Rationalizing Lenses


More than you want to know about lenses, updated...

This article originally appeared in the Nikon DSLR Report, issue #6. A lot has happened both in cameras and lenses since I wrote that article. But that article was also my basic treatise on how to make decisions amongst lenses. Thus, I've decided to take the time to do a thorough update to the article and post it here for everyone to partake. If you read the original, you can skip down to the section labeled "Putting Together Logical Kits." Everything from there down has changed considerably since the original; the stuff before that has only minor tweaks. Enjoy.

Original: 5/19/2008
Update: 4/8/2009
Update: 2/19/2011
Update: 2/12/2012


Some Background

As most of you know, I get dozens of emails every day from Nikon users, and a large group of them fall roughly into the “what lens should I get” category. Before we go there—I’m sure you all know what I mean by “there”—we have to get a few other things out of the way.

In terms of image quality, the biggest investment you make is in lenses, the second biggest is in a support system, and the smallest is in the camera/film. Digital SLRs distorted that a bit, but consumer DSLR body prices have come down to where that’s right again, and even for us pros we've almost all got far more invested in lenses than we do our DSLR and backup bodies.

Things were a little more obvious in the days of yore (and the nights, too), when anyone could see that the primary difference between an N65 and an F5 shooting Velvia lay mostly in the feature set of the body, not in the ultimate image quality. After all, Velvia was Velvia, and assuming everything else equal, an N65 body worked just as well at attaching a lens and blocking stray light as an F5. Sure, we could argue about a few minor things, such as mirror slap, but as Galen Rowell once discovered, it’s a heck of a lot easier to get an N65 to the top of a rarely climbed peak than it is an F5. And his pictures didn’t suffer for those times when he did that.

With digital, things got much messier. A three-megapixel camera has some obvious deficiencies compared to a six-megapixel camera, for instance, as it simply has fewer sampling points across the same area, and that has a direct impact on resolving power. Same thing with the six-megapixel to twelve-megapixel leap. But noise tendencies, dynamic range, antialiasing filters, sensor size, and color fidelity also vary amongst the DSLRs, as I’ve outlined in my reviews and books, and at least two of those things (antialiasing) come directly into play when evaluating lenses, if not all of them. Be that as it may, I can still tell when I put a bad lens on any one of the DSLRs I own. The better the body, the more obvious this is, but even with a “lesser” body you’ll see a difference if you know what you're looking for. And when you think about it, this really isn’t any different than putting a very fine-grained, high-quality film in your 35mm SLR (e.g., Provia) or a bigger grained, muddier film (e.g., Kodachrome 200) in the same body. It wouldn’t matter which of those films I put into my F100, I’d still see the difference between a “good” lens and a “bad” one. It’s just that the better film or a better sensor makes it easier to see the difference.

Before we get to the lenses themselves, we need a brief aside about how resolution works on digital SLRs. The pixel pitch, the filtration over the sensor, and the lens all combine when it comes to our ultimate resolving ability. But let’s go back to film for a second. Back when we all shot Velvia, the resolution possible with our equipment was defined like this:

1 / Resolution = ( 1 / Lens_Resolution ) + ( 1 / Film_Resolution )

where "resolution" is measured in some common set of units (usually lines per millimeter or line pairs per millimeter) . Thus, when we shot only with Velvia and moved around between cameras, the film value stayed the same and our ultimate resolving power was really only determined by any change in the lens. Put one lens on a film camera loaded with your favorite stock and you got one resolving ability; put another on and the resolving ability changed. Switching films generally didn’t make a big difference, as the variability of resolving power of most films professionals used was not particularly high.

With digital, we have more variables, though it’s still the same type of equation that we use to describe the relationship:

1 / Resolution = ( 1 / Lens_Resolution ) + ( 1 / Sensor_Resolution ) + ( 1 / AAFilter_Resolution ) + ( 1 / ImagingASIC_Resolution )

(That might not be a perfect definition, but this simple approach works for our basic understanding of what's changed. Note that raw files wouldn't be impacted by the last factor. There is the implication, however, that different conversions may produce slightly different resolution results, which is borne out in practice.)

