Nikon Z 50mm F1.8 S
$599
www.nikon.com

One of three lenses launched alongside the Nikon Z6 and Z7, on the face of it the Z 50mm F1.8 S might appear the most pedestrian of the group. It's hard to get too excited about a medium-fast 50mm these days, but in its promotional literature Nikon claimed that its latest standard prime is anything but a standard standard. In fact, the company claimed that the Z 50mm S would offer superb resolving power, low aberrations and excellent wide-aperture performance, impressive enough to challenge assumptions about what lenses of this type should be capable of.

The Nikon Z 50mm F1.8 is twice as heavy, twice as large and about twice the price of the company's equivalent lens for F mount - but is it twice as good? We've been shooting with one for a few weeks, and one thing's for sure - it's a radically different lens.

Key specifications:

  • Focal length: 50mm
  • Format: Full-frame
  • Aperture range: F1.8-16 (1/3EV steps)
  • Filter thread: 62mm
  • Close focus: 0.4m
  • Hood: Included HB-90, bayonet attachment.
  • Length / Diameter: 76 x 86.5mm
  • Weight: 415g (14.7oz)
  • Optical construction: 12 elements in 9 groups, including Nano Crystal Coating
  • Special elements: 2 ED, 2 Aspherical.

Compared to its nominal F-mount equivalent, the Z 50mm F1.8 S is an obvious step up in terms of optical technology. Featuring advanced coatings, almost twice the number of elements (including two aspherical and two ED) and three additional groups, the new prime is substantially more complex. Compare this to the single aspherical element in the F-mount version (itself a novelty when the lens was introduced in 2011) and it's obvious that Nikon has taken the opportunity to completely redesign its newest standard lens for the radically different dimensions of the new Z mount.

Product Photography by Dan Bracaglia

Design and handling

The Z 50mm F1.8 S is as different optically to its F-mount predecessors as it is cosmetically. Somewhat reminiscent in overall look and feel to a modern Sony ZA or Sigma Art-series prime, the new lens is smooth, stylish and simple in design. Constructed from a mixture of polycarbonate and aluminum, the barrel of the 50mm is dominated by a wide and well-damped metal focus ring. A single A / M focus switch is the only other moving part. Since the new Z-series cameras feature in-body stabilization, the lens itself is unstabilized.

'Build quality' is a notoriously hard quality to measure, and one that we have to assess subjectively, on the basis of anecdotal (but as extensive as we can manage) experience. The Z 50mm F1.8 looks nice, handles well, feels neither too heavy nor too light, and appears to be manufactured to a high standard. There is no give in the focus ring, no wobble in the mount, and after weeks of use it hasn't fallen apart in my hands. Etc., and so on.

In common with other prime lenses we've seen that are specifically designed for mirrorless camera systems, the Z 50mm F1.8 S has a relatively small, concave front element.
The only physical switch on the barrel of the Z 50mm F1.8 is for manual / automatic focus. Since the Z6 and Z7 feature in-body Vibration Reduction, there's no need for the lens to be stabilized.

Less anecdotally - and more importantly - we've put the Z 50mm F1.8 to pretty hard use in the past few weeks. Unusually hard, in fact. I've spent hours with the Z7 and 50mm shooting in extremely wet and windy conditions on multiple occasions recently, working on a photo project on Washington's Pacific coast. In rain heavy enough to somehow soak down, under, into and around multiple layers of waterproof clothing, the Z7 and Z 50mm F1.8 kept on working without any serious problems.

The only issue I had after extended exposure to the elements was a very occasional glitch where the Z7 would switch out of automatic focus and into MF mode. Re-seating the lens in the mount was enough to clear the problem. Whether the issue was caused by moisture getting into the camera (I didn't see any when I looked later) or into the M / A switch on the lens I don't know. Either way it didn't prevent me from working.

This image shows the rubber gasket around the Z 50mm F1.8's mount, which helps keep dust and moisture from getting into the camera. Our experience shooting with the lens in exceptionally wet conditions suggests that it's highly effective.
This is the Z 50mm F1.8 S side-by-side alongside the Z 35mm F1.8 S. Good luck telling these lenses apart if you're fishing around inside a camera bag.

We already know from Roger Cicala's tear-down that the Z7 is impressively well-sealed, and while the Z 50mm F1.8 S might not be gasketed to the same standard (we won't know that for sure until Roger takes one apart), it certainly seems very well sealed from my experience.

One frustration - although it's not the optical designers' fault - the new 50mm and 35mm F1.8 Z primes are so similar to one another cosmetically, that they're almost impossible to distinguish in a camera bag. They're almost the exact same size and shape, very similar in weight, and both use a 62mm cap. A Nikon Z shooter carrying both would practically be forced to label them in some way to avoid mixups in the field. Ditto the HB-89 and HB-90 lenshoods, which are mechanically interchangeable and almost indistinguishable (to the extent that I have no idea why Nikon bothered to make two different hoods), but which are frustratingly shy of being exactly identical.

Focus

The Z 50mm F1.8 S is an internal focus design (the lens doesn't get bigger or smaller when focusing) and in normal or bright lighting conditions, it focuses quickly and accurately on a Z6/7. Autofocus actuation from the stepping motor isn't as fast as Nikon's snappiest F-mount zooms with more powerful ring-type AF motors, but it's at least as fast as most of the company's older primes and good enough for rapid acquisition of most subjects. The Z 50mm F1.8 S focuses slightly faster than the Z 35mm F1.8 S but there's not much to choose between them.

As well as being rapid, autofocus is effectively silent, too. Video shooters might detect a subtle 'zip' sound on the in-camera audio as the lens makes large focus adjustments, but it's very subtle. Normal video AF movements are slow and smooth enough (this can also be customized) that you probably won't notice it, even if you're relying on the in-camera microphones for sound.

The large focusing ring makes up most of the length of Z 50mm f1.8 S's lens barrel, and offers fine-geared control over focus via a 'focus by wire' system.

The Z 50mm F1.8 S uses a 'focus by wire' system for manual focus, which offers very precise control from the wide, nicely-damped focus ring. The movement is speed-sensitive, not linear, meaning that a slow rotation of the ring will result in a similarly slow movement of the focusing group. If you move the ring quickly, the motor will respond more rapidly and make a larger focus movement.

This is great for stills, but some videographers (especially those that use follow focus systems) might find themselves wishing for a linear response, where X degrees of movement of the ring always results in X amount of focus movement. This is less a criticism of the lens, more of the Z system at this point but we're hoping that Nikon can adjust this behavior via firmware. Similarly, it would be nice to have the option of switching the direction of the manual focus ring, for photographers coming from different systems.