Prime Lenses on DX- Finding the Right Match

Why Go Prime?

Like a lot of SLR users, after using zooms for a while I decided to go for better photo quality and try out some primes. Zooms make you lazy, they encourage you to let the camera take the picture by zooming in rather than walking over to take a closer look, as you would do normally. They are great for their convenience and indispensable for travel photography, much pro work and just for not needing to change lenses. Yet they aren’t always the best thing for your walkabout, or for focussing on the perfect composition a great photo can have. What follows below is one man’s odyssey in search of the perfect prime lens on DX. Have I found it? I’ll cut to the chase and say not yet, but in the shape of the 24mm on DX, I have found something close enough for me to make me very satisfied with what I have and enjoy casual digital photography in a new way. It’s also a lesson that a wistful desire for something better can sometimes best be satisfied with something that’s been around for a long time.

After enjoying primes on film, the first one I tried on digital was the 50mm f/1.4, Yet I was disappointed to find out with my first DSLR, the D70, it was just a bit too long for walkabout. I soon realised that from being a normal, it had became a nice short portrait lens, though one with good but not amazing bokeh. Liking the function, I then upgraded to Sigma’s massive version,which has been called the ’85mm f/1.4 for DX’. But I still wanted something with a ‘normal’ point of view, so I tried out my 28mm f/2.8. Of course, it was no longer as wide as I’d remembered it, but with the change it became a good, slightly wide ‘normal’ lens for me. In fact, I found myself taking some of my best photos with it, thinking in a way that zooms discouraged, walking up to things and seeing them from their own perspective, which brought out the photographer in me.

One of my most favourite photos. I doubt I'd have composed the same way with a zoom.

When I switched to the D300, I was startled by the increased image quality I was seeing from it’s revolutionary 12MP sensor.I started looking at online lens reviews and saw that reaction to the 28mm I was using was decidedly lukewarm, so I wanted a taste of what I was missing out on. After seeing a lot of positive responses, I tried out the 35mm f/2D. The photo quality was nice, though not quite as exciting as I had hoped for and the bokeh wasn’t so great. I found the images quite soft wide-open and never really all that contrasty, yet there is something about the rendering I like, a sense of quality to it. Also, it’s bigger than the 28 and though not huge, this did eat away at the ‘compact package’ argument and made me think twice about bringing it along.

Looking back on it now, I realise that those extra mm meant it just wasn’t quite the same as the 28. Going out on my walks with it, I found myself painting details, not telling the whole story. Funnily enough, it’s angle of view, 57mm equivalent, is closer to my old 60mm macro than a normal angle, which is actually around 45mm (a classic lens length still occasionally made now, aimed at in Sigma’s 30mm f/1.4 DX). Still, I liked the angle enough to replace it with a smaller, faster 35mm f/1.8DX when it came out. This, especially for it’s price, is a real gem of a lens, very sharp, even wide open and with vivid colours. The bokeh leaves something to be desired, being probably worse than it’s cousin, being quite busy at times, but if you try not to challenge it with complex backgrounds, you can get some great images with it.

I find the 35mm DX good for close portraits, or details.

The Sigma 50mm f/1.4's incredibly creamy bokeh.

So after trying two 35mm I can affirm that both are good, they do differ. The newer DX model is a lot sharper, but with so-so bokeh and the other having better build but producing a slightly dull image, that may be good on low-contrast negative film but looks a bit dated on digital. It’s fine if that’s what you want, but I’m not so sure that’s what I always want. Digital is crisp and detailed, you can always tame that with filters if you want to soften that and I think an optimal digital lens should make use of this, unless you are looking for a special effect, of course. So, basically, I’d give a shout out to the DX version for digital shooters, as it’s not such a big investment, even if you do need to sell it on if you change to full-frame and you have the convenience of AF-S. It’d say the f/2 suits film more, or nostalgic shooters in search of a softer, more analogue look. As far as an affordable f/1.8 G full-frame version goes, Nikon is probably thinking if people can afford FX, they can pony up the dough for their new 35mm f/1.4G, but I think this is more for uber-pros and the super rich than us mere mortals, though I can dream. At that price level, it might be worth it to try out MF with the Carl Zeiss version, which apparently has sublime rendering, giving the feeling of an lens devised more for artists than computer testing.