Suddenly we have several variable factors, as those last three things all vary from DSLR to DSLR. I think everyone knows by now that the D2h doesn’t have an aggressive antialiasing filter, but it also has fewer photosites; this combination actually produces pretty reasonable resolution (lens being the same) compared to what you’d expect against a 6mp camera such as the D100, which had an antialiasing filter and imaging ASIC that reduced resolution comparatively. If you look closely at the equation I just presented, the D800E should immediately leap to mind: it has the highest pixel count of any Nikon mount DSLR (to date as I write this, plus non AA filter). Increasing the sensor pixel count by a factor of 3x (over all the 12mp cameras) sounds good, but note that you still have to add in all the other values. A weak lens on a strong sensor can compromise the overall resolution obtained.

So, one thing to remember as we move deeper into our evaluation is that “good lenses” are not the only determiner in our ultimate resolving ability. If you look at a lens on a D100 you'll see one set of results, while the same lens on a D7000 or D800 will produce a different sense of how good it is. Ditto a D1 versus a D3x. Given my unique position of having tested most every combination along the way, I can make somewhat more definitive conclusions than you might be able to if your data set is only one DSLR and a handful of lenses. Our goal here is to find the "best lenses" for use in the digital world, so when I make my evaluations you should know that I'm keeping the other variables constant as much as I can (DX and FX sensor sizes make for a bit of a problem that can't be 100% controlled for in evaluations, which is one reason why I sometimes give DX and FX assessments independently).

Evaluating Lenses

I’m sure you’re wondering how “good” and “bad” get defined when it comes to lenses. Here are some other elements (pardon the pun) that come into play when making a decision about the image quality of a lens:

Good Lens Bad Lens
Even exposure edge to edge Visible light falloff in corners
Chromatic aberration controlled Obvious color fringing on edges in corners or in near/far out of focus areas
Straight lines are straight Linear distortions of straight lines
High acuity (defined edges) Low acuity (fuzzy edges)
High contrast Low contrast
Little or no flare tendencies Significant flare or ghosts in back light
No color shifts Lens coating shifts colors
Excellent bokeh in out-of-focus areas Clear artifacts in out-of-focus areas

The preceding table is about image quality considerations. A lens could also be dinged for mechanical aspects:

Good Lens Bad Lens
Focus/Zoom rings smooth in operation Focus/Zoom rings sloppy or stiff in operation
Doesn't zoom on its own Obvious zoom creep
Good weather protection/sealing Poor weather protection/sealing
Clear and useful focus and zoom markings Missing or unclear focus and zoom markings
Autofocus is zippy and doesn't hunt Autofocus is slow and hunts
Autofocus can be overridden Autofocus cannot be overridden
VR, preferably with flexible settings Lack of VR
Solid and adjustable tripod mount/collar Flexing in mount, non-adjustable mount/collar

Finally, we have basic design decisions:

Good Lens Bad Lens
Fast aperture (f/2.8 or larger) Slow aperture (f/5.6 or smaller)
Wide focal length range (zooms) Small focal length range (zooms)
Useful focal length (fixed) Odd or less useful focal length (fixed)
Close focusing distance Long focusing distance
Internal focusing (no front rotation) External focusing (front element rotates)

Some users get excited by metal lenses and are bothered by plastic, or whether it has an aperture ring or not, but as long as the lens is otherwise well specified and made, I simply don’t care about these “religious” issues. Price point is another contentious issue, but in general, you get what you pay for (I'll try to point out some obvious bargains when we get to the actual lenses).

It ought to be obvious by now that lens designers juggle an enormous number of factors when they design a new lens. The preceding lists are just the tip of the iceberg, actually. Fortunately, we don’t need to drop below the surface and examine the keel; the list so far is enough to keep us busy for far too long as it is. One principle that’s necessary to understand, though, is that there is no such thing as a “perfect” lens. There’s no secret formula that allows you to get perfect marks in every decision you make when designing a lens. If the program calls for an f/1 20mm lens, the size and curvature of the mammoth front element required is going to have trickle down effects on flare, chromatic aberration, and linear distortions at a minimum (not to mention cost, physical size, and other factors). Decide to make a zoom lens and you get away from potentially simple designs with few elements, so internal reflections and light scatter become design issues, as do mechanical issues in moving those elements for both focus and zoom.

So I repeat: there is no such thing as a perfect lens.

Lens designers are a bit like Zen practitioners: they seek a perfect state, but never quite achieve it. Or they’re like Arnold Schwarzenegger: they seek a perfect State, but never quite achieve it.

