Nikon 35mm f/1.8G DX AF-S Lens Review

bythom nikkor 35mm-DX.jpg

What is It?

The 35mm focal range is close to "normal" for the DX format. You'll get some arguments over what the definition of "normal" should be, but I'd say that anything in the 28-35mm range for DX certainly falls into this category.

The first thing you notice with this lens is the lack of bulk and weight. At about 2" long and diameter and weighing in at about 7 ounces, this is a lens that is small. Mounted on a D500 it looks a bit small; on a D3300, it looks about right. The full, non-petal hood doesn't extend the lens much: it still looks and feels small. 

Mounted on a D3-type of body, the lens almost disappears. (Why would you do that? Keep reading.) I kept finding that I wanted to reach further forward than the lens extended in order to grab the focus ring on most bodies I use the lens on.

Nevertheless, you'll adjust. My point is that at 7 ounces and a couple of inches just doesn't feel like it adds to the bulk and weight of any of the bigger bodies; it almost feels like you're shooting without a lens. In a world where DSLRs have gotten as big and fat as the average American, it's kind of fun to have a lens that you can stuff into a coat pocket and forget is even there.

The 35mm focal length provides 37° of horizontal angle on DX. One reason why some people think this is "normal" is that the most central area our eyes take in—anywhere from 40-60°—is where most of our perception of the scene in front of us is. Areas outside that tend to be more "motion detectors" as far as our eyes are concerned (which is why we glance to the side or turn or head when something is not happening right in front of us).

The f/1.8 aperture is a nice compromise. It's fast enough to give a three-stop advantage over most of the kit zooms (which would be at least f/5 at 35mm). But f/1.8 isn't fast enough to require a big chunk of glass, so the size of the lens is, as I noted, small. I like compromises like that. Yes, f/1.4 would give you another two-thirds of a stop, but it would also increase the size, weight, and cost of the lens. Let's just agree that Nikon made some decent decision trade-offs here and quibble about fractions of a stop on a lens where the difference might be more meaningful.

The focus ring is relatively narrow in size, but easy enough to find at the front of the lens (assuming you don't reach too far). Near to far focus takes about a quarter of a turn, which isn't much. The lens does not have a distance scale or DOF markings, unfortunately. Close focus is one foot (0.3m).

On the left side (as you hold the camera) is one switch the controls focus (M/A for autofocus with manual override, M for manual focus only). The lens does not have VR or an aperture ring (this last limits the number of older film SLRs that the lens can be used on). The aperture blade is seven-sided.

The HB-46 hood is the bayonet type and can reverse mount on the lens. The hood is a full hood, not a petal design. The pinch-front lens cap can be mounted on and taken off the lens with the hood on, though finding the centering placement to put it back on is a little touchy. The lens uses 52mm filters, a common filter size for Nikon.

Nikon’s page for the lens is hereThe lens is made in China and retails for US$199.

Source of the review sample: personal purchase. Results compared to one other sample lens available to me.


How’s it Handle?

With a lens this simple, handling isn't exactly a deep subject.

The focus ring is the usual low-end AF-S kind: a sort of plastic on plastic feel while turning. In my sample turning it feels a bit rough and "geared," and is not subtle at all. The front element does not rotate during focus.

As I noted earlier, the 35mm f/1.8G AF-S is small and light and balances on the front of the smallest Nikon consumer DSLRs very nicely. On bigger pro cameras, even a D500, it just disappears and feels fairly insignificant. But either way, the size and weight of this lens is not a factor.


How’s it Perform?

What do you expect from a very fast prime? Well, lots of light, but historically, poor wide open performance.

Autofocus: The AF-S on this lens is slower than the high-end AF-S lenses. That's okay, as it is still quite usable on even the low-end Nikon DSLRs. There was little or no hunting, and very precise and predictable focus on my sample.

Sharpness: For a low-cost lens, the optical performance is quite good. In the center of the frame this lens is quite sharp across all apertures until diffraction starts to apply (generally f/8 or higher on the 24mp cameras). There's little benefit to stopping down for more center sharpness.

The extreme corners are a slightly different story. They never quite match the central performance, though they are certainly not terrible. Stopping down to f/2.8 makes the lens quite usable from corner to corner. Indeed, I'd tend to call f/2.8 the best aperture for this lens. By the time we get to f/11 we're back down to wide open performance in the central area, due to diffraction.

Vignetting: Surprisingly low. By f/4 vignetting is completely ignorable, but even at f/1.8 it amounts to less than a stop in the corners, which is pretty good performance. On most modern Nikon bodies, this level of vignetting is totally correctable with the Vignette control option. FX body users should note that the lens is basically usable if you set 5:4 crop on your camera. Here there is much more vignetting, but still at acceptable levels. The lens does not cover the full FX frame, though.

Chromatic aberration: Lateral chromatic aberration (side to side) is negligible wide open, but clearly visible at f/2.8 and smaller. Indeed, from f/2.8 to the smallest aperture the average chromatic aberration stays relatively the same: a modest but not excessive amount. The cameras that do automatic chromatic aberration for JPEGs easily remove it, and it's not too troublesome to take out in raw conversions, either.

On the other hand, longitudinal chromatic aberration (front to back) is clearly visible and nearly impossible to remove. This is true for most "fast" prime lenses, and the 35mm DX doesn't escape this trend. Simply put, neutral objects in the background of the focus point will tend to go green, while in front they'll go magenta. Solution: don't use the widest apertures if you can avoid it.

Flare: Not really an issue that I can see. The hood does an okay, but not perfect, job of keeping stray light from the front element (the hood could be more aggressive, I believe).

Distortion: Fairly obvious barrel distortion (a bit less than 2%). This is a surprise, as you generally don't expect linear distortion from mid-range primes. The level of distortion is enough that it will show up even in normal shooting, so you'll want to correct for it with software.

Bokeh: The seven-blade aperture diaphragm in my sample is distinctly not regular in shape. It produces a slightly lopsided septagon from mid-range apertures down to the smallest ones. The blades are rounded, so at the widest apertures the opening is much more regular looking and doesn't tend to impact bokeh much. Nevertheless, the bokeh never quite looks right on close examination, and that's probably due to logitudinal aberrations, which are fringing the edges of out of focus highlights. That, coupled with the out-of-roundness that occurs at smaller apertures just makes for a slightly irregular bokeh that feels "busy.”

I should note that the image circle on this lens is large (probably why the corners are better than you’d expect). At infinity I can see some very minor corner clipping on an FX body. At closer in distances, you might not even know you’re using a DX lens on an FX body (assuming your turned off the automatic DX crop ;~). 

For a US$200 lens (often on sale at a discount), this DX lens is better than you’d expect, almost certainly. It’s sharp, well-behaved, still performs well on the 24mp bodies (though it’s easier to see the modest corner degradation now), and ought to be in every DX shooter’s bag. 

The biggest drawbacks are the lowish build quality and the not spectacular focus speed. Neither of those really detract at this price point with this level of other performance.


Final Words

Message to Nikon: make more lenses like this, please. Simple, small, affordable, suitably DX sized, no terrible flaws. 

Indeed, if Nikon had produced a 16mm and 24mm sibling to this lens, most DX shooters would be very happy. 

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