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Nikon 50mm Lens Comparison
© 2006 KenRockwell.com

Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 ZF Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-D Nikon 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AI Nikon 18-200mm VR Nikon Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 AI-s

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This page has the least to do with lens performance. These lenses are almost identical in sharpness.

Amateurs run to this page first, even though it's the least significant. The same amateurs who consider this so important are also the ones most likely to have sloppy technique which will prevent them from getting sharp images. See my page on How to Get Great Sharpness and The Resolution Myth.

I'm showing the comparisons below at very high magnification so you can see these small variations. If you printed an entire image at the same size as these comparisons (shown at 100% on screen) you'd have a print over three feet wide! Only geeks look at three-foot-wide prints as close as you 're looking at your screen.

If you see somethiing different than what I write, belive your own eyes. I'm looking at the same page you are to see these differences.

This first image is the entire uncropped image. I reduced it to fit your screen. The red box shows the snippet I took from each image to show at 100%.

I made these on a Nikon D200, large normal JPG, "optimum quality" compression, tripod. The same equivalent manual exposure was used for all shots. My D200 had to be unset from its automated defaults of automatic sharpening, white balance and contrast. If you forget to undo these you'll have your camera tweaking WB, exposure, sharpness and contrast all by itself from shot to shot, confusing the results and hiding any differences between lenses.

I saved the crops at 80% quality in Photoshop's ImageReady's Save-to-Web, which means they look identical to what I saw on my screen. RAW images looked the same. JPGs saved my time and disk space doing all this work to compare.

I would never see any difference in real photography. I spent hours devising a scheme to show what few differences there are between lenses below.

I'd never see any difference in real photography because these differences are only visible at large apertures. Large apertures' depths of field are so shallow that few things, if any, are in sufficiently perfect focus to show sharpness differences. Only if you shoot at infinity, as I did here, can you see anything.

Focusing errors at large apertures for real subjects at real distances completely obliterate any differences between lenses. At f/1.4 with a manual focus lens the focus indicator on my D200 is not precise enough to ensure perfect focus. I never got consistent perfect focus on my manual film cameras' split image or microprisms either because our eyes aren't good enough. To focus a manual focus camera sufficiently accurately requires a viewfinder microscope.

I made these shots at infinity and used each lens' infinity stop. The green focus confirmation light in my D200 is not precise enough to ensure sharp focus at f/1.4. My D200 focused best if focused on the closer point at which the light went between ON to OFF. Focusing in the middle of the light's ON range tended to be focused past the subject. I didn't focus here: I left each lens on its infinity stop.

The lenses are focused at their infinity stops, all of which were perfectly accurate. I devised this scene to include a car and palm tree and homes at 550 feet in the top and center of each crop. The palm and purple plant towards the bottom are at 350 feet, and the vegetation on the very bottom is at 225 feet. This lets me show the effects of focus shift. Look for difference at the middle and top of each shot, where the lenses are focused. Look at the bottom only to see what's going on with depth of field and focus shift. 550 feet is close enough to infinity for this test. You will see different sharpnesses on the closer brush, which again shows you how difficult it is to define the sharpest lens.


These are from the center. I didn't see significant variation in the corner of the digital frame, which is smaller than a film frame.

I analyze results for the corners of the muych larger film frame on my 50mm Lenses Used on Film page.

Guide image

Guide Image, Suburban Sprawl


Wide Open: f/1.4 and f/1.8

The purplish veiling haze is spherical aberration. It's similar on these lenses because all these lenses are of almost identical design. You can see a sharp image covered by haze. All are wide open, which is f/1.4 for all except the f/1.8 AF lens. Even the expensive ZF has the same spherical aberration as the other lenses.


Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 ZF
Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-D
Nikon 50mm f/1.8 AF
Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AI

1.4 ZF at f/1.4

1.4 AF-D at f/1.4
1.8 AF at f/1.8
1.4 AI at f/1.4



This is the weirdest aperture, f/2. At f/1.4 all the lenses were focused correctly at their infinity stop. At f/2 the f/1.4 lenses' spherical aberration leads to focus shift. I see the f/1.4 lenses as having focused better on the vegetation on the bottom than the car in the distance! What's weird is that this result is consistent with all my other tests not reproduced here. Oddly the focused subject becomes a little soft at f/2, but the slightly closer objects become sharper than your intended subject! This is another reason I caution people not to worry about sharpness tests. These tests pull out things I've never seen in decades of shooting these lenses for real photography. It takes my partly-German engineer's mind to devise a test sensitive enough to show this.


Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 ZF
Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-D
Nikon 50mm f/1.8 AF
Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AI
1.4 ZF at f/2
1.4 AF-D at f/2
1.8 AF at f/2
1.4 AI at f/2



Now I've added the 55mm f/2.8 Micro, whose maximum aperture is f/2.8.

I see the 55 micro as the sharpest by a nose on the palms, the three f/1.4 lenses (ZF, AF-D and AI) a close second, and the f/1.8 AF last.

The 55mm Micro is sharper wide open as the f/1.4 lenses stopped down, although oddly the depth of field seems to work in the favor of the f/1.4 lenses for the vegetation closer to the camera. I presume this to be a remnant of the focus shift seen at f/2 on the f/1.4 lenses. Most likely if my target extended to real infinity the 55mm might have had an edge and the f/1.4 lenses may have been worse. The car is at 550 feet (170 meters) and the brush is at 225 feet (75 meters) in the foreground and 350 feet (110 meters) for the palm and purple plant.


Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 ZF
Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-D
Nikon 50mm f/1.8 AF
Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AI
Nikon Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 AI-s

1.4 ZF at f/2.8

1.4 AF-D at f/2.8
1.8 AF at f/2.8
1.4 AI at f/2.8
55 AI-s at f/2.8



Now do you see what I mean by how difficult these tests are to run? When I made them I had to wait for the right atmospheric (no haze), light (from the top side) and cloud (none) conditions. I made dozens of shots attempting to work fast enough that nothing changed. I thought I missed the hubbub of suburbia, but the FedEx guy skunked me. Tough. When I make these shots I haven't yet picked out what part of the frame I'll be using for the crops.

The ZF, f/1.4 AI and 55mm Micro look the same. The f/1.4 AF-D look a little less sharp, and the f/1.8 AF looks worst.


Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 ZF
Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-D
Nikon 50mm f/1.8 AF
Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AI
Nikon Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 AI-s
1.4 ZF at f/4
1.4 AF-D at f/4
1.8 AF at f/4
1.4 AI at f/4
55 AI-s at f/4


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!


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