We’re still not “there” yet. Sorry.

Every company that makes lenses has different design tendencies (goals) which often come from different decision making processes. Some of these things show up in ways that we can easily distinguish, some don’t. For example, Sigma lenses tend to use a glass that’s a little warmer in rendering colors than Nikon. Tokina lenses tend to be a little more magenta/cooler in rendering than Nikon glass. Yes, the color of the glass and coatings used in a lens is yet another factor we have to consider. Each company has its own sources for glass and its own recipe for coatings, and those factors influence what they can do in lens designs, too. One reason I don’t tend to use many third party lenses in my own kits is that they don’t always mix well color-wise. I once had a Tokina lens I really liked (it was wicked sharp), but I could spot every shot I took with it on the light table looking at slides simply from the color shift. Professional photographers use discipline to seek consistency, so I disciplined the Tokina by selling it into prosumer slavery somewhere in Michigan.

You’ve perhaps heard about MTF charts, which attempt to convey a particular aspect of lens performance. Some companies design first and foremost for high MTF numbers (probably because they know a lot of magazines and Web sites run MTF tests and report the results to potential buyers), some use it only as a guideline for one aspect of performance (as in “we don’t want MTF to drop below X at Y”). For years, Nikon glass has been accused of having more visual punch (contrast mostly) than Canon glass, though Canon glass has been said to have higher acuity (edge definition). I think that actually may be design decisions embedded within each organization (both have long histories of legendary designers passing down “knowledge” to protégés), but neither by it itself makes one lens better than the other. A lens with high contrast can have other poor characteristics, and so can a lens with high acuity. In general, I don’t think Nikon or Canon makes better lenses than the other. Some Nikkors are better than some Canons, and vice versa.

So I repeat again: there is no such thing as a perfect lens. To which I can now add: no single company makes “the best lenses.”

And still we have more to chew on (happy dog). Fundamentally, the switch from multilayered, overlapped grain, almost-but-not-necessarily-flat film stocks to singular, separated sensing points with miniature lenses of their own on a perfectly flat surface has caused some ripples in lens design. The most talked about issue is that of the position of the rear element vis-à-vis the sensor. In practice, light needs to hit the digital sensor at no more than about 15 degrees off perpendicular, and preferably less than that (a good design point would be 10 degrees). Steeper angles invoke a range of problems, including potentially huge light falloff in the corners, internal light bounce off the filter/microlenses, and perhaps even filter issues (both Bayer and antialiasing).

With wide angle lenses featuring large, deep rear elements, the angle at which light hits the far edges of the sensor is an issue, both for light falloff and for color fringing. Telephoto lenses tend to have long, straight throws from the rear element to the sensor, which delivers light just the way the sensor most likes it. One partial solution was to add microlenses to the top of the sensor, which redirect light that comes in at any angle downwards into the light sensitive area of the photosite (for which Nikon coined the word “telecentrically”). But this isn’t a perfect solution, and there are still interactions worth noting. It’s no coincidence that most recent lens designs all use rear element groupings that make sure that no light is doing a deep knee bend coming out the back of the lens. Some companies have even given to adding some sort of digital moniker to their lens specification to indicate such considerations.

But the angle of the last light dangle isn’t the only issue that comes up. Kodak Pro 14n users can probably tell you about two others that are common. The first is the dreaded “hot spot” of some older lens designs. The older Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 and f/1.8 are the primary culprits, but a number of primes in the 35mm to 85mm range exhibit the issue to some degree. And while the Pro 14n serves up the problem in spades, even film users have reported seeing faint inklings of the dreaded hot spot. So what’s this spot? It’s the reflection of the IR and Bayer filter on top of the sensor as defined by the aperture opening. The problem occurs at small apertures (f/16) on lenses that have their aperture blades at certain positions in the lens (usually far forward). The Pro 14n users see it more than the rest of the digital crowd because of the bright red reflectance off the Pro 14n’s filter, which is hard to miss when it gets reproduced in your picture. In the Nikon bodies the problem is still there, but usually a less obnoxious slightly bluish circle due to the lower reflectance and color of the Nikon filters. (On most film stocks, it tends to be a very faint magenta.)

So I repeat again: there is no such thing as a perfect lens. You might design for one target (film) and get a different result with something else (digital).

