Nikon AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G
Category: Normal Lens
Conclusion - Pros
- Produces lovely-looking images almost all the time
- Very low chromatic aberration
- Lower-than-usual vignetting
- Minimal coma
- Lovely bokeh
- Generally resistant to flare
- Relatively fast, near-silent autofocus
- Decent construction but lightweight
Conclusion - Cons
- Decidedly soft wide open, especially on DX format cameras
- Relatively bulky (compared to Nikkor 50mm F1.4s)
- Inconsistent autofocus
- Very expensive
The AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G is an intriguing lens. Look at its performance in MTF tests and it appears to be nothing special; indeed it doesn't obviously do any better than its much cheaper 50mm stablemate. But there's a lot more to lenses and photography than just MTF tests, and when you go out and shoot with it, the 58mm produces images which are on the whole extremely attractive. At which point you have to ask - what else do you really want from a lens?
Optics and image quality
Optically, the 58mm is anything but sharp wide open, giving rather soft, low-contrast images. This is particularly true on resolution-hungry DX cameras, on which it looks very hazy indeed at F1.4. But if it's sharpness that you're after, stop down to F2 or F2.8 and the 58mm improves dramatically. The lab MTF tests suggest you'll soft edges and corners at most apertures, but it turns that this mainly reflects curvature of field. Fortunately the real world is generally more three-dimensional than test charts are, and in practical use the 58mm is capable of being impressively sharp across the frame by F4, even on the highly-demanding D800.
However the 58mm's overall image quality is about far more than just sharpness, and in almost every other respect you might care to consider, it absolutely shines. Chromatic aberration is very low, coma exceptionally low, vignetting nothing to worry about, and bokeh simply beautiful. There's a little barrel distortion if you go around shooting geometric compositions, but it's easily fixable in software when necessary.
That wide-open lack of sharpness may still look vexing, but in real-world photography it's less problematic than you might think. When shooting at large apertures, the key is really for the in-focus regions to be sharp enough. The impact of the picture then comes from their visual contrast with the obviouslyunsharp out-of-focus regions. Indeed given that the bulk of the image area will quite likely be out of focus, its overall aesthetic quality tends to be dominated by the quality of the lens's bokeh. There are few lenses we'd pick over the 58mm in this regard. The take home-message is that sharpness isn't the only measure of image quality, and with fast primes shot at large apertures, it's not necessarily the most important one either.
Autofocus and manual focus
The 58mm uses an ultrasonic-type 'silent wave motor' for autofocus, which is almost entirely silent, generally decisive, and reasonably fast. It won't match a 24-70mm F2.8 for outright focus speed, but we've never found the lens to feel too slow for the kind of shooting you might want to do with it. Manual focus is well-implemented too - the focus ring rotates smoothly, and it's precise enough to nail perfect focus when using magnified live view. Incidentally here we've found it easiest to focus with the lens set to F2, which cuts through the worst of the wide-open aberrations, but to implement this you do have to familiarise yourself with Nikon's generally-eccentric aperture control in live view.
The problem we found with autofocus, though, is accuracy. Count on having to set up your camera's Focus Adjust setting to achieve really accurate and consistent autofocus - our test sample tended to back-focus, and quite considerably so on the D800. We also found that there was no way of persuading the lens to focus accurately at all subject distances on the D7100 test body we used - when set for most accurate focus at short range, it still front focused consistently on more-distant subjects.
This kind of behaviour is something of a dirty secret which is common for the phase detection AF systems used by SLRs, and is getting ever-more-obvious with increasing sensor resolutions. It can effectively be eliminated using live view contrast detection autofocus, but this is relastively slow and awkward on Nikon's current DSLRs. With mirrorless cameras being effectively immune to the problem (as they focus using the image sensor itself), it's looking like something the SLR makers really need to address more effectively.
The 58mm is a relatively bulky lens, which looks large on a camera and takes up rather more space in your bag than Nikon's 50mm F1.4. But it's actually quite lightweight, and this means it never really feels unbalanced on the camera. The lens isn't fully sealed for outdoor use in inclement conditions, but it does have a gasket around the lens mount to help keep out dust and moisture, like most of Nikon's recent lenses.
Our biggest concern about the 58mm is, in fact, slightly more abstract. On DX its short-telephoto angle of view - equivalent to 85mm on full frame - makes for a lovely portrait lens. But on FX, 58mm feels like an odd angle of view for everyday use, at least for this reviewer. I constantly found myself finding it was too tight for any 'normal' perspective compositions I saw, while being a bit shorter than I'd normally prefer for portraits. I certainly wouldn't choose it as a general purpose 'walkaround' focal length instead of a 50mm (or better still, a 40mm) - it's more a lens which I'd put on the camera when I wanted its specific characteristics, and was prepared to put up with its angle of view.
The Final Word
The AF-S Nikkor 58mm F1.4G is in many ways a difficult lens to assess. Given its eye-watering price most users would probably expect better wide-open sharpness, and we could easily see its oddball focal length being a turnoff to prospective buyers. After using it intensively we'd characterise it as a specialist optic which does certain specific things exceptionally well. For applications such as environmental portraits or low-light shooting at large apertures, it's superb. We expect many wedding photographers will absolutely adore it.
But should anyone else buy one? The 58mm is clearly a better lens than the 50mm for certain tasks, and if you understand its strengths and limitations, and are prepared to spend time fine-tuning your camera's autofocus, it will surely deliver the goods. Even the breathtaking price looks like a bargain compared to the Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 - which gives an idea of the lengths Nikon's lens designers would probably have to go to if they wanted to deliver a lens that was also really sharp wide open.
Overall, though, to us the lens feels like it has the characteristics of a superb portrait lens on FX, but at a slightly odd focal length for the purpose. And while the focal length is much better suited to DX format, the 58mm costs significantly more than any of Nikon's DX SLR bodies, yet its wide-open softness becomes genuinely troubling. Because of this, we're just not quite convinced Nikon has struck the best balance of characteristics to bring it genuine all-round appeal.
Ergonomics and Handling
The AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G is an unusual lens, both in terms of its slightly eccentric focal length and its optical design philosophy. It's not especially sharp for a lens that's designed to be used at large apertures, but this is offset by the excellence of its images in almost every other respect. Its audience will naturally be limited by its sky-high price, but we suspect many owners will fall in love with the images it can create.
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