Nikon 58mm f/1.4G AF-S Lens Review

58mmf14.jpg

What is It?

The 58mm f/1.4G was a bit of a surprise. Nikon already has quite a few lenses available in the "normal" focal length range for FX, so why another one? 

First, a little history. One of Nikon's most well-corrected lenses was a 58mm, the f/1.2 NOCT. That lens had probably the least coma of any normal focal length lens in the film era, and a well-deserved reputation for creamy smooth bokeh in out of focus highlights. While it wasn't perfect at f/1.2, stopped down a bit it was a stunningly good lens. Enough so that I still keep mine around. The virtually nil sagittal coma of the NOCT is exceptionally good for resolving pinpoint light sources, such as star fields, so it's one of the lenses I pull out when I'm doing any night work where I want to resolve stars. 

The problem, of course, is that the NOCT is a manual focus, AI-S lens, only a small number were produced, and it's difficult to find a good sample at a reasonable price these days. (Typical NOCT prices for one in excellent condition will start at US$3000 and I've seen them sell for as much as US$5000 lately.)

Someone at Nikon decided that the NOCT needed a refresh.

Nikon makes three specific NOCT-like claims for the new 58mm f/1.4G: little sagittal coma, little vignetting, and "stunning" bokeh. (That "stunning" is Nikon's words, not mine. Go read their marketing pages for the 58mm if you don't believe me.)

The optical design is both simple and complex: 9 elements in 6 groups is the simple part, but the lens has two critical aspherical elements and four additional elements are very tricky designs, as well. The lens also has Nano-coated elements to increase contrast and reduce flare. You'll find 9 rounded aperture blades at the diaphragm. 

Surprisingly, the optical design is quite compact. It's the autofocus system and the deep indent to the front element (which moves forward and backward during focus) that make the 58mm significantly bigger than it's 50mm cousins for some reason. 

The front element never makes it near the filter ring on the front of the lens, which means that the lens is "hooded" even without using the supplied HB-66 lens hood and also means that your filters don't rotate during focus. I suspect that some of the extra length of the lens is just to give you a focus ring well in front of the prism on recent Nikon DSLRs.

The filter ring is 72mm, and again, that's probably far bigger than it needed to be. I'll bet that the internal elements don't even reach to 52mm. Like many Nikkor primes, the smallest aperture size is f/16, and like all G-type lenses, there is no aperture ring.  There is, however, a DOF window with limited distance markings for f/16. 

The lens has a close focus distance of just under 2' (0.58m), which is not particularly close and gives a maximum magnification of only 1:7.7. This is not a close focusing, or quasi-macro, lens.

The lens has an AF-S silent wave motor, so will work on all current Nikon DSLR bodies, even the ones without a camera-driven focus motor (e.g. D3xxx and D5xxx models). 

At 13.6 ounces (385g) the lens isn't particularly light. 

The lens is made in Japan.


How's it Handle?

What's there to say? We have a focus ring and an M/A - M switch. The supplied hood bayonets into the front of the lens. 

The focus ring on my sample is decently smooth. Note that the front element is physically moving as you focus, so there is a bit of coupled inertia. But it's not like the old AI lenses and the movement from near to infinity is only about a quarter turn. So, not a lot of fine tune focus discrimination using the ring, but the ring also isn't one of Nikon's sloppy efforts, either. I'd call it "good." 

On a D610 or D800 body hand held correctly, my hand hits the focus ring just about right, so maybe there's good reason why we have the big indent to the front element. If the focus ring were closer to the body, it'd be a little on the uncomfortable side. 

Still, this is a fairly big lens for a normal lens, even a fast one. On the light D3xxx and D5xxx bodies we're not quite to the point where it makes the combo front heavy, but you are adding substantial weight to the body. Not a bad thing, but just be forewarned, this is not a pancake lens. 


How's it Perform?

How to characterize the 58mm? I really wanted to like this lens, but Nikon hasn't made it easy. 

