Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.2? Which Is Right for You?

Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.2? Which Is Right for You?

Recently, I got a chance to shoot with the new Nikon Z 50mm f/1.2 S and compare it to its little brother, the 50mm f/1.8 S to see which is the best fit for my camera bag.

Photographers choose to shoot with primes over zooms for all kinds of reasons. For some, they feel the image quality produced by a fixed focal length is simply superior. For others, they cherish the faster apertures often offered by prime lenses which can provide better low-light capabilities and added background blur. For me, when I choose to go with a prime lens, the reasoning is far more straightforward. Shooting with a prime lens just simplifies things.

When you are on a set with a million and one moving pieces, from models to clients, to the crew, to production design, you are constantly making a seemingly endless list of decisions. And because our jobs are to be creative, our options are often only limited by our imagination (and potentially our budget). And while keeping my camera in focus is not much of an issue, keeping myself from getting distracted by every new idea can be a challenge.

That is where the fast fifty comes in. For me, 50mm is just about the perfect focal length. I do have a thing for 40mm lenses. And there are times when shooting in tight spaces that 50mm is just literally not wide enough to be practical. But if space were not an issue, I would be perfectly content to use a 50mm lens for just about everything. This probably explains why I have so doggone many 50mm lenses in my possession. Well, that, and my proclivity to enjoy spending money. But, that’s another issue.

As a Nikon shooter, I’ve owned four different versions of their 50mm lenses from F mount to Z. When I purchased a Nikon Z 6 a couple of years back, the 50mm f/1.8 was unsurprisingly the first Z lens I added to the collection. It was fast, light, and relatively affordable. It was also an excellent performer. So excellent, in fact, that it inspired me to add more Z glass to my collections as opposed to simply relying on my FTZ adapter. The f/1.8 has served me well, but, like all bokeh addicts, when Nikon announced the 50mm f/1.2, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one to put it through its paces.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to get my hands on one for the last couple of months to really give it a go. I should point out that I was being loaned the lens rather than having purchased it. Not because I wouldn’t have an inkling to purchase it outright sight unseen. But, as the lens comes in at just shy of $2,100 versus the $596 of its little brother, even a gear addict like myself wanted a bit more information before removing my credit card from the piggy bank.

Of course, there are more obvious differences between the two lenses aside from price. The most obvious difference is the sheer size. One of the reasons I love nifty fifties is because they are usually not only one of the least expensive, but also one of the lightest options you can choose to shoot with. The f/1.8 carries on this tradition, coming in at a respectable 415 grams. The f/1.2, by comparison, will challenge the tensile strength of your scale by stomping down with a payload of 1,090 grams. That’s over double the weight of the f/1.8 and even over 200 grams more than the Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S.

So, at nearly four times the price and over double the weight, why on Earth would one choose it over the f/1.8? Does it really bring enough to the party to merit the added price tag and the greater challenge to the cartilage in my wrist? What exactly is it that makes this lens so special in the first place? Well, as it turns out, like a romantic partner who drives you crazy yet drives you wild, the Nikon Z 50mm f/1.2 is definitely worth the effort. Of course, also like romantic relationships, whether or not it’s worth the trouble to you personally will depend on what you are looking for in a lens.

50mm f/1.8 on Nikon Z 7II 400% crop
50mm f/1.2 on Nikon Z 7II at 400% crop

There are two types of people who evaluate photographic lenses. There are people who do in-depth scientific, technical tests designed to look down to the micro-level of every pixel to determine sharpness and suss out every individual aberration. Then, there are people like me who care more about how a lens balances with a camera body and whether or not, in practical terms, it will be an efficient tool to use in the field. That’s not to say that one is better than the other. Simply to say that if you are looking for a lab test of the two lenses side-by-side, this might not be the article for you.

This is not to say that I didn’t do my own rather rudimentary test comparing the f/1.8 to the f/1.2. And, even though I don’t qualify for a white lab coat, I did find the f/1.2 performed very well in comparison almost across the board. The difference was small in most cases. This is more because the f/1.8 is a fantastic lens than because the f/1.2 is anything less than super fantastic. But the differences were there.