In Search of Wider Angles (but not wide-angle)

I really wanted a wider angle to shoot with, without necessarily getting that unnatural ‘wide angle look’ that you get at 17 or 18mm on DX. Having lost my confidence in the 28mm, I decided to chose what length I like best. Having shot a lot with Tamron’s 24-135mm lens, I found I was getting some of my best photos at it’s 24mm setting. The same thing was happening with my 12-24mm Tokina. I even found my iPhone 4′, also 35mm equivalent, was giving me great shots and a classic, naturally expressive angle. I found people responded immediately to it’s shots, getting the sense of where i was through them. Had I found a ‘magic length’? Asking around, I found out that 35mm had been a classic for journalists and others for many years, offering a near perfectly balanced viewpoint. A friend had told me he could do 90% of a wedding with one, just moving around to recompose. It wasn’t just me. So I decided that it was time to treat myself. Seeing one sitting around the local Softmap at half the new price, I decided to get Nikon’s f/2.8 24mm.

The iPhone has a great angle of view for street-level photography.

I'm finding the same thing with my 24mm Nikkor

I had some teething difficulties with this, The first held me up for some time, being the relatively poor reviews. Unlike newer lenses, including Nikon’s 24mm or 35mm f/1.4D, or their DX 35mm f/1.8, it isn’t optimized for digital, resulting in relatively poor sharpness wide open, vignetting and people generally people saying their newer zooms do better. Was it really worth spending a lot on a decades-old lens? This had me hung up for months and in fact a couple of times I passed over copies I saw in camera shops, but in the end my question ‘when will Nikon make a cheaper 24mm for DX, like their 35mm f/1.8?’ was answered with a silent ‘perhaps never’ and I realised that a great, lens on the camera now is worth two on the roadmap! Once I did have it i hit another snag, as it back-focused really badly on my D300, so much so that  I took it into Nikon’s service center to have fixed. They did a great job, just by dialing in the right autofocus compensation on the fine-tuning option. The third is the fact that, being an older lens with no built in motor, it can’t autofocus with my smaller D3000 or D3100. This is an annoying problem, as their tiny viewfinders make focusing too hard and despite the D3100 live-view, it is too slow and the screen too low-resolution to use that way. Having the 35mm f/1.8 on that thing is a fantastic little package, fun and light and flexible, so it would be great to have some wider options. Are you listening, Nikon? As far as I know, Nikon has millions of shooters using those models, which brings me too…

A slice of life in the park.

Please Nikon, more Dx Primes, DX primes, DX PRIMES!

The switch from DX from film has in many ways been a great thing for a lot of people, bringing unheard of sharpness, versatility and of course the convenience of unlimited shooting ability, yet the blessing has brought it’s own curse, namely resolution-based shooting that challenges older lenses and a sheer dearth of wide angle prime. There has been great progress in the zooms, with lots of choice of lenses starting at 16-18mm, but for some bizarre reason I can’t fathom, no similar progress with primes. Part of this may well be the difficulty of making a quality wide angle cheaply, even just for DX. To have the quality good enough to rival the zooms it would have to be very good indeed- so perhaps they are avoiding poor reviews by not even trying. Also, many users have already stepped up to FX, especially the pros. In the past, this wasn’t a problem for users, as everyone could use the same lenses in the same way, be it on an F70 or an F5, but with cropped sensors we have a more complex situation, which is still in need of resolution. Will there ever be a full selection of usable lenses for DX, or should those wanting it either get a D700 or leave for another brand, perhaps to use alongside it? Or are the 16mm, 20mm, 24mm AF-S DX lenses ‘on their way’?