And now we’re “there.” It’s time to describe the worthy lenses versus the unworthy.

I can think of quite a few ways to do this, so I’ll try several and let you pick which way works for you best. One word of caution: with a few exceptions, I’m not going to talk about third party lenses. My comments will be mostly centered on Nikkors, with which I have quite a bit of experience, dating all the way back into the 60’s. My comments here, though, apply to use on DSLRs, so keep that in mind; sometimes there are better choices for film bodies. Prices quoted are essentially B&H prices as I write this—they may vary somewhat in other countries and even in the US due to Nikon’s habit of fiddling with rebates. See www.bythom.com/rebates.htm if you’re in the US and want to know what rebates are in effect.

Putting Together Logical Kits

No one lens does it all (those that try end up having significant weaknesses somewhere), so we usually end up with two or three lenses that form the core of our shooting arsenal. We don’t want too many, because we have to carry and care for them, but we want as much flexibility as possible in what those lenses allow us to do. Let’s look at some logical groupings.

I’m going to assume that everyone needs to go from a true wide angle (74 degrees or more) to moderate telephoto, though you’re going to find that I have a specific bias against the mid-range focal lengths, which just don’t do much for me (the difference between a 40mm and 60mm shot just isn’t enough to warrant using a different lens over using my legs, in my opinion). I’ll try to point out some alternatives as I go, but consider yourself forewarned about my bias.

Economy DX
First up, let’s go the economy route for DX sensor DSLRs (basically all Nikon mount DSLRs except for the D700, D3, D3s, D3x, and the Kodak Pro 14n/SLRn). Here’s the low-cost portfolio that makes sense to me:

18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S VR DX
55-200mm f/4-5.6G AF-S VR DX

(If you need more reach, the 55-300mm f/4-5.6G AF-S VR DX is pretty much optically the same as the 55-200mm in the shared range. If you need a fast normal lens, augment the set with the 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX.)

What you give up in the economy kit is low-light capability. Both these lenses use 52mm filters, which means you can standardize on a small filter set. You’re going to use the 18-55mm on the camera most of the time, swapping in the 55-200mm when you need real telephoto. These lenses are far better than you'd expect for their low cost. Indeed, each generation of the 18-55mm has improved to the point where the current VR version has little to complain about in terms of performance. What you have is near state-of-the-art optics between 18mm and 70mm. At f/8 and f/11 and those focal lengths, this kit can produce results pretty much on par with the more expensive lenses you covet. Even at 200mm the results hold up quite well, though they're not state-of-the-art. Neither of these lenses is much prone to chromatic aberration, and neither has high levels of linear distortion. Both tend to have significant light fall-off wide open, but it rapidly drops to acceptable levels. The VR works, and the AF-S makes for reasonably snappy focus, though it isn't the same speed AF-S as the more expensive lenses. Let me put it another way: in terms of image quality, these two low-cost lenses have very little to complain about. They produce very nice images.

What these lenses don't have is a lot of mechanical or build quality finesse. They are made of polycarbonates (even the mounts) and aren't going to withstand outright abuse well. The zoom and focus rings aren't the best Nikon has produced, though they work decently enough. Both lenses are very small and light. The lens hood designs are terrible and prone to break.

The only way you can improve on the economy kit is to spend much more money. Even buying used lenses will cost you a lot more money to make any tangible improvement. For example, the next step up in image quality for the telephoto end would be a used 80-200mm f/2.8, and that'll come at more than double the cost of the 55-200mm. True, you then get a wider maximum aperture, slightly better 200mm results, better build quality, and a tripod mount, but you also get a big increase in size and weight.

Economy FX
It seems a bit like an oxymoron to think of FX economy, as even the lowest cost FX body retails for US$2999 (D800). But here's my take on going the inexpensive route for FX:

24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G AF-S (no longer produced by Nikon; must buy used)
180mm f/2.8D (not yet reviewed on this site)
If you need more wide angle, pick up a 20mm f/2.8, or better yet, one of the older AI 20mm models, all of which seem a bit better than the current autofocus one.

(An alternative that's now acceptable but not quite as good or as flexible as my suggested set is the new 24-120mm f/4G AF-S VR [not the older variable aperture version]. It does acceptably well across its range, especially stopped down. If you need a telephoto zoom, the only logical choice is the 70-300mm f/4-5.6G AF-S VR. If you need a fast normal lens, augment the set with the 50mm f/1.8D, one of the best Nikkor bargains still available.)

