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.