50mm f/1.8 on Nikon Z 7II cropped 400%
50mm f/1.2 on Nikon Z 7II cropped 400%

In terms of sharpness, I ran the two lenses side-by-side on the same Nikon Z 7II body. I did super scientific things like setting the camera up on a tripod and shooting the stucco wall of my house. I did notice a bit more detail in the f/1.2 than in the f/1.8. The same held for when I repeated that test shooting a focus chart. The difference was relatively small, however. So, the question would really come down to whether the added degree of sharpness would be beneficial to you personally.

I’m not a pixel-peeper, and while zooming in 400% is a fun experiment, it’s not something that tends to have a real practical effect on my own personal workflow. There were three things, however, that would have a practical effect on the images one might want to create.

The first rather obvious difference is the f/1.2 aperture. If you are someone who shoots at night a lot, this added bit of light might be more of a necessity than a perk. As someone who personally redefines the term “early bird special” and tends to only still be awake after sundown if he is professionally required to do so, wider apertures tend to come into play more for me in terms of obtaining the shallowest possible depth of field. And if you combine a minimum focus distance of 1.5 feet with an f/1.2 aperture, you will be able to get just about as much bokeh as your heart desires.

The f/1.2 also improves on the f/1.8’s already stellar focus breathing performance. And while focus breathing really doesn’t pose much of an obstacle in still photography, a frame that changes size slightly when focusing near to far in video can have a tangible effect on the audience. I shot both lenses side by side, focusing on a near tree in the foreground, then racking to a far wall in the background. The f/1.8 only showed minor breathing and would be almost unnoticeable. 

f/1.8 Far Focus. Pay attention to telephone pole in upper left.
f/1.8 Near Focus
f/1.2 Far Focus
f/1.2 Near Focus

But with the f/1.2, the focus breathing was nearly non-existent.

Another surprising result was in the way the two lenses seemed to handle the backlight. As someone who shoots into the sun a lot, there is always a dance that needs to be done to keep my subject’s contrast and sharpness on point but still incorporate sunshine. So, for yet another incredibly “scientific” test, I simply set up a strobe against a dark background and fired it straight at the lens. The flare from the f/1.2 seemed a bit cleaner and more defined and the image seemed to retain more of its contrast. Again, I am not a scientific tester and don’t claim this to be the ideal testing conditions, but it was interesting to see such a concrete difference under similar conditions.

f/1.8
f/1.2

But, as I stated earlier. All I really care about is the feel and how it actually works in the field. Shooting images in my backyard helps pass the time, but how does the lens perform when on an actual job? How does it handle? Does the focus speed hold up?

I decided to bring the 50mm out on a desert shoot I was doing with my friend, Britta. A dancer and natural performer, she is all about constant movement, so I figured this would be a good test to see if the lens would perform in the way that I personally like to use my 50mm lenses. As fast reactors, nimble enough to keep up with the action in any scene.

I am happy to report that the lens performed well. Autofocus was quick and snappy. Though shooting mostly during the day, I made use of the shallow depth of field offered at f/1.2 on multiple occasions, and the combination of the 50mm f/1.2 and the Z 7II held up well. The sheer size of the lens, while not heavy, did take me a hot second to get used to. I’m used to thinking of a 50mm lens as being short and stubby due to my years of shooting with the 50mm f/1.4 G for the F-mount which comes in at 280 grams. At 1,090 grams in weight and 5.9 inches in length, the balance of the lens and camera combination with the Z f/1.2 is more front-loaded like shooting my 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR on my D850, which comes in at 1,070 grams and 6.08 inches long. So, a mental shift on my part was required. But the performance you get in return is excellent.

I actually think that the 50mm f/1.2 would best balance on either the upcoming Z 9 with its bigger body or on a Z 7II or Z 6II mounted to a battery grip to provide extra size. Because my larger hands already tend to require a tighter hold for me to grip my Z 7II versus a larger DSLR, the added length and weight of this lens will put more of a front lean on the camera for me personally holding the smaller bodies. So, I think the added height of a built-in or add-on grip should help. This lens is built to be a workhorse, and it would excel when paired with a body setup that means business.

So, who is this lens for? Like all options in life, which of the 50mm lenses so far produced by Nikon is best for you will depend a great deal on your own shooting style, needs, circumstances, and, of course, budget. I feel very comfortable in saying that both are extremely well-made lenses. Neither one will let you down in terms of image quality or sharpness. Nikon has yet to make a cheap-feeling S lens for their Z system. So, even though it’s nearly a quarter of the price, I wouldn’t say the 50mm f/1.8 is a quarter of the quality of its bigger brother. But the f/1.2 does provide subtle improvements in almost every area of performance, even if it might suffer a bit in terms of size and expense.

