Nikon 50mm f/1.2 S Lens Review

What is It?

The 50mm f/1.2 S was the first lens in Nikon’s “fast prime” lineup. Early on in the Z System, Nikon concentrated on “somewhat fast” f/1.8 prime lenses, which met with a lot of user push back, even though virtually all of the f/1.8 S lenses are what I’d tend to call superb optics. Certainly, the f/1.8 S lenses are all arguably much better than the older F-mount f/1.8 primes. 

But in the F-mount we also had f/1.4 lenses. That extra two-thirds of a stop (f/1.4 versus f/1.8) was definitely welcome both in the film and the early DSLR era. 

With the 50mm f/1.2 S Nikon started a line of fast primes for the Z system. In relation to the f/1.8 S lenses, these lenses are a stop-and-a-sixth faster. In other words, Nikon chose a wider gain for the fastest primes in the Z System than they did in the F-mount. I’m pleased with that choice, though it does have a downside. (If you want faster, the even bigger 58mm f/0.95 NOCT can provide yet another half stop of light gathering.)

That downside is size and weight. Let’s look more closely:

  • 50mm f/1.8 S — 14.7 ounces (415g), 3.4” (87mm) long, and 2.9” (76mm) in diameter
  • 50mm f/1.2 S — 38.5 ounces (1090g), 5.9” (150mm) long, and 3.5” (90mm) in diameter

Yikes! One stop made the lens over twice as heavy, two-thirds longer, and one-seventh wider.

Optically, the 50mm f/1.2 S is a complex lens: 17 elements in 15 groups sounds more like a zoom than a prime optical design. Three aspherical and two ED elements seems more like a prime, though. At the front end (the first nine elements) the design is very NOCT-like. Indeed, if I’m reading the design patent right, the biggest changes from the NOCT are how focusing is dealt with internally. Rounding out the optical side the 50mm f/1.2 S has both Nano and Arneo coating. Nikon threw pretty much their whole optical design tool kit at this lens, it seems. 

Up front, that big optical design requires 82mm filters. The lens also comes with a large HB-94 lens hood (bayonets, and can be reversed for travel). 

I mentioned focus. The 50mm f/1.2 S differs from the f/1.8 S primes in that it uses two stepping motors to drive different lens elements. Close focus is 18” (0.45m), which produces a 1:6.1 maximum magnification ratio. Because of the length of the lens, the minimum working distance to the front of the lens turns out to be about 10” (0.26m), so I’m not sure what I’d do with more magnification, as it would be difficult to light the subject around the big front element and hood. 

bythom nikon 50mmf12buttons.jpg

Since this is a top-line lens, it comes with a few extra features. Besides the usual A/M switch, the 50mm f/1.2 S includes a single L-Fn button, which is on the same ringed area as a LED lens information panel that can report focus distance, depth of field, or aperture when you press its DISP button. Close to the mount you’ll find a control ring, which as usual, can be programmed as to function (including aperture change). 

The 50mm f/1.2 S is Nikon’s top-level build (which still features polycarbonate over the more robust metal internal frame), and is weather sealed, including at the lens mount. At this point, we also have a matching 85mm f/1.2 S and an as-yet-announced 35mm f/1.2 S pair to make this new "fast prime" part of a series.

The 50mm f/1.2 S is made in Thailand, and sells for US$2100.

Nikon’s Web page for the lens

Source of reviewed lens: long term loan from B&H

How’s it Handle?

The elephant in the room is, well, as large as an elephant. This prime is larger and heavier than a number of zooms, including the 24-120mm f/4 S and the 24-70mm f/2.8 S. Because of this, we have to talk about body size/weight. On the DX cameras, the 50mm f/1.2 S looks and feels almost ridiculous. On the other hand, the 75mm effective focal length with such a fast aperture puts you in DX la-la land for bokeh ;~). 

But even on the Z5, Z6, and Z7 bodies, the 50mm f/1.2 S produces a front heavy, must support with left hand, monster. If you’re planning on handholding this lens for any length of time, I’d suggest some time at the gym first. Even on the bigger and heavier Z8 and Z9 bodies, things still feel a bit front heavy with the 50mm f/1.2 S mounted. 

As I’ve written before, I’m not a fan of the powered lens information display. Now that Nikon’s started providing similar information in the viewfinder with the DX bodies, I’m feeling more and more like that LED needs to go the way of the MacBook Pro Touch Bar. The notion that you need to look in more than one place for all the information you need while making decisions (lens and viewfinder), is very old school, and you end up working more slowly if you use that (and don’t add more dials to the camera to look at! ;~). 

A strange bit to the lens is a knurled ring at the front: I guess it’s there to give you something to grip when removing the lens hood, but it doesn’t seem practical for that given how much mass is in back of that point. You’re not going to hold the lens by that static ring. Sometimes I’d really love to know what’s going on in the minds of Nikon’s designers. 

How's it Perform?

Autofocus: Despite two autofocus motors, the 50mm f/1.2 S is not what I’d call a fast focusing lens. Even in a close to 10 foot focus pull, it’s a bit more slide-to-focus than snap-to-focus. In low light, I sometimes saw a bit of focus chatter, too. While I don’t measure such things, I’d tend to say the focus is slightly noisier than the f/1.8 S lenses, though still pretty quiet. 

