The Nikon 50mm f1.8 S was one of Nikon’s first lenses for the Z mount system and it has been designed to cater to the hybrid shooter who wants a single prime lens that can do anything. Video, landscape, wedding, portrait, or even street photography. While the f1.8 aperture isn’t exciting for a lot of people, the versatility makes it a great place to start when building out a new kit.
The lens is weather-sealed, has a silent stepping motor focusing system with very little focus breathing. It’s very well corrected, incredibly sharp with a very manageable size and weight.
This is the best 50mm f1.8 lens ever made because it excels in any situation but is also much less expensive than the competition.
The closest competitor is probably the Zeiss Batis 40mm f2 which is double the price, or the Sony 55mm f1.8 that is again, significantly more expensive.
Focal Length: 50mm
Aperture: f1.8 – f16
Aperture Blade: 9 Rounded
Optical Design: 12 elements in 9 groups
Elements: 2 ED / 2 Aspherical
Coatings: Nano Crystal & Super Integrated Coatings
Autofocus: Stepping Motor
Minimum Focus Distance: 1.31′ / 40 cm
Filter Threads: 62mm
Weight: 14.6 oz / 415 g
Pros – Very sharp corner to corner, no focus breathing, great bokeh, great rendering, great color, great contrast, silent smooth focusing, fast autofocus, weather-sealed, very little distortion, very little flaring, very little CA, nice uniform sun stars, great price, great build quality.
Cons – Minor vignetting at f1.8, higher element design, largest and heaviest f1.8 lens.
Table Of Contents
- Nikon Z System | First Impressions
- Nikon Z 50mm f1.8 S Lens Review
- Build Quality
- Technical Characteristics
- Art & Character
- Nikon Z 50mm f1.8 S Sample Photos
Nikon Z System | First Impressions
When I first decided I was going to buy into the Nikon Z system I really didn’t know what to think or what to expect. All I knew is the press has shown no mercy to the system and Nikon’s reputation was destroyed overnight. Camera’s are no longer compared fairly and features are no longer weighted with any balance.
While the Nikon system is missing a few things other systems have, Nikon has a few things that other systems don’t have, and this isn’t talked about. All anyone chants is the same mantra, single card slot, no vertical grip, but then they all turn around and praise cameras like the Sony A6400 or Fujifilm X-T30, both lacking weather sealing, dual cards slots, and vertical grips. It’s bizarre.
While I get it, the Sony A7III is the same price and also full-frame, the Z 6 has premium, higher quality components that are going to drive up the price. It’s a different kind of camera and shouldn’t be compared one-to-one by price to a camera that has an inferior EVF, no top display, smaller and lower resolution rear screen, inferior weather sealing, and fewer buttons and dials. You wouldn’t compare a BMW M4 to a souped-up Honda Civic, would you? Some do, and that’s what camera reviews have become.
So are the Nikon Z 6 & Z 7 and lenses really that bad? Was all the hate justified or was everyone just dumb? Turns out, my suspicions were correct. It’s sad because YouTubers I once respected, I no longer have any respect for. They missed so bad with this one and people keep saying these f1.8 lenses are bad. The Nikon system, and especially their lenses are nothing short of incredible but of course, they are missing a few trending features. Like apparently everyone on the planet that owns a camera in 2019 suddenly has to have a vertical grip. Anyways, onto the review!
Nikon Z 50mm f1.8 S Lens Review
Let’s start by looking at the Nikon Z 50mm f1.8 S. A lens that has kind of changed everything for me.
With the new Z mount, Nikon has approached modern lens design with a clean slate and a new philosophy – make great lenses that can be used in any situation. Video, portrait, landscape, or street. From what I can tell, they nailed it.
For me, f1.8 lenses are the perfect starting point for any type of photography because of the versatility that comes with building high-quality lenses with that aperture. F1.8 lenses are fast enough for portraits, light enough for landscape photography, and small enough for street photography. Something that’s hard to find with full-frame f1.4 lenses that always felt a little like one-trick ponies – bokeh machines.
The lack of great, somewhat affordable lenses like this Z 50mm f1.8 S was one of the big reasons I moved over to Fujifilm with APS-C a few years ago. For those f1.4 lenses that were smaller, lighter and performed better than many of the full-frame f1.8 counterparts but were also significantly less expensive than the good Sony lenses.
