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Nikon 50mm f/1.2 Sharpness Comparison
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List of Lenses Compared
Let's compare the sharpness of several of Nikon's fastest normal lenses.
I am enlarging these images unreasonably. On most computer monitors at 100 DPI, these are small sections from what would be gallery-sized 42 x 28 " (100 x 75cm) prints, if printed in their entirety. At smaller sizes and smaller apertures, these differences would be invisible.
The corner crops are taken from the top left corner. The top and left edges of each cropped image shown here are the actual 100% edge pixels of a 12 MP FX D3.
I cropped freehand for each center crop, so that's why the trees seem to move around.
Click any image to get to that lens' detailed review.
Maximum Aperture, Center Center: Maximum f/2 f/2.8 Corner: Maximum f/2 f/2.8 top
f/2, Center Center: Maximum f/2 f/2.8 Corner: Maximum f/2 f/2.8 top
f/2.8, Center Center: Maximum f/2 f/2.8 Corner: Maximum f/2 f/2.8 top
Maximum Aperture, Corner Center: Maximum f/2 f/2.8 Corner: Maximum f/2 f/2.8 top
f/2, Corner Center: Maximum f/2 f/2.8 Corner: Maximum f/2 f/2.8 top
f/2.8, Corner Center: Maximum f/2 f/2.8 Corner: Maximum f/2 f/2.8 top
f/5.6 and f/8, Corner
Not shown here, but by f/5.6 and f/8, all these, especially the 58mm f/1.2 Noct-NIKKOR, look the same.
The 58mm f/1.2 Noct-NIKKOR is unusual in having the same performance from f/1.2 through f/2.8, then its corners rapidly improve at f/4 and f/5.6, reaching perfection at f/8.
As stopped down, the differences go away.
The newest 50mm f/1.4 AF-S is best.
The 50mm f/1.4 AF is next.
What? Isn't the whole point of the Noct-NIKKOR to give great corner sharpness wide-open?
The whole point of the Noct is to keep brilliant point sources of light as point sources of light, which it does better than any of these lenses. In daylight with ordinary subjects, the Noct's design optimization makes it look much worse.
Why is this? The 58mm f/1.2 Noct-NIKKOR is designed to keep coma flare to a minimum, at the expense of lower corner resolution. If you look at the ray tracing diagrams, the Noct is designed to round up all the corner rays inside a small spot, so that when you get brilliant points of light in the corners, that none of the rays get outside a small area.
The small area into which the Noct herds all the rays is larger than the tiny areas into which the other lenses get 90% of their corner rays.
Here's the problem: even though ordinary lenses look better for ordinary subjects in the corners, the 10% of the rays that get out of that tiny spot are what lead to huge bat-wings or other blobs and flags of light that appear to grow out of brilliant points of light in the corners at large apertures.
The issue is that the brilliant points of light are bright enough to let us see the larger area over which the other 10% of the light from a normal lens wanders in the corners. That area where the errant 10% of the rays go is what raises havoc shooting brilliant points of light, and what the Noct addresses by ensuring that 100% of the rays make it to within a small, but not tiny, spot.
Therefore, if you're shooting brilliant points of light (or stars against a black sky), the Noct prevents them from becoming huge blobs against the dark, but when shooting normal subjects not against black backgrounds, conventional lenses seem crisper in the corners.
If you look closely at the conventional lens' corner images wide-open, you'll see a slight hint of diagonal blur caused by those 10% of the rays stepping out of their intended box, while there is no smearing with the Noct. The Noct may be softer, but it's not soft: contrast stays high, even with very contrasty subjects.
Here are the corners of the 50mm f/1.2 and the 58mm Noct at f/1.2, with bright light sources:
Now you see why the Noct is the Noct. In these examples, the Noct even had twice the exposure, and shows far less coma.
Everything was shot on a 12MP full-frame Nikon D3.
I used a tripod not for sharpness, but to try to hold each camera in the same position from shot-to-shot to help these images stay in alignment to make nice, neat looking comparisons.
I equalized exposures so that all images look as bright as each other.
This is trivial in the center, but for the corners I sometimes had to use two stops more exposure at large apertures keep some lenses' corner images as bright as the rest.
Since the purpose here is to compare sharpness, I did this so we can compare sharpness equally. I address falloff at each lens' individual review.
At small apertures, there is little difference between these lenses in falloff.
The newest Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-S is clearly the best overall for general photography.
Even though it has some coma wide-open, the newest 50/1.4 AF-S eclipses the Noct-NIKKOR for general photography.
If you're shooting at night where points of light need to remain as points and you need to shoot at large apertures, the 58mm f/1.2 Noct-NIKKOR remains undefeated. If you can stop down to f/2.8 or f/4, all the other lenses have no coma, either, and even the 50mm f/1.8 is sharper than the Noct in the corners.
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