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Customer Review

635 of 660 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unassuming humble little jewel of a lens, October 23, 2009
This review is from: Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR Cameras (Camera)
Nikon has absolutely nailed it with this lens. A modest sum gets you exactly what you need in a lens, nothing you don't, and it works beautifully. It is relatively feature-rich at its price: cheap lenses, even from Nikon, often lack important features - but not here. Unlike other recent DX bargains this lens has Nikon's M/A focus setting, which allows automatic focus with instant manual over-ride. This is a simple and intuitive method of combining the ease and accuracy of AF with sometimes-necessary manual control, and Nikon has done users of this lens a great favor by including it, despite the low price. It also features, less importantly, a proper metal mount and a gasket to keep dust ingress from occurring through the camera/lens interface. A couple of items do remain absent: there is no focus distance scale, and as a consequence there is no depth-of-field scale, an unfortunate omission that is nevertheless justified at the price point. This is a bargain lens, a no-brainer for any photographer aspiring beyond the point-and-shoot level, and the lack of distance and depth scales are a reasonable trade-off.

What is clear to me in using this lens is that Nikon has put its money in exactly the right places to make this lens a star despite its price. There may be nitpicks here and there, but the optics, the coatings, the engineering, and perhaps most importantly the quality of the focusing system, are exactly what they need to be to allow this lens to make photographs that are the equal of those made by professional zooms costing in the thousands.

The important thing to keep in mind with this lens is that it is a relatively fast prime lens, and the most important quality of a fast prime is its ability to take photographs using a large aperture: without this ability there are any number of excellent consumer and professional zooms that are capable of doing the same job. Its essential distinguishing quality, then, is its ability to make images at apertures wider than f/2.8 or so, and at such large apertures there are two hurdles that a lens must overcome. The first is simply a matter of optics: most lenses, historically at least, have been made from an assemblage of spherically-ground lens elements. Spherical elements do a good job of approximating the perfect shape for a lens at smaller apertures and are used because they can be manufactured inexpensively - but at larger apertures, their spherical nature varies optically from perfection, leading to something called spherical aberration. This results in a lack of acuity, and sharpness, in the resulting image. The 35/1.8 uses an aspherical element (actually a hybrid aspherical for what it's worth) to correct this imperfection. The result, in this well-engineered example, is a lens that performs nearly as well at a wide-open f/1.8 aperture as at an optimal f/5.6 or f/8 aperture.

The other important hurdle in performance for a modern fast lens is the quality of the focusing system. This is more complicated than simply the lens itself, as it relies on electronics in both the lens and the camera body. Nevertheless the more I use Nikon's AF-S lenses - and have the opportunity to compare them with older and third-party technology - the more I am impressed by their performance. The difficulty is that at f/1.8, even with a "normal" (35mm for DX) lens, the depth of field is very narrow. The focusing system needs to be able to find focus within a very small margin of error, and just as importantly it needs to be able to alter focus in very small increments in response to minor changes in the position of the camera or subject. The requirement for accuracy is stringent enough that earlier generations of AF lenses, those which relied on motors in the camera body, tended to be somewhat clumsy in their ability to consistently maintain perfect focus. They would "hunt," requiring several back-and-forth adjustments to find perfect focus, and they would often either fail to respond or lose focus altogether when small adjustments were needed. Nikon's AF-S lenses comprise a significant technical advance in that they largely eliminate these problems. The AF-S motors, in combination with the in-camera focusing logic of Nikon's contemporary bodies, are able to make the small adjustments necessary to find and maintain focus even within small depths of field. They rarely hunt, they are typically very accurate, and the 35/1.8 seems to be as good as the best of them. This is important, because it allows the 35/1.8 get excellent, perfectly focused pictures while other lenses are trying to figure themselves out or are shooting pictures an inch or fractions of an inch out of perfection, often enough to ruin the shot.

These are the most important things to keep in mind, for most photographers, when looking for a fast "normal" lens. Everything else should be considered as well, but when it comes to the ability to make consistently good images with proper AF function, these are by far the most important points for this type of lens. Everything else, by comparison, is a minor detail.

