A while ago, I made an article about finding the best prime for DX and in the process lamenting the lack of choices here, at least in comparison with FX. I still think it’s true that they are sorely lacking, but decided to take a step back and look at what choices there are and be a bit more positive about them; which means, not so much denying their flaws, so much as appreciating their good points. Even with the progress made in mirrorless formats and the advances in full-frame cameras, I am still on the opinion that a cropped DSLR is the most convenient compromise for picture-taking around now, at least for most people. Full frame and medium format digital both offer far better image quality, yet in a larger, more expensive package. Even people who have such systems may still want a cropped one for travel or convenient back-up.
So here, I’ll take a look at various lenses I’ve used on DX and say what I think of them, though your mileage may vary. I’ll go into them one by one, in order of focal length. Note, this is all on a budget, so there is no mention of the 24mm f/1.4G or 35mm f/1.4G, which are large lenses, essentially designed for working pros.You’ll also notice I opted for the 50mm f/1.8G rather than f/1.4, partly because I already have so many 50mm I can’t justify the cost, but also many reports said the f.1,8 is better. All I know for sure is it’s probably better value. I’ve put a couple of samples after each description, as there’s not much point in a lens that isn’t used, but try to see for yourself not just the subjects, but if you like the way the lens renders them.
Nikon 24mm f/2.8D
Here we have my current fave, giving me a very comfortable 35mm equivalent. Just right. It’s a nice, sharp lens, giving me a pleasingly 3D appearance to the photos. No, I haven’t pixel-peeped, but it seems fine wide open and it’s nice and small, to boot. People see you with this and they think, “here’s a photographer, he loves taking photos, I want to be a part of it”. Well, I hope they think something like that, anyway. This is one lens that could really do with an AF-S update, as it is such a wonderful focal length, it’s a real shame there is no AF on the smaller bodies, though you can use the rangefinder focus-assist, for what it’s worth. I did say this wouldn’t be a complaining post, so I’ll try my best and just add that on a camera with a focusing motor, like the D300/D7000 or soon to emerge D7100, this is no problem at all. Remember, though that as the mega-pixels go up, made-for-film lenses like this will probably look increasingly soft and need more stopping-down to compensate, another reason for an update, methinks.
Nikon 28mm f/2.8D
The lens above renders this a little redundant right now, but it has produced some very nice images for me. On the lower megapixel bodies, like the D70, to a lesser extent D90/D300, it’s pretty sharp, especially stopped down and has a pleasing bokeh. It also has pretty nice construction, in fact, looking at them side by side I can’t see much difference between this and the 28mm. Only in a crazy world like the one we live in would anyone get both, but that’s how it works with primes- they are collectible. These are my jewels, I don’t really care if there’s some plastic in the construction, as this keeps it light and portable, which is the whole point of a lens you are going to use a lot. A caveman would be much more impressed by our achievements in plastics than metals anyway (probably!)
This lens gets a bad rep because it isn’t really up to the standard of todays 16mp/24mp sensors and there are apparently better MF versions lying around and especially the earlier ‘s’ version (not AF-S, but before the ‘D’) left out a lot of elements, which made for a cheaper, but much worse lens. Since they were mostly reinstalled in the ‘D’ version, it’s a pretty good lens. A bit like the 24mm, it gives a nicely ‘wide normal’ view on DX. Plus, being an FX lens, you can use it on full-frame, too, though probably the image suffers even more.
Nikon 35mm f/1.8DX
One of a mere handful of Nikon DX lenses, this one is of very modern construction and feather-light. I actually like this light build, as it makes for such a compact package, and I love the AF-S silent focussing. Impressively, it is sharp wide-open, a testament to the technological advances lenses have made (which you’ll find on a lot of new lenses these days). The colours are vivid and pleasing, it is a great ‘digital’ lens. What’s not to like? The rendering lacks some of the quality of its more expensive f/2 sibling. Bokeh can be rough if you aren’t careful, which impedes it as a portrait lens. Also, as with an 35mm on DX, it is a little long, certainly over normal, so your usage will end up reflecting this. Still, a great companion to the smaller DX models that can AF with this and it suits their diminutive size. It is the first sign of Nikon competing with the rise of m4/3. It will be interesting to see how upcoming DX primes (like the upcoming 40mm macro) shape up. If they can have a better bokeh, a more stylish render, they may well knock this off its perch… for the discerning customer, that is, as most will prefer this for its brightness.
Overall, this is my most-used DX prime, I bring it along on trips and take it out when the light drops, or if I have another camera with a zoom handy. Although I’d like something a bit wider, I do get used to it and just zoom with my feet. It is pretty good for close portraits, child photos, food, details, festivals or markets at night. Combined with the high-ISO capabilities of a modern DSLR you have a great combination. Certainly, it’s very sharp and on the whole the bokeh is pleasing. I’m not crazy about it’s overtly ‘made of digital’ rendering, but it certainly does the job and make for some memorable images.
Nikon 35mm f/2D
The most esteemed of the wider Nikkors, brighter and bigger and offering nice colours and a pleasing bokeh. Many swear by this and looking over my images again, I was getting some really good ones with this lens. I needs to be stopped down for sharpness, at least to 2.8, which is more noticeable at this point as, being around 57mm on DX, you’ll find yourself using it for portraits more than landscapes. So be warned, it’s not a wide lens on DX, but if you are happy with the viewpoint, you can work wonders with this. On DX, probably the f/1.8 is a better choice for sharpness, but this has a very different character which might appeal more. In my case, at least, I sold it on to an FX user, as I figured I could just use the DX.
