Gear of the year 2019: Barney’s choice (part 2) Nikon Z 50mm F1.8 S

16 Dec
Photo: Dan Bracaglia

We’ve been writing these articles for a few years now, and when it comes time to think about what I would pick as my ‘Gear of the Year’, I tend to go by two main criteria: What (if any) gear in the past 12 months did I actually spend my own money on, and what did I most enjoy using? And if those two criteria happen to be met by a single product, then there’s my answer. No further consideration required.

This year, two products met both of those criteria. The Ricoh GR III (which I wrote about here) and the Nikon Z 50mm F1.8 S. Clearly they’re very different things. One is an APS-C compact camera and the other is a lens for full-frame mirrorless cameras. But both have been in my camera bag almost every time I’ve gone out shooting in 2019.

Of the thousands of frames I’ve shot with the Z 50mm this year, the vast majority have been taken at F1.8

Why do I love the Nikon Z 50mm F1.8 S so much? The boring answer is that it’s just really really good. Historically I’ve not been not a big 50mm fan in general, and I will admit to being a bit of a snob about F1.8 lenses in the past. But the Z 50mm F1.8 S is so good – and so good at F1.8 – that it has changed my perspective on what a ‘nifty fifty’ can be.

I would estimate that of the thousands of frames I’ve shot with the Z 50mm this year, the vast majority have been taken at F1.8. With most of the standard lenses I’ve used during my career, that would not be a particularly smart move. Generally speaking, lenses of this type are at their best when stopped down slightly. But the Z 50mm F1.8 is almost as sharp wide open as it is stopped down, and at all apertures it’s largely free from common aberrations like longitudinal chromatic aberration.

Nikkor Z 50mm F1.8 S | ISO 100 | 1/800 sec | F1.8

There are plenty of 50mm lenses that give a more interesting rendering than the Z 50mm F1.8 S, but few which provide its biting cross-frame sharpness and virtually coma-free images at wide apertures. And it just so happens that those qualities ended up being crucial to me this year, when working on a long-term project down on Washington’s coast, during twilight clam digs. The combination of the Nikon Z7’s resolution and in-body stabilization and the Z 50mm’s sharpness and clean rendering at F1.8 proved invaluable, allowing me to get sharp, hand-held images in near-darkness that I could never have captured with a DSLR.

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The fact that the weather-sealed Z7 and Z 50mm F1.8 S continued to work reliably and accurately for hours in heavy rain and strong winds is another major point in both their favor.

I’ve also come to really appreciate the Z 50mm F1.8 S for portraiture, despite its relatively short focal length, which discourages very tight framing. Bokeh isn’t the smoothest at wide apertures, but it’s smooth enough, and virtually free from colored fringing.

Nikkor Z 50mm F1.8 S | ISO 64 | 1/80 sec | F1.8

Of course, I’m lucky. Like almost all professional photography reviewers I get to try all kinds of different equipment, at no cost. When I do spend my own money on something, it’s because I’ve used it, probably quite extensively, and I’m very confident in my investment.

That means that I have to be careful to stay grounded when talking to our readers, especially when it comes to making value judgements about the cost of new gear. Personally, having used a lot of lenses, I think that the Z 50mm F1.8 S’s price of around $ 600 is exceptionally good value, but I understand the complaints from some of you that $ 600 is a lot to pay for a 50mm F1.8. And a large-ish one, at that, by traditional (if not current) standards.

The point I would make (and which I hope I made in this article) is that $ 600 spent now, on a modern lens designed for mirrorless, buys you greater performance than $ 600 ever has before. We are very lucky, as photographers, to be on the cusp of a new era in optics, where some of the old paradigms are being overturned. In the case of this particular lens, it’s probably the only 50mm I’ll ever need for my Z7. Not bad for $ 600.

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