Focus breathing is near non-existent for any useful focus pull. From close focus to infinity I see maybe a bit over a percent image size change, but in say, five to ten feet, nada. For video work, the 50mm f/1.2 S looks really good on focus, but if your mic is anywhere near the camera, it might pick the motor sound.

Sharpness: Nikon's MTF charts imply that the f/1.2 S is nearly as good as the f/1.8 S with both lenses used wide open, with only some small differences showing up as you move from the center (though the detail is implied to be better in the corners on the f/1.2 S, the basic contrast is implied better on the f/1.8 S out past the DX boundary). Given that we're over a stop faster, that's still mighty strong implied performance.

In testing, the f/1.2 S actually holds up really well against the much more expensive NOCT (58mm f/0.95). In some ways, I prefer the f/1.2 S's rendering over the NOCT, as, while it has slightly less acuity than the NOCT at f/1.2, the f/1.2 S files are cleaner (somewhat less longitudinal CA). Wide open I'd say the f/1.2 S is mostly simply excellent from center to corner, wide open. (Corners may be excellent-.) That's top level results in anyone's rating scale. At f/1.8, the f/1.2 S clearly beats the f/1.8 S in the corners, but not at the center or DX boundary, where I find the f/1.8 S ever so slightly better. Still, we're talking something near excellent everywhere (center, mid-frame, corner). To get everything possible out of the lens, you need to be at f/4, though, at which point most people will say it is razor sharp. 

Detail is so good on this lens at f/1.2 that it makes my mannequin clearly look like the mannequin she is (her right pupil is red because I put a small red filter over it to mimic flash red-eye in a raw processing test). 

Compared to the older F-mount 50mm’s, this lens is a knockout, and on the first punch: the 50mm f/1.2 S just has snap and acuity that we never saw from the F-mount 50mm lenses.           

Coma is well controlled, even wide open. Indeed, I can't measure it by the time you close the aperture down a stop. Astigmatism is also lowish, though variable across the frame. I believe some astigmatism is what is causing ever so slightly worse performance mid-frame than from center or corner, but I can't quite distinguish that from a small bit of field curvature with my tools. I'm betting that the optical design is at issue for both things: unlike the 50mm f/1.8 S and 58mm f/0.95 NOCT, the 50mm f/1.2 S has no front aspherical correction; all the aspherical elements are in the rear. Thus, Nikon tolerated letting light get through 11 elements before applying a more nuanced (aspherical) correction, and we're likely seeing the results of that.

Chromatic Aberration: As usual with any fast prime, there's strong longitudinal chromatic aberration. Clear front magenta and rear green hues are obviously present in this lens, as you would expect them to be. The problem, as usual, is that this is very difficult to remove, other than on very high contrast edges (e.g. leaves against sky). Lateral CA, however, is virtually non-existent. 

Vignetting: Surprisingly, the built-in corrections are understated, and still show significant vignetting up through about f/2. Beyond f/2 vignetting is mostly ignorable, profile or no profile. If you use the lens without corrections you can get faux corner clip effects due to the vignetting, but the central 5:4 area of the frame is actually excellent and free of any visible vignetting.

Linear Distortion: Really too low to measure accurately. The lens has a slight pin cushion distortion at fairly close distances, which reduces a bit at long distances. The built-in correction profiles produce as close to a straight lines as I've seen.

Flare: Reasonably well controlled. I see some faint color ghosts in extreme situations, but generally the lens seems to hold out well with in-frame and edge-frame light sources.

Bokeh: There's good news and bad news here. The good news is that it's easy to blur backgrounds and out of focus highlights don't seem to have obnoxious onion skinning (see above photo). Longitudinal CA puts a faint green ring on some blur circles, though, and this lens has significant cats eye issue as you move towards the corners. Indeed, the cats eye problem starts becoming obvious around the DX frame area. In practice, this lens produces really refined and creamy rear blur, though. You might be able to see how the hair goes from razor sharp to a soft blur in the above image fairly rapidly, and without any real busy-ness. Front blur is a little busier, but still really nice to look at.

Final Words

The issue here is twofold: size and price. This is not your father's 50mm f/1.4G ;~). This is one of the biggest "normal" lenses I've encountered, and handles more like a fast moderate telephoto lens. At US$2100 (sometimes discounted), the 50mm f/1.2 S is also much more expensive than people are used to for this focal length. So obviously, these things make this more of a specialty lens. 

Most Nikon Z users will be perfectly satisfied with the 50mm f/1.8 S. That lens is already exceptional, plus it's smaller and less costly. The 50mm f/1.2 S basically "stretches" what you can do, but with the two penalties I just listed. Personally, I can't justify the price differential for what I gain. That doesn't mean this is a bad lens, nor that you should avoid it. But I do think this is one of those lenses where you should "know if you need it." 

I can see indoor music small venue photographers gushing over this lens, for instance. I suppose, too, that wedding pros will see the f/1.2 aspect as giving them more ability to control style (e.g. background blur). But again, I think you probably already know if you need a f/1.2 normal prime that’s basically without compromise. I do think this lens is a better choice for everyone other than perhaps some videographers than the 58mm f/0.95 NOCT. So if you've been envying the NOCT, consider first checking out the 50mm f/1.2 S. You give up very little optically, gain autofocus, and lose weight and price in doing so.

Highly Recommended (conditionally, 2021 to present)

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