Friday, December 28, 2012

Nikon AF 35-70 f3.3-4.5 Review: A Tripod Makes Any Lens Sharp

Getting closer to another New Year, now. This is an expanded re-post of an old article, but to me, there's something appropriate about ringing in the new by honouring the years gone by at the same time.

Steveston Harbour, Richmond, B.C., Canada

This picture was taken with an old Nikon AF 35-70mm f3.3-4.5 lens... the kind of kit lens that came on the consumer F-401 way back in the days of film. These lenses earned a reputation for producing a 'dreamy' picture rendition, which is a nice way of saying that they were not very sharp. This reputation is not unearned, but was made worse by the high probability that the camera store clerk upsold you a UV filter to "protect" the lens, which further degraded the image quality. Nonetheless, this was the first lens that I ever used on my old D80. Not the greatest choice, but this particular image is fairly sharp despite being shot at "only" f/4.5. Even though I probably should have gone to f/8, it was windy out there and I wanted to keep the exposure time down as the boats were rocking gently in the wind.

Too often, you see shots of still objects at night with the poster wondering what more they can do to tame the noise in their shots. The obvious answer is a tripod. The funny thing is that this wasn't even shot on that good of a tripod either, it was barely stable enough to hold the camera still. On top of that, there was the wind to contend with. However, tripod shots in the dark can be stunning, because our eyes aren't good at picking out colour detail in the dark. (Remember your rods and cones from high school biology?) Unlike our eyes, cameras still see the colour, so long exposures open up vistas that we ordinarily aren't used to.

You lose contrast and resolution when you hand-hold a camera, and you lose a bit more due to the vibration from the mirror slap; in fact, depending on the situation, you can lose as much as 75% of the available resolution of the sensor in hand holding circumstances. In other words, if you are looking for more bite in your images, try adding a tripod and shooting in mirror-up mode before looking at a new camera or a new lens.

There are a few versions of the 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5, non-D, D and one with an upgraded focus ring, but they are all similar in optical construction.  Used prices will hover around $50, CDN or USD. It's not exactly a sought-after lens, but it is more sturdy than a modern kit lens, and it does have a proper aperture ring in case you need something that will still work with an old film body.


  1. woww sharp image, nice shoot
    Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)

  2. Hi!
    I really enjoyed your comments on this lens so thank you. I actually have the exact same "set-up" as you....shooting from an old D80 with the 35-70mm (3.3-4.5). I definitely notice the "dreamy" qualities of the photos and am not happy with it! If I were to upgrade to say a prime 35mm 1.8g DX lens do you think I would see a major upgrade in the photo or does the D80 have something to do with it too?

    1. No, you will see a difference. The 35mm DX is quite contrasty, and you have the benefit of using it wide open and still have it being sharp. I took the 35mm DX back to the same location as above, and you can see some of the samples here:

  3. I have noticed that you aren't a fan of UV filters to protect the lens. What would you suggest? Or just take your chances and go without any filter?

    1. I have a fairly nuanced opinion about them. On less expensive lenses I don't bother, but if it's a pro-grade lens, then I'm all for filters. You are always optically better off without a filter, and in all honesty, even if the front of your lens gets scratched, you likely won't see the results in your image. It comes down to choice and preference. I usually recommend first-time camera users to get a filter, because they aren't used to carrying around something that costs at least a few hundred dollars out in the open. If you are using a 70-200 f/2.8, the chances are fairly good that the cost of the lens is very dear to you, so a filter is a good investment in such a case.

      Filters do have their place. I have seen a few cases of them saving the front of the lens after an accidental drop and a good UV filter will clean up the blue-shift that you get when you go up in altitude. My personal preference is to try to squeeze as much out of the lens as possible.... within the my own perosnal tolerance for risk.