Dickens Meets Nikon (50 1.2 Ais / 50 1.4 Ais): A Tale of Two Fifties

It was the best of primes, it was the worst of primes, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of (low) Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,



I had everything before me, I had nothing before me, I was going to photographic heaven, I was going direct the other way and my bank balance was soon to follow. In short, that period in photography was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest internet experts insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of photographic comparison only.


There were a king of an ultra-fast lens with a large jaw in thy local camera dealers and a queen lens with a plain face, on the throne of my camera shelf. In both cases, they were clearer than crystal and to the Gods of photography, the local bank manager and preservers of State to film and developing chemicals, such things were settled for ever.


It was the year of Our Lord two thousand and fifteen. Spiritual and optical revelations were conceded throughout England and the rest of the world at that favoured period such as this. The Nikkor 50mm 1.2 Ais was lauded as the fastest  ever to be made by said folk. For the poorer subjects of the kingdom whose unfortunate station in life had yet to surpass that of humble caretaker to the one point four, a terrible storm of doubt and confusion rained down for twenty seven long, hard years.


Ok, enough of that prose, down to brass tacks. I never really feel comfortable in knowing that there’s a faster lens than the one I already have from the same manufacturer. This is the very making of the terrible ‘faster=better’ stupidity disease that affects many photographers without good reason.  This often defies logic as faster lenses can have not insignificant trade-offs across the full aperture range and are invariably much more dangerous to one’s financial health. Regular readers might recall that I have already touched upon the perils of illogical fast glass lust in another recent blog post. In the case of my Nikon lens collection over the years, I had eventually whittled it down from more than twenty-five F-Mount lenses in the past fifteen or so years to just three and all of them manual focus (Ais) older designs. In this mount last year, I only owned the 28mm f2, the 50mm f1.4 and the venerable 105mm 2.5. I had been lucky enough to get all three copies from late production runs in the early 2000’s with full boxes and papers in mint condition at good prices. It just took a little patience.  The first and the last usually receive high praise across the board and are generally recognized as belonging to what is perhaps best referred to as the ‘five-star legacy glass’ fold. I know some prefer the 2.8 in 28mm but I’ve had both and find that on black and white film at least, there’s just something ridiculously good about the f2. It’s a real star and packs some serious potential as a street and walkabout lens, that’s the one I kept. From the first time I saw portraits from the 105, I knew that I would never, ever sell this lens. It has to be one of the best deals in photography.  It’s worth owning a Nikon mount camera just to shoot this lens. I used to be madly in love with my creamtastic 85mm 1.4, it was part lens/part dairy product and all dream machine but for real world use, I actually prefer the 105. It’s as good as it gets optically, small and compact, easy to bring along as a second lens and has a built in hood. It’s also way cheaper. I wanted to write this without using the words ‘Afghan Girl’ but… oh well, I just did.


So what of the middle sibling in my fold? The nifty-fifty-Nikon one plus three pennies. This seems to be a lens which is always rated as just being somehow ‘quite good’ to middling but never really seems to garner any more praise than that. I guess it doesn’t stack up against the more modern glass and that has further hurt its slightly lackluster rep in contemporaneous times. I think many people who have owned one feel like it’s perfectly serviceable yet never really anything special. Nice to have but not enough warm, fuzzy feeling is included with one in your stable. This is the first stage of the terrible disease, that slight sense that you might be somehow missing out on something. The blurring of the line between want and need typically starts somewhere around here, many of us have been there. Enter the 1.2, it’s got quite a cult following in certain circles and the extra bit of speed and unusual size and shape can lead you to think that you simply must trade up.  The higher price tag only seems to confirm your growing sense that it must somehow deserve its gravitas in the world of high priced goods, sometimes the price tag is part of the product itself.


After many a year of doing this dance on and off every few months in my head, I finally caved in and picked a used one up from a local dealer. Where I live, they are nearly three times the price of the 1.4 if boxed and in mint condition. Depending on where you live and what dealer you talk to, you might still be able to buy one brand new in a box. I did something that I don’t normally do at this point, I didn’t trade in or sell of the old model at once, but kept it to one side. This is unusual for me as I normally feel that I have to move something out when I acquire a new arrival. At first, I was quite enthralled with the new charmer, it has the usual incredible Nikkor manual quality and feel, there’s a reassuring heft to it. I honestly think I like the way these lenses are built perhaps more than any other, certainly as much as the brass Leica stuff of the mid-twentieth century.