With more such primes, the DX format could really be a complete set, even with the smaller bodies like the D3100 or D5100, which despite their limitations, show how convenient this format can get, whilst keeping the same excellent photo quality. Sure, users can mount the older ‘D’ lenses in manual focus, but their viewfinders are too small and dark to do this well, especially on bright lenses with a short depth of field. Live view could help, the same way the LCDs on M 4/3 cameras are a enough for many people, but they are kind of hard to use this way. Now I know they aren’t designed to be pro cameras, but they are enthusiast cameras and Nikon could sell a tonne of wider DX primes to such enthusiasts if they made them. I should note in this context that there is a popular Sigma 30mm f/1.4 HSM DX avaliable, which I avoided because of their infamous quality control problems, but it does show there’s a market for it, only partially satisfied by the 35 f/1.8 DX.  If nothing else, people want a compact walk-around with quality, which makes this a golden opportunity. Nikon really need to do something about this, or else lose people to M 4/3, who are making much more of an effort to supply affordable high quality primes. People buying the camera might get zooms, but it’s the primes that make them attractive, keeping them so small. I understand that they need to focus on their essential lineup first, the D3100 and D5100 being great advances and the 35mm being a great DX lens, but we really do need more primes, as unless a cheap way to get into full-frame comes along soon, which it probably won’t, there is a very valuable segment for Nikon who aren’t satisfied with beer-bottle 18mm-xxx zooms and want the quality without breaking the bank. It may not be the biggest market, but it is a large and growing one that I think Nikon would be foolish to ignore (which in fact I think they are coming to realise).

What does little ‘ol me know about the market? Well, I do know that M 4/3 is making some of the most attractive, progressive and even best-selling cameras in some regions, being the fastest growing segment in Japan and Europe. What started out as a novelty has become a force to contend with. As I speak their third generation of cameras are coming out, boasting better than DSLR autofocus, which many thought impossible, and a new range of beautiful, exciting primes. this is all with their easy use of legacy lenses through adaptors. For now, their small sensor and lack of built-in viewfinders or EVFs still put me off, but who knows, if we can come to some sort of arrangement, could it be that M 4/3 is shaping itself into my second system, one more suitable for walkabout, with the size and features I desire for that? As I prepare to pack for another long trip, I think again of how I’d like to both travel light and have supreme photo quality. Time will tell, but they certainly need a built in EVF like that in the miraculous Fuji X100 before I jump on board their ship. Nikon, are you listening? It can’t just be me feeling this way.

Unless they are going to make their own version of mirror-less, with DX not going away any time soon, Nikon really needs to get their finger out and make those DX wide primes. Their D3100 and D5100 are capable of such great image quality, that they are really crying out for them. Maybe they are looking at a M4/3 or Sony NEX-like player of their own to indulge these on? I really don’t know, but I do know one thing- if you want to play with primes on Nikon in a serious way, you are going to be very limited by their entry-level models and need to step up to a D90 or D7000 at least. It will be a case of legacy lenses. I really like the DX quality image quality compared to compacts or M4/3, so I hope they can do more to make the most of them, so I don’t have to keep sticking on a zoom I shouldn’t really need. I should add, there is some progress in Nikon-Land. They recently released a new 50mm f/1.8, which despite it’s poor bokeh, at least offers an entry level 50mm, for portraits and candids. Then there is the announced 40mm f/2.8 macro, which looks like having some really nice image quality, especially in terms of both sharpness and bokeh and offers a ‘normal’ a little longer than the 35mm, but at the expense of a stop and a bit, offers you much better bokeh, which seems to be a major flaw of the f/1.8, despite it being an otherwise tremendous lens. I love macro and a beautiful bokeh, but my 90mm Tamron is too long on DX for walkabout use (though great for flowers or bugs), so this may well be my next lens purchase. It may even replace my 35mm f/1.8, which funnily enough I was just starting to feel dissatisfied with, primarily due to it’s poor bokeh with complex backgrounds, but also due to it doing close-up but not Macro. Despite being twice as dark, problems I was only starting to notice have suddenly been solved.

Even this cat wants more DX primes!