But now these Nikon f1.8 lenses give a better look than those f1.4 APS-C lenses (being full-frame and all), and the lenses are not much more expensive than what Fujifilm is currently offering – now I understand why Nikon built them. The high quality f1.8 lenses are a perfect place to start when building out your kit. They can work in any situation with amazing shallow depth of field, but not too stuffed with elements that you lose all the pop.
I was hesitant to jump onto this Nikon train, but it’s been an amazing transition. While the Z system faces a lot of criticism and Nikon has a steep road ahead of them to gain back consumer confidence, lenses like this one more than makeup for any shortcomings the cameras might have.
Where does this lens sit in the grand scheme of things?
In terms of correctness and optical performance I really haven’t seen much else that can match it. Sure there are the high element massive f1.4 GM lenses or Canon or Nikon lenses, but those are a different class a different style of lens. Just because a lens is faster, doesn’t mean it’s automatically better. Usually, they’re actually worse, unless the f1.8 lenses were made as budget lenses. Personally, I don’t always want the look of crazy shallow depth that you get from f1.4 and f1.2 lenses.
This was one of the reasons I think so many people flocked to Fujifilm. Fujinon makes some really nice character lenses like the 56mm f1.2 and the 35mm f1.4, that are fast enough, but now they’re showing their age with mechanically inferior, clunky noisy focus motors and lack of weather sealing. Their older lenses are definitely not great for video, so video shooters are left with the f2 lenses, another reason I was so attracted to the Nikon system.
Nikon likely realized that people were ok with the depth of field a full-frame f1.8 lens produced and saw an easy opportunity to make a better f1.8 lens than anyone else, not only that, they come in much cheaper than any of the Zeiss Batis offerings.
Today photographers want things that are just good enough, but yet extremely versatile, which is a big reason Sony and Fujifilm cameras have become so popular.
For me now, while I think it’s a shame everyone is on the Sony bandwagon hating on everything Nikon and Canon do. At the same time, I love it, because I now have some really special gear with a really unique look that no other camera system can currently match, especially at the current price.
But Not All Is Perfect
There is one little thing I don’t love about this 50mm f1.8.
I really like the look of low element lenses. 12 elements is a lot for an f1.8 lens, and sure this is kind of the standard today for high-end lenses, but you will see a reduction of lens tonal pop or micro-contrast compared to a well designed 9 or 7 element lens. Of course, with that comes sacrifices.
Since Nikon was going for a lens that can be used in any situation for their first round of S lenses, their decision here I think makes sense.
While I’m a nerd for micro-contrast, I often can forgive lenses if they don’t excel with it, as long as they are doing their job as a beauty lens. Which this lens nails.
Images coming out of this lens are very magical, bokeh, sharpness, focus falloff, everything just clicks together in a way that really shows Nikon’s experience with optics.
The 50mm f1.8 S still has a nice prime pop to it and a 3d effect (or I should say 2.5D effect), but compared to some of the lower element primes that aren’t as corrected, this lens will not give you that tonal depth or that classic look. Of course, it’s easy to get a different kind of classic look with the right color correction, but what I’m talking about is the tonal depth. Again it’s not bad, but it’s just not great.
Of course, some people don’t believe in such a thing as micro-contrast and that’s fine, you’ll love this lens even more!
It always cracks me when I see people say this lens is a cheap piece of plastic Walmart crap. It’s so unbelievably ridiculous and couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Yes, there is plastic on the lens, but where the lens connects to the body and the whole area around the mount is supported by metal, and obviously, it has a metal core. There is a plastic shielding near and around the focus ring, which is a very common build technique. Go pick up a Sony GM lens, or any Canon lens.
Plastic is used because it has different thermal properties and it handles impacts and scratches a little better than anodized metal, it will absorb some shock if hit or banged. Plastic will expand and contracts slower when facing temperature shifts and overall doesn’t hold heat like metal does. Heat can destroy a lens by causing hazing or the thinning of grease, or in extreme conditions even cracking elements, especially those made from fluorite crystal, which this lens does not have.
Of all the 50mm f1.8 lenses out there, this lens is the biggest and heaviest, but not unmanageable. I’ve shot a ton of street photography with it and if you take off the lens hood the size ends up much more compact.
