Tuesday, July 14, 2009

35mm/1.8 = sweetness.

A couple of months ago, Nikon released a new lens: the 35mm f1.8 G. Its street price is $199, which is pretty reasonable.

I'd say that this lens fills a much-needed gap in Nikon's line. Here's what I mean...
If you want to skip my history lesson and just read about the lens, click here.
Back in the days of film cameras, it was not uncommon to see a 50mm lens bundled with a new camera body. The 50mm was considered a great "starter" lens, what with its near 1:1 (or "normal") field of view. The lens became so ubiquitous that nearly everyone who had an SLR had one kicking around somewhere. They were usually f1.8, but you'd also see f1.4 and even f1.2 (from Canon, anyway) models, too. Suffice to say, it became a standard.

When the first DSLRs started to appear (almost 10 years ago), they all featured imaging sensors that were a bit smaller than a standard 35mm piece of film. With a smaller sensor, less of the image coming through the lens would be captured by the camera - only the information in the center; the edges would be cropped out. This crop factor effectively raised the functional focal length of a standard 35mm SLR lens by a factor of 1.5 or so. In other words, if you stuck your trusty 50mm lens on your new DSLR camera, you wouldn't be seeing that same 1:1 normal view that you were used to - you'd be seeing more along the lines of what an 85mm lens would get you (well, somewhere between 65 and 85, anyway). So if you wanted to get that 1:1 look, you'd need to step down to a wider lens, like a 35mm.

What with the advent of point-and-shoot cameras and inexpensive video cameras getting more and more accessible and easy to use, the general photographing public had come to expect the ability to "zoom", right out of the box. As DSLR technology evolved, manufacturing processes got more efficient and inexpensive, and camera manufactures began producing entry-level cameras that came bundled with zoom lenses. Gone were the days of the 50mm being the standard "first lens".

You could still pick up a 50mm lens for under $200 - sometimes as little as $100 - but they weren't being packaged with new camera bodies anymore.

Nikon has been making lenses for their SLR cameras since the 60s. And thanks to their fierce commitment to their lens mount system, you can stick just about any lens on just about any camera (within reason), and shoot a picture. Obviously, the super-old stuff doesn't really work that well with the super-new stuff (and vise-versa), but there's some nice overlap in the middle, giving the Nikon user a really nice range of choices.

So let's talk about the 35mm lens for a minute. On a 35mm film camera (this can get a bit confusing, I know) a 35mm lens is considered a wide angle lens. Not super-wide, mind you, but wide enough for you to get a little bit closer to your subject, or to get a little more of your surroundings in for landscape work. My dad's 35mm lens was an old manual focus f2.8. Not particularly fast, but a solid performer.

Nikon made some faster versions of the 35mm, eventually getting it all the way down to 1.4 (selling for upwards of $500).

Now let's talk about the whole DX/FX thing.

FX and DX are Nikon-speak for their two types of DSLR cameras. Long story short - FX cameras have bigger sensors in them, which in turn allow lenses to behave the way they do on 35mm film cameras. No more crop factor! DX cameras have the smaller sensors, and behave the way I described above.

Recently, Nikon has been producing more and more DX-based cameras than in the past. For example, last year's lineup had two FX-based cameras, and three DX-based models. Right now, you can still find all of last year's cameras, plus two more DX-based cameras as well. I guess we can count the D3x as an additional FX-based camera, too. But my point in bringing this up is that it seems that despite the fact that Nikon has finally broached the "full frame" barrier, they are still very much committed to making DX-based cameras, as well.

Which brings us to my new lens!

Prior to this lens, I've had the 50mm 1.8 (AF, first-gen) and an older 50mm 1.4 (AI'd manual), from years ago. The 1.8 is an okay lens, but it has a really frustrating drawback, of creating these really noticeable and annoying ghost-like flares when shooting bright subjects in the dark , wide open (and gee, who'd be shooting wide open in the dark? hmm). So I stopped using it, and gave the manual focus thing a try, but man - at 1.4, focusing is a bit challenging. No biggie if you're working in still life, but if you're trying to shoot moving objects (like musicians on stage), then it's a real challenge. So I was definitely feeling a need for something to serve in that "normal" focal range, and having it be fast would also be nice.

Enter the 35/1.8 G. (G basically means that it doesn't have an aperture ring, so it's useless on older cameras. It also means it's got an internal motor, so the lower-end/entry-level cameras (like the D40/60) which don't have internal AF motors can auto focus as well).
At $200, it seemed too good to be true. I kinda expected it to suffer from the same kind of flaring issues I'd seen on my (and others', too) 50/1.8. But the reviews started to pour in, and everyone seemed to love it. Sample images looked great.
So I did some shopping around, and found that this thing is so popular, it's literally unavailable everywhere. I could buy it on eBay, but the average price is closer to $300. I wasn't in that big of a rush, so I decided to get on a waiting list. Three of them, in fact. Two mail-order, and one in-town, just to cover my bases. After almost four weeks, Amazon finally came through with the goods, and I am now a happy owner of this new little rockstar.

I've only used it a handful of times so far, but between its lovely "normal" focal range, its fast aperture, and - bonus - its light weight - it is fast becoming my favorite lens.

These days, my bag contains the 35/1.8, my [dad's] old first-gen AF 80-200/2.8, and my Tamron 14/2.8. If I'm feeling feisty, I'll bring along either the 65/2.8 macro or the Tamron 24-70/2.8. But I think my next lens purchase is probably going to be a Nikon wide zoom. We'll see.


  1. I've been eyeing the 35mm/1.8 lens since it was rumored on nikonrumors.com many months ago. I borrowed my work's 50mm/1.8 lens and a fast lens is really great for indoor photos, but the crop factor on my D100 (DX sensor) is really awkward for use around the house taking photos of the little kiddo. I'm thinking 35mm/1.8 would be just the right fit.

    Though right now the "G" factor turns me off with my current film renaissance (Nikon FE). And I'm bit wary of other fast 35mm lens given your experience with flaring. I suppose I'll just wait to see where my revived film experience pans out.

  2. how's the 80-200/2.8 working for you?

    I've been thinking about getting a decent zoom lens. My arsenal maxxes out at 105 (28-105mm 1:3.5-4.5 D). I'm nervous that 200mm won't be enough. I used a Nikon Coolpix 8800 for a good while (until I got the dreaded "Lens Error" message) and its 10x zoom was the equiv of a 300mm lens. So I'm kinda thinking that I probably should have one of the 70-300 lenses. Though many reviews say bad things about the more affordable 70-300 lenses.

  3. For a comparison of the DX and FX sensor sizes (among other sensors as well) go here: http://tr.im/imagesensor

  4. Thanks for the review, Dan. I was thinking it was about time to buy Ruth another lens, maybe this will be her Christmas present.

    We also have an AF 80-200/2.8 that must be pushing 20 years old by now. Ruth blew pretty much all her loan money her first semester of college on that lens and her F90.

    Between her paid photog work at the newspaper and other odd photo jobs during school, there's no doubt she made it a worthwhile investment, not to mention the years of use we've gotten from it since her last photo job.

    It's now paired up with our D80 and it gets approving/envious glances from NIkon fans anywhere we use it. I barely escaped Paul R.'s house with it still in my bag when I visited him...