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Nikon 50mm Lens Comparison
© 2006 KenRockwell.com

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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.

Zeiss ZF 50mm f/1.4

Zeiss-branded 50mm f/1.4 ZF, 2006.

It's made by Cosina in Japan. I call it Zeiss-branded instead of Zeiss because it's not made by Zeiss and it's not made in Germany.

It's brand-spanking new and loaned to me by a friend in my photo club. If I knew how much it cost I'd be scared to touch it!

Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-D

Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AF-D, 2005. It's made in China by Nikon.

Loaned from another friend in my photo club with some use. It had a chip in the glass of the filter, which I took off for the tests.

Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF

Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF, circa 1986.

Loaned, 20 years old and in nice shape. This is one of Nikon's very first AF lenses ever, with a hard metal manual focus ring.

Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AI

Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AI, circa 1980.

Donated by Bruce from Southeast Texas. It's well worn with 26 years of use. Grit in focus helicoid. Previously repaired with a butter knife. The screw that holds the front optical group in place is stripped, so the front group tends to slip out, preventing the lens from focusing to infinity. I have to keep pushing the front of the lens optics back into place to allow it to focus at infinity. This is great: the worse the condition, the better it looks if it performs well.

Nikon 18-200mm

Nikkor 18 - 200mm VR , 2005.

This is my own lens, bought new, with about 20,000 shots made on it. For the sake of sanity I'm only comparing it at the 50mm setting as if it were a fixed-focal-length lens.

Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8

Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 AI-s, 1992.

This is my own lens bought new in 1992 after the one I bought in 1983 was irreparably damaged when I was hit by a falling Christo umbrella. This lens has seen very little use and is essentially still new.

I bought an f/1.4 "normal" lens back in 1980 because I mistakenly thought this macro lens was only good for closeups, not normal use. I was wrong: Nikon's Micro (macro) lenses are extraordinary for everything because their floating elements optimize the lens for any focused distance.

Nikkor-S Auto 50mm f/1.4

Nikkor-S Auto 50mm f/1.4, 1969.

Loaned, 37 years old and in very nice shape, except the rubber hood had been ripped off its mounting ring. Only single coated, only focuses to 2,' only six diaphragm blades. Corroded bayonet mount screws. It had the smoothest focusing of all these lenses.

This non-AI lens won't mount on any digital SLR without some time in a machine shop, so it was only compared on film and not compared in the other image comparisons.


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!




Chromatic Aberrations

Cold Weather

Color Rendition

Contrast, Flare and Ghosts



Film Cameras, Use on

Film versus Digital Image Examples

Mechanics, Materials and Build Quality

Optical Specifications and Design

Resolution Myth, The


Sharpness versus Aperture

Sizes and Weights

VR versus fast apertures

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