With all the current Nikon DX DSLRs now at 24mp with incredibly good sensors, just how good the results you'll get from them is going to be partially determined by what you put in front of those sensors to focus the light: lenses.
I won’t get into FX lenses in this article; dozens of FX lenses are fine performers on DX cameras. The real issue is that there aren’t a lot of DX lenses that are delivering everything the sensor can resolve, so I’ll keep my comments just to those DX lenses.
Here are the top DX performers you should consider:
- Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR AF-P (product number 20059). Surprised to see a kit lens in the list? The very latest of Nikon’s kit lenses is a real bargain. I don’t know that I’d spend the US$250 to get one outside of the kit over other options, but at the implied US$100 price within kits, you can’t really go wrong. This lens is remarkably well-behaved, and about the best crop sensor kit lens I’ve come across, in any mount. It does the 24mp sensors justice, and if you’re shooting JPEG, the in-camera lens corrections take care of the few little problems that remain. Quite a remarkable feat, actually, considering the price and how many of these lenses Nikon produces. The build quality, however, is quite consumer. This isn’t a lens that will endure abuse.
- Nikkor 16-80mm f/2.8-4 VR (product number 20055). We have a new winner. While the predecessor 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6 lens has been around for some time and still manages to be one of the best zooms you can stick on the current DX bodies, the new version is a better choice. Still not perfect, but very well behaved and sharp. It’s also the only way to get a decent, fast 24mm equivalent in DX without resorting to a wide angle zoom or third party lens. See my review.
- Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6 VR (product number 2213). Another of the kit zooms, only this time the kit zoom for the high-end bodies. As befitting the higher-end, the build quality is better than the low-end kit zoom, and the performance even a tad bit better over the equivalent focal length range. Only it goes to 140mm instead of 55mm. In essence, this is the 28-200mm equivalent for DX, and it’s as good as I’ve ever seen one of those so-called super zooms. See my review.
- Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 (product number 2183). Exactly what you want in a “normal” lens for the format: fast, small, sharp, and not expensive. This lens ought to be in every DX shooter’s kit. See my review.
- Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G VR AF-P (product number 20062). A surprisingly good low-cost telephoto zoom for recent Nikon DX bodies (D3300, D5300, D7200, and D500 or later). See my review.
- Micro-Nikkor 85mm f/3.5 VR (product number 2190). A very under appreciated lens, partly because it has to live up to its 105mm f/2.8 FX bigger brother. It’s smaller, lighter, and very DX appropriate for a 1:1 macro lens. Plus it’s wicked sharp, especially as you stop down. For 1:1 work, the working distance is a little short, though.
- Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 HSM. Hands down one of the sharpest lenses you can put on your DX body, and that f/1.8 aperture wins back much of what you give up when you don’t opt for FX (compared to f/2.8 FX zooms). The downside is that it is a big, heavy lens with not a lot of focal length range; you might not find that 28-50mm equivalent is your cup of tea. Still, if you need those focal lengths, this is a top-notch lens for achieving them. See my review.
- Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 OS HSM. Arguably the best mid-range zoom you can put on your DX body, and you’ve got a faster aperture than you’ll get with the Nikon choices other than the expensive 17-55mm f/2.8. Also this Sigma is appropriately sized for DX: not big and heavy for what it is, like the Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8. The Sigma doesn’t quite get you down to 24mm equivalent though, and 75mm equivalent at the long end is also a bit short of where most people want to be. We really need a 16-60mm f/2.8 version of this lens.
- Sigma 50-100mm f/1.8 HSM. Like its 18-35mm wide-angle twin, this is a sharp, fast lens, though this time with a DX-compatible telephoto zoom range (75-150mm equivalent). See my review.
Other Nikkor DX lenses that are decent and should always be considered, but for one reason or another don’t rise to the level at which I’d unconditionally recommend them:
- 10.5mm f/2.8. A fun 180° rectilinear fisheye. Every bit as good as the FX version (16mm f/2.8), but not a mainstream lens that everyone should have.
- 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5. Has some small deficiencies in the corners.
- 12-24mm f/4. Great build quality, showing some weaknesses with 24mp sensors.
- 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6 VR. The new lens pointed out above tops the old one, if for no other reason than it gives you a half to full stop advantage without losing anything else of note.
- 17-55mm f/2.8. Big, heavy lens, and not a bargain. Third party options better.
- 55-200mm f/4-5.6 VR II. A decent performer. But the 70-200mm f/4 is far better.
- 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR. Another decent (maybe even better than decent) performer, and it would be my choice over the 70-300mm FX lens for a DX body. But the consumer quality and the lens hood that tends to fall apart are why it costs less.
Other third-party DX lenses that are decent and should always be considered, but for one reason or another don’t rise to the level at which I’d unconditionally recommend them:
- Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 (original version, no longer made). The newer version with OS is just too big and heavy. The original is smaller and lighter and a very appropriate 70-200mm equivalent for DX. A little bit weak at 150mm, but otherwise a fine lens if you can find one used.
- Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 or 11-20mm f/2.8. Really solid wide angle performers, and faster than the other options, which are also solid. Indeed, that’s the name of the game here: I prefer the Tokina over the Nikon, Sigma, and Tamron wide angle zoom options these days because if I’m going to shoot at f/5.6 and f/8, the Tokina is every bit as sharp into the corners, but sometimes I want to shoot indoors, where f/2.8 is definitely more useful than f/3.5 to f/5.6. Optically very sharp, but as with many Tokina lenses, the primary weakness is some extra chromatic aberration. But CA is easily corrected, so not too concerning to me.
So, as to an excellent and optimized DX kit, I’d suggest something like this (indeed, has been my DX kit for some time):
- Tokina 11-16mm or 11-20mm f/2.8
- Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 or Nikon 16-80mm f/2.8-4
- Sigma 50-100mm f/1.8 or Nikon 70-200mm f/4 (FX lens)
- Nikkor 35mm f/1.8
- Nikkor 85mm f/3.5
That’s something like 16-225mm+ equivalent, with a fast aperture prime for low light and an excellent macro lens for closeup work.
If you’re going for ultimate sharpness in the smallest possible kit to cover a slightly smaller 16-150mm equivalent, then:
- Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8
- Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8
- Sigma 50-100mm f/1.8
DX lenses I wouldn’t consider for the 24mp Nikon DSLRs:
- Nikkor 18-55mm older versions. Just not as good as the current version.
- Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6. Yes, it’s a fine lens optically, but I’d rather have the 18-140mm, even for US$100 more.
- Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6. Just doesn’t hold its own with the 24mp sensors. You can see that it’s not as sharp as the other super zooms Nikon made.
- Nikkor 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6. The ultimate in convenience lenses, but there are a lot of compromises in this design.
- Nikkor 40mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor. Sharp lens, but too close to the excellent 35mm f/1.8 in focal length, and what you get for the slower aperture and extra money is a macro capability that has very little useful working distance.
- Nikkor 55-200mm older versions. Just not as good as the current version.
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