In my experience, there are two kinds of great lenses. The first is the kind that gets the job done. These lenses are technically amazing and produce extremely high-quality images. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art is one of those lenses. It produces sharp, high-contrast images time and time again. But it doesn’t really have character — a feeling — of its own. This brings me to the second category of great lenses. Every now and again a manufacturer produces something truly special, a lens with qualities that can't be measured on an MTF chart or in lab testing. Nikon's Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G is one of those lenses.
Nikon currently has four other 50mm offerings on the market: the 50mm f/1.4D, 50mm f/1.8D, 50mm f/1.4G, and 50mm f/1.8G. These four lenses together could be purchased for less than the price of the 58mm f/1.4G. They're all smaller, lighter, and perform almost equally on most camera bodies if you look at the technical specifications. So why buy the 58mm?
The Focal Length
It seems strange, but those 8 millimeters make such a big difference. I have bought and sold so many different 50mm lenses to date that some people might say I need help. The truth of the matter is, I'm always looking for that focal length and a certain quality. Each and every one of the 50mm lenses I bought had fallen short. There is just something about the way a 50mm renders that just doesn't work for me. The 58mm gets me one step closer to the 85mm length I love so much and reduces that slight distortion of the 50mm focal length. That might sound picky, but it makes the lens extremely comfortable to use. I can get closer than I do with the 85mm and still have the flexibility that the slightly wider lens offers.
It's not often you'll speak about how nice the inherent vignette in a lens is. Lens and software manufacturers go to great lengths to ensure that vignettes are well corrected for, and test after test give you all the details you need about how many stops of light are lost in the corners of your images. With the 58mm, however, I find myself keeping the vignette more often than not in post-production. There is a certain character to it that is hard to mimic in software and lends itself well to images where the center of the frame contains the subject.
The Transition to Out-of-Focus
Some lenses have a razor-like transition between in and out of focus; a perceptible line that delineates depth of field. With the 58mm, there is an almost imperceptible shift between the two that makes for really special images when your focus is just right. It gives an almost dream-like quality to close-up portraits like the ones below.
It's not as creamy as the 85mm f/1.4G, but I don't think that was the point with this lens. There's a little swirl, some ovular corners, and a little "nervousness" in some situations that altogether make for some amazing out-of-focus backgrounds. Couple this with a sharp-but-not-sharp foreground, and you're in for a treat with this lens.
When the Stars Align
Probably my favorite image with this lens to date is the one below. Beautiful light, a nice moment, enough distance for f/1.4 to carry acceptable focus throughout my subjects... When added to the vignette, along with the out-of-focus elements, this lens is capable of some fairly amazing images.
It's not for everyone, that's for sure. If your primary concern is your wallet, this lens is not for you. Most other standard lenses will give you everything but "the feeling" for a fraction of the price. Is extreme sharpness and contrast not for you? There is a certain softness not found in many lenses at this price point. If you're after that buttery-smooth bokeh, pick up the 85mm f/1.4G. But for something with just a little more character, the Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G is the lens you may be looking for.
This is a lens that is purchased and used with the heart, as tripe as that sounds. It's a lens that cannot be quantified. It really has no peers. When you're paying this much for a standard lens, you may compare it to the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 for absolute technical perfection or the Canon 50mm f/1.2 for character (Kai Wong's comical, yet informative, comparison was posted some time ago on Fstoppers). However, there is a balance struck with the Nikkor that is hard to explain. It is a lens design found few and far between, and one certainly worth trying if you're looking for something special.