Digital Photography Review

Nikon Series E 50mm F/1.8 Lens Review – Value Proposition – Casual Photophile

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Kit lenses are, for the most part, forgettable things. The hordes of slow wide-range zooms and 50mm f/1-point-whatever lenses have very few standouts among their ranks. They’re meant to be good-enough until the mediocrity becomes unbearable and better lenses become impossible to resist. It makes sense from a business standpoint, but as a shooter it never feels like we’re getting a manufacturer’s best when we shoot the kit lens.

These preconceptions figured when I bought my first film camera, which happened to be a Nikon FG. At the time, reviews of the FG essentially boiled down to, “get it for the F-mount.” I bought the FG looking forward to the creamy bokeh of the Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 or the ultra-sharp, distortionless Nikkor 28mm f/2.8. I thought I’d just use the kit lens to test if the camera actually worked, and that the fun would really begin when I abandoned the kit lens for more exotic glass.

You know where this is going. In the end, the lowly kit lens would never unmount from my Nikon FG. It would become the lens through which I saw and shot my formative years as a photo geek, the lens that taught me the ins-and-outs of my favorite focal length, and the lens that endeared me to Nikon for life. It’s an example of what can happen when a company gives everybody their best from the very beginning. And I found their best in the Nikon Series E 50mm f/1.8.

History and Design

The legend of the Series E 50mm begins in 1979, when Nikon launched the Series E line of compact, budget-conscious lenses. The then new Series E line was comprised of eight lenses (five primes in focal lengths of 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 100mm, and 135mm, and three zooms in 36-72mm, 75-150mm, and 70-210mm), and was intentionally set apart from the flagship Nikkor lenses, as Nikon couldn’t bear to sully the Nikkor name with plastic components and simplified lens coatings. And while these lenses cost less to manufacture and to buy, it seems that Nikon also couldn’t bear to put out a subpar product. Many of the Series E lenses actually ended up being very good. The most common of them, the Series E 50mm f/1.8, turned out to be the best of the bunch.

Even though the Series E 50mm eventually bore the scarlet letters of a budget marque, it was designed with much loftier intentions. It was originally intended to be Nikon’s attempt at finally improving their old standard Nikkor 50mm f/2 lens to compete with the compact sub-f/2 50mm lenses of the day. The goal was to make the existing Nikkor 50mm f/2 smaller and faster, all while improving image quality across the board, a tall order.

Enter Nikon lens designer Souichi Nakamura. Nakamura was tasked with shrinking a supposedly un-shrinkable design, the Double Gauss (Planar, for Zeiss obsessives) lens design used in the Nikkor 50mm f/2. The task was thought to be impossible due to the characteristics of the symmetrical, and therefore bulky, Double Gauss lens design. But like most strokes of genius, the solution was obvious – Nakamura slimmed down a couple of the lens elements, made them a bit flatter, and called it good.

It was a masterstroke – slimming down those lens elements shortened the lens considerably, improved flare resistance, cut down considerably on coma and lateral chromatic aberration, and nearly eliminated distortion even at the lens’ minimum focusing distance. This new design quite literally created a new standard for Nikkor lenses, and helped lay the blueprint for what would become the next generation of Nikkor AIS lenses.

Nakamura’s newly-designed lens hit the market in 1979, but not under the Nikkor name, at least not in North America. It was housed in plastic instead of the usual metal, its elements single coated instead of multicoating, and the lens surround read “Nikon Series E” instead of “Nikkor.” It also could not be found bundled onto the lens mounts of cameras like the pro-spec F2 and advanced-amateur FM; it instead came standard on the consumer-level Nikon EM, placing this innovative lens into the hands of the average consumer.

The rather lowly beginnings of the Series E 50mm served a very important role for Nikon. Like the later 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar lens that became the signature of the Nikon L35AF Pikaichi, the Series E 50mm was meant to be the signature lens of the Nikon EM. The idea was that the high optical quality of the Series E 50mm would be strong enough to bolster sales of the EM and lend it some legitimacy in the crowded consumer SLR market. It was a good plan – the Series E 50mm became Nikon’s honey pot for its consumer SLR line. It became the kit lens not only for the Nikon EM, but for the later FG and FG-20, giving Nikon a valuable share of the lucrative consumer 35mm SLR market.

Nearly forty years later, the Series E 50mm has become somewhat of a cult classic, loved by many for its image quality and its very low price point. Though it has been optically surpassed by other lenses, it offers the most bang-for-your-buck performance in the Nikon lineup. I’d even hasten to say that the Nikon Series E 50mm f/1.8 is the best classic standard lens available on the vintage market for beginners or for anyone on a budget.

Imaging Characteristics

In use, the first thing one notices about the Series E 50mm is its diminutive size. Though it’s not technically small enough to be considered a pancake lens, it is short and stout enough that most people stretch the term to fit. It’s far smaller than the cathedrals of glass and metal that we find in the the old school pre-AI Nikkor lenses, and it lightens up the feel of most SLR’s, even the pro-spec F-series behemoths. It should be said that the focusing ring and aperture ring are quite slim, which may throw off the feel of shooting a bigger camera. However, when mounted to a compact SLR like the Nikon EM or FG, the slim Series E feels right at home.

