The New Nifty Fifty— Er, Forty? Nikon Nikkor Z 40mm F/2 Lens Review

The New Nifty Fifty— Er, Forty? Nikon Nikkor Z 40mm F/2 Lens Review

2200 1238 James Tocchio

The Nikon Nikkor z 40mm f/2 fills an important gap in Nikon’s Z series lens lineup. It’s the modern mirror-less equivalent to the nifty fifties of the SLR era, a compact lens that offers high image quality at an extremely low price. I’ve spent the past two months shooting the Nikkor Z 40mm, and it has lived up to and surpassed the lofty legacy established by the nifty fifty lenses of old.

Of course, to satisfy the requirements of the nifty fifty, Nikon had to keep an eye on size and cost. For this reason, the Nikkor Z 40mm naturally lacks some of the finer features of the more expensive lenses in the system, and though it has let me down in a couple of ways, on the whole, the Nikkor Z 40mm is a remarkable lens and a worthy successor to the traditional nifty fifty.

Just try to ignore that it’s not exactly a fifty.

Specifications of the Nikon Nikkor Z 40mm f/2

  • Focal Length: 40mm FX (full-frame sensor cameras); 60mm DX (APS-C crop-sensor cameras)
  • Lens Mount: Nikon Z
  • Optical Design: 6 elements in 4 groups
  • Focus Type: Auto focus, user-selectable manual focus
  • Minimum Focus Distance: 11.4 inches (29 cm)
  • Angle of View: 57°
  • Maximum Aperture: f/2
  • Minimum Aperture: f/16
  • Diaphragm Blades: 9, rounded
  • Image Stabilization: No
  • Filter Size: 52mm front-mounted filters
  • Size and Weight: 2.8 x 1.8 inches (70 x 45.5 mm); 6 oz (170 grams)
  • Price: $276.95 (B&H Photo affiliate link)

Why this 40mm Matters

Before the Nikkor Z 40mm, Nikon offered a number of standard prime lenses compatible with their full frame mirror-less cameras, but none satisfied the criteria of the nifty fifty. None were a standard, affordable, every-day lens. I’ve tested them all.

The Nikon Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.8 S came closest to the traditional nifty fifty’s basic specs, but it’s a big lens, and priced high at $620.

The Nikon Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.2 S was a beautiful piece of kit, but it’s simply enormous, and costs $1,900.

The Nikon Nikkor Z MC 50mm f/2.8 macro is a special lens indeed, and one that adds versatility and utility to the nifty-fifty formula. But, predictably, it’s bigger than the traditional 50mm, and costs $600.

None of these 50mm lenses satisfied the needs of someone seeking a traditional nifty fifty.

But then, at the end of 2022 Nikon released the Nikon Nikkor Z 40mm F/2. While not exactly the same as the nifty-fifties of old, the Nikkor Z 40mm delivers on the promise of the nifty fifty; it’s a truly compact standard focal length lens with high performance offered at an incredibly low price (in fact, it’s the least expensive full frame lens in the entire Z series ecosystem – tied with the Nikkor 28mm f/2.8).

First Impressions

The most instantly notable trait of the Nikon Nikkor Z 40mm f/2 is its size and weight. It’s tiny. At just 1.8″ long it feels exactly like the compact manual focus lenses of the olden days, and since it’s entirely made of plastic, it weighs very little (just 6 oz). Mounted to my Nikon Z5 it feels perfectly sized and perfectly balanced.

Next we notice the build quality. While lightness is a benefit in portability, usability, and comfort, it can also lend a sense of cheapness. I get a bit of that with this lens, even though I tested the Special Edition version, which is styled to look like the old manual focus Nikkors of the film days. It just doesn’t feel as dense or solid as the pricier, fancier lenses.

It’s entirely made of plastic. This includes the filter threads, lens barrel, control ring, and worst of all, lens mount. I imagine that Nikon’s engineers in the lab were really feeling the pressure from the bean-counters at the office. There’s not an engineer or designer on Earth who would willingly choose to make a lens mount out of plastic. But I’m sure it shaved a dozen (or so) dollars off the price.

And then we get to the important part – the shooting.

