What to make of a lens that I sold twice already, and now have bought for the third time? For one thing, I truly love the Nikon 58mm F1.4G. When I sold it, it was always for silly reasons. I thought I needed a sharper 50mm equivalent. You will read down below why sharpness was never the issue with this lens. Or I sold it because I switched camera systems, again.
But I was never really be able to silence its call in the times when I did not have it in my collection. Restless as ever, late last year I decided to abandon the Sony system and go back to the brand that I grew up with, photographically speaking. I tried the Nikon Z system when it just came out but wasn't fully ready to jump ship back then. But now there is a great line-up of native Z lenses and the ability to shoot with all that beautiful F-mount glass is a clear win if you've shot Nikon DSLRs before. This of course includes the 58mm 1.4 G.
The Sony cameras and lenses are absolutely stellar and we have already reached the point where, for the most of us, quality is not longer really a reason to choose a photography system between one brand or another. Sony, Panasonic and L-mount, Canon, Nikon, Fuji, it has all gotten really good. They provide a level of photographic horsepower that I probably am not even able to take advantage of. In this current state of the market, other factors become more important, like ergonomics and lens trade-offs. I was already eyeing the Z cameras for a while and the AF functionality is now almost on par with Sony since the Z6/7 ii have been released. With the announcement of the FTZ ii mount adapter for F-mount glass, I decided to take another look. I rented a Z6 ii and the 58mm F1.4 G over a weekend and I was sold, for the third time, after 10 minutes.
This time, I think the 58mm is a keeper. This is largely not because of the lens itself, but because of the body I shoot it on. The previous two times I owned the 58mm, I used it on a Nikon Df body. This was a great combination. I truly believe the Df was the best DSLR for the 58mm. The size was just right for the relatively small Df, and the sensor worked wonders through the 58mm. The main problem with the Df and the 58mm was the AF performance. I am not a technical specialist but something in the focusing system of the Df was not working well with the 58mm. Especially when shooting wide open, you just never could be sure of the result. I don't exactly know what it was, but even when the focus was correct, this soft veil would appear. This led many people to believe this lens is not sharp at F1.4, but it isn't a lack of sharpness that created this softness. I know this because I owned three copies and have borrowed one as well. That gives me four samples to base my judgment on. I have shot this lens not just with the Df but also once with a D850, and now I use a Nikon Z6ii. Focusing on the D850 was already miles better with the 58mm compared to the Df, but the Z6ii is really a game changer for this lens. AF performance has gotten so good with the 2nd generation mirrorless Nikons. It gives the 58mm a new lease on life.
Like some other lenses of a more classic design, this lens clearly has two identities. From F1.4 to about F2, it is dreamy with buttery smooth bokeh and transitions. Stop it down from F2 onwards and the lens becomes much more clinical and almost has the signature of some of the more modern Z-mount lenses. It is clearly never going to be as sharp as the Z mount lenses. But it isn't unsharp. It also won't stand up to some of the other F-mount lenses from the same era. I own both the 105mm and the 28mm F1.4G lenses and they are both clearly sharper. They both also produce similar transitions like the 58mm and I believe they fit very well together. You can see some comparisons with the 50mm F1.8 S lens below. The 58mm is always the top image. Notice a slighter softer background for the 58mm, even if the aperture is the same. The 8mm difference in focal length does play a role here.
I think the 50mm S just has the edge in terms of sharpness at 1.8 but it is very close. It also highlights again just how good the 50mm S lens is. Nikon did some amazing work with their F1.8 lenses for the Z mount. When you compare the 58mm at F1.4 with the 50mm S at F1.8 you notice the difference in sharpness.
The 58mm still does quite well here. But what happens when we go beyond F2? Their is a clear difference in how the lens treats the sharpness. Below F2, the 58mm brings crispness but not the clarity if modern lenses. Go beyond F2 though, and clarity appears. Below is a comparison again with the 50mm F1.8 S, both at F2.5, zooming in a bit more.
It's hard to describe but there is something in the fall-off that I like in the 58mm. When you compare the shots above, the 50mm S does very well but the slow and gradual transition into fluffy softness from the 58mm is appealing to me. The next photo also shows just how gradual the transition is. This was shot at F1.4 and you can see the focus area isn't that razor thin but it does appear to be.
The 58mm is what you could call a people-friendly lens. None of that hard clarity like a Voigtlander or Leica 50mm APO, but a gentle reproduction of light on your subject in the most flattering way possible. It is the lens I will grab to shoot family and friends, very likely in some combination with the 28mm and 105mm for F-mount.
As much as I love it, the 58mm also clearly has drawbacks. In some light conditions you can get serious chromatic aberrations, mostly magenta in hue. Some of that can be removed in post, but not always. Below is an example of when the 58mm misbehaves (unedited image). I shot this under sunset conditions but there are plenty of 50mm lenses that would behave much better here. This is unedited but you can see the magenta everywhere. The other issue is the focus motor itself. The Z cameras bring out the best in this lens but that does not hide the fact that the focus motor is somewhat sluggish. On occasion, it can really lose itself and get confused about where to move the glass. It doesn't happen too much fortunately. And while the slowness is very noticeable when you just switch from a modern Z-mount lens to the 58mm, but it really isn't that big of a deal in every day use.
An example of the softness when coupled with some DSLR's is below. The focus point was the dried flower on the first table but somehow, nothing is really in focus. Also, note the heavy magenta aberrations again.
But to prove that this is something that is not structural, look at the next photo. Taken under different light, the lens resolves very well here and sharpness and focus is where it needs to be. Even at F1.4. This unpredictability was something that I did not enjoy on the Df. I have yet to see this on the Z6ii.
From a looks perspective, it is not the most pretty combo with the FTZ adapter and the different esthetics of the modern mirrorless Z cameras. Does it matter what a camera and lens look like? I think it does. Despite the style clashes on the Z6ii, the 58mm still is is one of these lenses that makes me want to pick it up and shoot. Unfortunately, with Covid still raging and this grey winter still around for a few more weeks, I haven't had that much opportunity yet to get to work with this third copy of the 58mm.
The Df and 58mm looked good together. And on a Z body, it does hurt a bit on the eye. It is also interesting to see the clear style change that Nikon went for with the Z. The comparison with the 50mm F1.8 S shows how much more subdued the newer lenses are. No more gold paint everywhere.
I am not alone in my admiration for the 58mm 1.4G. Just search the internet and you will find many blogposts like this one, trying to describe something that is incredible hard to describe. On paper, the specs for this lens are relatively unimpressive. I guess this is one of those lenses that transcends its spec sheet. Like certain cars that look like mediocre performers based on their specs, but when you drive them, something happens. Something that cannot be explained. The sum of the parts is so much bigger than you could ever imagine. And the sum is not just bigger, the outcome takes you places you didn't know existed. Funnily enough though, for every admirer, there is someone who looks at this lens and all they see is an overpriced mediocre performer. The forums are filled with people trying to convince others this lens is crap or amazing. I won't try to do that here. I think this comes down to your personal expectations and style of shooting. For some, like me, the 58mm does wonders. For others, it does not.