Comparing Nikon’s Cheap 50mm Lenses

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This is a comparison between three of Nikon’s entry-level 50mm Prime lenses: the AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G, the AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4D, and the AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D.

I own both the 1.8G and the 1.8D and the 1.4D is on loan from a friend. Both the 1.8G and the 1.4D sell for just a shade over $200. The 1.8D, on the other hand, goes for about $130.

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The aim of this article is to help you decide what cheap 50mm Nikon Prime to buy. For years now we’ve been hearing about how wonderful lenses like Sigma’s 50mm F/1.4 Art and Tamron’s new SP 45mm f/1.8 VC are. But those lenses at $850 and $500 cost more than your average hobbyist can reasonably afford.

For most people when you buy your first 50mm prime lens you’ll be picking from one of these three choices.

Let me start by saying that each of these lenses are very capable tools and good in their own right. With that said there are many notable differences between them are going to appeal to different kinds of photographers.

In the simplest sense, this comparison boils down to picking which strength you prefer most. The tiny size and low cost of the 1.8D. The extra shallow depth of field that of the 1.4D produces. Or the wide open sharpness that the 1.8G can offer.

Perhaps the biggest X-factor to consider here is how you feel about the specific look that Nikon’s D series glass can offer.

We’ll delve back into those issues a little later. For now, let’s get the basics down.

The AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G

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Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G

First up we have the AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G which we’ll refer to throughout this article as the 1.8G for the sake of brevity. This lens is physically the largest of our competitors although it weighs less than the 1.4D and about the same as the tiny 1.8D. Compared to both of those lenses it offers a number of advantages.

Because the 1.8G is an AF-S lens it has an internal focusing motor. This is important because it means that unlike the 1.8D and the 1.4D it will autofocus on Nikon’s entry-level DX camera bodies like those in the D3000 series and the D5000 series.

This also means that when you auto-focus with the 1.8G you will hear a soft high-pitched humming followed by a few muffled clicks as it finds your focus point.

When changing focus from an object at the 1.8G’s minimum focusing distance to its maximum focusing distance or from its maximum focusing distance to its minimum focusing distance it will take about one second to require focus.

When changing focus between objects in the middle of the 1.8G’s focus range reacquiring focus takes about a half second.

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Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G

The 1.8G has the largest manual focus ring in this comparison. Unlike D series lenses the manual focus ring on the 1.8G can be twisted at any time to adjust focus without switching into manual focus mode using the lens’s or the camera body’s toggle switch.

The manual focus ring on the 1.8G feels very smooth and precise on your fingertips. It remains smooth both when you are adjusting it quickly when you are making slow, precise adjustments. When you turn the ring to the minimum or maximum focus point of the lens you will hear and feel a dull thud. But the manual focus ring will continue turning as long as you’re twisting it.

Both manual focus and autofocus performance are good on the 1.8G.

Here we have the oldest lens in this comparison Nikon’s AF Nikkor 50mm F/1.4D. The 1.4D is also the heaviest lens, weighing about a 1/3rd more than the 1.8G. On the other hand, the 1.4D has a metal body and the largest maximum aperture of any lens here.

Because the 1.4D has a maximum aperture of F/1.4 it can gather about 2/3rds of an exposure stop more light. Practically this means that where you could take a properly exposed image inside of a dark club at F/1.8, 1/80 of a second, and ISO 6400 using one of the other lenses in this comparison; with the 1.4D your settings could be F/1.4, 1/80 of a second, and ISO 4000. The result of this change is a less noisy image thanks to the use of a lower ISO.

The other advantage to a maximum aperture of F/1.4 is a shallower depth of field. There are many uses for a shallow depth of field. The most common applications are headshots and portraits where you want to separate or isolate the subject of the image from the background.

It’s important to note that while the 1.4D does give you a shallower depth of field than the 1.8G or 1.8D those two lenses already produced an extremely shallow depth of field a F/1.8.

But unlike the 1.8G and 1.8D which are both plastic on the outside and metal on the inside, the 1.4D is made of metal on the inside and out.

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Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm F/1.4D

Because the 1.4D is an AF lens it requires a camera body with a built-in focusing motor to auto-focus. All of Nikon FX bodies have a built focusing motor and the D7000 series of DX camera bodies also have them.

Unlike AF-S lenses which emit a high-pitched humming and soft clicking noises when they focus; AF lenses make a very mechanical screwing noise that sounds most similar to a cordless drill. Our 1.4D is significantly louder than the 1.8G when focusing. Although the sound of either lens focusing is audible in a quiet room.

The speed of changing between focus points and refocusing with the 1.4D is very similar to that of the 1.8G.

Manual focusing with the 1.4D is enjoyable. The 1.4D has a rubberized focusing ring that spins very smoothly. The rubber ring gives a better and more comfortable sense of control than the hard plastic ring on the 1.8G. It also requires less force to adjust at low speeds and makes a soft gear turning sound.

The 1.4D has hard stops at its minimum and maximum focus settings. This means that when you reach either end of the focus range you hit stop that will prevent you from twisting the focusing ring any further and make a metallic sounding thud.

