The 58mm f/0.95 NOCT Finally Appears

Nikon today officially announced the 58mm f/0.95 NOCT lens for the Z mount cameras. This lens seems to trigger a lot of bimodal discussion, and that started with the original development announcement. It’s time to put a few things in context. 

bythom nikon noct

First, let me describe the lens. It's a big beast, weighing in at 70.6 ounces (2000g). Yes, over four pounds. It's really designed as a showcase piece, with Nikon trumpeting edge to edge sharpness, even wide open. Typically, lenses at f/1.4 and faster tend to be weak at their maximum aperture, with lower contrast and other compromises made. This is a no-compromise design, inside and out. Like the original NOCT, the new lens also controls coma and spherical aberration in ways you don't see in other lenses.

We get a new Nikon optical technology, Arneo coating. This is an anti-reflective coating that works with Nano coating to further reduce ghosting and flare. Nano coating removes ghosting from light coming in diagonally, Arneo removes it from light coming in perpendicularly. 

Bundled with the lens is a Pelican-style carrying case.

That all sounds interesting until we get to the price: US$8000. 

Now, let’s get to the arguments. 

One big complaint has been “why were engineers wasting time on the NOCT when we needed Nikon to produce other lenses that would be of more use to us?” 

First, while Nikon has been marketing this lens as a statement of possibilities that the new Z mount opens up for optical designs, it actually doesn’t push design anywhere near as far as it could. If Nikon wanted to test the limits of the mount optics as far as they could, we’d be down around f/0.5, which is a place we’ve never really been before.

Nikon appears to have chosen an option here that has a somewhat better balance between possible and useful, though there’s plenty of argument on the Internet about that usefulness. So let’s delve into that. 

At 58mm, f/1.2, and 5 feet we have about a quarter of an inch depth of field on a 45mp camera printed to 20". I use that as an example because f/1.2 seems to be what people are asking for—we’ll get a Nikon 50mm f/1.2 Z mount prime in 2020—and it’s already illustrative of a point. You need a lens motor that can move a lot of glass fast and very, very precisely to achieve correct focus with such small DOF. We’re already talking about a distance offset equal to focusing on the retina of a subject versus their eyebrow at f/1.2. At f/0.95 precision focus gets even tougher with even narrower DOFs while moving big chunks of glass. 

58mm NOCT cutawayx

Note how big and dense the glass is in the NOCT.

Nikon went to manual focus on the NOCT partly for that reason: moving that much glass fast and that precisely would have really bulked up the lens and made it unusable. You'd also either have to put up with hunting or inaccuracy, as even static human subjects might be moving in and out of the narrow focus plane at f/0.95. Who actually would want such a lens? 

As it turns out, videographers and filmmakers. And they won’t want fly-by-wire focusing, they want highly precision manual focus. Which is exactly what the NOCT provides. (Though Nikon totally missed something here by not putting a gear ring on this lens.)

It seems to me that Nikon had a tough choice here. If they went all-in for what was possible in the new Z mount, we’d be getting a even more mammoth lens that nobody would want to use. If they didn’t do something beyond the usual state-of-the-art primes, they wouldn’t have anything they could point to that illustrated what is possible down the pike. 

What they choose was a lens that’s in between those two points, one that yes, is big and heavy and has manual focusing, but one that actually might find a small user base, particularly in the video world. I’m doubting the NOCT will have a big impact on the still photography world, though as always with “new stuff” you’re going to find some top pros trying to figure out how to use the NOCT to do some work that helps them stand out from the pack.

So exactly how does such a lens stand out? Well, obviously I haven’t tested it yet, but given Nikon’s claims, examination of shots from the Nikon Ambassadors, and the likely impacts: (1) nice bokeh that doesn’t degrade elliptically into the corners; (2) a really gentle and smooth transition from focus plane to out-of-focus; (3) acuity well out towards the corners, even wide open; plus (4) higher contrast than we’ve gotten from any f/0.95 lenses shot wide open before. Oh, and zero coma in the corners, which is one reason why Nikon highlighted its use for astrophotography.

When they launched their full frame mirrorless line, Canon quietly gave a presentation to subsidiaries, some press, and a few partners about what the RF lens mount provides in optical design that the old EF mount didn’t. In Canon’s case, the primary mount change is that they’ve reduced the flange distance (the throat opening doesn’t really change; remember, Nikon’s Z mount has an even shorter flange distance and a bigger throat opening, so everything Canon says applies even more so to Nikon’s new mount.)

The big takeaway from Canon’s presentation is what happens at the rear of the lens, and how light rays bend less with certain optical designs. You end up not doing as much ray correction, particularly near the back of the lens, and lens elements can be bigger there (which has an impact on size of lens elements up front). Canon is using those differences to also do what I’d call more demonstration lenses than practical ones (e.g. the 28-70mm f/2). You also clearly see this new design focus in the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 S, which has very large rear elements with modest light bend, and a modern front optical design.

But clearly the word from both Canon and Nikon is the same: the relaxed constraints of the new lens mounts allows their designers to use new and interesting optical formulae that produce lenses of size, quality, and ability that we haven’t seen before. 

So we’re back to the complaints about the NOCT: is it practical? 

Simple answer, no, not for most people who’d buy the Z cameras. But I don’t see that as much different than the Nikkor 19mm f/4 PC-E in the F-mount, actually. That tilt/shift lens is stellar, so much so that I had one architectural photographer write me saying that the acuity was so high that it produces images that look fake and more like line renderings (we’re just not used to that level of acuity in photographic imagery).  

Personally, I’m happy that Nikon pursued the NOCT. In doing so, they almost certainly were learning aspects of how their new mount works and how they might optimize for that in future lenses. Will I buy it? Nope. It's not a lens that really comes into play for the photography I tend to do (I should note I already have an original NOCT and the 58mm f/1.4 in F-mount). Will you buy it? Probably not, for the same reasons. I’d put the new NOCT in what I call the “exotic” list (high-priced, high-performance, special-interest lenses). In fact, it really belongs in the "highly exotic" list, a very short list that includes such lenses as the Nikon 6mm f/5.6 fisheye, and maybe the 8mm f/2.8 fisheye that is most noted for being the eye of HAL 9000 in 2001, A Space Odyssey.

Is it insane that Nikon produced the NOCT? Not at all. It gives us a better understanding that the new mount has promise for future lenses. Not that we really need that. The 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm f/1.8 S lenses are the best lenses Nikon has ever produced at those focal lengths, and arguably are in the discussion of best 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm you can buy. The 24-70mm f/4 kit lens also turned out to be about as good as the best 24-70mm f/2.8 pro lenses at f/4, which is also saying a lot, and the 24-70mm f/2.8 turned out even better. 

So the NOCT, now announced and soon to fall into two or three shooters’ hands, is welcome, but not for most of us. It’s a halo product, and a pretty dramatic halo at that. 

All that said, I think this is another miss by Nikon. The Z mount is capable of a lens down to at least f/0.55, possibly more. If you're going to produce a lens that's a halo product showing everything that's possible in the new mount, then you should go all in. Nikon didn't. For some reason they went part-way. 

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