Why I Love the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G Lens

Why I Love the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G Lens

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.

The Imperfections

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.

Nikon D800 | Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G | ISO800 | f/2 | 1/250

Nikon D800 | Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G | ISO800 | f/2 | 1/250

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.

Nikon D800 | Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G | ISO180 | f/2 | 1/1000

Nikon D800 | Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G | ISO180 | f/2 | 1/1000

The Bokeh

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.

Nikon D800 | Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G | ISO200 | f/2 | 1/1000

Nikon D800 | Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G | ISO200 | f/2 | 1/1000

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.

Nikon D800 | Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G | ISO560 | f/1.4 | 1/4000

Nikon D800 | Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G | ISO560 | f/1.4 | 1/4000

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.

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44 Comments

Previous comments
Sean Shimmel's picture

Makes perfect sense, Dylan. Fun to hear others' experience. On my end, the D resolves down to the micro-bumps on a lash.

Michael Kormos's picture

Yo Dylan! That 58 is an exotic beast. I got one of the first copies, and I'll die long before I ever part with it. That fat lil' puppy handles direct-sun flare like no other, in situations where the 85 1.4 just flat out stalls. Plus, its creamy bokeh can only be matched by the likes of 105/135 2DCs, which makes it one of my favorites. Oddly enough, it shoots sharper on my D810 vs. my D4! Go figure! Then again, if everything was easy, it wouldn't be so special.

And don't listen to Dani. He's in bed with his 85, and terribly afraid to cheat on her :-)

Spy Black's picture

"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."

Excuse the French, but this is a load of shít. Just because a lens is sharp and has exceptional performance doesn't mean it doesn't have "character". It has it's own character, it's own image, and that is as simple as that.

"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."

This is, technically, another load of shít. While there is an essence of reality in this statement, what it is for the most part is the mechanism behind the sales pitch of many lenses that really aren't that great, yet they are hyped as having that X "rendering", that "look". Zeiss comes immediately to mind.

While there are many lenses that indeed live up to that moniker, they mostly come from a different time when their design and manufacture were to simply be the best of their time, the "Sigma Art" lenses of their era, if you will. There was no intent on making them "character" lenses, they just wound up that way by nature of their evolution, design, and manufacture.

All that said, everyone has their own taste in what they want from their gear. However I really gag when I see a piece of gear that may not really be much of anything at all being hype as holier-than-thou >>cough-Zeiss-cough<<. This happens like clockwork in the audio industry and, obviously, in photography. The 58mm may be a decent lens, but right from the start the hype around this lens made me realize that it was going to have more hot air than cool performance.

Lens designers will likely disagree with your assessment. A lot of trade-offs are made and at the end of the day, the decisions the lens designer makes will determine if it hits the spot with buyers. Focus on too many optical corrections for sharpness and you lose out a bit on the out of focus areas, focus too much on background blur and you forego foreground blur (the Nikon DC lenses are the exception in that they give you this choice). These "designs" are sometimes intentional and they reflect the designers preferences in rendering (e.g. 58mm 1.4G is from the same designer as the 35 1.4G and both are not known to be sharp lenses but both aim to have a more pleasing rendition, the 35 however is less pleasing than the 58). In this day and age of computer aided design, software corrections, high resolution sensors and pixel peeping, a very strong emphasis is placed on sharp output. Take a look at the Fuji X lineup, they are for the most part, sharp lenses, but they sacrifice a bit in the bokeh department to get there (nervous bokeh). A lot of the m43 lenses are sharp but rely on software corrections to deal with distortion (a good trade-off if the end result is sharper). The 58 1.4G was first and foremost designed to be a spiritual successor to the 58 1.2 Noct which sells for $3k+ and for which the 58 1.4G beats in every metric except for being 1.4 vs 1.2 and metal build on the older lens. Both excel with point light sources for example. These are specialty lenses that would normally not see the light of day based purely on economics.

Spy Black's picture

Interesting that you should use the Noct as an example, because that is exactly one example of the point I was making. The Noct's purpose in life was to be as sharp as engineering could make it wide open. As a matter of fact Nikon mentioned it would not be as good stopped down as a standard 50 1.4. It became the lens of choice by not only by low-light photographers, but astronomers, especially in the creation of imaging arrays.

But it was never hyped for "rendering" or bokeh, it had one goal and it strove to achieve it. The 58 1.4 G simply rides on the back of the Noct's reputation. Again, hype. The new 58 is an entirely different lens.

To say that the Sigma has no character while the 58 does is a total load of shít. Every lens has it's own character. You can take it or leave it. You may like a Canon over a Nikon or a Zeiss over a Canon or a Sigma over a Zeiss, that's fine. But does it make one lens better than another? With few exceptions, no, they're merely different.

This is the typical hype you hear about lenses like this and the Zeiss, to give them some illusion of uniqueness and superiority when in fact they're just "another Bozo on the bus", to borrow an old term. I hear the same shít in the audio world (it's even worse there actually), and even with motorcyclists, who claim that Japanese bikes don't have "character" or "soul", while Italian bikes do. PUH-LEASE!

But as I said at the end of the day whatever floats your boat is what will allow you to feel comfortable with your gear help you make the images you want to make.