Just like the 1.8G both auto-focus and manual focus performance on the 1.4D are good.

The AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D

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Nikon AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D

Finally, we have the AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D the cheapest and smallest of the lenses in this comparison. This was the first lens I ever purchased. It’s about 2/3rds the size of the 1.8G and a bit smaller than the 1.4D.

The advantages of the 1.8D are pretty straightforward: cost and size. Like Nikon’s other D series primes the 1.8D exhibits its best performance from F/2.2 and up. It’s sharpest at F/5.6 but f/1.8 is perfectly usable. Given that this is a ~$130 lens its performance is really quite admirable.

Of course, compromises had to be made to hit that price point. Unlike the 1.4D the 1.8D has a plastic exterior and that feels a bit more slippery than the textured plastic on the 1.8G. It also has the thinnest manual focus ring and uses the same hard plastic as the 1.8G ring rather than the excellent rubberized ring of the 1.4D.

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Nikon AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D

The autofocus performance of the 1.8D is slightly slower than the other two lenses in this comparison. It’s not make or break slower, perhaps a quarter of a second at the worst, and more often than not its the same speed as the 1.4D and 1.8G.

Because this is an AF lens, like the 1.4D, it requires a camera body with a built-in focusing motor to auto-focus. It also emits the same power drill noises as the 1.4D when it’s focusing. The 1.8D also has hard stops as its maximum and minimum focusing distances.

That said, manual focusing performance is clearly not as good. With a small, hard plastic focusing ring, the 1.8D is at a disadvantage. The use of cheaper materials is exacerbated by the chunky feel of adjusting the focusing ring. Quick adjustments are smooth, but small low-speed adjustments require a lot of initial force which creates chunky movements and imprecise adjustments.

To be clear manual focusing is still easy to do with the 1.8D but using the manual focus ring can be frustrating at times and will certainly require a bit more effort and time than it would with the 1.8G or 1.4D.

Auto-focus performance on the 1.8D is good, although worse than the other lenses in this comparison. Manual focusing, while usable, leaves something more to be desired.

Mounts, Materials, and Glass

Looking at the rear elements of these lenses we can that they all use metal F-mounts. The use of different optical coatings produces the different coloration in the glass of each of these lenses. More importantly, you can see that the size of the glass elements differs in each lens.

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Right to Left: 1.8D — 1.8G — 1.4D

In the image below you see what each of these lenses look like when they are fully extended to their minimum focusing distance. The front elements on the two D series lenses extend out from the barrel of the lens and towards the subject while the front element of the 1.8G never extends out of the barrel of the lens.

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Right to Left: 1.8D — 1.4D — 1.8G

One of the more important characteristics of these primes is the bokeh they produce. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the term bokeh it refers to the character of the out of focus area and highlights in an image. Using different apertures will change the bokeh in an image based on the number and type of aperture blades in the lens and the amount of depth of field in the image.

A prime lens at its maximum aperture will have circular out of focus highlights and a relatively shallow depth of field. While a lens at middle apertures like F/5.6 or F/8 will have out of focus highlight the mirror the shape of the aperture blades and more depth of field.

What kind of bokeh you like will depend on a lot your personal preference. But in general, softer out of focus areas and more circular highlights are preferable hard out of focus shapes and hexagonal highlights.

All three of the lenses we’re comparing here have seven bladed apertures. The 1.4D has an advantage thanks to its large maximum aperture which allows it to throw more of the image out of focus. But the 1.8G has rounded aperture blades so that even when you stop it down from its maximum aperture its out of focus highlights will still have a semi-circular appearance. This is opposed to the hexagonal highlight appearance you’ll see with the 1.8D and 1.4D when they’re stopped down.

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Nikon AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D
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Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm F/1.4D
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Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G

In the photos above, you can clearly see the differences in the aperture blades between these three lenses.

For this comparison, I’m using a landscape of the inter-bay area of Seattle looking into downtown. These shots were all taken at ISO 100 using the lenses maximum aperture from a tripod using a wireless trigger to ensure consistency.

Specifically, we’ll be comparing the quality of the background bokeh in these images. In the first set, all of these lenses were at their minimum focus distance.

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Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G
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Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm F/1.4D
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Nikon AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D

There are two things that immediately stand out: the 1.4D produces largest out of focus highlights and the 1.8D has the smallest highlights. 1.8G has the smoothest bokeh while the 1.8D has the most character. The 1.4D and the 1.8G actually have very similar bokeh, but the highlights on the 1.4D have a thin green outline around them that isn’t present in the photo from the 1.8G.

The bokeh of the 1.8D is arguably the least attractive looking of all three of these lenses. Its spheres have both hard outlines and morph into half spheres as they get closer to the edge of the frame. On the other hand, some people are into that. Maybe you’re one of them; I know, that at times, I am.

To consider the sharpness of these lenses I’m going to defer to DXOMark’s lab testing for basic insights and then I’ll be supplementing that with additional field testing. My field testing will be broken down into two categories: a maximum aperture portrait and a landscape shot at F/8.