So, if we accept that both lenses are awesome, but the 50mm f/1.4 is slightly more awesome, then the question is whether or not it is worth the extra cost. If you are someone who shoots a lot of night scenes, I would say yes. f/1.2 is f/1.2, and you just can’t beat that. If you are a wedding or event shooter and find yourself in darker venues frequently, this lens would make a lot of sense. If you are a bokeh addict and want the absolute smoothest background blur possible on a Z body, this lens will give you that in spades. Or, if you are like me and find yourself often shooting with a prime lens and want to find one lens to rule them all, the Nikon Z 50mm f/1.2 would also be an excellent selection. It’s well worth the investment for shooters who are committed to the 50mm focal length, refuse to sacrifice on quality, and are looking for a solidly built piece of glass that will last them for decades to come.

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12 Comments

Jim Cutler's picture

Rented one and now have one on order.

J. W.'s picture

This is the second article from Mr. Malcolm that I recently read that was full of useful information. Hopefully this trend continues here because most of the stuff is just click bait.

WestEndFoto .'s picture

I have both these lenses plus the Noct on order. I will be comparing the following 50s that I own very closely:

50 1.8 AIS
50 1.2 AIS
50 1.4G
58 1.4G
50 1.8S
50 1.2S
58 0.95S

It is going to be a fun project!

Morten Nielsen's picture

What ever happened to the whole "we made a larger mount to allow for smaller lenses with big apertures"-thing, Nikon was talking about when they announced the Z system. Don't get me wrong I love the quality of these lenses, but their 85/1.8 is the same size as the 85/1.8G + ftz adapter, little disappointed by the size of most the Z lenses.

Would still love to have the 50/1.2 just because... Well it's 1.2,

Sam Sims's picture

Ironically, Sony with their ‘inferior’ mount has the smallest 50mm f1.2 and the image quality is superb.

Olivia James's picture

While true the Sony 50 1.2 is excellent, the size still called for sacrifices to be made: excessive focus breathing, distortion and vignette.
The two very different designs aimed for different end goals. Which is better is dependent on the person behind the camera and their needs.

Sam Sims's picture

It’s impossible to create lenses without any compromises though. If you want near perfect corrections, the lens will be huge and heavy and the Nikon is definitely a massive and heavy prime lens. Saying that, the quality between these lenses is very difficult to differentiate anyway. I think the compromises in the Sony 50mm aren’t really a dealbreaker for the target market and are certainly outweighed by the positives. Besides, distortion and vignetting are easily corrected with software.

Olivia James's picture

Right, you can tell Sony made conscious decision to make sacrifices in areas that can be corrected in post, albeit with a bit of image degradation that won’t likely won’t be noticed. The point I was trying to make is, Nikon’s design goal included eliminating focus breathing. In that area it’s easy to differentiate the two. For stills photographers that’s not important, videographers/hybrid shooters it could be a deal breaker - it was for me for the 50 and 35 1.2 GM, but the 14 has me interested because there’s little focus breathing. Hence why I said it depends on person behind the camera and their needs. Size isn’t an issue for me as long as it does what I need - and a 50 1.2 cine lens is pretty awesome.

Sam Sims's picture

If Nikon’s design goal was to eliminate focus breathing, it had to do it by sacrificing size and weight which will be a dealbreaker for some. At the end of the day it really is a case of each to their own though. Bearing in mind these lenses are for different systems and people invested in either system won’t consider the other lens. Sure, the focus breathing will be an issue for some people but I still think the Sony lens will prove very popular. Remember, the Canon R5 has overheating issues seriously affecting video but that hasn’t stopped it selling very well.

Olivia James's picture

The 50 GM will be a staple for the FE Mount for years to come. It’s been exciting having the run of excellent lenses realessed 14mm 50, 35, compact primes, 12-24, 135.

Christian Fiore's picture

Guessing it was vs F-mount, which was too small to accept a large enough rear element for F/1.2 and faster, due to the aperture mechanism constricting it. Now they're at the opposite end of the spectrum, with the largest, shallowest mount. Though very few lenses take advantage of that.

Jan Holler's picture

There is a lens Nikkor AI-s 58mm f/1.2 Noct which is said to have very little coma.