As for those minor details, some do work against this lens. There are well-documented chromatic imperfections in the lens' performance. These are largely corrected by Nikon's electronics and by its software, but are apparent, if usually subtle, when these corrective elements are not used (for example, in lower-end camera bodies that do not correct for chromatic aberrations). It has a bit more distortion than you'll find in most "normal" primes, enough to be noticeable in photos with strong horizontal or vertical elements that pass through the majority of the frame. And its build quality is very much in the consumer range - light, plastic, and not necessarily of high tactile quality, though certainly of high actual quality. None of these things matter all that much, however, if what you want to do is point this lens in the right direction and get excellent photographic imagery in return. Some seemingly superior lenses give the photographer better first impressions but can't equal the results - see my review of Sigma's competing 30mm f/1.4 prime for an example.

I rank this as a four-and-a-half star lens. Amazon doesn't allow half-star ratings, and I won't quite give it a full five, but by getting the most important details just about as right as any lens can be, it is very close. I don't believe in ranking lenses differently according to price. This lens gives a 4-1/2 star performance, and at its price that is remarkable, but I won't call it a five-star lens because it is cheap: that determination is for the reader to make. What I will say is that, among the variety of "normal" primes I've used, on DX and on film, most of which are pretty reasonably priced, this lens is a standout. It gives me the highest proportion of great images, with perfect clarity and color, of any - and it does it with a minimum of fuss. It's wonderful to use, and I love it. It's one of my favorite lenses.

Miscellaneous notes:

- This lens has fairly poor bokeh. Bokeh is a word used to describe the quality of blur in out-of-focus areas in the frame, and can be important for fast lenses because a fast lens allows the photographer to "isolate" his subject in the frame by rendering the remainder of the frame out of focus. Nevertheless, bokeh is a less important quality in a 35mm lens than in a longer lens, because the actual degree of blur is less: in fact, the degree of blur achievable by any lens is related to its focal length and nothing else. It is true, if one looks closely, that some other lenses in this range have better bokeh, however the blur itself is a relatively subtle effect in all such lenses, and concentrating too acutely on the quality of this modest blur seems to me to be somewhat misguided. The ability to isolate one's subject remains critical, but it is a more subtle level of isolation that one might achieve with a longer lens, say an 85/1.4 or 180/2.8, and consequently the precise nature of the blur is just not all that important, at least for my purposes. The exception is close-range photography, where the background can be thrown well out of focus, and which is consequently not this lens' forte.

- The 35/1.8 uses Nikon's standard 52mm filter thread, which is of some importance to those of us who already have a decent collection of filters and step rings. I'd advise any buyer of this lens to buy a high quality, multi-coated polarizing filter and a high quality, multi-coated neutral density filter of 2-3 stops. That can come close to doubling your investment in the lens, but those filters can be used with a significant spectrum of Nikkors that share the same filter thread. The filters will allow you to maintain this lens' desirable narrow depth of field even in brighter conditions, which is otherwise not possible; or while using synced flash, which is usually limited to somewhere in the range of 1/200 sec shutter speed.

- One minor drawback of this lens, for me personally, is that the 35mm focal length is just a bit longer than I'd like for a "normal" perspective on DX. I'd rather Nikon have made this lens with a 30mm, or even possibly a 28mm, field of view. Though this is a minor point, there are some alternatives out there in these ranges that some might prefer. Nikon's 28mm f/2.8D is a perfectly decent lens, not quite as good as this 35/1.8, and also not as fast, but it's available on the used market for next to nothing and might be desirable to some who prefer its focal length. It does not have a built-in focus motor, but it is sharp, light, and unlike the 35/1.8 it can also be used on full-frame and film cameras. There is also a 35mm f/2D lens, which on paper seems as though it might be a better buy than this lens, despite its higher price. While it is also sharp, my copy was somewhat muted in terms of color rendition - less contrasty - although it has the offsetting advantage that it, also, can be used on full-frame/film bodies. Both these lenses lack the fine, incremental focusing ability of the 35/1.8 AF-S, and neither is quite as sharp, especially wide-open.

