© 2006 KenRockwell.com
In July 2006 I was loaned a Zeiss-branded 50mm f/1.4 lens. I started testing it, and realized it would be illuminating to compare it against a Nikon 50mm lens. Great idea, except I had dumped all of my 50mm lenses a decade ago. I asked, and was loaned several 50mm Nikkors for this comparison.
Caution: Most of these lenses have no autofocus performance because they are manual-focus lenses!
Manual-focus-only lenses went obsolete back in 1986 for 35mm cameras. Manual lenses won't autofocus at all with any camera, or meter on a D80, D50 or D70! Manual lenses have no electronic contacts to communicate with most Nikons made in the past 20 years. I didn't bother comparing AF performance among the three modern lenses which do have AF ability. The AF performance of the two 50mm AF lenses is identical.
Compared in this test:
Click the name or little photo of any lens to get to its own review page with much larger images of it, performance details, where to get them and more specifications.
Feel free to read all the details. For those who prefer photographing over reading about it, optical performance is almost identical among these. There is more difference from stop to stop of each lens than there is between lenses. See Your Choice of F/Stop Is More Important Than Your Lens for examples.
The mechanical quality is best on the manual focus Nikons. The Zeiss feels like an off-brand lens (it is) with stiffer, less smooth focusing and the AF lenses work as well, but are plasticier with looser tolerances in the focus train.
You're much better off with an AF lens if your camera is newer than 20 years old. Manual focus lenses are incompatible with most of the features invented since 1986. See my Nikon Lens Technology page for details.
Why Are They So Similar?
These lenses have similar, actually almost identical, designs and performance, but different names and mechanics.
Zeiss owns the trademark to the name "Zeiss" and to its trade names like "Planar" and "Tessar." The patents to these designs expired many decades ago. Anyone may manufacture and sell a lens using expired patents, but they may not use the trade names like "Planar" unless they get Zeiss' permission.
Because the designs are almost identical, so are the performances. All of these lenses are made to sufficiently tight tolerances to realize the full performance of the designs.
I spent almost two months shooting and writing this comparison of 50mm lenses. No one pays me for this. If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me write more with a donation.
Thanks for reading!
KenSharpness versus Aperture