This set is a step up from the DX economy kit in you're getting better telephoto at the expense of flexibility. This kit is also not quite as low-light constrained as DX kit. Unfortunately the 24-85mm is no longer sold by Nikon, though you can still find it some stores (note that this is not the f/2.8-4 version, which I find optically poor). Another drawback to this kit is filters (62mm for the 20mm, 67mm for the 24-85mm, 72mm for the 180mm). Depending upon what you think "economy" means, you could substitute a 28-70mm f/2.8 for the zoom (not the 24-70mm, which is more expensive) or perhaps a 70-300mm f/4-5.6 for the telephoto to give you more reach and flexibility. At the wide end there is nothing that comes close to the price performance ratio of the 20mm, though.

What about the 28-300mm? I was tempted to make it the economy package all by itself. The problems are subtle and multiple, though: you don't get very wide, the telephoto end is highly compromised especially when you focus closer, and it's not a great lens, only a decent one, plus it's a big heavy lens. The 24-85mm on a D800 versus the 28-300mm is night and day: the smaller lens is way smaller and lighter, plus it's optically better across most of the shared range, and it gives you 24mm, expanding your useful wide abilities.

The one thing going for an FX user, though, is that there are a tremendous number of used lenses--both manual focus and autofocus--that will work well on those bodies, and thus if you shop around, you can find lots of bargains to build an economy kit. For example, a 24mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8, and 180mm f/2.8 makes a nice fixed focal length economy kit if you shop the used market carefully.

Let's Go Pro DX
The Let’s-Go-Pro kit for the APS-sensor cameras is going to chew up some cash, so bear with me:

12-24mm f/4G AF-S DX
Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM (not yet reviewed on this site)
70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S VR
or 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S VR II

These lenses share a 77mm filter size, are excellent in quality and specification, and can take a lot of physical abuse. I don't think you can do better at any focal length other than perhaps the 12-15mm range. Personally, I've recently opted for the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 over the Nikkor 12-24mm, but that's more because I want the extra angle of view that extra 1mm gives me, not because the Tokina is better than the Nikkor. There isn’t much compromise here, though you’ve got three big, heavy lenses to carry. Optically, these are all excellent lenses, with the weak point being ~12-15mm at f/4 to f/8. Still, if you aren’t getting sharp images with good contrast from this set on even the 16mp of the D7000, there’s something wrong with your camera or your shot discipline. Some might wonder why not the Nikkor 17-55mm (or Tamron 17-50mm)? Well, both those lenses would have similar color qualities to the Nikkors (the Sigma is warmish), but you need image stabilization in a mid-range pro lens, I think, and the Sigma is currently the best of the bunch in my testing. The DX user can get by just fine with the older version of the 70-200mm and save a few dollars; there's almost no measurable difference between the two lenses on a DX body.

If your Mastercard isn’t maxed out yet, you’ll want the TC-14E (and maybe a TC-20E III if you've got the newer 70-200mm) for the telephoto lens. That’s actually the preferred option over adding a 300mm f/4 AF-S (which is a fine lens in its own right) in order to keep the kit small and light. With the TC-14E, the 70-200mm performs almost the same as the 300mm f/4, believe it or not (okay, you’re only at 280mm, but the image quality is near equivalent, especially in the center of the frame). The performance is close enough at everything but f/4 to pocket the extra cash, in my opinion. Save up your telephoto bucks for an exotic (see below).

If you are the frugal type, you can get quite close to the optical quality of the above set by going a different route using third-party lenses. You lose VR at the telephoto end, but your pocketbook will not be as exhausted with this trio:

11-16mm Tokina f/2.8
17-50mm Tamron f/2.8 (original version preferred)
50-150mm Sigma f/2.8 HSM (not yet reviewed on this site; new optically stabilized version coming)

The primary difference is that you're a teeny bit softer at the telephoto side and you've got three different color casts, but in terms of cost, size, and weight, you're slightly better off.