- The 35/1.8 is a very contrasty lens, equal in this regard to the best Nikkor or third-party lenses I've used, and significantly better than many. This is the likely result of Nikon's use of premium, high-quality lens coatings, which attenuate internal reflections that can otherwise literally "dilute" the light that is transmitted properly through the elements. While some lower-cost lenses seem to give up a smidgen of performance in terms of contrast, I see no evidence of that here.

- This lens is a reduced-image-circle lens, designed only for use on DX cameras and not properly useable on full-frame or film cameras. This has been taken by some as a disadvantage - however, I disagree. By designing the lens for DX, Nikon has undoubtedly been able to optimize the lens' optics to provide maximum acuity within the smaller DX image circle. DX cameras, with their high-density pixels, require a higher level of precision within this smaller image circle, and allowing the designers to give up the transmission of the image outside this small area has certainly facilitated their success. It also allows the lens to be smaller, lighter, and less expensive than it would otherwise need to be, with less glass area. The promise of DX is exactly that: high performance and compact size at a reduced price. By creating this and other DX lenses Nikon has committed to the DX format and given DX users a tool that in some ways is superior to those available to FX/film users. There is room for both formats in the Nikon world and with this lens, DX users have plenty to be thankful for.
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Showing 1-10 of 16 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 15, 2010 11:03:27 AM PDT
pfeitosa says:
Great review! What body(ies) did you use?

Posted on Oct 19, 2010 1:22:30 AM PDT
RC says:
What exactly do you mean by saying that "This lens has fairly poor bokeh?"

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 25, 2011 8:12:04 PM PDT
"Bokeh" refers to the visual texture of the out-of-focus portion of a picture, as produced by a particular lens. It is a Japanese word that has entered the general photographer's lexicon. Some lenses have particularly good "bokeh" where the subject will stand out with a pleasing blurred (out of focus) background.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2011 6:58:52 AM PDT
pfeitosa says:
99% agreed; sure it doesn't come from the French "bouquet", meaning scent, quality?

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 4, 2011 6:18:43 AM PDT
Jeff Schultz says:
According to wikipedia (which means it HAS to be right!) it is from the Japanese "boke" meaning blur ..

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 14, 2011 8:58:51 AM PDT
Forgot to tell the reviewer: this was an excellent review of this lens. Good discussion of chromatic aberration and also of AF-S. Excellent overall review.

Posted on Nov 25, 2011 10:26:12 AM PST
R. Williams says:
Excellent review! Thank you.

Posted on Dec 8, 2011 8:59:19 PM PST
David Mackey says:
I really enjoyed this review. i have been flip-flopping on the 35mm vs 50mm prime debate and you just sold me on thee 35mm 1.8. thank you

Posted on Dec 23, 2011 9:24:34 AM PST
Alan Bell says:
Hi. Thank you for the detailed and expertly written review.
I am looking for a lens which will allow me to take photos in low light conditions such as in restaurants/dinner parties without the need of a flash. I would also like to take 'action' shots of my cats in indoor/outdoor conditions. I understand this lens may not be perfect for bright light scenes (I have a Nikon D90, so the CA should be auto-corrected) but apart from this limitation, can anyone recommend this lens - or another in the same price range ?
Thank you for your help.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 23, 2011 9:28:42 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 23, 2011 9:42:01 AM PST
pfeitosa says:
You got it nailed down already, Alan. I use my 35mm F/1.8 a lot for extreme low light situations like theater plays, and on a D7000 it actually gives *better* results than a full frame D700 with a Nikkor 50mm 1.4 AF (not AF-D). As a cat lover myself, I have an opinion that might sound foolish when you see some other lenses that I have in my $10,000+ worth bag: the best "cat" lens in my experience proved to be the cheap 18-55 VR kit lens, for the simple reason that it can focus down to just a few centimeters away (it's capable of 1:3 macro). One thing that helps is to use something to distract the cat. Enjoy!
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