Autofocus Nikkor 20-35mm f/2.8D IF


Now discontinued, used ones are a decent wide angle alternative.

Introduced in September 1993, this 640g wonder is something you used to find in almost every pro bag (today, most have switched to the slightly better and certainly wider 17-35mm AF-S).

 

35mm angle of view: 62-94
close focus: 20" (50cm)
filter thread: 77mm
(Discontinued in 2002)

 

   

The Basics

I've always loved wide angle lenses. Ninety percent of my pictures have been taken at one extreme or the other (17-28mm or 200-720mm). Until recently, I didn't even own a 50mm lens, and I rarely carry one with me.

photo: The Cuernos, Patagonia, Chile. F5 with Nikkor 20-35mm, -1.7 stop fill flash, Fuji Velvia

When I made the switch from Minolta to Nikon in the early 90's, I had to find a replacement for my wide angle staple, the Sigma 21-35mm f/3.5-5.6. At the time, the two natural choices were the 20-35mm AF Nikkor and the Sigma 18-35mm that replaced the 21-35mm. I bought both. (I also bought a 14mm Sigma f/3.5 for those times I really wanted to go wide.) I kept the Nikkor.

This Nikkor has a fixed f/2.8 aperture, with a minimum aperture of f/22. Focusing can be as close as 1.7 feet (.5m). The IF in the name indicates that it is an internal focus lens, meaning the front element does not move during zoom or focus. The D in the name means that focus distance is used in flash and metering calculations by the camera.

The manual zoom and focus rings are separate, and easily distinguished. At the front of the lens, you'll be screwing in 77mm accessories (Nikon's larger standard, shared by several other large front-element lenses). If you have to know, there are 14 elements in 11 groups, but I challenge anyone reading this to make an intelligent comment about how that might impact a buying decision (hint: the more glass elements in a lens, the more likely that flare and ghosting are a problem; but since this zoom is somewhat mid-range in the number of elements, it's hard to generalize anything out of the design).

You'll have to buy the optional hood (HB-8) and lens pouch (No. 62). You do, however, get the hard case (CL-46) and a set of Nikon lens caps.

The primary drawback to the lens is size (especially if you're comparing it to the fixed 20mm f/2.8). From the front flange of the camera, the lens will stick out 4.1 inches (105mm). And it adds over 20 ounces (640g) to your carrying burden. Part of this is due to the metal barrel and other metal parts on the lens (read on…this is a good thing).

By way of comparison, the Sigma 18-35mm is much lighter (the specification sheet doesn't say, but I'd guess in the 10 ounce range). (The recent 18-35mm Nikkor is also lighter.) The Sigma uses 82mm filters and comes with the lens hood. The downside, of course, is that it has a maximum aperture of f/3.5; this drops to f/4.5 at the "telephoto" end.

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Handling

Nikon knows how to make lenses that handle well. The focus and zoom rings are easily distinguished, have a silky, "attached" feel to them, and both go from one extreme to the other in lens than a quarter turn. Yes, I said a quarter of a turn. Brilliant. Better still, the button to switch from manual to automatic focus is right behind the focus ring at 2 o'clock (facing the camera, 10 o'clock from the viewfinder position). The way I hold the camera, this button hits naturally under my middle finger.

The aperture ring has the usual Nikon feel--at slow speeds it clicks in at each aperture, at high manipulation speeds the stops are not as well-defined. For shutter-priority use or mounting on an F5, the little minimum f-stop lock gives most Nikon users fits, and I'm no different. Keep a fingernail long if you want to have a chance to use this switch, as it's so close to the bigger zoom ring (and most Nikon viewfinders have an aperture-viewing overhang), that most users won't be able to get their finger into this space.

One caution: the rear element is highly curved and sticks back past part of the bayonet. On one side a "hump" protects the element from stray fingers, but on more than half of the diameter, it is easy to accidentally touch or bump the rear element. This isn't a problem with the front element, as it is recessed enough behind the filter threads that you won't often find yourself touching it.

The lens hood bayonets onto the front of the lens, and is made of cheap, almost flexible, plastic. Getting the bayonet lined up is helped by a small white dot on both parts. Unfortunately, you won't see the dot on the lens unless you're behind the camera--if you try to put the bayonet on from the front, you won't see the dot. On the plus side, you can leave the hood on and get the lens cap on and off if you have small fingers like I do.

The Sigma lens, by comparison, is an all-plastic barrel and has a cheap feel to it. The manual focus ring doesn't feel like it's connected to anything, although it obviously works. The front element of the Sigma is also highly curved and sticks out right to the extent allowed by the lens cap. Fortunately, it's smaller than the diameter of the lens at this point (something I don't quite understand--tell me why it had to be 82mm out front). The Sigma is so light in heft compared to the Nikkor, you'll wonder how it can even take decent pictures. But it does.

Performance

What can I say? The Nikkor takes great pictures when my brain is engaged (all lenses take bad pictures when my brain is elsewhere). Autofocus action is fast, though not AF-S fast (typical with most wide angle lenses). With full frame cameras at f/2.8 you'll see corner falloff, but this gets better and is mostly gone by f/5.6. Again, this is to be expected with a lens this wide (94 degree field of view!). Some users of the 20-35mm have reported seeing significant color fringing in the corners, but I think this is slightly sample dependent. Color fringing was minimal on my sample, though, as with most very wide angles, present to some degree at the very edges.

Flare is a problem with this lens if you point it at the sun, as it is with most zooms. Keep the hood on, and watch carefully for indications that you're getting flare when you include the sun in or near your shot. My Minolta and Sigma lenses had higher flare levels, but if you really want to be as flare free as possible, you'll want to consider a fixed focal length Nikkor, like the 20mm AF Nikkor f/2.8.

One thing I love about this lens is how little barrel distortion it has, at any zoom setting. [Note: a lot of people go into a store, mount the lens on a Nikon body, then remark at how much barrel distortion they see. What they don't know is that most Nikon viewfinders have a bit of barrel distortion in them. The only way to tell how much distortion is in the lens is to look at pictures taken with the lens.] Assuming that you keep the camera level, straight lines near the edge of the frame will look like straight lines, having only a itsy-bitsy amount of curve. The Sigma is also pretty good, but not nearly as good as the Nikon--my shots with the Sigma often show visible barrel distortion, especially at the widest focal length.

All bets are off if you start doing things like getting close to vertical subjects and angling the camera up, as you would expect. Any wide-angle without a shift capability will show extreme perspective distortion in such a situation.

I find that most of my pictures taken with this lens have a "snap" to them. I've never done a perfectly set up direct comparison, but pictures taken with the Nikkor appear to have more contrast than those taken with the Sigma in the same situation. Part of this can be attributed to better flare control.

I use the Cokin P filter holder to hold Singh-Ray graduated filters. On some wide-angle lenses, you need to be careful that the holder doesn't show up in the picture (I can't use this on the Sigma, for instance). With the lens at 20mm and focused in close, you'll see the edge of the holder. I modified a P holder to only have one slot, and this solved the problem. I've even mounted a thin polarizer and the modified P filter holder on the 20-35mm and managed to not vignette. 

As noted, the Sigma has more problems with flare, and the pictures taken with it, while quite good, don't quite have the punch as the ones I get from the Nikkor. In situations where I can control the light and am not shooting into the sun, either lens will do just fine. Otherwise, I want the Nikkor. Of course, there is that small $1000 difference in price.

One final word about performance. I have no way of measuring actual focal length or aperture. But taking out a 20mm, fixed focal length lens and comparing it to the view on the 20-35mm zoom gave me the same angle of view. I highly question the 18mm setting of the Sigma, however. It is a little wider than the 20mm the Nikon provides, but I don't think it is a true 18mm. It also seems a bit short of 35mm at the other end. If I had to guess, I'd say the Sigma is a 19-33mm zoom. Still not bad, but not quite what's advertised.

The Story

Coming down the 17,000 foot (5100m) pass on the backside of Huascaran in the Peruvian Andes, I came to a strange forest of red-trunked trees I'm tempted to call a glade. The bad news was that this entrancing ecosystem was also perched on the side of a very steep, rocky hill. I had lent my walking stick to a woman who was having trouble scrambling down the rocks (they were bigger than she was!). I had the N90s and the 20-35mm hanging around my neck for taking pictures when I lost my balance, fell down a rock face, and to my dismay, watched the camera define a beautiful arc from my body to a rock as I hit bottom. The blow was pretty severe, and the lens hood did a nice ejection from the lens, landing twenty feet away.

I figured I had just totaled a lens that had cost me US$1600. I looked at the lens. I looked through the camera. I tried focusing. I took a picture or two (not a very good one, since I was still shook from the fall). I looked closer at the lens. The filter ring had a slight dent in it, but that's the only damage I could find. I went to retrieve the lens hood, expecting to find it shattered. No way. It had a nice chunk gouged out of one of the front "wings", and another cosmetic scar that went from the gouge to the place on the lens where the filter ring was bent.

As far as I can tell, the hood absorbed the brunt of the initial blow, and like an air bag, slowed the lens down enough so that when it hit the rock, it did so with only a glancing blow. I never had the nick fixed (and still use the "damaged" hood), and haven't seen any difference in photographs taken before, or after, the incident. 

Drawbacks

  • Expense. My first two cars cost less than this lens. An F100 body costs less than this lens [now that it's only available used, that's no longer true]. My last computer cost less than this lens. You can buy and process over 150 rolls of film for the cost of this lens. This last puts things in prospective. If you shoot a lot of film (hundreds of rolls a year), this lens will pay for itself, eventually. If you're a casual shooter who doesn't know what a brick of film is, go for the Sigma until you can tell what's missing from your pictures.
  • Weight. You're already carrying a heavy camera body (N90s, F4, F5), are you sure you want to nearly double the weight? I can't believe the amount of gear I carried through 100 miles or more of 10,000-17,000 foot (3000-5100m) trekking. My only consolation was that several others carried more!
  • Filter Size. Ever tried to buy a 77mm circular polarizer? Expect to pay US$100-150 for a good one. And you won't find one of these at any old photo store. Even my favorite local pro shop (formerly Keeble & Schucat in Palo Alto, CA, now Dan's in Allentown, PA) doesn't always have them in stock
  • No depth of field scale. Yup, that's right, a US$1600 lens with no DOF scale. Instead, you get this nifty cut-it-out-of-the-manual-and-assemble-it-yourself scale. Right. And where exactly do I carry this flimsy excuse of a tool? Of course, at 20mm and f/22 focused at 2 feet, infinity is still within the circle of confusion!

Positives

  • Build. Solid. Heck, mine survived a full on rock attack.
  • Performance. Once state-of-the-art, now just really good.
 
Quick Evaluation


Recommended
; a decent wide angle zoom; some examples have corner color fringing.

features
performance
build
value

Table of Contents
Competition
  • The Sigma 15-30mm, 17-35mm, or 18-35mm. The first is rather large and formidable, but produces excellent photos. The second is lightweight, but not as good optically. The latter two are adequate for casual shooters, but watch for distortion and flare. The first is quite good and recommended over any of the other Sigma wide angle offerings.
  • Tokina 20-35mm f/2.8. Tokina makes a solid showing. Tokina's coatings are a little different than Nikon's, though, which result in a very slight overall color balance difference.
  • Fixed focal length lenses. Nikon makes some extraordinary wide angle lenses. The 20mm AF f/2.8 is 9.2 ounces, less than half that of the 20-35mm zoom. It focuses closer, takes 62mm filters, and works well with a reversing ring for close-up photography. The 24mm AF f/2.8N is even smaller, weighs 8.9 ounces, uses 52mm filters, has some DOF info on the lens itself, and has superb edge-to-edge sharpness.
  • Nikkor zooms: Nikon introduced the 17-35mm f/2.8 AF-S lens, which improves upon the 20-35mm in three primary ways without adding any new drawbacks other than a bit more size and weight: (1) focus can be tweaked manually, even in AF mode; (2) it goes significantly wider; and (3) it focuses almost twice as close. Optically, it's a very impressive lens, better than the 20-35mm it surplants. At the consumer end, the 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 weighs only 13 ounces and focuses down to just a little over a foot. At the wider end, it's as good as the 20-35mm, but falls down a bit at the 35mm end.

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