Moments after I acquired the Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/2 H pre-Ai at the Photo Foire in Bievre I spied this little jewel tucked away almost under larger and longer lenses on another seller's table.
At first I thought it was the cheap, plastic, and commonly available series E Nikon. I've owned several of those and while they are OK lenses, they failed to thrill me. There was something about the images that failed to "pop", if you know what I mean.
The lettering on the lens that I dug out had it's front ring painted flat black, so it took a moment for me to sort out what it was I was looking at. It was certainly a "pancake" lens. And in this way it reminded me very strongly of the series E I originally mistook it for. The lettering said "Nikkor", however. No series E Nikon lens was ever labeled "Nikkor." The moniker was reserved for Nikon's "pro" lenses, or so the story goes.
Thinking a bit more about what I was looking at I realized this must be a fairly late model Double Gauss lens. I remembered seeing it on a lens chart somewhere. It was certainly small and light. So I asked the man behind the table combien? 40Euros came the reply.
Well, why not, then. Even if I couldn't get the black matt paint off the label ring, it could still be fun to try. Certainly it might be interesting to compare it against Nikon's much earlier implementation in the 50mm f/2 H that I already had in pocket.
Out whipped two more 20Euro notes and my wallet was getting lighter, but not by too much. How often does a Lens Nut find a decent lens for 40Euros, let alone two at that price? OK. OK. Indeed, a patient person can find these lenses for a single 20Euro note. I guess I'm not exactly patient.
It took some time, a little ETOH (denatured), and a lot of scrubbing and rubbing with Q-tips but the gross matt black is mostly gone, now. While the lens will never be as pretty as the day it left the factory, it's certainly not bad to look at and it's image quality is a surprise.
Comparing it against its older brother, the f/2 H, I see that Nikon re-implemented the Double Gauss design. That is, the implementation seems to be an update. Perhaps they used different glass? Perhaps they reshaped the lens elements? Whatever they did, this f/1.8 AiS is a very different animal.
To start with, while not as wickedly wickedly sharp wide open as the f/2 H, the f/1.8 is merely wickedly sharp and has a much flatter field from wide open. What it ever so slightly misses in terms of resolution at f/1.8 compared to the older f/2 is not easily seen, even when pixel-peeping. Wide open the resolution differences are very subtle.
Considering the out of focus rendition, the AiS "pancake" is on a level of it's own. It's down right gorgeous for a 50mm lens. I've owned far too many 50mm lenses in my life and have always felt they suffered from "jittery", "ugly", over-corrected out of focus renditions. Not this lens. It's surprisingly wonderful. It is smooth and creamy where the old f/2 H is "soap-bubbly", "jittery", and "ugly". [example1, example2, example3, example4]
Stopped down the f/1.8 AiS is every bit as sharp and contrasty as a modern aspherical objective. I'm not sure if what I heard is correct, but perhaps the old f/1.8 AiS continues to be manufactured in the form of Nikon's 50mm f/1.8 AF.
Coupled with a Lens Turbo II focal reducer adapter this Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AiS practically lives on my Sony APS-C mirrorless cameras. It was my "go-to" lens during a recent trip to St Malo, Dinand, Dinard, and Mont St Michel.
In fact, I like the overall rendering so much that my newer aspherical AF lenses are presently sitting unused.