You don’t have to pay big dollars for quality glass
In the last decade, Nikon has produced a lot of lenses for its DX sensor cameras, not the right kinds of lenses for some of us sadly. The primes are a strange line-up, with a 35mm and 40mm but no wide lenses for DX sensors of any kind. I simply don't get the 40mm f/2.8 macro lens: it's slower than the 35mm F/1.8, and 40mm is far too close for most macro work.
Nikon has yet to produce a single wide prime lens for DX sensors. We also need a good, compact 50-150mm and an 18-135mm replacement, but we're not likely to get these anytime soon. We got a cheap, compact new 85mm prime, but Nikon already had one. We're left to wonder if Nikon has lost the plot of late.
The greatest of Nikon's lenses aren't the latest, it turns out - in many cases, the older ones have more to offer for less money.
AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX
Heaven only knows why it took Nikon almost a decade to make a ‘normal’ lens for the DX format. Quality fast primes tend to cost 2 or 3 times what Nikon asks for this one – not much over $200 street - so perhaps it’s Nikon’s way to apologise for taking so long to make it for us.
The lens is small and light at 200g. It’s not as small as a pancake lens, but it only protrudes about 5cm from the body, which makes a nice compact go-anywhere package when it’s mounted on a small-body Nikon. Build quality is typical budget Nikon, which means high quality plastics. The surprise at this price point is a lens mount made of metal, and a well-damped, rubberised focus ring at the front that’s not too small. There’s even a tiny lens hood made of light metal.
What you don’t get in this G-type lens is a distance scale, or any kind of scale in fact. The Silent Wave Motor does what it says and works fast enough. Manual override is an option at any time, and the focus ring is smooth enough for the job. The minimum focus distance is 30cm, good enough to let you get close to flowers and animals that aren’t too small. The lens doesn’t extend or rotate when focusing, so graduated filters aren’t a problem. The lens takes 52mm filters, same as Nikon’s 18-55 and 55-200mm kit lenses. There is just one switch on the side of the lens for choosing AF or MF.
It’s a very sharp lens, and fast enough at f/1.8, but both sharpness and bokeh improve when stopped down to 3.5/4. There are no obvious optical issues to complain about, but you’ll find the serious testers have a few nits to pick with it. Nothing too serious, mind you. The bokeh can be attractive if you work at it - the lens uses seven rounded diaphragm blades to help with that.
Please click on these images to see a larger file.
This is a great lens to take anywhere because it's so small and so lightweight, and because it doesn't cost and arm and a leg to replace. It's also a great lens if you just want to get back to basics and use simple tools so you can focus on composition and position. As Photozone concludes: ‘... given its affordable price, the lens performs on a very high level and is a welcome addition the limited range of lenses that can be used as normal primes on DX cameras.’ http://www.photozone.de/nikon--nikkor-aps-c-lens-tests/422-nikkor_35_18g?start=2
Nikon DX AF-S Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G ED
This lens is one of Nikon’s ‘mistakes’ as someone on a forum put it, because it delivers far more than it needs to at the asking price. The 18-70 was first shipped as a kit lens with the D70 back in 2005, and is still a current model that sells for about $450 on its own. The best part is that it’s easy to find good second hand ones on eBay for less than $200, because millions of these were sold in kits. At less than $200, this is one of the great bargains in Nikon land.
Optically, this lens is typical of kit zoom in that it shows a fair bit of distortion at the wide (18mm) end, despite 3 extra-low Dispersion (ED) glass elements and one aspheric element. In normal shooting, distortion is not that big a deal and easily corrected with editing software. On the plus side, the lens has it’s pretty sharp across the zoom range, and a bit faster than most zooms at the long end: f/3.5 but f/4.5.
The lens is an Internal Focusing (IF) design that uses Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor (SWM) for fast, quiet auto-focusing. That means it will work on all Nikon DX bodies. The zoom ring is well-weighted, and you can switch from auto focus to manual at any time, and back again. On my smallish Nikon D5100 the combo is very easy to hold steady, and I don’t tend to long for the VR it hasn’t got. That’s right: it’s back to good technique.
What I like most about this lens is the compact design: at 75.5 mm x 73.0 mm, it’s no longer than the 18-55mm kit lens Nikon ships with its entry level bodies. It’s heavier at 400g but its build quality is much better, and it balances better on a D3200, D5100 or D700 body. It takes 67mm filters, as do a couple of other Nikon lenses that we’ll look at in this review.
Simply superb for a kit lens. Thom Hogan’s take on this lens: ‘Considering the price, superb performance. This is a far better lens than you'll ever expect for US$300. Far better. Good enough that it stays in my kit for when I want to go light.’
AF-S Nikkor 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 G IF-ED DX
This another older lens that first saw the light of day as a kit lens on the Nikon D80. It has been replaced by the AF-S Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 VR that came with the D90, a lens that was greeted with yawns, shrugs and ho-hums. It was just another cheap plastic zoom, the kind Nikon does so well. It wasn’t that cheap at the time, mind you, at US $300 when bought with a camera kit or US $400 plus on its own.
photo courtesy of Thom Hogan
Why didn’t Nikon just add VR to the 18-135, given its more useful zoom range? Dunno. Like most of us, I was looking for a single walkabout lens for my old walkabout D40x. The 18-200mm was simple too long and too heavy, the 18-105 too short (zoom wise) and too lumpy. Yes, it’s longer, bigger and heavier than the 18-135, and that makes the old lens a
The plastic mount is a concern. It often needs an extra twist to connect properly, indicated by the F - - in the screen (no lens). This is a common problem, I believe, and can be annoying. However, build quality is not a problem: I bought this refurbed 18-135 from Adorama a couple years ago, and it became my most used lens since the D40x it sits on is the camera I grab or throw in the back of the car most days. The lens still works fine, and the zoom action is as steady and smooth as ever.
The lens doesn’t have VR, which is no big deal for me. The manual focus ring is not well-weighted but I never use it on this lens. There’s a switch for A and M.
Optically this lens is far from perfect – there’s distortion and vignetting and more, but SLR GEAR got it right when it wrote: ‘... the exceptional sharpness of the Nikkor 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IF-ED AF-S DX will doubtless find it many fans.’ It’s as sharp as a tack, and that makes up for many sins. Photozone said: ‘All-in-all a good consumer grade lens and maybe the current value king in Nikon land. If you´re shopping in this lens class, there are probably no reasons anymore to consider third-party alternatives.’
The D40x I most use with this lens actually has the D80 sensor inside it. I have to say that the IQ never ceases to amaze me. It’s become my benchmark for assessing the IQ of other cameras – if they can’t beat a 5-year old camera with a cheap kit lens, what does that say? I wrote a piece on the remarkable IQ of this combo here: http://briard.typepad.com/get_the_picture/2012/06/superb-image-quality-with-old-nikon-dx40-and-cheap-18-135.html
You can buy any number of these lenses used or refurbed for about $250 in the usual places, i.e Adorama or eBay.
In part 2 of this survey, we look at longer tele zooms http://briard.typepad.com/get_the_picture/2012/08/the-best-cheap-lenses-for-nikon-dx-part-2-tele-zooms.html