Nikon 28mm f/1.4E ED AF-S Lens Review

bythom nikon 28mm f14

What is It?
The Nikkor 28mm f/1.4E ED is one of what is now an odd group of “fast” Nikon primes:

  • 24mm f/1.4G*
  • 28mm f/1.4E*
  • 35mm f/1.4G
  • 50mm f/1.4G
  • 58mm f/1.4G*
  • 85mm f/1.4G
  • 105mm f/1.4E*

This group has been developed and introduced over a very wide period of years, so you see some oddities, like both G and E designations. The lenses I’ve identified with asterisks (*) are ones I’d say have been designed since Nikon’s switch from an older set of optical design goals to the current ones. 

In particular, the lenses without the asterisks are going to show more corner to corner changes and have a different way of presenting the fall off from the focus plane to the complete out of focus areas. The asterisked designs will sometimes (but not always) sacrifice a tiny bit of central sharpness for a better overall performance across the frame, and they’ve been clearly designed for very pleasing out of focus areas.

The most recent lenses in the f/1.4 prime lineup such as the 28mm reviewed here are finally E-type, with an electronically activated aperture. This restricts their use to post D3/D300 cameras, which shouldn’t be a problem for most of you (full compatibility list at the end of this section).

For a modestly wide prime, there’s a lot of glass here: 14 elements in 11 groups. Three of those elements are aspherical—how Nikon is managing better edge to edge performance—while two are ED low dispersion glass. Flourine coating is on the front element to disperse dust and water. Nano coating is on the back of at least one of the elements to reduce internal flare. The lens is dust and weather resistant.

Filter size works out to be a big (for the focal length) 77mm. 

This means that the lens has some heft (22.8 ounces, 645g), something you don’t normally expect in a prime of this focal length. 

Minimum focus is not impressive at just under a foot (0.28m), resulting in a maximum magnification ratio of 1:5.9. A number of modest wide angle lenses do far better than that, allowing you to push the perspective a bit in the right situation. DOF markings are present for f/11 and f/16, but very few actual focus distances are marked (3.5 feet and 1m are the maximum markings other than infinity, which isn’t helpful). 

Only one switch is on the lens, with only M/A and A positions.

Because of the E-type diaphragm, the full set of cameras that are compatible are:

  • D3 series, D4 series, D5
  • D300 series, D500, D600, D610, D700, D750, D800 series, D810, D850
  • D3100 through D3400
  • D5000 through D5600
  • D7000 through D7500
  • also works with the Df and the Nikon 1 cameras with FT-1

Source of the review lens: loan

The lens is made in Japan and comes with an HB-83 bayonet lens hood and a CL-1118 soft case. Price is US$2000

Nikon’s Web page for the lens

How’s it Handle?
Almost nothing to say. It’s bigger and heavier than you’d normally associate with 28mm. A pound and a half doesn’t really distort handling on the big FX bodies, but you will feel some front-heaviness on the DX bodies, for sure. 

The focus ring was wide and smooth on the sample I tested, with none of the gravel-sounding bit some of the Nikkor primes can exhibit in manual focus. 

How's it Perform?
Focus: Like most of the AF-S primes Nikon makes, the 28mm f/1.4E isn't the snappiest lens in the world, but it's more than fast enough. I see a little sliding-to-focus on big distance changes, but nothing objectionable.

Sharpness: For DX, central sharpness is excellent, and corner sharpness is still very good even wide open. Some of my tests show that f/2 is actually a bit rougher in the corners (but only a tiny bit). There are optical gains to be had all the way out to f/5.6 with this lens, though since it starts so well, those gains are small other than for the corners.

For FX, again central sharpness is excellent, as you'd expect. You can see a slight loss of contrast when wide open. By f/5.6 the lens is again as sharp as you might expect. It's the edges we need to talk about. Wide open there's clear smudging in the extreme corners, and smearing at the edges. Clearly an astigmatism. Stopped down to f/5.6 the corners are as good as the center is at f/1.4. Not perfect, but what I'd generally place at very good or even excellent in my subjective assessment.

There's just not a lot to complain about in terms of resolution at DX, while only corners at wide apertures generate issues for FX.

Linear Distortion: Modest barrel distortion (between 1 and 2%). It's just enough that you'll probably want to correct it, just little enough that you probably won't. The distortion seems to "barrel" a bit more at the extremes, but this isn't mustache-style in my opinion.

Vignetting: On FX cameras, the lens has more than a stop-and-a-half vignetting in the extreme corners. The vignetting circle starts to become apparent just past the DX crop, so wide open you'll tend to see the vignetting. At f/5.6 the vignetting is completely ignorable.

Chromatic Aberration: Longitudinal chromatic aberration is clearly present with near showing strong blue/magenta tinting and far showing an interesting green/yellow tinting. This has clear implications on edges of highlight bokeh. You need to get to f/5.6 to remove this type of CA completely, but even f/2.8 will minimize it.

Lateral chromatic aberration is clearly present. On the highest megapixel full frame bodies this will result in two and three pixel fringing on very high contrast borders if you haven't elected to have the body remove it (for JPEGs). 

Bokeh: Note the color fringing due to longitudinal chromatic aberration. It can be annoyingly present with bright highlights. That said, what I like about this lens—and what's true for almost all recent Nikkor primes—is the transition from the in-focus plane to complete out-of-focus. It's gentle, un-busy, and very natural looking. 

Final Words
A very likable lens, at least if you're in the market for a fast 28mm prime. But is it US$1300 more likable than the f/1.8G?

To me, no. 

As you might be able to tell from my wording, I've elected to keep neither 28mm. They just don't fit into my style of shooting (nor does the 35mm focal length), so as I try to keep my lens set at tolerable numbers, I have to make choices like this. It's not that I think the two modern 28mm primes are terrible lenses. They aren't. They're both excellent. If I shot more at this focal length, I'd be keeping one (cough: the f/1.8G). Indeed, I like both 28's better than the 35's, though only by a little bit. 

To me the key characteristic of the 28mm f/1.4E that brings it into strong consideration is the way it handles that focus-to-out-of-focus bit. If you're isolating subjects and just suggesting backgrounds, you'll find the f/1.4E better than the f/1.8G version. That plus its very strong central sharpness can be a killer combination, resulting in images that have pop and depth in their presentation. The right image shot with this lens just doesn't look two-dimensional, nor does it look faked in the depth dimension. Wedding photographers probably will fall hard for this lens.

Then there’s the nearly US$5000 Zeiss 28mm f/1.4 Otus. I’m not at all sure that the Otus delivers enough difference to warrant the extra US$3000 over the Nikkor, and that’s before we start taking into account the size and weight of the Otus. Call the Nikkor a quasi-Otus at a reasonable price. With autofocus. If you’re in the market for really high quality 28mm optics, you’re going to buy the Nikkor or the Otus, I think. At least based upon my sampling of the various options. 

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