Let's Go Pro FX
On FX bodies things get a little trickier. Two lenses are easy:

24-70mm f/2.8G (not yet reviewed on this site)
70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S VR

The only thing these two lenses are lacking is really close focus ability. The cheapest and quickest way to add that would be to buy the 77mm Canon 500D close up filter to use on the 70-200mm, but that’s a stop-gap for a real macro lens. The new 70-200mm has a bit of focus breathing, but this isn't usually a big issue for the types of subjects you'd use it on. The tricky part is when you need wider, longer, or both. Some users can get away with just shooting with these two lenses, but most of us prefer the options that more width and more reach give us, thus we have to add:

14-24mm f/2.8G (not yet reviewed on this site)
300mm f/2.8G VR (not yet reviewed on this site)

Why is this tricky? Well, at the wide end you don't have a lot of great choices--they all have compromises. The 14-24mm, while an absolutely amazing lens with no real image quality flaws, has one big possibly fatal flaw for some: no filters. Most of us who go wide use some sort of filter from time to time, and you just have to forgo that on the 14-24mm. Pity. Yes, I know that there are now third-party filter holders for the lens, but they are hard to get and use very large filters. That puts you with the 16-35mm f/4 lens, which is very good, but not quite in the class as the 14-24mm, which is superb. And you lose 14mm, of course. At the telephoto end the trick is that you're into the exotics immediately if you need even modest reach on an FX body. That means you're going to pay. Both in cost and in size/weight. The 300mm f/2.8G VR is a superb lens, but it's still almost six big bills in cost and six+ pounds. And, unfortunately, on an FX body 300mm is not a lot of reach (though the TC-20E III gives you an adequate 600mm f/5.6). If your wallet and forearms aren't up to the heft, the 300mm f/4D is a reasonable substitute, but your ability to go longer with a TC is somewhat more limited.

Getting Close
I’m going to give you a choice. Your choice is either sharpness or convenience. If you’re into sharp-as-you-can-get, then the 200mm f/4D Micro-Nikkor is the hands down winner. Too bad Nikon hasn't thought to update it to VR or AF-S (note that I wrote that line four years ago).

Unless you’re using your camera to do copy-stand type macro (e.g., coins, stamps, etc.), the 40mm DX, the 60mm and 105mm Micro-Nikkors, while excellent performers (both the older and newer versions), just don’t have enough working distance for most of us. Working distance is important both so as not to scare off your subjects (e.g., insects), but to give you enough room to put some supplemental light on your subject, either by reflector or with flash. Yes, I know you can mount two SB-R200 units to the front of the 105mm to provide light. But that actually doesn’t always solve the lighting issue, as the light is coming all from the camera direction, which makes for a flat style. Great for copy stands, not so great for trying to make something look like natural light. With the 40mm and 60mm, the SB-R200s will come in at very steep angles to the front of your subject. If you get the 200mm Micro-Nikkor, also consider that a focusing rail is an absolute requirement (as is one heck of a sturdy tripod/head). It’s just easier to lock in focus with a focus rail.

Note: Since Nikon has updated the other two Micro-Nikkors, either with AF-S, VR, or both, it might be wise to wait a bit if you’re interested in the 200mm version. Odds are that it is in the list of lenses to be updated (note that I wrote that line three years ago).

The convenience route is the 70-180mm f/4.5-5.6D Micro-Nikkor. But it has two big caveats: it doesn’t get to 1:1 (only to about 1:2, or half life-size), and it's no longer available new and difficult to find used. Still, setting up a macro shot quickly with this lens is so much easier than using the 200mm, and a Nikon 5T/6T set (also no longer made; what's Nikon thinking?) solves the 1:1 issue. A focusing rail is useful with this setup, but I don’t feel quite as naked without one with this lens as I do with the 200mm. One final comment: this Micro-Nikkor is no slouch in sharpness, but you have to work hard to get everything this lens is capable of. In particular, the tripod mount is prone to rob some edge sharpness if you don’t get it tightened down all the way. Big heavy bodies hanging off the back also are prone to mirror slap issues that show up big time with this somewhat modest sized lens, so use the mirror up or mirror delay function on the body.

Finally, note that none of the Micro-Nikkors are truly optimized for far-field or infinity focus situations, though they work quite well for general shooting. You can substitute a Micro-Nikkor for another lens, but I wouldn't make any of them my primary lens at their focal length--I think you can do better in all cases. The 70-180mm and 200mm are not snappy focusers, either.

