50mm f/1.4G and the AF-S 50mm f/1.8G. But it is not the sharpest 50mm (50ish) lens available as the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART is really a monster in terms of sharpness so the 58mm f/1.4G can only take the second place in terms of sharpness. Having said that, the Nikon isn’t doing too badly even when compare to the razor sharp Sigma that is nearly twice it’s size. What really shines about the Nikon is it’s edge-to-edge sharpness. Even at the extreme edge or corner, the sharpness still remain pretty good at maximum aperture. Stop down slightly to f/2 and the corner sharpness becomes excellent.

nikon58mm16Nikon D810 + Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4G  – f/4 1/1250s ISO64

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 100% crop from the picture above

Coma:
At f/1.4, there is a tiny amount of coma at the edges but it’s really well controlled and there is no crazy big comet or crazy shape coma.

nikon58mm08Nikon D810 + Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4G – f/1.4  1/6s ISO64

nikon58mm19100% crop near the left edge. At f/1.4, there is a little bit of coma, but it’s so much better than what you typically see from other lenses  (For comparison, see an example of bad coma near the top of this review)

“AF-S 58mm f/1.4G has definitely live up to it’s “Noct”  heritage”

Once I stop down to f/2, pretty much all the coma has disappeared. Also, if you are shooting with a DX camera, I don’t think you can see any coma at all even at maximum aperture.

While it’s not perfect, the AF-S 58mm f/1.4G has definitely live up to it’s “Noct”  heritage and has really good coma control.  I would be happy to shoot at f/1.4 if I don’t have my tripod with me.

 

Vignetting:
Vignetting is a common problem with most fast prime lenses. For example, the Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4G has very obvious vignetting issue at wide open. This is another area that the AFS 58mm f/1.4G performs really well. There is only very limited light falloff at the corners even at maximum aperture.

 

Distortion:
The 58mm f/1.4G doesn’t suffer too much from barrel distortion. The distortion is quite minimal and definitely won’t bother you much unless you are a serious chess board photographer.

 

“Through this lens, everything is awesome.”

Colours, Flare, Contrast:
Colours are rendered beautifully by this lens. Through this lens, everything is awesome. Even a boring scene looks stunning with vivid colours and good contrast! Thanks to the Nano coating, flare is very well controlled and contrast remain pretty high even when shooting directly towards a strong light source.

nikon58mm05Nikon D810 + Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4G – f/ s ISO 00

 

Autofocus:
The AFS 58mm f/1.4G’s autofocus is driven by a ring type ‘Silent Wave’ ultrasonic motor which allows manual adjustment at any time. You can also flick the “M/A – M” switch to “M” position if you want to operate in full manual mode. The manual focus ring is well dampened, but not as smooth as the one on a high quality manual focus lens.

nikon58mm13Autofocus is fairly accurate once I adjusted the AF microadjustment settings
(Performance by Last Aid Kit – Last Aid Kid Facebook page  ) 

The autofocus operation is quiet and the autofocus speed is decent. With a high resolution camera like the D810 and narrow DOF from a 58mm f/1.4 lens, it’s always a big test on the autofocus accuracy. During the review period, I did notice some of photos were slightly misfocused. I suspect it was because my review lens was not calibrated properly.  Once I spent a bit of time to adjust the camera’s autofocus micro adjustment settings, the autofocus accuracy seems to have improved significantly.

 

“If you are a bokeh junkie, this is definitely the best 50mm autofocus bokeh machine you can buy for your Nikon.”

