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Nikkor 35mm lens comparison Thomas, March 2011

Nikon Nikkor 35mm prime lens comparison

(Also see our Nikkor 35mm comparison in German)

Nikon currently offers three 35mm prime lenses: the ageing AF 35mm f2.0D, the low-cost DX 35mm f1.8G, and the latest high-end AF-S 35mm f1.4G. There's considerable differences in their size, weight and cost, not to mention different focal ratios, but the big question is how does their image quality compare? In this article we'll compare all three side-by-side on both cropped-frame DX and full-frame FX format bodies.

The 35mm focal length is one of the most useful on both DX and FX format bodies. On the former it delivers close to standard 50mm coverage for general-purpose work, while on the latter it offers mild wide-angle, squeezing in more than a standard lens while avoiding the obvious distortion of shorter focal lengths.

Prime lenses with their fixed focal lengths also generally deliver superior quality to zooms, especially kit zooms, while additionally boasting larger apertures which makes them better in low light or for achieving shallower depth-of-field effects.

So a Nikkor 35mm prime lens could end up being one of the best investments you make for a Nikon body, but again the question is which model to go for? After extensive testing of all three current 35mm primes from Nikon it's time to compare their performance - and as you'll discover, the fact the DX 35mm f1.8G was designed for cropped frame bodies doesn't necessarily rule it out for FX shooters... read on to find out which will be best for you...

     
 
From left to right: Nikkor 35mm f2.0D, DX 35mm f1.8G, 35mm f1.4G
 
     

I'll be concentrating here especially on sharpness and contrast which are major factors of image quality. If you like to read about features or other aspects of build or image quality, head over to our other reviews and reports:

Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4 G review / Nikon AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8 G review / Nikon AF 35mm f/2.0 D

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions regarding this comparison head over here.


Comparison of sharpness / contrast

I'll present the comparison in three parts: Center performance on a D300 for all three lenses, (near) corner performance on a D300, followed by (near) corner performance on a D700 based on Siemens-star test targets. As I try to match the crops from the test-shots closely for white-balance and brightness in post-processing you cannot use this tables for comparison of light fall-off. But I'll give you some impressions on that later. Processing was done in CaptureNX2 at standard settings, CA-removal was ON. Focus was live-view based with a little optimization by hand and it was done separately for the center and the corners to compensate for field curvature. These are all 100% crops!

Ok, let's start with the comparison of center performance:

Nikkor AF 35mm f/2.0 with
Nikon D300
100% crop from center
Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G with Nikon D300
100% crop from center
Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.4G with Nikon D300
100% crop from center
     
n/a
f1.8, 200 ISO
f1.4, 200 ISO
         
   
f2, 200 ISO
f2, 200 ISO
f2, 200 ISO
         
   
f2.8, 200 ISO
f2.8, 200 ISO
f2.8, 200 ISO
         
   
f4, 200 ISO
f4, 200 ISO
f4,200 ISO
         
   
f5.6, 200 ISO
f5.6, 200 ISO
f5.6, 200 ISO
         
   
f8, 200 ISO
f8, 200 ISO
f8, 200 ISO

 

The DX 35/1.8 is the best of the bunch wide open, but you have to keep in mind that wide open means f/1.8 vs. the larger f/1.4 aperture of the latest 35/1.4G. One can also observe that the 35/2.0D at f/2.0 is worse than the others at f/1.8 and f/1.4! But to put this into perspective: all three lenses perform very good wide open, with the small and cheap 1.8G taking the lead here.

Comparing the 1.8 vs. the 1.4 at f/2.0, there is almost no difference in the center performance with the 2.0D now clearly behind in this apples-to-apples comparison. At f/2.8 all lenses still improve visibly, with the 2.0D just one step behind. But at f/4.0 and beyond it's hard to see any relevant difference between all three. Diffraction sets in at f/11 on a 12MP DX-body or a 24MP FX-body, or at f/16 on a D700. If you look very closely there is perhaps a hint of diffraction at f/8.0 on the 1.8G.

 

Let's move on to the comparison of DX (near) corner performance:

Nikkor AF 35mm f/2.0 with
Nikon D300
100% crop from corner
Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G with Nikon D300
100% crop from corner
Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.4G with Nikon D300
100% crop from corner
     
n/a
f1.8, 200 ISO
f1.4, 200 ISO
         
   
f2, 200 ISO
f2, 200 ISO
f2, 200 ISO
         
   
f2.8, 200 ISO
f2.8, 200 ISO
f2.8, 200 ISO
         
   
f4, 200 ISO
f4, 200 ISO
f4,200 ISO
         
   
f5.6, 200 ISO
f5.6, 200 ISO
f5.6, 200 ISO
         
   
f8, 200 ISO
f8, 200 ISO
f8, 200 ISO

 

Short summary of the findings above: The 2.0D is only really good from f/5.6 on. The DX 1.8G shows a little astigmatism but otherwise puts on a pretty good corner performance from f/2.8 onward with sharpness even at f/1.8 and f/2.0 quite impressive but lacking contrast there. And finally the 1.4G shows less astigmatism than the 1.8G but otherwise performance trails the smaller sibling up to (and including) f/2.8. Even at f/4.0 you might give the 1.8G a small lead over the 1.4G. A little disappointing is how little the 1.4G sharpens up when stopping down from f/1.4 to f/2.0, perhaps the sign of a slight focus shift.

 

Finally let's see the (near) corner performance on a full-frame D700. Remember the DX 35mm f1.8G is designed for cropped bodies, but it's interesting to see how it measures-up on a full-frame model. Note the DX 35mm f1.8G understandably suffers from noticeable vignetting in the corners when used on full-frame, so we've applied corrections in the following crops. We'll discuss this in more detail below.

Nikkor AF 35mm f/2.0 with
Nikon D700
100% crop from corner
Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G with Nikon D700
100% crop from corner
Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.4G with Nikon D700
100% crop from corner
     
n/a
f1.8, 200 ISO
f1.4, 200 ISO
         
   
f2, 200 ISO
f2, 200 ISO
f2, 200 ISO
         
   
f2.8, 200 ISO
f2.8, 200 ISO
f2.8, 200 ISO
         
   
f4, 200 ISO
f4, 200 ISO
f4,200 ISO
         
   
f5.6, 200 ISO
f5.6, 200 ISO
f5.6, 200 ISO
         
   
f8, 200 ISO
f8, 200 ISO
f8, 200 ISO

 

What a surprise: the tiny 1.8G can still best the 2.0D even in FX corners - at least where sharpness and contrast are concerned. Vignetting was pretty strong on uncorrected images with the DX lens though: you need to correct the FX-corners in post-processing by up to 2 stops to match the center-brightness. And field curvature was really extreme on the DX lens too: if you want to capture a flat target equally well in the FX-corners and the center you need to stop down to at least f/8.0, better f/11.

Vignetting on the DX lens becomes even stronger under normal situations when shooting subjects at more typical distances: our test-charts are photographed at a magnification of approximately 1:30 and the lens thus focuses to about 80cm. That in turn enhances the field of view of this DX lens to almost FX proportions! But if you focus the 1.8G to a subject that is further away like 3m or more the corners are much harder hit and get completely dark when stopping down. See the following examples shot at f/8.0 on a D700. The left image shows the vignetting as it comes right out of the camera at standard settings. The red frame shows the area that you could use without much problems, it is equivalent to a 1.2x crop of the FX image. And if you think that vignette-control in camera or software can help you here, think again: The right image was produced with vignette-control set to 200% in Capture NX 2, and Lightroom 3 doesn't do any better.

 

 
Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.8 Vignetting on Full Frame FX body at f8
Full image, straight from camera without corrections
  Full image with Vignette Control set to 200% in Capture NX

   

See more examples of vignetting under real-life conditions in the up-and-coming 1.8G review. The 1.2x crop turns the 35mm effectively into a 42mm lens on an FX-body which might or might not be an attractive proposition depending on whether you already own a 50mm lens. But again in terms of sharpness in the corners, the DX 35mm f1.8G performs surprisingly well on an FX body.

 

A real-life comparison

After all those synthetic benchmarks let's turn to a real life example of how these lenses compare. The following images were shot within a few moments of each other at f/2.8 ISO 200 in RAW on a D300. Post-processing was done in Capture NX 2 with all settings to standard, and a uniform white-balance applied. The image shot with the 35/2.0D was corrected by -0.32EV as the camera had chosen a slightly slower shutter speed. So the exposure of all three images is identical.

 

Nikkor AF 35mm f/2.0
with Nikon D300
Full image (click for original)
Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G
with Nikon D300
Full image (click for original)
Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.4G
with Nikon D300
Full image (click for original)
   
f2.8, 200 ISO
f2.8, 200 ISO
f2.8, 200 ISO
         

As you can see the 35/1.8G produced a darker image than both other lenses: it needs about +0.7EV to match the others. This was something that consistently occurred throughout my test-shooting and was confirmed through various other tests, specifically designed to measure the effect. From that I can say that the DX lens produces images that are on average -0.5EV darker than the other 35mm primes in this comparison. Add this to the 2/3 larger aperture of the f1.4 lens and you end up with the 35/1.4G delivering almost +1.3EV more light when fully opened! We'd love to hear your thoughts about this in our dedicated Nikkor 35mm comparison comments thread on the Cameralabs forum.

 

Verdict

The unassuming Nikkor AF-S DX 35/1.8G puts in a surprise performance here. It is the clear choice if you are a DX-shooter and can even perform surprisingly well on a D700 if you know what you're doing. The nominal 2/3 larger aperture from the 1.4G does not sound like a huge incentive to get over the hurdle of investing almost 9x the money even if you factor in the better build quality, nano-coating, and the distance window. But keep in mind that the better transmission characteristics of the larger lens deliver almost 1.3EV more light. That is substantially more than the nominal values of f/1.4 vs f/1.8 suggest!

For serious FX shooters the AF-S 35/1.4G is certainly the weapon of choice as it is so much better than the 35/2.0D: the new design gives not only a one stop advantage over the smaller/older sibling, which means that you get more dof-separation and more light to work with, but it also delivers better image quality at every aperture.

If price, size and weight is a concern for an FX-shooter, the AF 35/2.0D is still an alternative to the new 35/1.4 at a fifth of the price as it does in itself perform pretty decent, even very good from f/5.6 on - if you don't need top corner performance.

The findings support that the DX 35/1.8G already earned a "highly recommended" from Gordon with an overall score of 87%. But one thing is already clear: The 35/1.4G is simply the best 35mm lens from Nikon for the serious pro.

If you like to discuss the findings or post questions and add comments regarding this comparison, please head over to the discussion-thread at the Camera Labs forum.

If you're looking for our in-depth reviews or extended forum reports on the actual lenses compared here, check out:

Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4 G review / Nikon AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8 G review / Nikon AF 35mm f/2.0 D

 

 
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