Fast Primes (for Nikon)

I’m a sucker for fast primes. I like good lenses in general, but fast primes can be really special. While DSLRs had become some kind of disposable items lasting 2-4 years before updating it with the “latest and greatest”, a good lens will serve you well for a decade or more.

Funny thing is with the transition to autofocus in the dark ages of film I updated my manual primes to a fast AF zoom trio to cover 20-200mm. Except the unavoidable fast fifty, a fast Sigma AF 28mm/1.8, a really wide Sigma AF 14mm/3.5 and a Nikkor AF 300mm/2.8 (that had seldom seen the light), I nearly exclusively used the 2.8 zooms for about a decade. The arrival of the D300 changed that habit a bit but only since the D700 as my main camera I went back using fast primes whenever I can.

The good
Fast primes often have a very nice and distinctive rendering. They are like a good red wine. The possibility to shoot wide open in “available darkness” without flash or separate a subject from the background because of the shallow depth of field, make them valuable tools. A nice side effect of primes vs zooms: Since primes use fewer lens elements than zooms, a prime is generally between 1/3 to 1/2 stop faster than a zoom lens at the same f-stop.

The bad
There is a quite steep price to pay for a fast lens, apart from a relatively “cheap” fast fifty. Take a look at the Nikon list price for the new AF-S 24mm/1.4G, AF-S 35mm/1.4G and AF-S 85mm/1.4G (if you use Canon, look at their offerings) Or do a search for the rare and discontinued Nikkor AF 28mm/1.4D or the manual Noct-Nikkor 58mm/1.2 AiS on Ebay. Not truly eye watering like comparable Leica M lenses but substantial to say the least.
Are they worth it? Tough call.

The ugly
Optically not everything is rosy with fast primes. You have to deal with some optical aberrations. To some extend fast primes in the f/1.4 category have it all: CAs, coma, vignetting, focus shift, soft corners, you name it. Don’t expect them to be super sharp wide open. Only some more exotic fast primes in the 200mm to 600mm range are made for maximum sharpness wide open.
Don’t take for granted that your camera will focus a f/1.4 lens where you point it either. Save the roughly 80% user error (if you never used a fast lens before) the AF in most cameras is barely precise enough to focus a f/1.4 lens reliable. Chances are good that you have to recalibrate the auto focus of your camera yourself (possible with D7000, D300, D700, D3) or send it to Nikon service for calibration.
Size and weight can be issues as well. Lenses seem to grow exponentially in size and weight with every stop. A 85mm/1.8 is a comparably small lens but a AF-S 85mm/1.4G starts to be a hefty pice of glass. While I sometimes dream about something like a Canon EF 85mm/1.2 or a Nikkor AF-S 200mm/2VR these are quite monstrous lenses I would definitely hate to carry around every day.

The lenses:
under 20mm
Forget primes under 20mm. Get the huge Nikkor AF-S 14-24mm/2.8G if you use a Nikon FX body and be done with it.

Nikkor AF-S 14-24mmG at 19mm, f/16

Apart from being a bit prone to flare it wipes the floor with every other zoom and most primes from Nikkor, Sigma, Tamron, Tokina or Voigtländer in its focal length and aperture class. But every other 14mm flares much worse. Yeah, it has no filter thread. That can be a problem if you want to use ND filters. Don’t even think about complaining that you can’t use pol filters with this beast. Pol filters are useless under 24mm on FX or film anyway.

20mm
I think 20mm is a little depressing focal lenght regarding primes.
The Nikkor AF 20mm/2.8D is in need for an update for quite some time now. The sharpness is ok in the center, but the borders never where its strength.

While I had fond memory’s of the manual Nikkor 20mm/2.8 AiS I used back in the film days, a recent encounter left me rather disappointed. Its only defense was a scratched rear element on that sample.

Nikkor 20mm/2.8 AiS at f/4, F3, TX 400

Sigma offers a big AF 20mm/1.8, but wide open it is optically quite a dog.
The Zeiss Distagon 21mm/2.8 ZF comes to the rescue of the 20mm class. A legendary lens in its own right, the manual Zeiss at least matches the Nikkor 14-24/2.8 in sharpness but it is neither significant smaller nor less expensive.

24mm
There is no real contender to the Nikkor AF-S 24mm/1.4G (on a Nikon body) because the Nikkor AF 24mm/2.8D or the manual Nikkor 24mm/2 AiS fall a bit short optically as well as the (even inferior) Sigma AF 24mm/1.8. For decades Nikon shooters did envy Canon shooters for the Canon 24mm/1.4 primes, not anymore though.
While the Nikkor PC-E 24mm/3.5 seems to exceed the optical quality of the Nikkor AF-S 24mm/1.4G (haven’t used it yet), as a manual tilt-shift lens it is more a specialty item.
Fortunately 24mm is a tiny bit too wide for my taste right now. I got 24mm covert with two zooms anyway so I was able to skip. No picture here.

