OK, I'm sure somebody else did a write-up on this particularly popular lens before, but I could not dig it up. Plus, whatever shooting that goes into this review has been done on a D40, on which this lens will work in manual focus only. Since many D40 owners are on a budget, this particular lens usually comes into consideration when the funds are right to expand on the lens department, at which point the lack of autofocus poses one big question mark. Nikon actually tried to remedy this with the new AF-S Nikkor 50 mm 1:1.4G but being one stop faster and four stops more expensive, I'm not so sure whether Nikon's intention was to serve the D40/40x/60 community, and in any case, the 'nifty fifty' sure is here to stay, at least for the moment. Anyway, here goes my experience with it.
1. Appearance & Build Quality:
Here, take a look:
Now I know this does not give much food for thought, but just look at the mount and you will get the point. Yes, despite being a full-frame (FX) lens, this is perhaps one of the smallest Nikkor lenses around. It is smaller (but heavier) than any incarnation of the 18-55 mm DX, the usual kit lens for the D40/40x/60 series. The build quality is well above average, with a firm and serious focus ring and a metal lens mount. The firmness of the focus ring is of special importance on the D40/40x/60, as it is your one and only means of focusing this lens. Considering the razor-thin depth of field to be expected at apertures of 1:2.8 and below, you want it to work perfectly. Mine does.
The lens extends forward a bit when focusing from one end to the other, but nothing too much. Unlike the kit lens, the front element does not rotate during focusing, making polarizing filters much less frustrating to use, although mounting them initially can be a little problematic (they tend to not screw all the way in, but it might be an issue with my filter rather than the lens). Better yet, the lens accepts 52 mm filters, so if you bought a bunch of them for the 18-55 and/or 55-200 mm DX, you can use them on this lens too. You can even use the same lens cap, but the hood (if you have it) will probably not fit.
As I have a D40, I can only focus by hand. But guess what, it is fun and it is fast. Tracking moving subjects (unless they are too far out to simply set the focus to infinity and keep it there) is almost impossible, but doable. Many people actually use this lens for portraits (for which it is perfectly suitable, with a 75 mm equivalent focal length and a large max. aperture) and for that, manual focus is OK. The minimum focus distance is 45 cm, so do not expect much of a macro capability.
How to focus by hand:
a. Chase the dot:
All Nikon SLR cameras have a focus indicator dot at the lower left side of the viewfinder. When turning the focus ring, keep an eye on it. When it turns on, you got focus. Use the center focus point as it is the most sensitive, recompose as necessary. Do not forget that there is no focus lock on this: when you recompose, the dot will go away (and depending on how drastic you 'recompose', you may lose focus altogether. It takes some practice to get used to, but I did it in two days, and I am not particularly talented at this.
In low light, the AF assist lamp will not function: you can either measure subject distance and go from there, or keep a small flashlight (like the one doctors use to check eye response) and use it as a 'MF assist lamp'.
b. Rangefinder (D60 only):
Nikon D60 has a built-in electronic rangefinder, which measures subject distance and displays it through the viewfinder, using the EV scale. Basically, try to keep the EV scale centered and you will be fine. This is how rangefinder cameras worked for the last century: Read the distance and/or distance feedback (+/-), set it on the lens (although they can make things easier by providing superimposed frames or direct distance read-outs, but you get the point. Even the cutting edge $10000 Leica M8.2 is manual-focus only.
This is one of the reasons why you want a prime lens in the first place. There is NO distortion at any perceptible level. I am sure the guys at... some other sites, whatever, can (and will) give you an exact measure, but it is so low that even post-processing software can not correct it: they are so insensitive that even the smallest possible counter-input will correct it AND bend things the other way around. Just assume there is no distortion and go from there.
I can not test this without a special setup, but it is unrecognizable in the field. As this is a full-frame (FX) lens, the DX sensor will only use a central portion of the image circle, which usually counteracts whatever vignetting there might be in the first place.
Again, I can not give you any sort of scientific measure, having no test charts or anything, but I can assure you: You are in for a treat. Eliminating focal range flexibility (zoom) allows for complete and total optimization of rendering capabilities for the selected focal length, and the results speak for themselves. In fact, if you also have the sharpness turned all the way up from the Optimize Image menu, you might actually find that the finer details of images become jaggy and distorted on the LCD: the combined effect is so severe that the relatively low-resolution LCD screen can not properly render it!
You should expect particularly 'soft' results in the first few days of your endeavors with this lens. Here's why:
1. (If you are shooting with a D40/40x/60): It takes some time and practice to get used to focusing by hand. You will miss focus in some shots in this period and will probably not notice it immediately, thanks to the impressive sharpness (see above) of the lens. If you just shot something 'critical', then by all means zoom all the way in and confirm focus.
2. At apertures f/2.8 and larger, the depth of field becomes so narrow that even different parts of the same subject will not be in sharp focus. For instance, you may focus on a person and see that one shoulder is in sharp focus and the other (which was a fraction of an inch forward or backward) is not. In fact, I am willing to believe that the apertures below f/2.8 are there to achieve special soft-focus effects and creamy backgrounds, not to facilitate shooting in total darkness. For that, VR and flash are still the way to go.
If you can get used to the rather tight focal length (75 mm equivalent) and focusing by hand (D40/40x/60 folks) then by all means get one. For about $150, you get a lot of lens: it is compact, well-built, compatible with everything from manual focus film SLRs to the upcoming D3x and very, very sharp.
If you can pay about twice the cash, get the AF Nikkor 50 mm 1:1.4D instead. It is basically the same lens, but the build quality is even better and it has that one extra stop you never know when you will need.
If you can pay about 3.5-4 times the cash, get the AF-S Nikkor 50 mm 1:1.4G instead. It has a silent, fast AF motor which enabled proper autofocus on the D40/40x/60 (although you could sell off the D40, add the same amount of top of it, and get a hand-me-down D80 and the AF Nikkor 50 mm 1:18D) and the image quality should be equal, if not superior, to the non AF-S version.
If you want macro capabilities, this is not the lens you are looking for. You CAN shoot some macro with this, depending on the size of your subject, but the 45 cm min. focus distance is too far out to make it worthy. In fact, I found my 18-135 mm DX to be a better performer on that particular field. In this case, the 60 or 105 mm f/2.8 Micro is your pick.
f/4.5, 1/400, ISO200
f/4, 1/200, ISO200
f/5.6, 1/80, ISO200