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You need to turn the aperture ring on the lens to its smallest setting (largest f/number). You control the aperture from the camera body, the same way you've always done with lenses without an aperture ring.
On older cameras, don't lock the ring. You need to turn the aperture ring in order to control the aperture.
On newer cameras, turn the aperture ring to its smallest aperture (largest f/number) and lock it. You control the aperture from the camera, the same way as on a lens with no aperture ring. If your camera displays "FEE" on the LCD panel when you put on the lens without locking the ring, then you'll need to lock it.
If you're still not sure whether you need to lock it, please reply to this post giving the model(s) of the camera(s) you want to use with this lens.
If you need a manual, you can download one from the manufacturer's web site at http://www.nikonusa.com/pdf/manuals/lenses/AF/AF50mm.pdf
I don't think you're going to see much difference in sharpness between the two lenses, because they're both such good lenses.
You can use the lens in any exposure mode. Leave the aperture ring set at f/22. Control the aperture from the camera body, the same way you do it with the 18-135mm. The zoom doesn't have an aperture ring --- so just set the ring on the 50mm to f/22 and then pretend it doesn't have one either.
Turn the aperture ring on the lens to its smallest setting (largest f/number). If the ring has a lock, lock it in place. You control the aperture from the camera body, just as you would on a lens with no aperture ring.
Try sending it to PhotoTech Repair Service in NYC. They are Nikon authorized, and can do the repair under warranty if you still have it. Also if you join they're facebook page, they will give you a 10% discount.
Here is the facebook page link, it has everything you need to send it in.
The FEE message indicates that the lens is not set to smallest aperture (highest number). The camera body expects this so it will have full control of the aperture. It sounds like you may be accidentally bumping or turning the aperture ring on the lens while using it or changing lenses. There is a little slide lock to lock it at f/22 to prevent this. Turn the aperture ring to 22 and move the slider so the white dot is next to the orange mark on the lens barrel.
this same thing is happening to me on my D70s. i posted about it at photo.net and everyone is stumped. http://photo.net/nikon-camera-forum/00Q6eB i already returned the lens and got a new one... same problem. i don't know what's wrong. does anyone here have any insight?