28mm
With the discontinued and rare (only 7333 ever made) Nikkor AF 28mm/1.4D its much harder to say. It’s not that sharp at f/1.4, but gets really good from f/2 where the bokeh is quite smooth for a wide-angle as well. Shame about the stupid and useless original lens hood, though. A cheap 72mm wide-angle metal lens hood from Ebay can do the trick way better.
The Nikkor AF 28mm/2.8D (not the inferior model without “D”!) is quite a good and sharp little lens except for the corners.
My two samples of the Sigma AF 28mm/1.8 (first AF version) give the 28mm/1.4 a little run for its money from f/2.8 onwards (without ever catching it), but the 28/1.4 is in an other league wide open and when you position your subject near the borders.
Then there is the splendid manual Nikkor 28mm/2 AiS to consider as well (if you can focus it reliably with your camera).
But I love my AF 28mm/1.4D fiercely and hardly ever leave home without it.

Nikkor AF 28mm/1.4D at f/2.8

35mm
The new Nikkor AF-S 35mm/1.4G is spectacular.
Sure there is the very good and cheap AF-S 35mm/1.8DX (if you own a DX camera) but for a D700 or D3/s/x owner the Nikkor AF 35mm/2D is no match. Not by a long shot.
If you consider a second-hand manual 35mm you can try the very good Nikkor 35mm/2 AiS or Nikkor 35mm/1.4 AiS. If you want a new one, Zeiss has got the 35mm focal length nicely covered with the great Distagon 35mm/2 ZF and Distagon 35mm/1.4 ZF.
The new and very affordable manual Samyang 35mm/1.4 looks good in tests as well.

AF-S 35mm/1.4G at f/1.8 (corners darkened in LR)

50mm
Not everything is shiny with fast 50mm primes wide open.
For one, even the new and improved Nikkor AF-S 50mm/1.4G is not a great lens in the bokeh department. Its ok but can render the background a bit harsh at times wide open. Like nearly every fast lens stopping down ever so slightly improves sharpness and bokeh.

Don’t bother too much with the AF 50mm/1.4D. Wide open it can not compare with the AF-S 50mm/1.4G, is prone to flare and will produce an ugly hotspot in backlit situations.

I never bothered to try a Sigma 50mm/1.4 HSM because in tests it does fare about equal in sharpness to the AF-S 50mm/1.4G, has a little better bokeh but some reported focus issues made the Sigma rather uninteresting.

While the legendary and discontinued Noct-Nikkor 58mm/1.2 AiS is known for its smooth bokeh and absent coma it’s second-hand price is a tiny bit more substantial than others (like €3000-4000).

The way more affordable manual Nikkor 50mm/1.2 AiS (used €300-400) is a little bitch. While it’s really sharp with good contrast at f/2, its soft with a “glow” at f/1.2 sporting severe vignetting. While I normally don’t mind a little bit darker corners the 50/1.2 shows wide open something that I would describe more like dark corners with a small brightened center. I hated that. At f/1.4 it does vignette more “normally”. Other weak points are the rather severe coma and its ugly bokeh.

Nikkor 50mm/1.2 AiS at f/1.4

The manual Zeiss Planar 50mm/1.4 ZF has a reputation for its ugly bokeh. If it absolutely has to be a manual Zeiss lens in 50mm I would probably go for the Makro-Planar 50mm/2 ZF.

For me, the AF-S 50mm/1.4 G has to do… 🙂

85mm
The 85mm focal length it is the hardest to tell I think.

The new AF-S 85mm/1.4G is a great lens. Period.
If you are able and willing to shell out the money, do it.

Nikkor AF-S 85mm/1.4G at f/1.4

Nikkor AF-S 85mm/1.4G at f/1.8

The older Nikkor AF 85mm/1.4D is nearly as good, maybe (really hard to tell) a bit less sharp wide open in the middle of the frame but with worst borders. Plainly visible if you shoot test charts or brick walls wide open but total irrelevant if you do portraits.
The bokeh of both is superb and portrait shooters who own the AF 85mm/1.4D shouldn’t worry too much about updating to the AF-S 85mm/1.4G.
The Sigma 85mm/1.4 HSM might be a worthy contender, by the tests and the high praises the owners sing. Make sure you have a camera where you can adjust the auto focus in the menu yourself (D7000, D300/s, D700, D3).

If your budget is more constrained, the very affordable but very competent Nikkor AF 85mm/1.8D will do nicely. The nitpickers shall close the aperture one stop to f/2.5 for improved sharpness and smoother bokeh. By f/4 to f/5.6 it will reach or even beat the AF 85mm/1.4D in sharpness. It has sharper borders and corners than the Nikkor AF 85mm/1.4D straight from wide open but is not as sharp as the new AF-S 85mm/1.4G. It will not reach the smooth bokeh level of its faster siblings. If money is a bit short the AF 85mm/1.8D is a no-brainer. If you want an all around better 85mm the AF-S 85mm/1.4G will cost you 3.5 to 4 times as much. Simple as that. If you are willing to pay about double the price of the 85mm/1.8D take a closer look at the Sigma.

Nikkor AF 85mm/1.8D at f/2.5

The two samples of the manual Zeiss Planar 85mm/1.4 ZF I tried briefly didn’t convince me that much. Wide open the bokeh and sharpness fell a bit short in my book. If I look very hard at the pictures the Nikkor AF 85mm/1.8D I compared them with feels even half a nose ahead. Add the stiff focussing ring of the Zeiss to the mix and the cheap AF Nikkor felt like the better portrait lens for me (some people will probably hang me for this statement).
The cheap manual Samyang 85 mm f/1,4 Aspherical IF does better in tests than its $300 sticker would suggest.

105mm
I’d rather skip the 105mm lens line. I don’t do macro, 105mm for portrait isn’t fish nor flesh for me and purely out of some obscure historical reasons I keep a little 105mm/2.5 AiS. Its small size and great optical performance helps, for sure. The Nikkor 105mm/1.8 AiS could be tempting but “King of the hill” is undoubtably the Zeiss Makro-Planar 100mm/2 ZF
Ok, I must admit I did lust for a Nikkor AF 105mm/2D DC but somewhere somebody has to draw a line. 😉

Nikkor 105mm/2.5 AiS at f/4

135mm
That brings me to the Nikkor AF 135mm/2D DC.

Nikkor AF 135mm/2 at f/2.8

Bad things first: It’s not as sharp wide open as say a AF 180mm/2.8D and if you play with the DC ring sharpness decreases a tiny bit as well. (you might want to keep this in mind if you do a portrait of a lady in the 40+ range. Shoot her with this lens at f/4 or f/5.6 and you ask for trouble!) 🙂
But boy, it’s a nice lens from f/2.5 onwards! Nikon tweaked it’s color rendering for better skin tones and it shows.

Nikkor AF 135mm/2 at f/2.8

180mm/200mm
While the Nikkor AF 180mm/2.8D ED will never get a prize for superior handling (switching between auto focus and manual focus is a pain) this is some damn sharp lens! I’m sure it will pale a little in almost every respect against the Nikkor AF-S 200mm/2G VR but the 200mm/2 is a huge, heavy and very expensive lens, while the 180mm/2.8 is affortable, still compact and hand holdable.

Nikkor AF 180mm/2.8 at f/4

Nikkor AF 180mm/2.8 at f/4

Something like a forgotten gem is the comparably tiny manual Nikkor 200mm/4 AiS.
Wide open it is slightly less sharp than the AF 180mm/2.8 ED but still a bit sharper than the well regardet Nikkor AF 80-200mm/2.8 D ED at the same aperture settings, having a little longer reach than both (the 80-200mm/2.8 is a 90-190mm/3.4 in real life). It can play in almost every respect with the “big boys”, save AF and a fast aperture of course, despite being the size of a 105mm/2.5 with lens hood and available under €100 used.

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6 Responses to Fast Primes (for Nikon)

  1. Steinar Knai says:

    Lovely article Marc and a great help in my striving to use only primes with my D700. I have the 20mm f2.8D and find it fine if I close down. (I may fall for the Zeiss 21 Distagon) Then I have nothing until the 35mm f2, which as you say, is fine from 5.6 on, but I am looking at the Zeiss and will probably try the Samyang before I buy an old Nikon. The 50 f1.4G is a no brainer to me and then I have the 85 f1.8D, which I love. Then nothing and I will be looking into your suggestions for 135 and 180mm. Thanks again for sharing your experience with other prime lovers!

  2. Jeff Hsu says:

    Great Article. I agree with many of the points you made. On the 50mm, you saved me from buying the 50mm f/1.2 AiS. Still you should give the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 a try. It is very sweet once you adjust the auto focus. and I love the 28mm’s.

  3. essi says:

    I love ur subjects!

  4. Hi Marc, I use D800E. I love to take Portraits ….. The amount spending on AF-S 85mm 1.4G is worth? I am just curious. I was thinking of getting a 70-200 VR II, however as i said, I love taking portraits, ……

    • Marc says:

      Hi Prasanth,

      That depends… like always. 😉
      I rather use a compact prime for portraits. These big 2.8 tele zooms tend to get a bit intimidating for the ones in front of the camera.
      It also depends on your preferred working distance for portraits. Nobody can make that decision for you.
      I really like a 85-90mm lens for portraits, while a 105mm is always simply a bit too long for my preferred working distance.

  5. Larry Miller says:

    Great article Marc. Regarding the 50mm Nikon lenses, I have abandoned them. I’ve still have the 50/F1.4 and the 50/F1.8. I have now moved on to the Voigtlander 40mm/F2 Ultron II Aspherical. Man, what a lens! The sharpness is phenomenal amongst other characteristics. It’s a compact pancake lens with hardly any weight. Fits real well with my Nikon F3 and F2. I match it with a Nikkor 28mm F2 AIS and a Nikkor 85mm F1.8 AF-D. It’s a great fast kit.

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