Bokeh:
Nikon’s marketing material emphasis this lens bokeh quality and out of focus area indeed look nice and pleasant . At maximum aperture, there is some swirly bokeh which adds a bit of character and I personally really like. The lens handles some of the more challenging scenes easily without producing any ugly nervous bokeh. The transition between in focus and out of focus area is also handled smoothly.
When you close the aperture a bit, the bokeh remains relatively circular and smooth thanks to the 9 rounded blades diaphragm design.
If you are a bokeh junkie, this is definitely the best 50mm autofocus bokeh machine you can buy for your Nikon.

nikon58mm04Bokeh junkie would love this lens

 

Chromatic aberration:
Chromatic abberration is really handled very well. At maximum aperture, there is a bit of CA mostly near the edges of the frame and only a very tiny amount near the center. Most of the CA disappears when you stop down to f/2.8.

nikon58mm06You don’t see much purple fringing with the 58mm f/1.4G

 

Conclusions:
Some products are easy to review. Unfortunately the Nikon AFS 58mm f/1.4G is not one of them. If you look at the MTF chart, aperture size, and compare it with the AFS 50mm f/1.4G then it you may wonder why it is such an expensive lens.

The night shooting capability is definitely one big selling point for this lens. If you want to shoot night scenery without or can’t carry a tripod, this lens is probably your best friend. The lens delivers very good edge to edge image quality at maximum aperture. Combining this with the excellent high ISO performance from the latest FX cameras, you can pretty much just handheld the camera, shoot any night scenery photo and get very decent results.

But there is something more about this lens.

After taking over a thousand photos with this lens on a wide range of subjects, I’ve to say there is some magic dust inside this lens that you can’t see if you just look at the spec of the lens.

Is it the creamy and swirly bokeh? Is it the fantastic color rendering capabilities? Or is it the slightly unusual 58mm focal length? I don’t really know but I just love the photos I took with this lens. There is some special characteristic that the ordinary 50mm lenses don’t have.

nikon58mm09The Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4G has some special characteristic that ordinary 50mm lens doesn’t have

I wouldn’t hesitate this lens to put it on my camera if I’m shooting a wedding or doing a portrait session tomorrow. The images from this lens are just beautiful.

While I do have a bit of concern about the lens’s autofocus accuracy, the main issue I see with this lens is the price. If it’s a f/1.2 lens, I think most people would say immediately yes it’s worth the price. People would pay for the brag factor even if at f/1.2 the lens is very soft and unusable. . But it’s “just” a f/1.4 lens, and it’s more expensive than the fantastic AF-S 85 f/1.4G which is pretty much the standard professional portrait lens.

If you give this lens to a photographer to try, especially a portrait or wedding photographer, I’m sure most of them will come back and tell you they fall in love with this lens. Now if you ask me does the AF-S 58mm f/1.4G really worth the price?

Beautiful photos are priceless isn’t it?

 

Pros:

  • Excellent edge to edge image quality from f/1.4
  • Well controlled coma
  • Bokeh!
  • Good build quality
  • Some special characteristic that other 50mm lenses don’t have

Cons:

  • Price
  • Some concerns about the autofocus accuracy (could be my review sample was not calibrated properly)

 

You can find the spec and details of the Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4G from Nikon’s website

 

Sample Photos:

(Either unedited JPG straight from camera or RAW -> JPG using Lightroom 5.6   Edited to taste)

nikon58mm14Nikon D810 + Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4G – f/1.4 1250s ISO64

nikon58mm10Nikon D810 + Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4G – f/1.4 1/60s ISO900

nikon58mm03Nikon D810 + Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4G – f/ 8 1/250s  ISO64

nikon58mm02Nikon D810 + Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4G – f/1.4 1/640s  ISO64

nikon58mm07Nikon D810 + Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4G – f/7.1 1/3200s ISO64

nikon58mm11Nikon D810 + Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4G – f/1.4 1/60s ISO100

nikon58mm12Nikon D810 + Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4G – f/1.4 1/60s ISO 1800

 

Reviewer: Richard Wong

Richard is a multi-award winning wedding/portrait photographer based in Auckland, New Zealand.  Richard’s website is www.photobyrichard.com and his facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/PhotoByRichard

Richard is also a contributing writer for the D-Photo and ProPhotographer magazine.

