Great Sharpness Meets Vibrant Character: Nikon Z 50mm F1.2 S Review

The Nikon Z 50mm f1.2 S is a gorgeous lens — if you don’t mind the Z system autofocus.

When Nikon launched the Z mount, the company promised wider apertures and sharper photos. The Nikon Z 50mm f1.2 S is the fruit of that promise. The lens mixes a blurred-to-oblivion depth of field with a sharpness that’s detailed enough to make out the tiniest eyelash even on the lower resolution Z 6 II.

As a $2,097 lens, however, it’s not a simple investment. The Z-mount 50mm f1.8 is half the weight and less than a third of the price for an aperture that’s just a tad less wide. Of course, investment is all relative — because Nikon also has the $8,000 Z 58mm f0.95 S Noct. To find out where the Z 50mm f1.2 stands, I used the lens on three different portrait shoots. I found the lens delivers an impressive mix between technical sharpness and character, but it’s held back by the Z system’s autofocus.

Too Long, Didn’t Read

The Nikon Z 50mm f1.2 S captures an impressive mix of sharpness, color, and character. Images coming from this lens are gorgeous. But, you have to be willing to bring along the extra weight and work with an autofocus system that is behind the competition.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Excellent balance between sharp and sterile
  • Beautiful bokeh
  • Accurate colors
  • Weather-sealed
  • Digital lens info display

Cons

  • Long and heavy
  • Autofocus is slower than the competition.

Gear Used

I shot the Nikon Z 50mm f1.2 S with the Z 6 II body. On some of the portraits, I also used the Omega shoot-through reflector by Wescott (which, sadly, is no longer sold). 

Innovations

The Nikon Z 50mm f1.2 is proof of what Nikon promised when first launching the Z mount. It’s a brighter, sharper lens than what’s possible with the F-mount. That said, while it’s wildly innovative when compared to the company’s F-mount options, it’s not the only 50mm f1.2 out there. Canon has a lighter, smaller optic, and Sony just announced their own 50mm f1.2 with 11 aperture blades.

Nikon Z 50mm f1.2 S Tech Specs

These technical specifications are taken directly from Nikon and shortened for clarity:

  • Mount Type: Nikon Z Mount 
  • Focal Length: 50mm 
  • Maximum Aperture: f/ 1.2 
  • Minimum Aperture: f/ 16 
  • Format: FX 
  • Maximum Angle of View (DX-format): 31°30′ 
  • Maximum Angle of View (FX-format): 47° 
  • Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 0.15x 
  • Lens Elements: 17 
  • Lens Groups: 15 
  • Diaphragm Blades: 9 Rounded diaphragm opening 
  • ARNEO Coat: Yes 
  • Nano Crystal Coat: Yes 
  • ED Glass Elements: 2 
  • Aspherical Elements: 3 
  • Super Integrated Coating: Yes 
  • Autofocus: Yes 
  • AF Actuator: 2 STM (stepping motor) 
  • Internal Focusing: Yes 
  • Minimum Focus Distance: 1.48 ft. (0.45m) from the focal plane 
  • Focus Mode: Autofocus, Manual 
  • Filter Size: 82mm 
  • Approx. Dimensions (Diameter x Length): 3.6 in. (89.5 mm)  x  6.0 in. (150 mm), Distance from camera lens mount flange, Based on CIPA guidelines 
  • Approx. Weight: 38.5 oz. (1,090 g) Based on CIPA guidelines 

Ergonomics

The Nikkor Z 50mm f1.2 S is part of Nikon’s S series. The S-Line is the company’s more advanced lenses for the Z mount. While some S lenses have minimal controls, the 50mm f1.2 is among the options with a few added controls.

The control closest to the mount is a simple auto to manual focus mode switch. Moving further from the mount is the control ring, which is set to aperture by default. The custom settings menu can also switch that ring to control exposure compensation, ISO, or nothing at all.

Continuing out farther from the lens mount, the lens houses an Fn button on the left-hand side. This button has more than a dozen different options it could control, from subject tracking to AF/AE lock. A little farther north from that Fn button is the lens info panel. The digital display can swap between showing the focal distance scale or the aperture using the nearby “DISP” button. From the focus mode switch to the display button, all these controls sit right where the left hand naturally rests to support the lens’s weight. That keeps them within easy reach. The Fn button is surrounded by a slightly raised plastic, so you can tell the difference between the Fn button and DISP button without taking your eye from the viewfinder.

Continuing towards the front of the lens, the focus ring takes up nearly half the lens. The nice size makes the ring easy to grasp and adjust. The ring turns smoothly. It’s different enough from the control ring to know what you’re adjusting without looking.

A lens hood is included. The hood has a locking button, which means an accidental twist will not send the hood into the dirt. But, right out of the box, this lock is a little stiff, and it’s difficult to reverse the hood into shooting position the first few times. The hood lock seems to loosen a bit with use, but reversing the hood was a pain the first few times.

The front of the lens accepts 82mm size filters.

Build Quality

Like other S-Line lenses, the Z 50mm f1.2 S is weather-sealed. I gave the lens a good splash and didn’t experience any ill effects. Lens Rentals tear downs of previous S-Line lenses have shown lots of weather sealing at the barrel joints and buttons, and I didn’t experience anything to suggest otherwise on the 50mm.

The weather sealing gives the lens a sturdier feel. Yes, it’s plastic, but there’s a big difference between the feel of a budget lens and a sealed high-end lens.

A lens built with 17 elements isn’t going to be light in weight. The lens weighs 38.5 ounces, and it’s six inches long. The lens is closer in size to the 24-70mm f2.8 than a 50mm f1.8. This is a heavy lens that will be difficult to carry all day. I expect large, heavy optics from an f1.2. But, it’s worth noting that the Canon RF 50mm f1.2L USM is about five ounces lighter and about 1.75 inches shorter.

