Sharpness is always the key component we look for in a lens. Sure, build quality, autofocus and handling are important too, but what we really want is fantastic image quality. So we challenged ourselves to find the ultimate affordable Nikon DSLR glass on the market, asking the Japanese giant to send us its three sharpest lenses with a street price of under £1000. We asked for primes only (ie no zoom), as the optical design of fixed focal length lenses generally results in the best image quality.
Nikon debuted its now-renowned F mount in the late 1950s with the Nikon F film SLR camera. It’s pretty amazing to think that it’s the very same F mount you’ll find on Nikon’s digital SLRs today. In fact, it’s been so successful that it’s helped the company exceed a total production of 100 million Nikkor lenses for Nikon interchangable lens systems, combined with its mirrorless CX mount.
The mount has truly lasted the test of time, making the Nikkor lens range one of the largest on the market. Nikon also demonstrates an ability to constantly push the boundaries of photography, creating optics one step better than the last. This lens evolution was demonstrated recently, with the release of its Nikkor AF-S 105mm f/1.4E ED lens – the fastest 105mm on the market. The Japanese company has several production factories, in locations such as China, Thailand, and, of course, Japan.
1. Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED VR
Nikon’s 105mm f/2.8G has a minimum focus distance of 31cm, and this means you can focus on a subject around 14cm away from the front of the lens.
Camera shake is exaggerated when shooting so close, though Nikon’s Vibration Reduction (VR) helps to steady handheld shots. Its 14 elements are arranged in 12 groups, including a single ED element. The Silent Wave Motor (SWM) tends to hunt occasionally when searching for the focus in low light conditions.
Sharpness impressed even at the widest aperture across the frame. Contrast is a little low wide-open, but this is fixed quickly, showing strong edge-to-edge clarity at f/4. We noted hardly any chromatic aberration, nor optical distortion. There is a small vignette at f/2.8, but this disappears from f/5.6 onwards.
Minimum focus: 31.4cm
Filter size: 62mm
Size (DxL): 83x116mm
Great sharpness, low distortion
1:1 macro reproduction ratio
Low light AF
2. Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G
A focal length of 85mm is the choice of many portrait photographers, as its short telephoto properties keep facial distortions to a minimum.
This Nikkor optic has a wide aperture of f/1.8 too, so it’s easy to blur backgrounds. It has nine elements and each has its own group. They fit inside its sleek body, which measures 80x73mm, and although it doesn’t have a metal finish like Sigma’s Art range, this 85mm is very light, weighing just 350g.
The Silent Wave Motor (SWM) inside the 85mm f/1.8G was very accurate during testing, but it was quite slow to focus on a subject when autofocusing from close to far away. It was also not completely silent in operation, despite being called a Silent Wave Motor.
When the lens is mounted, the rubberised focusing ring sits naturally in the hand, very near the front of the lens barrel. It takes about a quarter of a turn to go from infinity to the closest focusing distance. On the side of the barrel is an AF/MF switch, which is a little awkward to engage with an eye to the viewfinder. That said, the focus distance window is a nice addition.
We found a small amount of blue and green chromatic aberration in the corners throughout the aperture range, though the corners aren’t susceptible to any blooming, so display plenty of contrast. That said, we’d have liked the whole frame to be a notch sharper when shooting wide-open, including the centre of the image. There is hardly any optical distortion to note whatsoever, though there is a slight vignette at f/1.8, which cleared up at f/2.2. Between f/3.5 and f/11 we found results to be very sharp and very useable.
Minimum focus: 80cm
Filter size: 67mm
Size (DxL): 80x73mm
Very low optical distortion
Some chromatic aberration
3. Nikon AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G ED
Nikon’s 35mm f/1.8G ED has no fewer than 11 elements in eight groups, but the whole optic is as portable as a can of Coke, with its dimensions measuring a squat 72x71.5mm.
It houses both ED and aspherical elements and its aperture is constructed from seven rounded blades. The 35mm focal length is ideal for wide shots where you require more of the scene in the frame to add context. Its Silent Wave Motor (SWM) gives an admirable performance, locking on quickly and without producing too much noise. The minimum 25cm focus distance means you can get close to the action.
We found a tiny amount of chromatic aberration and a slight vignette at f/1.8, but this disappears at f/2.8. The centre is sharp at f/1.8, but the centre and corners lacks contrast up until f/2.8. There is also a small amount of barrel distortion.
Minimum focus: 25cm
Filter size: 58mm
Size (DxL): 72x71.5mm
Low chromatic aberration
Contrast is a little low at f/1.8
This group test was first published in the November 2016 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.