Let's get the worst part out of the way first: like Nikon's other normal AF-S lenses, the 58mm f/1.4G isn't a truly snappy focusing lens. It isn't press the shutter release and the lens snaps to focus. It's press the shutter release and the lens moves to focus. Moves as in "you can see it move." I wouldn't characterize it as slow, but it's definitely not fast, either. I've described this behavior on the 50mm lenses as "languid," and the 58mm is slightly better than those lenses, but not enough to get excited about. For the price of the lens, I expected more.

On to the optical bits:

FX Sharpness: you can almost see field curvature in the results: wide open it's sharp in the very center, degrades a bit as you move outwards, then improves again in the extreme corners. As you stop down, the central area improves and widens, but the corners stay stubbornly mostly the same on FX bodies; you have to stop down quite a bit to get what I'd call fully sharp corners. Still, I've seen descriptions elsewhere of the corners being bad. They're not. They're pretty good, just not exceptional.  

DX Sharpness: Because we're just using the central area of the lens, the central sharp area is wider wide open on DX, and the corners slowly come into full sharpness, too. By f/4 they're very good, and they improve some more as you stop down further. Whether you can squeeze really exceptional corners out of the 58mm on DX will depend upon when diffraction sets in for your sensor. On the 16mp cameras I could see clear improvements all the way out to f/11, with the 24mp cameras, only to f/8. 

Chromatic Aberration: I've seen others report "high amounts" of CA, but that's not what I see. There's definitely a pixel or two of CA on my D800, but it's relatively well behaved and consistent throughout the aperture range, which is a sign of fairly good CA control. Surprisingly, my DX bodies show a bit more CA wide open than through the rest of the range, which is something I don't see on the FX bodies. Either way, CA is low and easily removed if it bothers you.

Vignetting: A bit over 2/3rds of a stop overall wide open on FX, and pretty ignorable on DX wide open. By f/2.8 vignetting is minimal. Remember Nikon's three points? This was one of them, and they are correct: low vignetting. The t/stop of the lens is about t/1.7, by the way.

Linear Distortion: about a half percent barrel distortion (FX). Not a terrible number, but just enough to make straight lines visually unstraight, which may prompt you to fix them. 

Bokeh: probably the best of the normal focal length lenses Nikon has produced since the NOCT. Very well controlled and polite, with no rough edges or issues. Again, Nikon's marketing didn't lie to us on this aspect of the lens: it has very nicely controlled out of focus areas, and point sources in the background stay round to the corners without any objectionable "edging." 

Flare resistance is good, and there's a bit more contrast snap to this lens than the other normal 50mm's Nikon has made. 

Overall, the lens is a bit of an enigma. It doesn't test as well as its price suggests it should. On the other hand, I like the results from the lens in practice. Indeed, I like the results from the 58mm better than I do any of the 50mm variations we have currently. 

First, it's not at all a terrible lens used wide open, while many of the other options really lose quite a bit of contrast when you shoot them wide open. Yes, there's some softening and loss of contrast, especially for FX users, but I suspect most people will be pleased with the wide open capabilities of the 58mm. DX users can absolutely consider this the portrait lens for the crop sensor cameras, I think. 

The lens is extremely well behaved by f/2.8 in DX and f/4 in FX. Very good sharpness to the edges (if not the absolute corners on FX). It's not the sharpest Nikkor in my bag, but it's not a slouch, either. It just doesn't have a terrible fault, but it also doesn't have a stellar sharpness attribute like the Zeiss Otus. 


Final Words

The problem with the 58mm f/1.4G really boils down to something simple: price/performance ratio. At US$1700 for a "normal" lens, you expect something outstanding, well beyond what you can get from the much lower priced f/1.4 and f/1.8 50mm lenses that are ubiquitous in the F mount. 

Unfortunately, the 58mm doesn't really deliver enough that makes it worth the extra money for most people. 

