Review: Nikon 50mm 1.8 AI-S E Series Pancake Lens

 nikon f3, fuji superia 400
nikon f3, fuji superia 400

A quick note: For transparency’s sake, over the last few months the lens I used for this article developed an issue where it would not focus at infinity. From what I’ve read this happens sometimes, especially with older lenses, but all the images here were taken when it was in good working order. Assuming it is well taken care of and bought from a reputable source, yours should preform just as well as mine did when these images were taken, and when I was forming the basis of this review.

When starting out in film photography, a normal lens should be among the first lenses you should buy. They’re compact, easy to compose with, and best of all, they can be used for just about anything you’ll want to shoot. There are about a million different 50mm lenses available for any given mount, but nikons lineup is even more intimidating because of the confusing labels given to certain lenses. Skipping over the non-ai and autofocus versions, Nikon’s 50mm 1.8 lineup includes the ai, ai-s short nose, ai-s long nose, and both e series pancake lenses. The ai-s versions are differentiated by the size, with the one I have being the short nose(AKA the late-model E series), and the later version being the long nose which is distinguished by its larger design and recessed front element. While there are supposedly some improvements in later versions, the optical designs in all of the f/1.8 models are the same.

While the faster versions are widely regarded as higher quality lenses, there are many who believe the E series 50mm lenses to be the ultimate normal lens in nikons manual focus range. While its resolving power is noticeably lower than the more premium f/1.4 models, this little beast has a few great things going for it. First, and probably most importantly, is the size. By far the smallest Nikon lens I have owned, this lens is great for applications like street photography where stealth is a factor, and as I remember, it is actually a favorite of photographer John Free in his street work. However, what I enjoyed most about the size was the portability. When using it as a secondary lens to my all-time favorite – the 24mm 2.8 ais, I very rarely even used a bag, as this lens can easily be slipped into a small pack or jacket pocket. Because of this i found myself using it far more often than other pieces of glass like ultra-wide or telephoto lenses, simply because i was always able to have it with me. 

 nikon f3, kodak ultramax 400
nikon f3, kodak ultramax 400

Though the optics aren’t nikons top-of-the-line, they are great in their own right. This lens vignettes very little, and is virtually distortion free. In this regard it preforms even better than its more expensive brother, the 50mm 1.4. The image quality isn’t something to scoff at either, and I found it to render detail very well, especially for a lens at this price point. The bokeh is very nice(at least in my opinion), although not as smooth as other 50mm lenses. The only problem i encountered was some odd half-moon flaring when shooting directly into a light source, but It was only noticeable in extreme cases.

The handling of this lens is good enough. On a dslr manual focusing is going to feel a bit awkward no matter what, but on smaller cameras or film cameras like my F3 it feels very natural and tactile. The rings are very smooth, and while the stops on the aperture ring could be slightly more defined, it is not soft enough to cause any problems. It also feels very well built, like most early Nikon lenses.

So who is this lens for? In most cases I wouldn’t recommend it on digital cameras, simply because you can get the 50mm F/1.8 D series lens for just a few dollars more. The exception to this would be if you are shooting video, as the focus ring on the E series is far smother than that of any auto focus Nikon lens. However, if you are shooting film on a manual camera, I would recommend it over nearly any other Nikon 50mm. I honestly don’t see any value in the extra 1/2 stop you get with the 1.4, especially when it costs over twice as much as the E-series. In fact, I would say this should be the first lens for most film shooters, as the versatility is unmatched by nearly any other lens in Nikon’s lineup.

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