All photos and text Copyright© 2014 www.nikonjin.com. All photos and text may not be copied or reproduced in any format without obtaining written permissions

Reflex-Nikkor 500mm f/8 C Review

The Nikon F-mount is basically the same since 1959. You can get some classic Nikkor SLR lenses and just mount it on your latest Nikon DSLR and shoot straight away!
The Reflex-Nikkor 500mm f/8 lens is one of those classic lens from the film age.

Reflex lens (or catadioptric lenses or mirror lens) has quite a distinctive look. There is a small circular plate at the center of the front element. If you are wondering how it works, basically, incoming light first gets reflected by the main mirror located at the back of the lens, then goes towards the secondary mirror at the front (that’s the small circle plate you see from outside). Then it finally reflects back towards the image sensor. If you are interested, you can read more about mirror reflex lens on wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catadioptric_system

Nikon has made a number of reflex lenses in the past. The first 500mm reflex lenses was made back in 1960s and the latest version, the 500mm f/8 N was still in production until 2005.
Not surprisingly, the latest 500mm f/8 N is the best of them. It is not only the smallest and with the best optical quality, it also allow you to focus as close as 1.5m (which gives you a very good magnification ratio of 1:2.5). Unfortunately they are extremely rare and when one finally pops up, it also comes with a very high price tag.
The one we are reviewing here is the Reflex-Nikkor 500mm f/8 C. The “C” version is one of the later model, just before the latest “N” version. It has multi-coating, but is not as compact as the “N” and the minimum focus distance is around 4m.

Like most of the old Nikkor lenses, the Reflex-Nikkor 500mm f/8 C is made of metal and it feels like a tank, yes it’s very solid! Obviously, being such an old lens, it has no autofocus, no VR or any fancy features like Nano coating.

The metal focus ring is pretty smooth and the tension is just about right, with quite a long travel. The long focus ring travel is essential as the 500mm lens has a very narrow depth of field so you’ll need to adjust the manual focus ring very carefully and precisely. With the small f/8 aperture, the camera’s viewfinder is quite dim even during the day and that makes it hard to see if you object is in focus or not especially if you are shooting it with a DX camera. Good luck if you want to shoot under low light as you will have a very hard time just trying to locate your target through the very dim viewfinder. If you are like me shooting with a full frame DSLR like the D800, the larger viewfinder with the AF arrow indicators together would make the manual focus a bit easier and quicker. But still, I got a large number of shots that were out of focus. Using the liveview to zoom in would be a good way to improve the focus accurarcy. Unfortunately when you are shooting in liveview mode, it is really tricky to keep the camera steady. I have to use a tripod or monopod if I’m shooting in liveview mode.

Because of it’s long focal length and lack of VR, it’s also quite hard to keep the camera steady without help from a tripod or monopod. I need to keep the shutter speed above 1/500s when I’m not using a tripod/monopod. As a result, I am regularly shooting at ISO 800-1600 or above during a bright day.

Since it’s not easy to have the focus 100% correct and have virtually no camera shake, a large number of photos I took with this lens were blurry (either camera shake, or misfocus). But if I manage to nail the focus and keep the camera shake to minimal, the photos can be pretty sharp. Just don’t expect every single photo to be tack sharp unless you are shooting static objecct with a solid tripod.

The CAT design means the aperture is fixed. It means two things:
1. We can’t use the aperture to adjust the exposure. Since we have to keep the shutter speed quite high to reduce camera shake, most of the time we can only use ISO to control exposure.
2. We can’t control the depth of field and the depth of field is always very shallow. This is a bigger limitation than #1 as it greatly limits our photo composition and also what kind of photo we can take. For example, you cannot take photos of a group of people and have everyone in focus unless they all line up in a straight line perpendicular to you.

The lens comes with a pair of beautifully made metal lens cap and lens hood. The metal lens cap screws onto the metal lens hood, which can then screws onto the lens. So you can either just remove the flat lens cap and leave the lens hood on, or remove both together. I quite like this design but I can see the disadvantage is that the lens hood were made shorter than it should to minimse the lens’s overall length.  There are really a lot of interesting designs in the  older generation Nikkor lenses, for example, the Nikkor AF 135mm f/2DC has a built-in retractable metal lens hood which i quite like as well.