Where have I stated that Sigma is lacking in character? My response was primarily to provide additional discussion points to your statement that marketing covers up lenses that don't test well in the MTF stakes as a "mechanism behind the sales pitch of many lenses that really aren't that great". All design decisions are a set of trade-offs. To get the Zeiss Otus levels of testing well on charts as well as having pleasing bokeh you have to deal with huge amounts of glass, expense and manufacturing tolerances which all drive up the final cost (not to mention the omission of autofocus helps save some weight/size/cost). The Nikon 58 1.4G was not designed for ultimate sharpness wide open, it sacrificed some of that to achieve the final rendering qualities that the designer was aiming for within the allocated budget. The final price reflects that this is not meant as a do-all lens that Nikon expects a lot of people to buy, otherwise they could ramp up production to increase supply and reduce costs. Not everything in life has to be everything to everyone. Sometimes companies allow a bit of freedom for pet projects.

Spy Black's picture

"Where have I stated that Sigma is lacking in character?"
You did not make that comment, Dylan did. That was what I was driving at.

"To get the Zeiss Otus levels of testing well on charts as well as having pleasing bokeh you have to deal with huge amounts of glass, expense and manufacturing tolerances which all drive up the final cost (not to mention the omission of autofocus helps save some weight/size/cost)."

...and yet Sigma accomplished it at a fraction of the cost, with autofocus, and less weight.

"The Nikon 58 1.4G was not designed for ultimate sharpness wide open..."
...and yet you previously stated that the "58 1.4G was first and foremost designed to be a spiritual successor to the 58 1.2 Noct", when they are obviously two different lenses that simply share the same focal length. Again my point about it riding on the back of the Noct's reputation. Hype.

"...it sacrificed some of that to achieve the final rendering qualities that the designer was aiming for within the allocated budget."
This is arguable at best and, of course, a lens' rendering is a matter of taste, so I won't argue about that aspect of it. I recently purchased a mint condition, virtually brand-new 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor S-C, that has favorable rendering qualities...........to me. Simply because it is an optic I've worked with for over 40 years, and I know and relate to it's "look" quite well. However that Nikkor cost me $100. ;-) To someone else the S-C may be total crap.

Ultimately I'm not knocking the 58, it is a lens with it's own look and it will give a good image. My objection is the hype like that found in articles like this. This article is certainly not unique in this of course, not by a long shot. Personally I think Nikon made a mistake in hyping the 58 the way they did, and pricing it as they did. The lens, while nice, is simply not worth the price. It needs hype like this to justify it's price.

Sigma accomplished a sharp lens with autofocus but it did not manage to achieve smooth transitions in the OOF areas or rendition the way the Zeiss or the 58 1.4G did. That was the trade-off and that is a trade-off the majority of people would be willing to make, hence why it will do well in comparison to the Nikon/Zeiss. As for the rendering being a design decision, this is not up for debate, it is a known fact - you give up something to get something. I think Nikon also overpriced the lens, but as I said before, it's not a design Nikon intends to be selling in large volumes. Even if it were the same price as the Sigma, it would not compete as well as the market wants sharp lenses, just like the Nikon DF was not meant to be a volume seller.

Spy Black's picture

"As for the rendering being a design decision, this is not up for debate, it is a known fact..."

Let's agree on that for a moment, it in no way justifies the pricing on such lenses that have had their "design decision", when it is obviously just a variation on the standard production. A right turn instead of a left, if you will.

But I digress...

How do we justify any pricing? There is no formula that everyone has to adhere to. Companies are free to make profit where they see fit, just as you are free to buy or not. In a market where people pay a premium for sharpness, compactness, range, speed, etc. going against the trend and building a lens for it's rendering is not something that comes about regularly, and as such the low expected demand will play some part in the final sell price as it affects the production volume.

I think this discussion has gotten enough off topic for it to just be ended.

Although I love the look this lens gives I don't think it should have been made as f1.4. My copy at least neds to be stopped down at least one stop to be usable at all. If not everything is just mushy.

Stopped down two stops it becomes more of a usable lens, still with creamy bokeh and shallow d.o.f. But wider than that I couldn't use it with autofocus at all, only on a tripod with live vew focusing zoomed all the way in.

I've looked at other people's f1.4 shots on flickr and am kind of leaning towards the theory that they are all sharpened more in post than you would want to do for a large print.

Tom Egel's picture

Nice article. Thanks for posting. Slight correction, Nikon still offers two other 50mm lenses not mentioned here: a 1.2 and 1.4 AIS (can't forget about the tried and true MF lenses :-). I'm kind of with you on the 50mm FL. I have several, but use them only occasionally since I find other FLs to be much more interesting. I'm not a pro, so I suppose if I can make shots with a 50mm look interesting, then I must be doing something right! I haven't tried the 58mm, but may have to give it a go.

Sean T's picture

Great article.I like Dani's work and my Nikon 85mm 1.4G is my favorite lens but I have tried the all the 50's mentioned and the 58mm. Nikon simply marketed it as something that is exotic. Unless you take your time with it for a week you won't get it. It isn't a clinical lens. The only way I can describe this lens is that it has bit of magic. A certain feel. It's addictive but it is overpriced.

Great article. Those who know how to use the 58 (as well as the newly announced 105 1.4, I think) are few and far between.