Among DSLR shooters, there are two types of people: photographers who prefer using zoom lenses and photographers who prefer using primes. I am most certainly a member of the latter group. Prime lenses use a fixed focal length, meaning you cannot "zoom in" or "zoom out" when composing your image, but most prime lenses offer superior image quality and a wider aperture range than zoom lenses. I've switched from one camera brand to another over the years, but regardless of which brand of camera I was using a prime lens was the first lens I purchased for every camera.
Nikon is widely respected for making fantastic lenses, but in recent years Nikon has placed far more emphasis on zoom lens development than prime lenses. That's why most people where surprised when Nikon recently announced their latest lens, the Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G prime lens. This low cost, high performance lens was designed specifically for the many Nikon D40, D40X, and D60 owners who needed a fast prime lens at an affordable price. Is the new Nikon 35mm lens as good as it sounds? Let's take a closer look.
BUILD AND DESIGN
Nikon's recent announcement of a 35mm f/1.8 prime lens with auto focus compatible with the D40, D40X, and D60 took the photography world by surprise. The AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G is a completely new design for Nikon-mount DSLRs with APS-C sized sensors (DX format). This $199 lens was developed specifically to address the lack of cheap, fast primes for owners of the D40, D40X, and D60 DSLRs.
What separates the Nikon F mount on the D40, D40X, and D60 from all other Nikon DSLRs is the removal of the in-body focusing motor. All "AF-S" lenses use an exclusive in-lens the Nikon Silent Wave Motor (SWM), which means the entry-level D40, D40X, and D60 bodies can only autofocus with AF-S lenses.
The Nikon 35mm is a fast-aperture prime, designed to give DX-format Nikon users the classic normal angle of view of a 50mm lens on a Nikon FX-format DSLR or a 35mm film camera. In other words, back in the days of 35mm film cameras most manufacturers included a 50mm lenses as the "kit lens" with your new camera because 50mm was considered the "normal" focal length (similar to what the human eye sees). Today, most DSLRs come with a low-cost zoom lens as a "kit lens" but many photographers still want a "normal" prime lens with a fast aperture. That's where the new AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G comes in.
This compact lens has a solid overall build quality (much better than most lenses in the $199 price range) and takes up less space in your camera bag than the standard 18-55mm kit lens that came with the D40, D40X, and D60. The included lens hood helps shade the front lens element and prevent flare, but given the 1.5x crop factor for DX bodies and lenses, the hood could have been twice as deep (and twice as capable of reducing flare) without hurting image quality.
Markings such as a distance scale in both feet and meters or basic depth of field scale are completely missing from this lens. One feature that's worth mentioning is that the new 35mm lens uses fully automatic diaphragm control: you can't manually select the aperture by turning the diaphragm collar on the lens because there is no diaphragm collar.
Optical construction is all-glass with eight elements in six groups, and one aspherical element. The filter diameter for this lens is 52mm which is perfect for Nikon DSLR owners who use the 18-55mm kit lens as well.
As noted, APS-C style sensors in the Nikon "DX" cameras have a 1.5x crop factor, so this 35mm lens performs like a 52.5mm lens on DX bodies. The shorter focal length range makes this prime absolutely perfect as a "normal" lens for general use, and the f/1.8 aperture means you can create soft, blurry backgrounds or capture a great image even in near darkness.
The 35mm focal length and f/1.8 aperture has also become quite popular for photographers who are trying to replicate the look of old 50mm lenses from the old film days. The minimum focusing distance of just 12 inches means you can get close to your subject and still get a fantastic shot.
The new Nikkor 35mm lens is driven by Nikon's new AF-S in-lens focusing system rather than a traditional in-body screw drive focus system. This typically means focus is quieter and often faster than lenses using in-body focus motors. The new 35mm lens is indeed very quiet, but autofocus speed didn't seem particularly faster than what we've seen with older Nikkor lenses on other Nikon bodies. Still, the AF-S 35mm is quite fast and makes an excellent lens in low light environments where a standard kit lens just can't get a focus lock.
As mentioned previously, I was somewhat disappointed in the lack of a distance scale and/or depth of field scale on the side of the lens. It would have been nice if Nikon included a simple distance scale so photographers have another way to check the focus, but to be perfectly honest most people using Nikon D40, D40X, and D60 cameras don't even know what a distance scale looks like and would never use it even if this lens had one.
Focusing manually with the new Nikon 35mm lens on an AF-S camera like the D40x or D60 is much easier than with older Nikon lenses and bodies. Since the lens doesn't use a screw drive for autofocus there is no need to disengage the autofocus clutch in order to use the manual focus ring. Simply turn the manual focus ring on the front of the lens to adjust focus. That said, there is a standard M/A and M switch on the side of the lens in case you want to disable the autofocus and just use manual focus.
The manual focus ring on the new 35mm lens isn't as smooth as what I've seen on many other primes such as the Pentax DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited. In fact, the manual focus ring on the Nikon feels rough ... almost like it's being turned over a series of stripped plastic gears. The manual focus ring has a "throw" of about 100 degrees, so moving the ring from the closest focus distance to infinity takes a little more than a quarter of a rotation.
The sample images in this review were taken with a Nikon D40X in RAW/NEF mode and processed using ACR with no significant changes to the default settings. It's worth noting that Nikon Capture NX2 generally produces image files with more contrast and sharpness than the default settings in Photoshop. In any case, we believe these sample images are representative of what an average Nikon camera owner can produce with this lens ... even if they don't know how to post process images.
Even at the widest aperture of f/1.8, the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G is exceptionally sharp from one edge of the frame to the other with just a little corner softness. When stopped down to f/2.8 or more, even the extreme corners are virtually as tack sharp as the center.
The Nikon 35mm f/1.8G renders colors that are hue accurate, bright, and nicely saturated. Contrast was generally good, but not as impressive as what we've seen from other 35mm lenses such as the Pentax DA 35mm Macro Limited. This glass should be more than capable of resolving any detail needed for high resolution digital image sensors such as the 10 megapixel image sensors in the D40X and D60.
Flare and internal reflections are very well controlled. Chromatic aberration and color fringe around high contrast lines is also well controlled from f/2 and greater, but wide open at f/1.8 we often saw color fringing on high contrast edge demarcation areas in our images. Most prime lenses have excellent control over barrel or pincushion distortion since they have a fixed focal length. Unfortunately, the new Nikon 35mm showed visible distortion, with vertical lines "bending" outward as seen with the bars in the sample image below.
Vignetting (dark corners) was negligible at all apertures with and without the hood. The seven-bladed diaphragm renders exceptional bokeh, and the f/1.8 aperture gives you genuine out-of-focus backgrounds and foregrounds perfect for isolating your subject in the frame. Overall, despite the color fringing when shooting wide open and the visible distortion, this lens has excellent optical build quality ... especially considering the price.
As I indicated at the beginning of this review, I am probably a little biased in favor of prime lenses when it comes to photography. Until someone discovers a way to make an affordable zoom lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 there will always be a place for prime lenses. The ability to isolate your subject with shallow depth of field or take photos in extreme low light environments makes this lens a must have for serious photographers. The 35mm focal length also works well as a general purpose lens, though the noticeable barrel distortion is a little frustrating to see in a prime lens.
In short, the new AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G is an amazing lens with fabulous edge-to-edge sharpness, great bokeh, and an outrageously low price. In terms of overall sharpness and aperture range this lens is superior to several lenses that cost more than twice as much! Nikon finally delivered a fantastic prime lens for average consumers who own the D40, D40X, or D60. If you own one of these cameras, this lens belongs in your camera bag.