Lens cap and lens hood both attached to the lens


Lens cap removed, leaving the lens hood on the lens.


Both the lens cap and lens hood removed.

One of the biggest advantage of the reflex lenses is that they are a lot smaller and lighter than the traditional lenses with the same focal length. For example, the Nikkor AFS 500 f/4VR lens is nearly 4kg and 400mm long, while the Reflex-Nikkor 500mm is less than 1kg and the length is about 150mm. So the Reflex-Nikkor 500 f/8 is not really a small lens, but it’s small and light enough for me to carry and walk around and shoot handheld whole day. Don’t think I can say the same thing if I’m carrying the AFS 500mm f/4VR.

The lens also comes with a set of 39mm rear filters. If you are shooting digital, the L37C UV filter is probably the one you’ll use. I remember reading somewhere saying you have to install one of the rear filter as it’s part of the optical design. Personally I haven’t take off the L37C and check if that is true or not. But if you are looking at buying a second hand one, it’s safest to make sure the 39mm filter is included as well.

 

The most special characteristic of this lens, or any mirror reflex lens in general, is it’s bokeh. The bokeh matches the shape of the front element, looks like a donut ring. If you have any bright light source in the background, you can easily get that funny looking O ring bokeh in your photos which look very very busy. So if you don’t want a distracting background, you need to try find a smooth low contrast background when shooting with this lens.
But the funny bokeh is actually a double-edged sword. Try to be creative and the unique bokeh can help you create some interesting photos.

Be creative, and turn the enemy into your best friend

 

Most of the photos from this lens has low contrast, and the colour doesn’t seem to be as vibrant as well, especially when compared to the photos from the latest nano coating lenses. Fortunately, with DSLRs, this can be fixed easily by increasing the contrast/saturation settings either in camera or in post processing. You also have to be careful and try avoid any bright light source in front the camera as it’ll lower the contrast even more. The contrast can become so low that you can’t even fix it in photoshop. But if you are looking for that “artistic low contrast film” look, then you may see the low contrast as a good thing.


Unedited JPG straight out of camrea, notice the low contrast.

There is a hot-spot near the center of the image due to the catadioptric optical design, fortunately this is not really visible in most of the photos.

On the positive side, I didn’t notice any chromatic aberration at all, even when i was shooting some high contrast scenes.

The lens has an integrated metal lens mount that can be rotated but cannot be removed.

The reflex-Nikkor 500mm f/8 is a very special lens. It’s not suitable for everyone as it has a lot of limitations and it’s not easy to create nice and sharp photos. You will probably be frustrated if you are trying to use it to shoot a evening sports game. But if you understand what are the limitations and be careful and creative, this 500mm lens can become one great, low cost telephoto lens.

Pros:
– A lightweight, small and affordable 500mm lens
– no chromatic aberration
– Decent sharpness, but only if you got everything right.
– Funny bokeh
– Solid build quality and interesting lens hood/cap design

Cons:
– Manual focus, with very narrow depth of field
– Fixed aperture, which means you cannot increase the depth of field by stopping down.
– No VR, tripod/monopod is essential to keep the camera steady under low light.
– Low contrast, especially when there is strong light source in front of the camera
– Funny Bokeh

Feel free to discuss or add your comments on our forum:
http://www.nikonjin.com/forum/showthread.php?tid=1706&pid=12775

Sample Photos
(Edited to taste with Adobe Lightroom, click to enlarge)

Reviewer: Richard Wong

Richard is an award winning wedding/portrait Photographer based in Auckland, New Zealand. Richard’s website is www.photobyrichard.com and his facebook page is http://www.facebook.com/pages/Photo-by-Richard/113755425305636

All photos and text Copyright© 2012 www.nikonjin.com. All photos and text may not be copied or reproduced in any format without obtaining written permissions