From the FX standpoint, 58mm is a weird focal length, way on the long side for the normal perspective (in theory, the "normal perspective" would be something close to the diagonal of the capture area, which would be about 43mm). I'm not entirely sure why you'd want to put the 58mm on an FX body over the 50mm f/1.4, frankly. Yes, the 58mm is a little tighter and better wide open, and yes it renders point objects towards the edges of the frame with far less coma, but neither of these things are worth the extra money for most people, I think. I suppose if you're shooting astrophotography, the lower coma would be something you'd value. And yes, a bit more contrast wide open is always welcome. But you're paying well over a US$1250 for those things. Difficult to justify. 

In DX, the 58mm focal length is indeed a great one for portraiture, giving you that slight compression look on faces and rendering a nice head and shoulders shot at a normal shooting distance that we used to get from 85mm lenses on film bodies. Indeed, the 58mm at f/1.4 on a DX body is probably better than the 85mm f/1.4 on an FX body in terms of almost every measurement (center and edge sharpness, lower vignetting, etc.). But do you really want to pay US$1700 for a DX portrait lens? 

So it's not really the performance of the 58mm that determines whether or not it's the lens you want, it's the price. If you do a lot of shooting in the focal range this lens gives you and you're not particularly price sensitive—I'm looking at you, one percenters—then by all means snap this lens up. 

But if you find yourself in an anti-Robin Hood neighborhood—the rich trying to steal from the poor, and you're poor—you're going to have big, big problems with the price/performance aspects of this lens. It's overpriced for most of us. I think that you need to have a clear, documented need for the focal length and aperture of this lens and some extra disposable income to justify picking it up. 

That's a shame, because it's a well-behaved, well-designed optic. It's not quite a NOCT, but it's the closest that Nikon has come in recent years. 

Personally, I've been advocating 58mm for DX portraiture pretty much since the turn of the century. When I wrote back in the D1 days that the NOCT (58mm f/1.2) was the perfect portrait lens for the camera, the ones on the used market got immediately snapped up and the price started rapidly rising. You could find a NOCT in great shape for maybe US$1500 in the D1 days. Today the price is going to be more than US$3000. So at least in that sense the new 58mm f/1.4 seems like it's more reasonably priced ;~). 

So I want to recommend the lens (for performance) but can't (for price). That makes me think a bit about what the price would have to be for me to recommend it. At US$999, it would be a no brainer, I think. While that's still more than double the 50mm f/1.4G, the well-behaved nature of the 58mm is worth paying some premium for. And, of course, for a DX shooter trying to get portraits like the FX folk, that would be a no-brainer price, too, as that would be less than the 85mm f/1.4G the FX guys are buying. 

It's a real head scratcher. The 85mm f/1.4G is US$1600, the 58mm f/1.4G is US$1700. We're paying top prices for a portrait prime these days in FX and now DX. For both FX users, the 50mm and 85mm f/1.8G both look like bargains in comparison. You can get both for about US$750. Which makes the 58mm f/1.4G even tougher to recommend. 

That said, we pay for optical performance these days. Probably the best lens in this range is the Zeiss Otus, and that's a US$4000 optic. The relationship is fairly exponential in terms of price/performance. The more performance you want, the more rapidly the price ramps up:

50mmgraph.jpg

Unfortunately, the performance doesn't go up in the same steep, increasing curve. It goes up, but in a more linear fashion, and mostly only at the wide open aperture and in the corners of the image. Thus, my recommendation is that you look strongly at how much you use f/1.4 and how much performance you need at f/1.4 (portraits tend to be a fairly low bar unless you're a pro competing with MF in the studio). Those that need the ultimate will be paying Zeiss a large tithe and manually focus. Those that can do with modest performance can get by with the 50mm choices. The Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G does now offer us an alternative clearly in the middle, which is nice. But I'm not sure there are going to be a ton of takers. 


Note: current performance/features/value ratings are on this page to make it easier to compare between lenses I've reviewed. That page is updated regularly as the state-of-the-art shifts.

Support this site by purchasing from this advertiser:


© Thom Hogan 2014 / All Rights Reserved bythom.com  @bythom #bythom