Autofocus

The Nikon 50mm f1.2 uses two stepping motors, which Nikon says is quieter and faster than using a single motor. It’s the first Z-mount lens with such a wide aperture to use two autofocus motors (but to be clear, there are few f1.2 F-mount lenses with this feature).

Autofocus on the Nikon 50mm f1.2 S performed about as expected — which is to say that the focus was okay but not best in class. My experience with this lens was consistent with the Z 6 II body. It’s ready for portraits but not ready for sports and quick action. Since performance was similar to what I experienced with other lenses on the same body, there’s the possibility that autofocus improves as the Z bodies mature.

I tested the focus in a backlit golden hour portrait at a walking pace, using Nikon’s eye AF. Using the continuous high burst mode on the Z 6 II, roughly 7 out of 22 photos at a walking pace were soft. That’s just under a third. (Sony’s 50mm f1.2 hit about 90 percent under similar conditions, but it’s difficult to say if the difference is the lens, the camera, or both.)

With stationary portrait subjects, the miss rate was between 10 and 20 percent. Most of those shots were taken at f1.2, with a wide-open aperture and a very narrow margin of error. I had a similar experience with other lenses and the same camera body.

The autofocus is quiet, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s silent. You can still hear a bit of autofocus noise in the video when there is no other noise to drown it out. I can also hear a slight electronic sound when using manual focus. This, however, didn’t seem to be picked up in the video.

Ease of Use

The Nikon Z 50mm f1.2 S is simple to use. Photographers coming from F-mount DSLR lenses will need just a little adjustment to learn the different S-line controls. Once you customize the control ring and Fn button to your liking and take the five seconds to tap the DISP button and see what that does, you’re up and running. 

Image Quality

I expected big things from the images shot with the Nikon 50mm f1.2 S — and I wasn’t disappointed. The lenses are really the best part of the Z series. The 50mm continued the trends that I’ve seen from other Z lenses with excellent sharpness and minimal aberrations.

Bokeh

The Z 50mm f1.2 S uses nine aperture blades to capture smooth, rounded bokeh. The lens quickly yet smoothly moves from incredibly sharp to softly blurred. The blur softens lines and edges and draws the eye to the subject.

Points of light are soft, with no onion ring. As a 50mm, the cat-eye-shaped bokeh towards the edges is minor and doesn’t distract from the image. Only a few of the harshest light dots had the very slightest edge.

Sharpness

Like other Z mount lenses, the Z 50mm f1.2 S is impressively sharp, even wide open. At f1.2, I could capture enough sharpness to differentiate individual eyelashes, which quickly gives way to a soft blur for the nose and ears. I thought the sharpness level was just right — not overly sharp or too soft.

The lens keeps quite a bit of sharpness towards the edges but does fall off slightly from the idealistic center. Subjects within the rule of thirds are still pleasantly sharp.

Lens Character

Nikon crafted the Z 50mm f1.2 S as a high-end, technically correct lens, but the optics still offer a touch of character. I didn’t spot much chromatic aberration or colored fringing in the most extreme backlighting — the character flaws that I don’t really care for. I could, however, work the lens for a bit of flare with a low, direct sun. That flare is a pleasing set of colored circles. Between the dreamy f1.2 backgrounds, the sharpness, and the occasional flare, I feel like the lens offers the best of both worlds with technical sharpness that doesn’t feel entirely sterile.

Color Rendering

Color from the Nikon Z 50mm f1.2 is excellent. The lens captures an excellent range of colors that feel true to life. The RAW files are versatile enough to go from photos with a cool blue mood to a bright and sunny golden hour shot.

Extra Image Samples

We’re incredibly transparent about the images we post. That why we’re showing edited and unedited images for you to make your own decisions. Some of us prefer what’s out of camera and don’t like staring at screens all day and night. Others like what we can do in post-production more.

Edited

Unedited

Conclusions

Likes

  • I love that this lens has great sharpness but isn’t so perfect that it lacks character.
  • Bokeh is gorgeous, and the colors are accurate.
  • The lens is weather-sealed.
  • This lens has a digital lens info display, unlike the 50mm f1.8.

Dislikes

  • The lens is heavy and long.
  • Competing systems have a better hit rate, as far as autofocus is concerned.

I haven’t met a Z mount lens that didn’t take excellent images — and I’ve tried two-thirds of them. The Nikon Z 50mm f1.2 S follows that trend. Images are sharp but not too sharp. While technically excellent, the lens still allows for a bit of character. Color is excellent, and bokeh is dreamy.

But, the lens is heavy and long. While the brighter aperture may be worth that sacrifice for portraits, it would be a difficult lens to use for travel and street photography. However, the biggest shortcoming is simply that the Nikon Z system doesn’t focus as well as the competition. As much as I love Z system lenses, Nikon’s mirrorless autofocus isn’t quite enough for me personally to make the switch.

Of course, if you’ve read the review this far, you’re probably already the proud owner of a Nikon Z mount camera, and how the lens compares to a Sony or Canon is irrelevant. The Nikon Z 50mm f1.2 S is an excellent lens for Z system photographers, particularly for portrait photographers demanding the dreamiest bokeh. I would readily pick up the lens for portraits. However, the size and price would have me leaning towards the still-lovely Z 50mm f1.8 S for street and travel.

I’m giving the Nikon Z 50mm f1.2 S five out of five stars. Want one? Check Amazon for the latest prices.

Hillary Grigonis

Hillary K. Grigonis is a photographer and tech writer based in Michigan. She shoots weddings and portraits at Hillary K Photography. A mother of three, she enjoys hiking, camping, crafting, and reading.