Buying Advice, for the Prime-lover

So my advice to Nikon buyers? The most obvious route is full-frame, where of course all primes work as advertised, but like many I am still waiting for the D700 to be updated with more resolution and video before I go that route, to get something like the Canon 5D MkII. Even so, it’s a chunky monkey and I would still prefer something smaller for everyday use. People I know with a D700 often leave it at home due to the bulk; a casual camera it ain’t. Some say full-frame is the medium format of our day and it does seem to hold true for the moment in Nikon-Land, though I expect sooner or later they’ll release a smaller alternative; the new 28-300mm ‘kit lens’ suggests one may come.Whatever camera you use (it really isn’t that important), if you want to know which focal length suits you best and would be worth getting a prime in, take a look at the shots you’ve been taking and see which ones you are happiest with.

I find with my 24, 28, or 35mm, I have great lenses to wander around with, all close to ‘normal’. They focus fast and efficiently, their small size makes me unimposing for street photos and I can portray the same simple world I see it through my eyes. A good prime, blurring the background, can give your photo a 3D effect that you’d rarely get from a zoom. Sure, I’d like AF-S motors and more critical sharpness, which I could get from a lens redesign, but I find it isn’t essential for what I do. The reason I use these lenses is not so much for better image quality, as for their simple, efficient approach, which is something you notice more when taking a photo in the real world than in theory (hence the popularity of rangefinders, which leave out gadgets and get straight to the photo). As far as lengths go, that 24mm is all I need. I might sometimes like to go wider, but for now 24mm does it for me. It may well in many cases be all I need, just moving around to capture different angles. It is my ‘starting point’, a chance to get really great photos rather than just good ones, whether or not the world understands them. You, dear reader, may have another favourite length- if you are lucky, it will be 35 or 50mm, which will give you a world of choices, whatever the format, but I personally like my world a little wider. And you know what, after talking to other photographers, including some pros, I’ve found others saying the dame thing. Which all means, after sitting inside whilst I took out my D3xxx series, my D300 will be coming out to play a bit more.

Note– Edited on 24/07 to improve readability and correct some small mistakes.

Lenses in the slideshow-

1) The first prime lens I enjoyed on DX- Nikkon’s AF 28mm f/2.8D. It gets generally poor reviews for various issues, like CA but I find it can produce magical images for me anyway, just for being so usable. I may well have a good copy. Reputedly, it’s a lot better stopped down.

2) My current favourite, the 24mm AF f/2.8D Nikkor, a classic lens, that really makes the images ‘pop’.

3) The handy AF-S 35mm f/1.8DX Nikkor, one of the best deals in Nikon’s current lineup, in many ways a DX version of their famous AF 50mm f1.8D

4) An oldie but quite goodie, the AF 35mm f/2D Nikkor, a bit soft on digital, unless you stop it down a bit

5) The aging AF 50mm f/1.4 AFD Nikkor, replaced by a slower-focusing G version, which apparently has better bokeh. For this reason, I prefer to use my cream-machine Sigma 50mm, though it is heavy as can be.

Then a few lenses I don’t have…

6) The Sigma AF 28mm f/1.8, an older version as bought by Ken in Ueno, the newer one being a lot larger but having HSM focussing

7) Nikon’s expensive and out of production AF 18mmD, which in it’s poor internet reviews illustrates just why I think Nikon needs to make some new wide, affordable primes to keep up and

8) Nikon’s soon to be released 40mm f/2.8 DX Macro, which I predict will be a more useful lens than many people currently realise. It is apparently very sharp with a creamy bokeh, making it potentially a great and handy lens for portraits.

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  1. Reblogged this on Perfect Futures and commented:

    I wrote this post about using prime lenses about 2 years ago and it seems to get searched for more than anything else here. There are still a lot of DX users out there, perhaps millions, many of whom are looking for a good prime for their camera.

    I think just about everything on it still rings true, especially the advice to try using prime lenses more. When you take photos, you don’t really need to capture everything. The other approach is to see it more like painting, where you only really need a few representative and deeply intended images.

    The only thing to add here is that Sigma has remade their 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM lens, which looks to be a slightly wide normal on DX. If it’s anything like as good as their much loved, recently released 35mm f/1.4 HSM, it may well make the grade. Whilst the poort quality control they used to have put me off in the past, especially in the case of this lens, which had many soft copies, I may well take one for a spin… and if it does make for that (nearly) perfect DX lens, all the better!

  2. Ryan

     /  August 25, 2011

    Great post, and timely!