Going Light—Travel Kits
So far I’ve talked almost solely about optimizing image quality. But sometimes you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of image quality for sheer simplicity and ease of carrying. Everyone who’s been to one of my workshops knows I tend to carry a small photo store in my backpack, and am always pulling out some new toy, device, lens, or accessory out to demonstrate. But I usually only carry that 30+ pound beast at workshops; when I’m on my own traveling I sometimes use very stripped down lens kits so that I can move more easily, less conspicuously, and have less to keep track of. Thus, I have some ideas about Travel Kits that you might want to consider when building your lens collection.

First, a story. My late mentor, Galen Rowell was renowned for always carrying a light kit with him on climbs, while running ultra marathons, or simply while training on the trails around his home. When I first met him, his light kit camera was an FM2n. Then for awhile it was an FM-10. Later still, it was an N80 or an N65. If he were still with us today, I’m pretty sure it would be a D3100 or Nikon V1. The emphasis was on light, light, light. On the lens side, Galen zipped around with an old 20mm f/4UD and the 80-200mm f/4-5.6D (US$99!) consumer lens (early on, he used a 75-150mm Series E). Until he started carrying the N65 or N80, he also used to carry a small flash (might have been the SB-22s; I don’t remember exactly). Sometimes he also carried a little plastic table pod. This all “fit” into a very small chest pouch he had designed for Photoflex (no longer made). Any time Galen was out training or just tooling around, he’d pass you by on the trail with his little pouch cinched to his chest, mumble a “hi Thom” and quickly disappear off into the woods. When we were staying at various hotels in the third world on most trips, Galen would be up before dawn for a run, and the pouch went with him.

While I’m not much of a runner or climber (I have run three marathons and climbed to 17,000 feet, though, but in comparison to the way Galen was, I’m positively sedentary), I started taking after Galen a bit, and began carrying an FM2n with a 24mm and 75-150mm with me in a small fanny pack. (Besides, it made an okay backup to my full kit of expensive gear.) One morning in Torres del Paine National Park (Patagonia), Galen skipped out after wolfing down breakfast to go shoot the Towers at dawn (this involves several thousand vertical feet of climb, a rock scramble, and miles of distance; the “average” person is suggested to anticipate the hike taking five hours, and it’s rated moderately strenuous). I set out after Galen about an hour later, planning on spending lunch up at the lake that sits underneath the Towers. About a half hour into my uphill slog I noticed that I had forgotten my zoom. About 15 minutes later I bumped into Galen running back from the Towers, stopped him, and asked if I could borrow whatever telephoto he had with him. He obliged and lent me the 80-200mm f/4-5.6D.

That was the first time I had noticed what telephoto he had in the light kit, and I was a little surprised at the choice. That lens wasn't reputed to be even a close match for the image quality of the older 75-150mm I used, let alone something like the 80-200mm f/2.8 that existed at the time. Galen mumbled something about “just make sure you use f/8 or f/11,” turned, and in seconds had raced out of sight.

When I got to the Towers and the sweat of exertion had dried off, I wandered around taking pictures, including several rolls of film using the 80-200mm. When I got home, I was somewhat surprised by the decent quality of those shots. Indeed, had I not known what I had shot with, I wouldn’t have pulled out my best loupe to try to find defects in them (which I couldn’t). Galen was right, at f/8 and f/11 that cheap consumer lens produced fine photos. They sit proudly in my stock photo files right next to those taken during the same period with my F5 and the 80-200mm f/2.8, which I would have never pulled up that last rock scramble and scree slope.

I think the moral of this story is this: you don’t get a picture at all unless you carry a camera with you, and sometimes that means compromising. I’d never carry US$10,000 worth of gear through the open market at Christmas in Quito, Ecuador (too likely to be stolen from you by someone in the huge, milling crowd), but I do carry a camera with me when I go there. Put another way, what I’ve written about up until this section has to do with maximizing image quality; what I’m about to tell you is about maximizing convenience and flexibility while lowering logistics and weight considerations in ways that don’t compromise quality too much.

First, consider getting a D3100 to use with your travel lenses. Carrying a large, heavy body and one that requires heavier, extra batteries is the antithesis of a travel kit. No other current Nikon DSLR body comes close to the D3100 in terms of convenience for travel, thus it is the body you should be sticking these things on. (Of course, if you only have one digital body due to cost considerations, you’ll have to use what you’ve got, but consider yourself warned—your camera body may be in contradiction to your intended usage here.)