Controls and Focus

Unlike the more expensive lenses in the Z series system, the Nikkor Z 40mm has few controls. In fact, it has just one, a large multi-purpose control ring encircling the lens barrel. This control ring’s default control parameter is focus – by spinning it, we can focus the lens manually. For this purpose, it works well, automatically activating manual focus even when the camera is set to auto focus.

Manual focus is precise and refined, and of all of the focus-by-wire electronic manual focus systems that I’ve ever used (and I’ve used them all) Nikon’s modern system is the best. It’s smooth and responsive, and it acts progressively (more aggressive spins yields faster focusing).

It’s also possible to change the function of the control ring so that it no longer controls focus, but rather controls other settings, such as lens aperture or exposure compensation or ISO. This is particularly useful in certain shooting modes for users who don’t care about manual focus. The ISO control, in particular, is nice.

In auto focus mode, the lens works beautifully. There’s no external moving parts, and focusing is snappy and responsive. There is very minor focus breathing, but it’s not bad enough to really impact anybody, including video shooters. (Focus breathing is defined as a measurable optical change in the image when focusing from far to near.)

Image Quality Pros

The Nikkor Z 40mm makes really interesting images that combine the technical excellence of modern lens technology with a dash of old film-era lens character. This film-era character comes largely from Nikon’s desire to keep down cost and size by using a somewhat archaic optical formula – it’s made of 6 lens elements in 4 groups. Just compare this lens’ formula to the massive and expensive Nikkor Z 50mm F/1.8 S lens – that one has 12 elements in 9 groups.

But such a stark contrast in quantity doesn’t necessarily result in a similar drop in quality.

The Nikkor Z 40mm has two aspherical lens elements to limit aberrations and distortion, resulting in high sharpness and accurate rendering. The lens also uses Super Integrated Coating to suppress flares and ghosting, to improve contrast and render accurate colors.

This blend of minimal optical formula and ultra-modern lens technology creates a very interesting dynamic. Images are crisp, clean, sharp, and punchy. There’s no flaring or ghosting. Chromatic aberration and color bokeh are virtually non-existent. So we achieve most of the most desirable benefits of a modern lens.

However, the relatively simple optics also create images with fundamental flaws (which I call character).

The center of images are super sharp at all apertures (including wide open), but corner and edge sharpness and contrast decline to certain degrees at varying apertures.

Wide open at f/2, we see a very classic rendering which will feel familiar to shooters who remember the days prior to manual focus. As we stop the lens down, all of the optical issues smooth out greatly, as expected, until f/8. Above f/8 we begin to lose sharpness and quality due to diffraction.

This blend of old and new style image quality lends itself best to everyday shooting, street photography, travel, and editorial photography. Users who focus on these types of photographic styles will adore the rendering of this lens.

Landscape photographers and portrait artists will likely find fault (though a 40mm lens likely won’t be on these photographers’ wish lists anyway).

I should also quickly mention that the lens suffers no distortion and very little vignetting. In fact, the latest firmware update for this lens updated its lens profile to further correct any native flaws (the camera does some electronic magic to correct our photos before they’ve even finished writing to the SD card).

Image Quality Cons

Bokeh is not bad, for a 40mm lens. But if we’re comparing it to the other standard lenses in the range, it’s really not great.

The out of focus areas are a bit busy. Bokeh highlights aren’t perfectly round. And the transition from in-focus to out-of-focus elements of an image is a bit abrupt and lacks subtlety. That said, get close to our subject and it’s possible to make some nice subject isolation and decent bokeh. (Especially at this price point!)

Which brings up the next little complaint. Focusing close tends to lessen sharpness at all apertures. This is most noticeable at f/2, as one might expect, but it’s present through the range of f/stops.

Image Samples

Final Thoughts

Right now, the Nikon Nikkor Z 40mm F/2 is a special lens. There’s no other directly comparable lens for the Nikon Z system.

I reviewed the 40mm Voigtlander lens not very long ago. However, that lens doesn’t offer auto focus. And there are a couple of Chinese-made 40mm Z mount lenses, as well, but these are made for APS-C cameras, not full frame.

There are plenty of 35mm lenses, but these aren’t directly comparable, often they’re manual focus only, and often they cost more money. The 50mm lenses mentioned earlier don’t fit the bill, and there are none others that offer the performance to value that this Nikon 40mm offers.

