Friday, December 13, 2013

Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX Review

Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX on D7000

The Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX is as close to a no-brainer purchase as there is in all of Nikon's DX lens catalogue. It's the modern day equivalent of the nifty-fifty that graced film era cameras, and is something of antidote to the kit zoom lenses with restricted apertures. Given those qualities, the typical buyer will likely be interested in two things: shedding weight and shooting in low light.

Updated March, 2014

Build and Design

The lens comes with the HB-46 bayonet hood and a soft case. The case is nothing to write home about, but for the price, the inclusion of the hood is a welcome relief at this price point. (As Canon users are all too familiar with, you have to spend "L" lens prices before you get an included hood, EF-S users are stuck with the extra purchase.) The hood reverse-mounts on the lens when not in use.

Lens with HB-46 bayonet hood.

It's an extraordinarily light-weight lens, completely built of polycarbonate plastic, albeit with a metal mount. It would be cliché to say that this lens feels cheap, but in all honesty, it's built to more or less the same quality as the 50mm f/1.8G and the 85mm f/1.8G.... that might not be saying much about the current crop of affordable Nikkor primes, but at least they are all optically excellent.

Focus speed is modest. The focus throw isn't particularly fast, which is a call-back to the 50mm primes of old. This means that the autofocus operation isn't lightning quick as it is on most of the modern standard-zooms, but that it's a forgiving lens to precisely manually focus. AF operation is relatively silent, with a bit of a high-pitched whine when the in-lens motor is working.

Image Quality

Overall, this is a very sharp lens that can be used even when wide open. Peak sharpness occurs at approximately f/4, but already by f/2.8 the the lens is amazingly consistent across the frame. Chromatic aberration will increase as you stop down; lateral chromatic aberration is moderate, but there can be a fair amount of longitudinal aberration. Barrel distortion is present; however since many modern primes show more barrel distortion than their predecessors, this may be something that we are all getting used to. However, distortion is corrected in-camera when you are shooting JPEG. Note also the green blobs from lens flare that are more prominent in the f/4 shot. Vignetting, though not super-low, is moderate for a DX lens.


The sharpness across all apertures is the  best attribute of this lens. Most lenses reach peak resolution when stopped down, but how far you need to go depends on the lens in question. Most lenses require two stops, whilst mid and high end lenses start dipping into the sweet stop after only one stop. For the average user stepping up from a kit zoom, having this much sharpness from f/2.8 on-wards is a real treat. Even for owners of f/2.8 zooms, the 35mm DX does at f/2.8 what their lenses would require f/4 to do in terms of resolving power and microcontrast.  

Because a high number of owners of this lens will be also have started with kit-zooms, there will be the temptation to use f/1.8 often... make that abuse f/1.8... especially for low light. Fortunately, this is a lens that won't disappoint, as global contrast remains high even when wide open:

Corner resolution does suffer somewhat, but the more pressing thing is that you have the natural decrease in depth of field as you open up the aperture. How much this affects the image depends entirely on the the subject matter; sometimes it will matter and other times it won't. In the picture of the dock above, there isn't much in the way of fine detail, and with the focus point in the distance, the foreground blur leads into the sharper part of the picture further down the dock, leading the viewer's eye into the picture and emphasizing a sense of depth. Stopped down and mounted on a tripod, the 35mm DX will produce results as sharp as any professional lens costing multiples more:


General Usage

One thing of note with the 35mm DX is that even though it gives a similar field of view as the classic 50mm on full-frame, the depth of field is really only the equivalent of f/2.8 on FX. Backgrounds aren't going to melt away into a creamy Leica-like mist, but there is enough background blur to suggest depth. However, it bears repeating that bokeh is a term that does not refer to the amount of blur, but rather, the quality of that blur. This picture illustrates that fact (click to view at intended size):

Shot wide-open, the lens does well with maintaining contrast in the center of the frame. On the cars, building and pavement, the bokeh isn't that offensive, as the form of the building, cars and pavement are relatively simple shapes. However, the bokeh in the tree branches is downright nasty, with very harsh highlight fringing going on. Be careful of what's in the background if you are going to shoot wide-open with this lens, and try to eliminate any distracting forms.