    I recently decided to stop reading about the 24mm 2.8 and just buy it myself, after a similar period of contemplation. I’m now just feeding my confirmation bias while I wait for a nice second hand example to present itself…

    You have some interesting thoughts on this topic, and I agree with basically everything you say. For what it’s worth I’ve decided against waiting for Nikon to produce any wider DX primes as, frankly, I’m not sure the two they’ve released (which would interest me) thus far – the 35mm and 50mm – are good enough. I’ve ‘abandoned’ zooms for all the usual reasons, with bokeh being a very important factor. What’s the point of a prime with terrible bokeh? In my opinion the 35mm and the 50mm suffer badly here. I can see why the 35mm is appealing… but personally I’ve never lusted after it, purely because of the images I’ve seen with a busy blurred background. The only new alternatives to these lessons are the 1.4 G primes, and they’re silly money.

    So I’ve decided to ‘stay DX’ and stick to D series primes. I’m only a hobbyist, and realistically that is all I’ll ever be. I can’t justify a D700, or the very latest nano-coated glass required to get the very best from it. The D7000 has shown that DX really can be a force, so I’m picking up D series primes for my trusty D70s – still a great camera, when used within its limits – with a view to picking up a more modern body further down the line. I’m happy to buy cheaper, yet perfectly good, lenses as the gear-heads sell them on in favour of the Holy Trinity. The big guns are great if you’re a working pro, or have the disposable income – and, more importantly I feel, are prepared to carry them about everywhere – but as someone who loves photography and is striving to improve, yet isn’t anywhere near charging for services rendered, I’d feel ridiculous taking a D700 and 24-70 out every time I left the house. And, not meaning to be harsh, I’ve found that a GOOD proportion of those on flickr who evangalise the pro gear… don’t come close to warranting it.

    Anyway, good article and nice photos – keep the blog going!

    • Thanks, Ryan! I agree with you whole-heartedly about the new dx primes- the 35mm achieves sharpness at ‘any cost’ and can have some terrible bokeh, same with the new 50mm. The obsession with sharpness in reviews, with their ‘MTF charts’ being poured over, is something similar to the megapixel fascination- part of the story being passed off as a whole and a hopeless search for a merely mathematical definition of image quality, forgetting it is an art as much as a science.

      I’m glad to hear you are still using and enjoying the D70s. It is a fine camera and my first digital SLR. Also, it has the benefit of being both small and light and having an AF motor, something to an extent marooning the new mini-Nikons, with little chance of the right lenses or even a mirror-less substitute of equal quality on the horizon.

      My verdict on the ‘D’ lenses is that they are very good, better in use and often rendering than even the better zooms, yet not stellar. Yet in a world where the G primes and most Zeiss glass may as well be made of unobtainium, it’s either use them or go full frame and enjoy the MF alternatives.

      Personally, if the right camera comes out, I may well switch to full frame. The potential of very narrow DOF and exact manual focus is attractive, as well as the image quality that even at low ISOs is silky smooth by it’s very nature, rather than being cleverly made so as on DX. Yet I will probably still be using DX for many years, partly for the size advantages. With people wanting smaller and lighter, I think DX will continue to grow in popularity, only joined by mirror-less in the enthusiast sector.

      I still have a little hope for DX lenses. The new 40mm f/2.8 macro, while a little dark, seems to have very nice bokeh and my off-brand Sigma has some of the best I’ve seen. There is always the chance of a really nice 24mm f/1.8 or 16mm f/2.8 to come. Primes may well come back in fashion when people realize that the ‘great deal’ of a bright zoom lens is something they need to lug around in an often ridiculous fashion. The pictures you get are the shots you didn’t miss. In many situations (street photography being one), a prime could lead to much better composition and efficient story-telling than the sloppiness of a zoom.

      Though for all this, on my current trip to SE Asia, my new 18-105mm VR has been a godsend. Supreme flexibility can make for a fun experience, too! I should add, I also brought my D300 and 24mm f/2.8 along for street photography and others, so hopefully I’ll have some memorable shots from that to justify the added weight to my overstuffed bag:)


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