Monday, 18 February 2013

Nikon 50mm f/1.8D

Today we're going to have a look at one of Nikon's 50mm lenses. I'm not usually a Nikon man, but I have swum in Nikon's waters, and a decent 50mm is a handy thing to have. The 50mm f/1.8D was launched in 2002, on the very same day as the Nikon D100 digital SLR, and is roughly analogous to the popular Canon 50mm f/1.8 MkII - the plastic "nifty fifty". Nikon's lens is built to a slightly higher standard, with a metal lens mount. It also has a manual aperture ring, which was a Nikon thing back in the days when Nikon did things differently.

Nikon 50mm f/1.8D / Fuji S2 / London
The old Jessops World Camera Centre on New Oxford St; you can't, if you're bankrupt

In the photo above it's mounted on a Nikon F3, a manual focus 35mm film SLR from 1980. It fits and works fine, although it becomes manual focus only. The manual focus ring is small and covers a lot of ground quickly, which is awkward, but it's a viable alternative to the F3's contemporary 50mm f/1.8 AI-S. (In real life the discerning F3 owner would have used a 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.2, or a 25-50mm f/4 zoom, or a 300mm f/2.8, etc). The 50mm f/1.8D replaced an earlier, non-D autofocus 50mm f/1.8, the difference being that the D version can transmit distance information to the camera's flash and metering system.

Nikon 50mm f/1.8D @ f/2 / Nikon D1x

All the shots in this article were taken with a vintage Nikon D1x in February 2013, except for the test images. The 50mm f/1.8 D seems to have been popular with Nikonitrons as a second lens, also just like Canon's Nifty Fifty. But it has an Achilles heel. In common with older Nikon autofocus lenses it uses a screw-drive system whereby a motor inside the camera drives the lens' focus motor. This was Nikon's way throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but over the last decade or so the company has been moving towards an autofocus system that has the motors built into the lens, and starting with the D40 of 2006 modern entry-level Nikon digital SLRs don't have a screw drive motor, and can't autofocus the 50mm f/1.8D.

This must have caused some red faces and missed sales in the local camera shop, especially given that the 50mm f/1.8 was aimed at precisely the kind of people who might have bought a D40.

In mid-2011 Nikon launched a modern 50mm f/1.8G lens, which has a built-in focus motor. The company still sells the 50mm f/1.8D, but for how much longer? How much longer, eh?

Seriously, if you want to have a go at my "how much longer will Nikon sell the 50mm f/1.8D" competition, please write the answer - in months, starting from February 2013, so that e.g. March 2013 is ONE month- on a postcard, and send it to:

The Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP
House of Commons

Just write answer as a number on the middle of the postcard. Like this - THREE. Or FIFTEEN. TWENTY. That kind of thing. There's no limit on the amount of entries per person, in theory you could send in every number from one to EIGHT HUNDRED MILLION and you'd be guaranteed of winning assuming that Nikon does actually discontinue the lens within that time period. Don't put your address anywhere on the postcard, Iain Duncan Smith will find you. Don't mention this competition, he already knows about it. There is a prize. I'm not going to tell you what it is.

On with the test. The 50mm f/1.8D is much the same, optically, as the Nifty Fifty. Wide open it's soft on close inspection but not awfully so, and I can imagine the archetypal Nikon D70 owner circa 2004 trying a digital SLR with a fast lens for the first time and being amazed at the narrow depth of field. Stopped down it's pipped by some of the macros but rivals any zoom. Just like Canon's lens the bokeh isn't very good, despite the fact that it has a more complex aperture (with seven blades instead of five). Here's what highlights look like, wide open and then at f/4:

The bokeh is very "busy", as you can see in the shot above of the iron dog, or this one:

It's about one-third the price of the contemporary Nikon 50mm f/1.4D, which is optically similar, including the bokeh. Based on the reviews I have read the modern G versions of the two lenses are slightly better, and have smoother background blur. If I was a Nikon man, I would have bought one of them instead.

That bokeh again. The test. On with it. For the umpteenth time, the beauty of Culver Street car park, the architectural equivalent of a pregnancy test that comes back positive for horsemeat:

It's the bricks, you see. If the car park was uniformly grey reinforced concrete it would have a brutal, 60s, retro look. It would be hideous but it would be interesting. The bricks spoil that. They're supposed to make it look attractive but they just make it look unattractive and boring. But yeah the image was shot wide-open with a full-frame Canon 5D MkII, using a Nikon adapter. If I took more cocaine I would write more equals good. The red square represents an APS-C crop (specifically a Nikon D300). As you can see the colours are nice and there's a lot of vignetting, less so in the APS-C zone.

Here's the middle, at f/1.8, f/2.8, f/5.6 -unsharpened - and then f/8, with mild unsharp mask:

There's a glow wide open, which goes away at f/2.8. The lens reaches a peak of sharpness by f/5.6 and doesn't get sharper - the f/8 crop is just to show how sharp the lens can be, but it can't be a lens because it does not smoke the same cigarettes as me; I can't get no, no-no-no.

Hey hey here's a crop towards (but not exactly in) the APS-C corner:

And it's pretty much the same but it takes a bit longer to get there, reaching a peak at f/8. I took a shot at f/11, which looks exactly the same as the f/8 sample. Here's the far full-frame corner:

Again, it's very  consistent, and reaches a peak at f/8, much like all non-exotic 50mm lenses.

Er, here's Trauma by Dom and Roland, which has nothing to do with the rest of this post but, crumbs, it's awesome:

Nineteen-ninety-eight. To put things in context, when that track was released you were probably looking forward to using a 56K modem to connect to the internet so that you could spend the afternoon trying to download MP3s of, I dunno, Dom and Roland's Trauma. Or something by Limp Bizkitz or Korn if you were American, because America hated electronic dance music.

Hard as it is to believe, dubstep existed back in 1998, except that it was faster and the people who made it listened to film soundtracks and didn't call it dubstep. In fact, the people who made it were too busy making it to spend time arguing about what it should be called ("techstep?") or what colour it should be. They were too busy making it to work up an image and a stage show, which is why Skrillex is a multi-millionaire and so many of Dom and Roland's generation are now delivery drivers with tales to tell of their dancing days.

To be fair, after the first four or five tracks you started to realise that the producers were copying each other, and they all sounded the same, and that you had to skip the first couple of minutes to get to the real beat. But over time you could see that the music was evolving before your very eyes, like the virus in The Andromeda Strain. From lethal to harmless, and perhaps back to lethal again.

Of course, the more lethal a virus the faster it kills the host. And the faster the host dies the less time there is for the virus to spread. Which is why the hard stuff, the real hard stuff, never took off. It killed the people who listened to it. It was the soft stuff that spread. Like the common cold.