It’s a seven element, six group older spherical design.  It has nine diaphragm blades which can assist it well in terms of pleasant out of focus background areas. Wide open and in lower light, its charms continued although the depth of field at this extreme is ultra thin and requires very deft deployment. Perhaps this is exactly what one would expect. I’ve seen some wonderfully artistic stuff done at this aperture with the 1.2 Ais all around the web by people who are better at handling and exploiting the DOF than I am. A lot of them seem to own this lens specifically for such an aim. Also, when wide open the effects exhibit something of what is referred to as a ‘glow’ by many, not unlike some of the older Leica lenses of the sixties and seventies when used at maximum aperture. I think from a technical standpoint, it’s more a result of spherical aberrations and a little coma but subjectively speaking, it can appear most pleasant. That’s something that is either loved or hated, you’ll have to decide if that’s something you are okay with. Stopped down a bit to around f2 I found it more useable and just about as sharp as I can imagine any lens in the world ever really being, I’m talking brand new surgeon’s scalpel kind of sharp. Very nice indeed, yes it’s surgical but not in an overly modern way.  However, for a lot of what I shoot, and in the very bright country in which I shoot it, I am often stopped way down anyway. Much as I hate to admit it, I don’t really need an ultra low-light weapon all that often. I liked how it does colour but I don’t shoot that much of it in all honesty, and call me a philistine but on black and white film it certainly didn’t look any better than the 1.4 to my eyes.  Additionally, when stopped down to f8 or f11 sort of ranges, I think I again prefer the 1.4. The 1.2 also felt a little heavier and less balanced on my smaller bodies (FM3A and FE2), not a massive weight or anything but compared to the 1.4 it was a more awkward package overall to carry and deploy. This was no great deal breaker per se but I think it warrants mentioning and was something that I hadn’t really expected.


Then I compared negs and prints to a lot of the stuff I had shot last year on the same cameras and film but using the 1.4. Although it is often chastised for being soft wide open, I actually quite like the way that softness looks. It is a seven element, six-group lens also of an old design.  Its diaphragm is two blades less at seven in total, I like the later model ones for the newer coatings but this is entirely subjective opinion. I also like the way that when used on Tri-x, sunlight and backlit outlines around the edges of people take on a very nice older 60’s kind of look. Not unlike the older Leica glass that I shoot with. I think it’s important when reading around the web to take people’s input onboard but also to actually look at what your work looks like with the lens and make comparisons based on that for your own personal circumstance. The internet tells me that the 1.4 is a fairly good lens but I really think it’s a great lens and I like the way that a lot of its technical ‘shortcomings’ look on my film. After doing a lot of side by side work between the two lenses over the following month, I eventually decided to return the 1.2 to my dealer who was happy to take it back for a very small fee (check out my ‘Ultimate Photographer’s Guide to Bangkok by clicking on the banner at the top of the page for a suggestive list of friendly places to buy and sell camera gear in Thailand). I think it was  just a little bit too fussy and somehow overly ‘specialist’ for my tastes and application. I think a bigger part of the problem is that with a brand like Nikon, even the expensive glass is only typically a fraction of what you would pay for Leica optics and as a keen M shooter, it seems almost deceptively reasonable in comparison. This is not always a good thing though as it makes it too easy to act upon said lens lust. In comparison, for my M, I would never really dream of casually chopping in my ‘Cron for a faster version if I were perfectly happy with it just ‘to see what it’s like’. In Leicaland that would mean the suffix of ‘Lux and suffering mo’ bucks. And if I had a ‘Lux right now I would certainly never seriously entertain the idea of chopping it in for a huge and second mortgage facilitating Nocti either!


My conclusion: Happiness in photography, as in life, might not be found in having what you want rather in simply wanting what you already have. This applies to lenses superbly and really needs writing down on a post-it note to be stuck on to either my computer monitor or my credit card, or perhaps both.


What in the Dickens was I ever thinking? The 50mm 1.4 Ais, It is a far, far better lens that I shoot than I have ever said, the far, far better rest are better left unsaid.