The lens has an AF / MF switch that you easily forget about. Sometimes I hit that and my lens is in manual focus mode and I’m confused for a second and often forget that switch is there.
The lens has an internal focus design, meaning there are no external moving parts.
You can see from the photo above, Nikon is taking advantage of every millimeter of that short flange distance. Notice the rear elements actually protrudes slightly past the actual mount. This is one of the few full-frame mirrorless primes I’ve seen do this. APS-C mirrorless cameras have been doing this for years now like many of the Fujinon lenses, so It’s nice to see Nikon taking advantage of this here. I’m not sure if any Sony or Panasonic full-frame mirrorless lenses do this. Their mounts are very small.
Whether this makes the lens better or not is still up for debate, but it should make them at least more compact since you have more room to move the elements around behind the point of convergence.
Also, this lens does have a rear element focus design.
The lens hood is all plastic but it is solid. It doesn’t rattle around and there is a nice firm click when mounted.
The lens caps are also very well designed. Both the front and rear stay firmly on the lens. This just makes me happy since I can’t tell you how many lenses I have where the rear lens cap can shake off.
On the technical side of things, this lens is incredible. It does everything you could want and need. Sharpness is insane. This lens really sets the bar on performance for future f1.8 lenses.
When looking at the sharpness chart, I backed off of the profile sharpness Nikon automatically applies in Lightroom. I moved it to the Lightroom default values.
I’m still getting used to Nikon since they don’t add nearly as much digital sharpness in the AD conversion process as Sony and Fujifilm do. This results in softer images, but the detail is still there. This allows you to pull out however much detail you need using whatever sharpness method you prefer.
This is important and something to keep in mind when you compare camera systems. It’s about detail, not digital sharpness. I like that Nikon doesn’t oversharpen their RAWs and was a little upset when Fujifilm started doing it with their X-T3. Of course, you can always just back it off in Lightroom as well, but it is a little bit of a marketing trick that is likely throwing off those DXOMark numbers or other comparisons you might see online, which makes it impossible to compare lenses between brands.
Sharpness or I should say detail, is very good on the Nikon 50mm f1.8. There is also very little loss of center sharpness when wide open. This is very rare.
I don’t have a Z 7, I can only compare based on what I’m seeing with the Z 6 but what I’m seeing with the Z 6 is very good. When I get a higher megapixel Nikon camera I’ll reshoot these charts for you.
Corners look good for the most part, not perfect, but close. They clean up really well with smaller apertures.
I don’t focus on the corners for these charts so I can see how the field curvature affects the image. When there is field curvature it usually clears up by about f5.6 or f8. This lens doesn’t have an issue with field curvature.
Edge sharpness is also very good.
Very little distortion. This is after I removed the baked lens profile correction with Iridient Developer.
Vignetting is the biggest weakness of this lens but it’s still very corrected. This is after I removed the baked lens profile correction with Iridient Developer.
Flaring is very well controlled with this lens.
Sun stars look like this –
Chromatic Aberrations are well controlled. Stress testing shows some longitudinal purple and green fringing.
Technical Overview Final Thoughts
I’m seeing a trend now with Nikon Z lenses where the designers seem to be allowing for a little bit more vignetting. They must be thinking that it’s better to balance the lens in other ways and allow for a little more vignetting. Cameras today have such a good dynamic range so cleaning up vignetting with lens profiles is no an issue like it was ten years ago.
Maybe this is good or bad, but it seems like Nikon is allowing for a bit more of these flaws that are easily fixable with profile corrections or software, in favor of correcting other issues or enhancing features that cannot easily be done in post. It will probably destroy their DXO scores but at the end of the day, these lenses are taking advantage of every bit of technology available, including software corrections. When put to use in a real-world application, this should yield better final results.
Lens design is a little bit like rolling a character in D&D. You only get a limited number of attribute points that you can shift around in an attempt to put together the perfect build. Experience is everything, so when you allow the lens to have more vignetting in favor of maybe corner sharpness, it would be like rolling a character with a little less Str in favor of Int. Then cleaning up vignetting with software would be a little like maybe getting a +2 Str helm later.
Yeah, I went there!