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Looking at a comparison of these three lenses tested on a Nikon D7000 (my personal camera) by DXOMark we can see that the 1.8G is notably sharper than the other two lenses at F/1.8 its maximum aperture. Stopped down below F/1.8 the performance of these three lenses is essentially the same with the D series lenses both offering slightly sharper corner performance than the 1.8G up until F/8.

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Nikon AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D
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Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm F/1.4D
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Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G

In this portrait performance comparison, I shot the model at the maximum aperture of each lens and focusing on the left eye of the subject using live view to ensuring critical focus from a tripod with a Nikon D7000. Shutter speed will vary and ISO will be set to 100. The distance from the camera to the subject is about one meter.

Given that we’ve just talked about sharpness we’ll start our comparison there. The 1.4D and the 1.8D offer very similar levels of sharpness while the 1.8G is clearly a bit sharper here. The difference becomes more apparent when the images are viewed 1:1 which we’ll get to in a moment. The other big issue when considering perceived sharpness is contrast. Both of the D series lenses offer less contrast wide open than the 1.8G. But again that’s part of what people like about D series lenses.

There are also major differences in terms of the bokeh in these images. 1.8D creates a relatively chaotic background with lots of overlapping hard edges and non-spherical shapes. Conversely, both the 1.4D and the 1.8G offers very smooth and round out of focus highlights.

Given the similarity between the 1.4D and the 1.8G in terms of the character of their out of focus areas the 1.4D offers the slight advantage of larger out of focus highlights due to its larger f/1.4 maximum aperture.

Moving back to sharpness: here’s a 1:1 comparison with the 1.8G on the left and the 1.4D on the right. The 1.4D and the 1.8D offer almost the same levels of sharpness at their maximum apertures. Also take note of the higher contrast image that the 1.8G produces.

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1.8G on the left and the 1.4D on the right

The takeaway here is pretty straight forward: The 1.8G is the sharpest lens in this comparison at its maximum aperture. It’s notably sharper in the center of the frame than either the 1.4D or the 1.8D. On the other hand, I hope you noticed how difficult it was to tell the sharpness of these three lenses apart in the full images thanks to how much detail is lost when presenting photos on the web. For usage on social media or Facebook you’ll be hard pressed to see significant differences in sharpness between any of these lenses. The biggest consideration for those use cases is which lens offers the bokeh you prefer.

Moving to our landscape comparison I decided to spice things up a bit by shooting each of these lenses directly into the sun without any kind of lens hood. All of these images were taken at an aperture of f/8 and an ISO of 100; shutter speeds varied but all of these images have the same level of exposure.

While the sharpness of each of these lenses is almost the same both in the corners and at the center the way they handle direct sunlight and the flare they produce are markedly different.

Both D series lens produced large hexagonal flare near the center of the frame. While the 1.8G had cone shaped flare leading from the center of the frame to the edge.

There are also major differences in the tint of the flare. The 1.4D has the blue flare, the 1.8D has the purple flare, and the 1.8G has the green flare.

Another point to consider is the sharpness and contrast that each lens produces in and around the flared areas.

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Here we can see a 1:1 comparison of the 1.4D and the 1.8G where the 1.8G retains much more contrast in the rock wall and sharpness in the grass when both lenses are fighting with the same level of flare.

Again all three of these lenses produce similar levels of sharpness shooting landscapes at f/8. But in difficult conditions like shooting with the sun in the frame, the 1.8G produces the most technically correct image. That said the 1.8G and the 1.4D certainly produce some interesting looking flare patterns.

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1.8D bottom left, 1.4D bottom right, 1.8G top

So there you have it. Now we know what these lenses are and how the compare to one another. As I said at the start all three of these lenses are great. Deciding which lens is the right lens for you will depend on three major factors: price, what camera body you have, and what kind of bokeh you prefer.

If you can’t spend a lot of money and you own a camera with a built-in auto-focus motor like one of Nikon’s D7000 series or FX format cameras then the 1.8D is a great choice. On the other hand, if you can spare some extra cash the larger aperture and smoother bokeh of the 1.4D are a worthwhile upgrade.

But if you own one of Nikon’s lower end camera bodies like a D3000 or D5000 series camera then you only have one option: the 1.8G. Accurately manual focusing on Nikon’s lower-end camera is difficult and you’ll curse yourself for not picking up a lens that can auto-focus. The other big reason to pick up the 1.8G is sharpness at wide open apertures where it’s clearly ahead of the 1.8D and 1.4D.

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1.8D right, 1.4D center. 1.8G left

My recommendation for those of you who are still confused about which lens is the right one for them or who didn’t completely understand the technical information in this comparison is to pick up the 1.8G. This lens is compatible with all of Nikon’s recent camera bodies and offers great performance for its price point.

Note: This is a revised version of a piece I published on Medium a year ago. It contains spelling and grammar enhancements, but most importantly the images are hosted on Flickr, rather than Medium, so their quality is much better preserved in this iteration.