Lens Review: Nikon AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G
MARCH 27, 2014
By Dan Havlik
I don’t typically review a new digital SLR and lens from the same company in the same issue separately, but the AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G is so unique I thought it warranted its own close-up look. I tested the 58mm f/1.4G with Nikon’s 16.3-megapixel, full-frame Df DSLR and found the new lens to be as odd as that retro-style camera.
I don’t mean “odd” in a pejorative sense in either case. I mean, simply, that with so many cookie-cutter-type photography products hitting the market, the Df and this new Nikkor lens are unusual. That can be a good thing. In the case of the Df, the camera’s stylish throwback design was part of its charm, while the new Nikkor’s uncommon 58mm focal length stands out against a sea of standard portrait lenses.
Another unusual aspect of the 58mm f/1.4G is its price tag. It’s expensive, retailing for $1,700, putting this prime lens in Nikon’s professional class of Nikkor lenses. Is this oddball piece of premium glass worth it? Depending on your shooting needs, it might be.
According to Nikon, this new lens is an homage to the legendary Noct Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 lens, which debuted in 1977 and quickly earned a reputation as a low-light killer. While that’s a storied legacy, as my co-tester, photographer Jordan Matter, points out, why not make this new 58mm prime also an f/1.2?
The choice is probably two-fold: an f/1.2 aperture would likely have increased the weight and price of this lens significantly. As it is, the 58mm f/1.4G is large but lightweight, tipping the scales at approximately 13.5 ounces. When paired with the Df, it creates a pleasantly portable combination for portrait sessions. “It’s very light, which is a plus,” Matter reports. “Overall, this combo feels so lightweight that I’m surprised it’s so good.”
The lens can also be used with DSLRs that have smaller DX-format (aka APS-C or “crop”) sensors with the focal length converting to 87mm equivalent. That will let you stand a bit further back from your subject when shooting portraits but it’s still an offbeat length. It does, however, make the lens suitable for a range of assignments including street photography and even landscapes, when used on a full-frame camera.
The 58mm f/1.4G has nine glass elements in six groups including two aspherical elements, which is a pretty nice mix of glass befitting a lens in this class. It also features a nine-blade diaphragm designed to produce dramatic, circular bokeh in your images and it certainly fulfills that promise, though not always to the best effect as I’ll discuss in the Image Quality section. Also befitting its elite status (and price), the lens employs Nikon’s coveted Nano Crystal Coat, which is designed to prevent ghosting and flare, and maximize contrast in images.
Video shooters will like the lens’s Silent Wave Motor, which is designed to produce quiet autofocusing so it won’t be picked up on your audio track.
The 58mm f/1.4G was a quick, accurate and whisper-quiet lens, making it well suited for posed and candid portrait sessions. It locked in on subjects, even in low-contrast settings, instantly and we were both impressed with its sharpness, particularly when you stopped down slightly. Matter tested it alongside his Nikkor 85mm f/1.4, which is the 58mm’s comparably priced stablemate. In several of his side-by-side portrait sessions, he found the 58mm produced better results than the 85mm lens.
“The 58mm has more contrast which adds to the sharper look, plus both eyes are in focus,” he says about one portrait comparison. “With the 85mm, perhaps due to compression, his left eye [in a test shot] is slightly out of focus. I’m a big fan of shooting at f/1.4. I love the look. Perhaps they’re on to something with the 58mm focal length. It helps keep both eyes in focus, but is slightly longer than the 50mm, so there’s a bit less distracting background.”
But we both felt the 58mm was not as consistently sharp at f/1.4 as the 85mm lens over the long haul. During a series of portrait shoots using both the 58mm and 85mm lenses at f/1.4, the new lens was disappointingly soft.
“There were stretches when every shot was out of focus,” Matter reports. Granted, shooting at an aperture as wide as f/1.4 is tricky business. The fall-off from the narrow focus point is meant to be severe to create that narrow depth of field and a dramatic, blurred background. But the 58mm lens’s fast f/1.4 aperture, which allows you to shoot in extremely low-light conditions, is part of the reason this lens cost so much and we wished it were more consistent.
When we stopped down slightly to f/2, the 58mm produced tack-sharp centers in images with dependable proficiency. Things got even better when we went to f/2.8 and f/4. But photographers are probably considering buying this expensive lens because of its low-light skills at f/1.4, not for how it can perform at f/2 and higher.
The good news is that in other aspects of image quality, the 58mm f/1.4G impressed. We saw very little to no coma distortion at f/1.4, which are those little light flares you sometimes see when shooting wide open. The lens also did well with controlling significant light fall off at f/1.4, which kept vignetting (i.e., darkened edges and corners in images) largely in check.
The lens also had impressive resolving power, letting us get the most out of the Df’s 16.2-megapixel, full-frame chip to produce images that will maintain their detail and sharpness even if printed at billboard sizes.
The Bottom Line
We were divided over Nikon’s newest portrait lens, mainly because of the high price and the inconsistent sharpness at f/1.4. When it hits its mark, which occurred mainly at f/2 and higher, the 58mm f/1.4G is an extraordinary piece of glass that will make your portraits sparkle. But at its coveted f/1.4 aperture, which gives this lens its low-light-shooting prowess, results were disappointingly hit or miss.
Pros: Fast and quiet to use; excellent resolving power and high image quality; low distortion
Cons: Inconsistent sharpness at f/1.4; expensive
Price: $1,700; www.nikonusa.com
Read all of our camera lens reviews at pdnonline.com/lenses.
Camera Review: Nikon Df