Nikon 50mm f/1.4D
Do you like hexagons? If so, you will enjoy the out of focus highlights of this lens, with its unrounded 7 aperture blades. It’s a small point, but a big enough one for many to step up to the G version, which also brings (albeit slow) AF-S to the table and apparently much more sharpness and contrast. This is a nice, small lens, with an otherwise nice bokeh. It autofocuses fast and accurately, giving you perhaps the brightest lens in your collection in one fell swoop. It is a great DX portrait lens, just way too long for general use. They must be cheap now, as this lens has effectively been replaced by the ‘G’, unlike the various 35’s, which have different roles (DX or FX).
Nikon 50mm f/1.8G
I skipped on the 50mm f/1.4 update to ‘G’ after seeing numerous reports that the 1.8 is actually the better and sharper lens. Reviews repeatedly both hailed it as sharper, especially on DX, at 1.8 (though of course it can’t get quite as bright if you need to) and also as having a smoother bokeh. I can attest that it offers some very high quality imagery and by being small, light and fast, it is easy to take along. It’s certainly a lot better than my 1.4D in many respects. Yet it doesn’t quite grab me as being a ‘great’ lens, just a very good one. For that, I need to bring out the oversized Sigma.
I find its overall qualities to be much like the 35mm f/1.8… very sharp, fast and light, pleasing but not awe-inspiring bokeh and more of a precise, digital feel than a lush, analog one. It leaves me wondering if there is some magic in the f/1.4G, but after so many complaints of its slow AF speed and softness wide open, especially on newer sensors, I’ll stick with this until an update comes along.
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 HSM
The first of the lenses here to have astonishing bokeh. Also the heaviest weight, which leads to many passing it over. Seeing as it is mostly useful for portraits, unless you will be doing a lot, it tends to stay at home. Yes, it’s that heavy. I originally got it for weddings, which it sometimes goes out for, though seems to be happiest on a second camera, as unlike wider lenses it has absolutely no chance of managing group shots of anything more than two people (if that).I want to love this lens, but I just like some of its qualities. The fact that the AF, working on its razor-thin depth of field, often makes slight but noticeable mistakes doesn’t help too much.Yet, it has to be said that it is capable of astonishing photo quality, both in the bokeh and in the sharpness and colour offered. As others have said, it is an 85mm f/1.4 in small form, just as it’s baby brother the 30mm is like a 50 f/1.4. A lens I always intend to use more than I do.
This is probably the lens with best HQ that I use on DX. Anything longer would really be just for distant portraits or (as below) macro/close-up. The thing is, it’s just a little too short for portraits and you don’t get as much background blur as you’d like. You often feel the need for something that can go a bit wider, or longer, into more comfortable focal lengths, something like the…
Nikon 35-70mm f/2.8 D
“What, isn’t that a zoom”, I hear you cry? Well, yes, I’m cheating a bit here, but it really is as good as having a 35, 50 and 70mm all on your camera at once. Yes, it’s that good. It’s disadvantage? Like the 50, it’s just too darn heavy to be brought along with other lenses often, as it will always need something else for the (in my view) often more crucial wider shots.But if they are not needed, we have here a great ‘portrait zoom’ for DX, offering gorgeous colours, smooth enough bokeh and overall a uniquely wonderful rendering that few other lenses can match. In my view, this is one of Nikon’s very best ever lenses and is a real steal at the asking price, particularly second-hand, which with the advent of it’s ever wider cousins has become a distinct possibility. Why is the quality so good? I attribute it both to the sheer need for journalists to have such a lens (on full frame) and it’s relatively narrow range, which is a lot easier to perfect than something wider. One thing to note is that f/2.8 isn’t quite as good at isolating on DX as FX, it’s only around 70mm that you can really throw back the background. Here you have a 105mm equivalent, just right for portraits and with that very distinctive rendering, that warm, analogue rendering that Nikon’s newer lenses seem to lack. Very nice.
Only a couple of points to remember here. It’s not an AF-S lens, so no AF on the smaller bodies and also the fact that it was made for film suggests a lack of sufficient (depending what you consider sufficient) sharpness on the newer bodies. I know it works fine on a D300, but that’s just 12mp. Of course, there is the newer 24-70mm, which offers better quality and sharpness from what I’ve seen, but to accommodate that range, all at 2.8 and such quality, it need to be the beast it is, in size as well as price. Which means it can’t quite be considered competition for the primes I have listed here, in my view, as neither can the also very sharp 17-55mm f/2.8 DX. Of course, the same might be said of this 35-70mm, it really just depends how much weight you want to carry.
Tamron 90mm Di f/2.8
A wonderful macro, very sharp and with lovely bokeh, in fact some of the best in the business (though I’ve heard the Tokina 100mm macro has it beaten by some accounts). This is a great walk-around if you are going for a lot of macros, closeups or detail shots. It is also great for face-based portraits from a bit of a distance, acting like a classic 135mm, though perhaps it’s sharpness and relatively dark 2.8 aperture can be a little unforgiving for skin. Yet all in all, it has served me at least as well for this as for the macros. Of course at this length, it isn’t especially suitable for DX, but still it’s a lens I love and can truly recommend and a good way to have oodles of bokeh on a cropped sensor. There is also a newer VC version with built-in motor to look out for, not to mention it’s 60mm f/2 sibling, which despite being terribly slow to AF, is seen as one of the best portrait lenses for DX, with a more or less perfect length.