What may bother some shooters (especially hardcore Nikonians) is the Series E 50mm’s penchant for plastic. The first generation of the lens is housed in a hard, sturdy plastic which encases a metal chassis, but it doesn’t particularly engender a feeling of solidity and reliability. The second generation of the lens does a better job of this (as well as provide a much-needed update to the cosmetics) but still falls short of the high standard set by Nikon’s Nikkor range. Again, when used in conjunction with the pro-spec cameras this may feel a little strange, but the feel is completely natural on smaller bodies.

Less contentious are the imaging characteristics of the Series E 50mm. The cult classic reputation of this lens is well-deserved – this is a lens whose image quality is shocking, considering its intended humble home. Although it doesn’t score absolute top marks in every category, it performs well above average by any metric, which makes it a perfect all-around lens for general photography.

The Series E 50mm behaves just about how one would expect a vintage fast fifty to behave. Sharpness peaks at around f/5.6-f/11, and softens gradually as we open up to f/4. Wide-open, the lens gets soft, but not as soft as does the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4. That said, the lens exhibits pretty heavy chromatic aberration, smearing, and purple fringing wide-open, which can be troublesome especially in low-light situations. Diffraction also starts to set in past f/11 and is pretty heavy at f/22, hindering performance at the other end of the spectrum. This lens is sharp, but it does have its limitations.

More interesting is the way the Series E 50mm treats micro contrast. This is actually fairly high from f/1.8 – f/2.8, which serves to somewhat counteract the lack of sharpness at larger apertures. As the lens sharpens up when stopped down, overall contrast also seems to go down slightly, and details begin to come out with extra clarity. Although the lens doesn’t approach Summicron levels of microcontrast, there’s enough of it so that fine details and textures are rendered finely and accurately at moderate apertures.

One of the defining characteristics of the Series E 50mm is its distinctive purple single coating, a cost-cutting measure that placed the Series E 50mm and its brethren a class below the multicoated Nikkor lenses. As a result of this single coating, flare resistance is poorer than the Nikkor equivalents, although still somewhat improved over the single-coated pre-AI 50mm lenses. Flare resistance aside, this purple single coating does render colors with an accuracy and richness that is uncommon to most consumer level kit lenses of the era. I actually prefer the colors of the Series E to almost all of its multicoated competitors (lenses like the Minolta MD 50mm f/1.7, Canon FD 50m f/1.8, etc). I find that most multicoated lenses of this vintage from most other manufacturers tend to either saturate or dull colors to a degree that makes me reach for older single-coated lenses – not so with this lens.

The Series E 50mm may sound just good-enough in most categories but shines in a couple of very specific categories. The first is distortion. As a result of the design tweaks necessary to make the lens so small, the Series E 50mm exhibits nearly zero distortion, and about 1% lens distortion at the minimum focusing distance. This may not sound relevant to those only interested in using this lens for general photography, but it does account for the Series E’s uncommonly clean visual signature.

Besides a lack of distortion, the Series E 50mm also possesses great subject isolation and, you guessed it, bokeh. The bokeh on the Series E 50mm is some of the smoothest among ~f/1.8 standard lenses. Backgrounds don’t dissolve into a frenzied mess as is common with faster Double-Gauss type lenses; the Series E 50mm’s bokeh is smoother and more controlled than it has any right to be. Those worried that the lens won’t deliver compared to its faster brothers need not worry – this lens has it where it counts.

[Sample images in the galleries above were with Fuji C200, images below were made with Kodak Ultramax]

Final Thoughts

All this said, I don’t think it’d be fair (or to the point) to rate the Series E on individual parameters. While it isn’t best-in-class in well, any one thing, the magic of the Series E 50mm is found in the way it utilizes its strengths and weaknesses at different apertures. For example, wide-open it might be soft, but the unusually heightened contrast at wider apertures makes those shots bolder, and colors remain remarkably balanced and rich. At moderate apertures the contrast goes down, but sharpness takes over, and we get startlingly lifelike images with a little bit of that “3D pop” that lens enthusiasts crave. Versatility is the name of the game here, which makes sense – it’s a kit lens, after all.

As impressive as the Series E 50mm is optically, its image quality isn’t even the best thing about it. No matter how good a lens is, it’s worth jack if you can’t bring it around anywhere to shoot. But the ultra-compact Series E 50mm is one of the few lenses that can be taken literally anywhere. I’ve stuffed this lens and its caps into pants pockets, and often keep it in a coat pocket as a backup lens if I’m feeling too lazy to haul around a camera bag full of lenses. It’s a lens that can always be there, which can make the difference between getting and missing the shot.

The small take-everywhere Series E 50mm can also be enjoyed for a smaller fee than its equally-specced peers. Because it was a kit lens for the Nikon EM, FG, and FG-20, these lenses are plentiful and cheap. By itself, the Series E 50mm won’t usually run over $70, and bundled with a Nikon EM the cost remains about the same on auction sites. It makes the Nikon system, which can be pricey when we’re looking at FMs, FEs, or pro-spec F bodies, considerably more attractive to beginners. And it can provide financial relief for more advanced shooters looking to build a full Nikon system of lenses.

The more I think about it, the more astonishing the existence of the Series E 50mm appears to me. It’s rare, in any era, to see companies providing a product this good to every class of photographer. At a time when film photography is becoming more glamorous and pricey, a humble, high-quality lens like this is worth a lot.

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