In short, it’s an amazing lens. For Nikon Z series users who want an every day lens with superb performance at a wonderful price, a lightweight travel lens, or a fond reminiscence of the old days of cheap nifty fifties, the Nikon Nikkor Z 40mm F/2 is it.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • Nice, very nice. A nifty forty.

  • 40mm is a wonderful focal length, more versatile than 50mm IMO. It’s pretty much the classic fixed lens rangefinder standard. The Z 40mm will pair nicely with the Z 28mm pancake on full frame cameras. Bokeh shmokeh – leave that for longer lenses 😉

    I use an EF 40mm f/2.8 pancake on my 6D. Image quality is fantastic from f/2.8 & the combo fits in my handbag. Pairing it with a 24mm f/2.8 makes for a very compact walk around & street lens kit.

  • It’s nice to see Nikon opting to provide a small, fast, autofocus, prime lens option for their mirrorless cameras. Not everyone can afford to spend, or wants to spend $600 to get a fast, standard focal length, prime lens. $250 is a reasonable price for a brand new, all-plastic, fast, standard focal length, prime lens. The small size and weight of this 40mm f/2 lens makes it a very attractive option for the bulk of general photographers, and for many Nikon Z-mount users this lens will be the most cost-effective option for such a lens.

    One could certainly buy an older, used, F-mount Nikon 50mm f/1.8G for $125 off eBay, but unless you already have an FTZ or FTZii adapter, then the lens is useless on a Z-mount camera. A used FTZ adapter costs $100-150 and a used FTZii adapter costs $200. And with the FTZ adapter, you lose all the benefits of having the smaller, lighter lens in the first place. This means there’s little value in adapting the older, cheaper, F-mount 50mm f/1.8G to your Z mount mirrorless camera if you don’t already have the FTZ adapter. This would generally apply to people who started with a Z-mount mirrorless camera, did not switch over from Nikon DSLRs, and already had a set of F-mount glass.

  • I like the idea of this lens, but all plastic for $300-ish? C’mon! I don’t know of any 3rd party mfg that uses plastic lens mounts.
    Even the latest TTartisans 50mm f2 Z mount lens uses a metal mount. And that nugget is $70!

  • I bought one when they first came out a few yrs ago. Because I’ve always liked that focal length, I bit the bullet and bought a used FTZ adapter solely to swap the plastic mount for metal. Other than the psychological benefit of a metal mount and a more solid click when mounting, it does impart the rubber gasket found of other Z lenses. The plastic mount does not have the rubber gasket but rather little overhang of the outer barrel which doesn’t provide a seal. Fortunately switching to the metal mount in no way affects alignment or focus.

  • Jay Dann Walker in Australia January 18, 2024 at 4:22 am

    Agree with all comments here. But 40mm? Meh.

    Not wide enough (35/2.0 D is my preferred ‘classic’ in this range) and a little too close to ‘ standard’.

    Fifty years ago when 35mm shooters aspired to a 50 and a 135 and that was it, or one of those el cheap zooms half the size of a military bazooka (with most results to match), the legions of amateurs would have lined up half way down the street for one. Today – I’m not so sure.

    Then the minimum focusing distance. 29 cm, 11.4 inches. This is close? Hey, that’s a foot less a few specs from your subject. Not that impressive.

    The price is right, though. Me, I would opt for a 28 which is my ideal or even a 24. In the Z range, even in Australia these are still affordable if one shops around. My highly reputable secondhand gear dealer in Melbourne has a new one for just over AUD $400. A good price given the pitiful state of our South Pacific Peso.

    But then the 24 even new is only a little more expensive. And the 28 can be picked up used for around the AUD $220 mark. So…

    All this said, there will be those who find it useful or even love it for the little it does, and good for them. Not for me.

    Good images, though. For general users it will probably satisfy, and that’s good.

    DANN in Melbourne

  • Just looking at the Zf has my credit card itching and a 40mm like this would be an ideal companion for it, even with its plastic mount. (I was hoping this SE version might have a metal one to go with its 1978 focusing ring.)

    Incidentally, I know those of us who wanted an FE when it was new are getting on a bit, but not enough to ‘remember the days prior to manual focus’. Was that no focus at all? Or just a change of phrasing that escaped the editor?

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio