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Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.4G Thomas, March 2011

Nikon Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.4G review

The Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.4G was announced September 2010 as the last prime to complete the updated series of 24mm, 50mm, and 85mm f/1.4 models in Nikon's line-up.

Its 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.

In this review we'll have a look at Nikon's most expensive current 35mm prime, and find out whether the lens lives up to the expectations.

   
   
   


Facts from the catalog

Let's have a look at the technical data and make some comparisons to similar lenses. We've rated the features with a [+] (or [++]), when it's better than average or even state of the art, a [0] if it's standard or just average, and [-] if there's a disadvantage.

   
 
   
   

Size: 83x90mm = medium size, but double the length of the 35/2.0 and 17mm longer than the Zeiss 35/2.0. This size is still pretty decent although it's funny to see a wide-angle lens being so long. [0]

Weight: 600 g = the heaviest of all current 35mm lenses, 70g heavier than the Zeiss, almost 400g more than my diminutive 35/2.0D. [-]

Optics: 10 elements in 7 groups = one element more than the Zeiss and 4 elements/2 groups more than the 35/2.0. Still this is far better than the zooms that tend to have something like 15/11 for the Nikon 24-70/2.8 or 14/11 for the Nikon 14-24/2.8. That bodes well for contrast and flare-resistance - helped by that mysterious Nano-coating that Nikon is using like snake-oil to improve lens-performance. Looking at the cross-section you see the interesting design with one big/deep central lens-element plus one aspherical element (blue) - but no ED-glass. [+]

Closest focus distance/max. magnification: 0.3m / 1:5. This is almost up to the current 35/2.0 which goes to 1:4.2, the DX Nikkor 35/1.8 reaches only to 1:6.2. [+]

Filter-thread: 67mm = smaller than what most pro-lenses use. So filters are cheaper, but you cannot use your standard 77mm filters. [0]

IS: No = a pity. The Nikon 16-35/4.0 zoom has VRII. But with a 3 stops larger aperture you could easily crank up the shutter speed to where shake is less likely. Still: in low-light situations when you need large dof and/or don't want to increase ISO any further you'll miss VR. [-]

AF: AF-S with SWM (silent wave motor), so does work on D60/3000/5000-bodies. Manual-focus override by turning the focus ring. [+]

Covers full frame/FX or smaller = very good. Just like the Nikon AF 35/2.0D. The Nikon DX 35/1.8G does cover more than DX but still produces some serious corner shading on FX. [+]

Comes with a flexible lens pouch, not a nice soft-case. [0]

Price: around 1600 EUR new (incl. 19% VAT) = expensive. The 35/2.0 is around 300 EUR, the Zeiss (manual focus only!) at 800 EUR. But the new lens has a one stop wider aperture and autofocus, so it fits well into the overall pricing landscape. [-]

The lens-caps are standard Nikon's. The others still play catch-up. [+]

Distance information is relayed to the camera, so the Nikon body can do all the advanced exposure-related stuff with this lens. But this is true for all the alternatives too. [+]

Aperture ring = no, just like all Nikon G-lenses. [0]

Lens-shade included and reversible for transport. [+]

Sealing: yes! The 35/2.0 has none. [+]

So the final score in the "features-department" is three negative, four average and eight positive (3[-] / 4[0] / 8[+]).

 

Motivation:

Large aperture lenses are for isolating your subject. I need this as a nature shooter and even as a landscape shooter I love to have not everything in equal sharpness. So going for 35mm focal length - which is in my opinion the new "normal" on FX bodies - this new lens should prove very valuable for my kind of shooting, once the D700-successor arrives. On a DX-body it "behaves" like a 53mm lens, a "normal-lens" by traditional standards.

Alternatives:

- The old Nikkor AF 35/2.0: A good lens but with weakness in the FX corners. Small, light and comparatively cheap. See my quick review here.
- The Nikkor AF-S 35/1.8 DX: great, cheap little lens for DX bodies. Reaches its limits on FX bodies regarding vignetting, and corner sharpness. See Gordon's review there.
- The Zeiss Distagon T* 35/2.0 manual focus: Some people really love it, but it has no AF which is a no-no for me when I want to use the lens wide open.
- Sigma has only a 30/1.4 for DX bodies which is very good in the center but lacks sharpness in the corners even at f4.0.

Testing: Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration

I probably stumbled across the worst aspect of this lens' performance first: Longitudinal CA (loCA). I got this, because I normally test for AF accuracy first to make sure my shots are in focus (although for the most critical analysis of resolution I go for manual focus in live-view). Well: AF seems dead-on, but nasty loCAs were immediately visible.
 
Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.4G Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration (loCA)
100% crop, f1.4, loCA removal OFF in Capture NX2
  100% crop, f1.4, loCA removal 100% in Capture NX2

   

Above left is the result for the AF-S 35/1.4G showing a 100% crop at f1.4. As the effect is reduced by stopping down, you can access a large composite image showing the loCA from f1.4 to f5.6 by clicking on the 100% crop. Processing was done in Capture NX 2 with standard setting meaning lateral CA removal was ON, loCA removal = OFF. At f5.6 the greenish (background) and reddish (foreground) hues are almost gone - but not completely.

The image above right gives you the results from switching loCA removal to ON at 100%. This works pretty well! Bear in mind that Capture NX 2's secret sauce for loCA removal seems to depend on the magnification and gets even better the smaller the magnification is (this test-shot was at 1:20). That can be confirmed from the following real-life shot at f1.4 with standard development in Capture NX on the left and with the results if you switch loCA-reduction on at only 50%:

Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration: shot with Nikon Nikkor 35/1.4G on a D300
f1.4, 200 ISO
 

The good news is the effectiveness of the loCA removal in this case. The bad news: Without such post processing loCAs are clearly visible even at below 50% magnification (click through the image to access the 100% crop).

 

Sharpness and contrast

Let's have a look at the theoretical performance (MTF-chart) first:

   
 
   
   

Now you have to remember that these charts show the lens-performance only at the largest aperture, in this case for f1.4. To read these charts you only have to understand that higher values are better and that the closer the dotted and the continuous lines are together the less astigmatism (= resolution depends on the orientation of the test-pattern) the lens displays.
The DX-corners where I measure with the D300 are approximately at 12mm on the X-axis, the test-images from the D700 corner are from around 20 mm.

Let's see how this theoretical performance translates into real life results in the sharpness test based on Siemens-stars.
I present center results (first column) followed by (almost) corner results on a D300 and the D700. So we're looking at the lens within the limited DX image circle with a pixel-pitch that is roughly equivalent to a D3x. But the corners of the D700 sensor have a lower pixel pitch than both the D3x and D300 so they are more "forgiving". Just keep that in mind, when you look at the comparison.

Processing was done in CaptureNX2 at standard settings, with white-balance adjusted to a neutral white and some exposure compensation to make the brightness match. CA-removal is ON. Focus was achieved live-view based with a little optimization by hand and it was done separately for the center and the corners because the lens has some field curvature. So you cannot achieve optimal sharpness on flat test-targets.

These are 100% crops!

Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.4G with Nikon D300
100% crop from center
Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.4G with Nikon D300
100% crop from corner
Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.4G with Nikon D700
100% crop from corner
   
f1.4, 200 ISO
f1.4, 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 results in the center are excellent, with only little softness even wide open (remember: you're looking at a f/1.4 lens). In the corners you see a clear drop off in sharpness/contrast below f2.8, with the corners on the D700 looking better than on the D300. Another observation is that the lens shows almost no astigmatism at those large apertures.

Closing the aperture beyond f4.0 does not lift the corner sharpness any further, which also means that the corners never quite catch up to the excellent center-sharpness unless you reach f16, where the onset of diffraction levels out the remaining differences in sharpness. But as you can see we're talking about pretty small differences between center and corner sharpness anyway.

All in all I'd say that from f2.8 on this lens should even satisfy the pixel-peepers.

 

Behavior in contra-light

 
Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.4G with Nikon D300 in contra-light
From left to right: f1.4, f2.8 and f5.6
 

The image on the right shows a sequence of shots against a strong light-source shining directly into the lens but still outside the image circle of a DX-body. It shows how well the lens copes under these adverse conditions wide open and stopped down to f2.8 and f5.6.

The astonishing observation here is that you in fact get lower contrast when closing the aperture, although that should minimize stray-light in the lens. But unfortunately the reflections from the aperture itself cause some veiling glare.

You can judge the effect if you look at the shadows at the lower left of the camera body and the mounting-plate. The shadows become lighter and the overall image contrast and dynamic range is reduced by almost one stop when the lens is stopped down from f1.4 to f5.6. The effect is nothing dramatic but for optimal results you should prevent the sun from shining into the lens.

 

Comparison against other Nikon 35mm lenses

The above shows you how performance degrades once you look into the corners of the image or open the aperture. Now that may be deplorable, but such are the laws of lens-design that it's almost unavoidable. The real question is: Is there a 35mm lens that can do better than what the 35/1.4G has produced here?

To answer this question we've collected a comprehensive comparison with the other two current 35mm lenses from Nikon: the venerable 35/2.0D and the DX 35/1.8G. We compare the sharpness of all three lenses side-by side. Prepare to be surprised by the affordable DX 35mm on a full-frame body and look out for unexpected differences in light transmission. So if you're interested, head over here.

 

Gallery

The following images were taken with the Nikkor AF-S 35/1.4G on a D300. Each image was recorded in RAW and converted with Capture NX 2 at standard settings. Some images have White Balance set to a standard daylight value to make them comparable. No extra sharpening, or tone, color, or saturation adjustment was used. The three crops are typically taken from the f1.4, f2.0, and f2.8 version of each image while the main image shows the shot at f5.6. You can click on each image to access the large original. Please respect our copyright and only use those images for personal use.

The first one is a near-field shot (magnification approximately 1:20) of colorful primroses. Sharpness and contrast even wide open proved again to be very good. And color rendition was lovely: the 35/1.4G produced warmer reds and yellower greens than either the 35/2.0D or the DX 35/1.8G which showed a stronger blue.

Primroses: near-field shot with Nikon Nikkor 35/1.4G on a D300
f5.6, 200 ISO
 
   
f1.4, 200 ISO
 
f2.0, 200 ISO
  f2.8, 200 ISO

 

The next shot shows the performance at (near) infinity. This is important for all landscape shooters.You see the image sharpening up until f2.8, to produce crisp and contrasty images.

Field: infinity shot with Nikon Nikkor 35/1.4G on a D300
f5.6, 200 ISO
 
   
f1.4, 200 ISO
 
f2.0, 200 ISO
  f2.8, 200 ISO

 

The next image shows what you can achieve in close-up situations at or near minimum focus distance. Naturally I stopped down somewhat to f4.0 as dof at a magnification of 1:5 is already becoming critical and field-curvature might also influence a shot of a flat subject. I developed the shot in HDR Efex pro to pull out the fine structures - which also has a sharpening effect. That may not be in line with my standard testing procedures but rest assured: you cannot pull-out and emphasize what was not originally there. So here we go (the slightly cropped original can be accessed by clicking through the main image).

1999: close-up shot with Nikon Nikkor 35/1.4G on a D300
 
f4.0, 200 ISO; Column: 100% crops from main image

 

The final shot should give you an impression on the bokeh this lens can produce wide open. The 100% crops are from the sharpest point and two successively further-away points in the overall image and should demonstrate the buttery rendering of out-of-focus elements.

Daffodils: bokeh shot with Nikon Nikkor 35/1.4G on a D300
f1.4, 200 ISO
 
   
f1.4, 200 ISO
 
f1.4, 200 ISO
  f1.4, 200 ISO

 

Overall Performance and verdict

Having done all my shots over the holidays with the new lens I can give you some insight into the overall performance and how my findings so far reveal themselves in the images.

Sharpness/contrast:

Overall contrast is very good even wide open and with very bright backgrounds like snow. Sharpness and micro-contrast is reduced at f1.4 and f2.0 (you have to look at 66% or 100% magnification on your monitor to see it) but performance from f2.8 onwards is impeccable on a D300 or D700. And this holds true whether you shot close-up or at infinity. I'm very impressed.

Focus:

Focus speed is never an issue for me, although the lens takes some time to "recover" to infinity from a very close-up shot (30 cm distance or so). Focus accuracy is of much greater interest to me especially with an f/1.4 lens where every inch of misfocus is immediately punished. Well, what can I say: up to now I had no real outliers although I was provoking trouble by using the lens wide open as often as possible. Even when shooting Siemens-stars and letting the AF find focus from infinity or close-up I only had few cases where the combo couldn't find good focus or behaved better when approaching from one side than from the other. No problems under low light either. So everything seems OK.

Longitudinal CA:

Well, this is the only gripe I have with this lens, as it easily shows up when you use the lens wide open with high contrast targets.

Vignetting:

Vignetting is clearly visible even on a DX body. I have not the best tools to measure it but I'd guess it's around -1EV in the corners at standard settings on a D300 at infinity. At minimum focus distance vignetting is reduced to only half of that value.

 

Summary

Good points
The best 35mm prime from Nikon with lovely bokeh.
Great image quality even wide open on DX and FX bodies.
Very good build quality with weather sealing.
Quiet AF operation finally on a f/1.4 35mm lens from Nikon.

Bad points
loCA is pretty prominent.
Bulky.
Expensive.
No image stabilization.

 

 

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions regarding the review head over here. A selection of my shots with this lens can be found there.

Und wenn es irgendwelche Fragen, Kommentare und Anregungen zu meinem Review gibt, hier gibt's die Möglichkeit auch für unsere deutschsprachigen Forums-Besucher! Und dort ist eine Auswahl an Bildern, die ich mit dieser Linse gemacht habe.

 
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