Bokeh at f/1.8

As for people shots in general, the 35mm DX not only makes a good walk-around lens; general scenery, snapshots, groups of people, etc. It's also tempting to use it as a portrait lens because of its f/1.8 aperture. For that purpose it does fine, but to be honest, the focal length is too short for "proper" head shots as the shooting distance brings you too close to the subject. For most people, this won't matter, but for serious work, a lens with a longer focal length (more perspective compression) would produce a more "professional" looking rendering of your subject's face.

Traditionally, you would do the above type of shot with a longer lens (either a 50mm or an 85mm), but if you are careful to capture your subject in as flattering a pose as possible, you can overcome the closer vantage and inject a bit more "personality" in to the picture that you might lose from using the more austere longer focal lengths. This is the difference between 35mm and 50mm on DX: the working distances also roughly correspond to the interpersonal space that you would afford your subject.

As a landscape lens, 35mm on DX is good for its convenience, but doesn't produce much in the way of drama. You can still produce pleasing scenery images, but you have to work harder to create the sense of space and depth that wide-angle lens would produce. For example, in the above image of the pier, the proximity of the large pleasure craft on the right helps to anchor the foreground against the cityscape, whilst the single-point perspective leads the eye down the pier towards the high rises.


AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm F1.8G vs 35mm f/2.0D

For DX shooters, there's no good reason to go with the 35 AF-D lens, which costs more, can't be focused on the D5200/D5300 and D3200/D3100 and is optically inferior. The only rationale for buying the AF-D lens new is if there is a chance of moving to full frame in the future, and even that comes with caveats. If you think that your next cameras will be the D610 or the Df, then the 35 AF-D is an affordable lightweight choice that will work with the smaller bodies... and if you aren't looking for the ultimate in corner or wide aperture performance.  However, the 35mm f/2 is mismatched with the D800, which would be better paired with the optically superior 35mm f/1.4G, or the 35mm f/1.8G FX, or the Sigma 35mm ART. The downside of using these lenses on a DX camera is that they both cost 2 to 3 times what the DX version sells for, and other than bokeh quality, both offer incremental image quality improvements in return.

AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm F1.8G vs Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM A

Sigma's refreshed version of their 30mm prime is a step up in price and build quality from the Nikon. The focus motor is quieter and of course, you get the benefit of f/1.4 versus f/1.8. (Actually, it's not that big of a difference in real world shooting.) What's nice about the Sigma is that the 30mm focal length is a bit looser than the 35mm on the Nikon, and is a bit closer to what is actually "normal" for human vision.  It's a much different lens from its predecessor, having the more attractive aesthetics of Sigma's Global Vision line and an improved feel to the focus ring operation.

Used Copies

The Nikon 35mm DX lenses are inexpensive lenses when bought new, and even more so on the used market. During the spring of 2013, the average US price on Craigslist was $164. This lens is traded often because its cheap to buy and easy to sell when you are ready to upgrade. The 35mm DX was cited as the most commonly owned DX lens amongst Thom Hogan's readers, accounting for more than 40% of his respondents during the 2012 survey. Watch for store sales, though, as a discounted store price will make a used price irrelevant given the assurance of having a fresh lens with a warranty. If you do decided to go for new over used, skip the U/V filter, as the price for a decent one will amount to a substantial portion of the lens cost.


  1. Excellent review, as usual. Your blog is top quality and is one of the best IMHO on the net for photography subject. Quality content is key and you clearly understood that concept... Keep up the good work and many thanks

  2. Although now it has been replaced with the newer Nikon AF 50 mm f/1.4 G AF-S but one must know that this lens held its top position for over a decade and is still a more desired and cheaper alternative to the newer model which is just marginally ahead in terms of performance. If the price for even the second hand version of this lens feels like a budget spoiler to you then i would recommend the cheapest yet one of the sharpest and well performing Nikon 50mm f/1.8 D for you. And trust me it not more than a feet behind in the race for image quality.

    Making good photographs is the job of the person behind the camera-lens system and not the responsibility of the equipment, which are merely the means to the cause.But having a good equipment at your disposal is a blessing .

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