Art & Character
Usually, when reviewing lower element lenses by Fujifilm, the art and character section goes a bit more into render depth, focus falloff, micro-contrast.
While this lens has a really smooth focus falloff, micro-contrast and tonal depth are a bit weak for a prime.
It doesn’t really have that tonal pop look with great micro-contrast, you’ll just never see that in a 12 element lens. Instead, the Nikon Z 50mm f1.8 S it has more of that glossy high element prime look. Not as bad as what some other designers are doing like Sigma for example, but not as good as Fujinon of some of the Sony lenses. So I guess you could say it sits in the middle and is very well balanced.
Actually just so you’re not confused, there is a very nice 3d effect from how well the focus falls off with the nearly buttery smooth background. But this is a little different from what you would classically call the Zeiss pop or 3d pop which comes from more of tonal depth. So yes, there is a very good 3d look, but it lacks tonal pop. I hope that makes sense.
You have to pick your battles, not enough elements and you end up with the Sony 50mm f1.8. Too many elements and you’re in Sigma territory. Somewhere around 9 elements are where Fujifilm likes to live. 11 / 12 if very acceptable especially if the focus is video, landscape or portraits.
Of course, the thickness of the elements is also important as well as the chemical formula of those elements. A lot of lenses are using some plastic now, especially those MItakon Speedmasters. As far as I know, this lens does not use any plastic, also known as an ultra-high refractive polymer.
If you don’t think micro-contrast is a thing, check out my Meike 35mm f1.7 review. see the organic quality to them. Images are not as perfect, they lack contrast and saturation, but there is an organic quality to them and they do have better tonal depth.
While the Nikon 50mm f1.8 doesn’t have that classic rendering you get with the lower element lenses, the trade-off is nice, a very rich and buttery smooth bokeh. Fantastic subject separation but yet it still holds the image together very well even at f1.8.
Many lenses start to have weird things happen when shooting at their fastest apertures at far distances. Bokeh usually gets very busy or kind of nasty looking. This lens does not. It’s very reliable in every situation. It even has a nice minimum focus distance of 1.31′.
Many of the samples in this review are shot at f1.8, but in this section, I wanted to show a little bit more of the characteristics you may not see in just casual shots. I found a few situations that would usually bring out the worst in a lens so you could see the worst-case scenario.
Really nice bokeh balls, some cats-eye along the extreme edges. No onion rings, no soap bubbles.
It’s tough creating straight out of camera raw files for the Nikon since their profiles carry though into Lightroom. I’m always shooting with different profiles and lately, I’ve been shooting on the Landscape profile which is my favorite looking profile.
What I’ve done here with the RAWs is switched everything to the Adobe Color profile so it matches my Sony and Fujifilm reviews.
SOOC Samples – Adobe Color
If you’re unfamiliar with Nikon, this should give you a good idea what Nikon RAW colors look like. Colors feel a little more organic compared to Sony or Fujifilm, but Nikon doesn’t push it quite as hard as Canon.
Contrast & Micro Contrast
Like mentioned, this lens isn’t a micro-contrast or tonal pop beast, but contrast is still very good, and because of the f1.8 aperture, you do get a nice depth of field that shows great foreground to background separation.
The Nikon 50mm f1.8 S has just blown me away and I’m a little shocked about how many people have been overlooking the Nikon mirrorless system. Everyone always used to preach that photography was all about the lenses, but lately, it’s now all about which camera’s eye detection autofocus is 1.2% better or which camera has the most card slots or even better, how many megapixels.
So final thoughts, I would say this lens is godly, it’s a gem, a masterpiece. It’s amazing and I never say that in my lens reviews! It really can do anything.
I will definitely be trying out the 35mm f1.8 S if it ever goes on sale, an maybe one day Nikon will make us something like a 40mm f2 with a little more 3D pop.
These are affiliate links. If you ever decide to buy this lens and found this review useful, you know what to do! Putting together this review was probably at least 40 hours of work with 3 months off shooting samples.
Nikon Z 50mm f1.8 S Sample Photos
For this NIKKOR Z 50mm f1.8 S lens review, I shot all the sample photos with the Nikon Z 6 and colored everything in Lightroom using my custom made film presets.
All images are uploaded at half res. Some images are shamelessly cropped.