A 35mm lens might well be among the most useful primes out there. Here's how the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G stacks up in real-world shooting.
A 35mm lens might well be among the most useful prime lenses out there. It’s good for lots of things, from landscapes to candid people shots at weddings and event to photojournalism to travel. If you only choose one prime to have, it might well be a more versatile focal length than the traditional choice of a 50mm. It works well on a full-frame camera, and is the rough equivalent of a 50mm “nifty fifty” on a DX (or APS-C) camera. They’re often bigger than a regular 50mm lens, but they’re still generally small enough to have a go-anywhere, versatile place in your kit.
I’ve been out shooting with several 35mm lenses for Nikon cameras, and I’ll be following this up with more reviews of lenses at this focal length. To kick it off, here’s my hands-on review of Nikon’s flagship 35mm offering, the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G. Here’s how it stacks up in real-world shooting.
Nikon’s 35mm f/1.4G weighs a shade under 1.4lbs and is about 3.5 inches long. Its maximum aperture is f/1.4 and minimum is f/16. On a full-frame camera it has a field of view of 63°. It will work on Nikon’s DX cameras as well, where its effective focal length will be equivalent to about 52mm. Its minimum focus distance is about a foot. And it takes 67mm screw-in filters. The lens comes with a dedicated HB-59 lens hood, front and back lens caps, and a soft pouch.
The lens is much bigger than the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 but a lot smaller than the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G. It’s very similar in size and style to the Nikon 24mm f/1.4G. And it’s quite a bit bigger than the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G. Here they are side-by-side.
Here are some example shots taken with this lens.
As with most of Nikon’s top-end lenses, this one has good ergonomics and handles well. Its casing is made of plastic which, although still pretty strong, isn’t as rugged as some of Nikon’s lenses of yore. Being a G series lens, there’s no aperture ring. It does have a manual focus ring that is smooth and well-sized.
I’m impressed with the speed of the autofocus. It’s also quiet. It locks on well with minimal movement. Nikon calls it its Silent Wave Motor, and it works well on this lens. Overall, its autofocus performance is among the best I’ve seen. That said, shooting at f/1.4 can be unforgiving for getting focus right and I found that shooting wide open I often wanted to have safety shots just in case the focus was slightly out once I got it onto the big screen.
Overall, its image quality is very good indeed: sharp, clear, and with minimal distortion. Color and contrast are excellent.
Most importantly, it’s fun to shoot with. It gives you a wide enough angle to include some context in the shot if that’s what you’re going for. And yet if you get in close its narrow enough to isolate key elements. It’s the kind of lens you could keep on all day.
There is, however, something that initially prevented me from getting the results I’d expect from a lens that costs this much. Shooting at f/5.6 or above was all fine and dandy. The images were crisp and had appropriate color and contrast. But open up the aperture and things went pear shaped.
I was getting a very soft, ghostly image across the entire frame, not just the corners. And I’m not just being picky in a lab tests kind of way. I fully expect a bit of softness wide open. Nearly all lenses have that, and most lenses are at their sharpest a few stops above their maximum aperture. But this kind of softness wasn’t acceptable and was creating unusable images.
Here’s an illustration of what I mean. Here’s the original image, taken on a Nikon D800 at f/1.4.
And here’s a blow up from the center of the frame.
By f/5.6 the problem disappeared, and images were as crisp as they should be. But what’s the point of paying over $1600 for a pro level fast lens if you can’t use the fast apertures?
After testing the same lens on a few different cameras, I was able to confirm that it was indeed the lens. Further testing showed that it was in need of some fairly aggressive AF fine tuning to compensate for some back focusing. Here’s an illustration. The first shot is the original frame, with a red rectangle showing the area blown up below.
Here’s the blown up area in the middle of the frame with the default AF Fine Tuning setting of 0.
And here’s the same area with a setting of -20.
While I still wouldn’t call it tack sharp, the result is a vast improvement. It’s still not as sharp as the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 on the same camera with the same settings (stay tuned for my review of that lens coming very soon), but it’s back within the acceptable range. And you could argue that if it needs a setting of -20 to be usable then it’s a problem. And under normal circumstances I’d probably be inclined to return this copy and exchange it for another in the hope that the next one was better. So if you get one of these lenses and your camera has AF Fine Tuning feature available, I’d strongly recommend testing it before doing any critical shooting. Your copy of the lens might be spot-on right out of the box, but as this example shows, there’s clearly enough manufacturing tolerance to cause problems if it’s not. You can find Nikon Europe’s recommended procedure for testing here. If your camera doesn’t have AF fine tuning available, there’s potentially more of a problem.
There is pretty strong falloff at the widest apertures, but it mostly drops away by around f/2.8 or so. Here’s an example, with the one at left at f/1.4 and at right at f/2.8:
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You can also notice it in some of the examples above, like the one of the yellow fire hydrant in the snow.
Bokeh preferences are a very subjective quality, but I like the results from this lens. Helped along by a 9-blade circular diaphragm with rounded blades, the drop-off is smooth, and the specular highlights look natural.
Getting purple and green fringing out of this lens in high-contrast scenes is fairly easy at large apertures, but the results get better as you decrease the aperture size. That’s a fairly standard result, and it’s often easily fixed in Lightroom. There’s also some spherochromatism, but it’s not with specular highlights, but you generally have to go looking for it. Overall, while present in some shots, the chromatic aberration isn’t really a problem.
The lens features what Nikon calls its Nano-Crystal Coating to help minimize flare from bright lights. There is some, but not much, lens flare. It’s certainly doesn’t rise to the level of being a persistent problem.
It’s pretty safe with the lens pointed front-on to the sun, but you can get some where the sun or other bright light are closer to the edges of the frame. That’s not unusual.
In this shot, for example, where the sun is in the corner of the frame, there’s a fairly strong green flare to the sun’s bottom left.
Similarly with this one.
But in this one, where the sun isn’t at the edge of the frame, there’s no flare.
I’ve been shooting with some other 35mm lenses while shooting with this one. I’ll be posting reviews of them shortly.
Overall, this is an excellent lens. Once I got the AF fine tuning issue sorted out, I was getting consistently sharp photos. My favorite lens in my kit is my Nikon 24mm f/1.4G, which looks, feels, and performs similarly to this (with a slightly wider field a view, of course).
If I’m out and about shooting, it’s rare that I need to have both a 35mm prime and a 24mm prime. They’re too similar to justify packing both in the limited space in a lightweight travel kit. But for events or even candid shots at weddings, the 35mm prime is probably in the sweet spot of focal length. And Nikon’s flagship offering at this focal length is every bit as good as you would expect.
Focal Length: 35mm
Maximum Aperture: f/1.4
Minimum Aperture: f/16
Maximum Angle of View (FX-format): 63°
Lens Elements: 10
Lens Groups: 7
Compatible Formats: FX, DX
Diaphragm Blades: 9
Focus Modes: AutoFocus, Manual Focus, Manual Override
Minimum Focus Distance: 0.98 ft.
Filter Size: 67mm
Approx. Dimensions (Diameter x Length): 3.27 in. (83 mm) x 3.52 in. (89.5 mm)
Approx. Weight: 21.2 oz. (600 g)
Made in Japan