Razor Sharp, Razor Thin
The Nikon 50mm f/1.4 is a fixed focal length, large aperture lens whose role in a photographer's bag has changed with the move from 35mm film to digital APS-C. At 50mm on film, it was designed to provide a 'normal' view. On APS-C sensors of Nikon DSLRs, the 1.5x crop factor kicks in and transforms this normal lens into a mild telephoto lens with potential to be used as a candid portrait lens. The draw of this lens, though, is its large maximum aperture of f/1.4, which makes it desirable for shooting in natural light.
Any discussion of the 50mm f/1.4 inevitably leads to comparison to its sibling, the 50mm f/1.8. At certain points, comparisons will be made here with its sibling lens.
The Nikon 50mm f/1.4 is encased in lightweight yet well-built plastics and some metal components. The lens mount is metal, as is the 52mm lens thread. The focus ring is made of grippy rubber. It has an aperture ring which locks at minimum aperture for mounting on most Nikon DSLRs up to the D100. As with other f/1.4 primes, the lens has a window for the distance scale.
In contrast, the 50/1.8 is mostly plastic in construction and perhaps less sturdy, and the distance scale is printed on.
All you get with the lens is the excellent Nikon front lens cap and a not-so-nice white plastic rear lens cap that does not lock on the lens mount when attached.
In the hand, the 50/1.4 is a little heavier than the 50/1.8, but just as compact. It just disappears when attached to an SLR body, which makes for a nice, compact kit for shooting candids.
The aperture ring clicks smoothly through the aperture settings from f/1.4 to its maximum f/16. The focus ring's rubber coating makes it easy to grip, and the action is smooth. It is not an AF-S lens so it is noisy, but autofocus is fast, even on the low-end SLR bodies. The lens snaps to focus as fast as you can half-press the shutter button, making it really good for capturing candid moments.
The 50/1.8 goes from f/1.8 to f/22 and is noisier, but also fast-focusing.
Sharpness of this lens has been the subject of much debate, especially when put against the f/1.8. I have found it to hold up well in sharpness at the large apertures against the 1.8, and obviously it has the advantage of going a stop faster. It only gets sharper as you stop down to f/4 and up. Contrast does go away as your aperture gets larger but is not a problem.
Depth of field (the area that is in sharp focus) is very shallow at f/1.4, and practically too shallow for most uses. Certainly for candids of moving subjects, it would be a challenge to keep your subject inside the razor thin area of sharp focus.
Bokeh or out of focus quality is harsh at the large apertures, but stop down and you can get smoother bokeh. By the time it does become smooth, though, you are already at too small an aperture (around f4) to have effective shallow depth of field to nicely isolate a subject. Of course, 'good' or 'bad' bokeh can be subjective, and maybe even dependent on the subject.
Lens Mount Compatibility
The 50/1.4 is a Nikkor lens and obviously for the Nikon F mount only.
On its own, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 D is a great lens for the candid shooter who likes to shoot in natural light. That said, the 50mm f/1.8 D does the same job but at slightly lesser capability. Put it beside the 50/1.8 which is easily half the price, and it becomes harder to justify the cost, but the quality is there for those who will pay the premium for it.
For more reviews, check out the following links:
Oleg Novikov rates the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 D
User Reviews on the FredMiranda.com Reviews Forum
[ Sample photos were taken with the gear being reviewed. Product photos were taken with a Sony V3. ]
Razor Sharp, Razor Thin