For the DX-Shaky-Jake-Willing-to-Carry-a-Bit-More types (AKA the “Shaker”):

16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G VR
70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR

Two lenses cover everything but the very widest of angles, give you hand-holding flexibility, and minimize lens changing. What you give up isn’t really image quality so much as lack of flexibility in manipulating depth of field. An aperture of f/5.6 is way too middle-of-the-road for the telephoto ends of these zooms. Optically, both are excellent with only minimal issues. You’ll need 67mm filters. Yes, this duo is a bit heavy, which runs slightly counter to our goal. Still, it’s a very flexible pair that may let you abandon the tripod (even table top types) or monopod, and thus can’t be ignored. You may wonder why I didn't say 18-200mm here. Well, the 18-200mm isn't really 200mm at most focus distances you'd use it at, so it doesn't give you near as much reach as you think, and that extra 2mm at the wide end of the 16-85mm is very useful in travel circles. The 16-85mm is a better lens optically, too. Indeed, I'd take it almost any day over the 18-200mm.

The Leave-Out-The-Middle-Go-DX-As-Light-as-Possible option (the “Galen”):

18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S VR (not yet reviewed on this site)
55-200mm f/4-5.6G AF-S VR

Yep, they're back! The modern equivalent of Galen’s travel lenses would be a 14mm f/2.8 and the 55-200mm, but I'd settle for this duo. With a D3100, these two lenses plus the 35mm f/1.8G DX are the bomb as far as light and good.

Again, those of you considering going the Super Zoom route (18-200mm, or perhaps the new Tamron 28-300mm): don't. The 18-200mm is a good lens, but it is out performed by both combos I just mentioned.

The New Really Light option (the "One"):

Nikon V1 body with 10-30mm and 30-110mm lenses. If you need even more telephoto, supplement with the FT1 adapter and the 55-300mm DX lens (gets you to 810mm equivalent).

FX-User-Thinks-They're-Going-Light (the "Confused"):

20mm f/2.8D
75-150mm f/3.5 Series E

This is as Galen-esque as you can get, except for one small problem: the body you're sticking these on is a bit of a Goliath, even the D800. You've got a definite Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality, don't you? Seriously, get a D3100 and the two kit VR lenses and use them for your light kit, or get the V1 with its two kit lenses, you'll be better off.

Exotics
Usually, the first serious augmentation considered for any of the basic kits I've mentioned above is an exotic telephoto. These lenses are great for sports, wildlife, and even candid shooting (assuming you can handhold your choice). These are big, heavy, and beautifully made lenses, and you can buy a new car for less than the price of some of them (still true in some parts of the world, though barely).

Since they are so expensive, they tend to produce a host of questions about them before purchase. Without a doubt, the number one question when you get to the long telephotos is “which focal length?” Just to remind you, in Nikon-land we have:

200mm f/2G AF-S VR
200-400mm f/4G AF-S VR
300mm f/2.8G AF-S VR (not yet reviewed on this site)
400mm f/2.8G AF-S VR
500mm f/4G AF-S VR
600mm f/4G AF-S VR
(not yet reviewed on this site)

The 200-400mm f/4G AF-S VR is usually the first thing people look at. The focal range fits in nicely atop the Let’s-Go-Pro kits, but the price makes this a “brainer” (as opposed to a no-brainer). The size and weight is a decent compromise compared to some of the exotics. But as I note in my review, the 200-400mm is a bit of a mixed bag. I love it at close to moderate focus distances. I hate it at long focus distances and with converters. Okay, those words are too strong. Let's put it this way: it does very well for certain uses, but less well for others. You pay some real penalties for going with a zoom in this range, and as good as the lens is, it doesn't equal some of your other choices (as we'll eventually get to).

The 300mm f/2.8 has grown on me, especially with the latest VR version. It's perhaps the sharpest of the exotics, and it tolerates TCs pretty well. That makes it more versatile than it at first seems. You've got a sharp and hand-holdable 300mm f/2.8, 420mm f/4 (TC-14E), and maybe even 510mm f/4.8 (TC-17E). On a DX body, that's plenty of reach for anything but the most extreme needs. On an FX body, well, you're probably going to feel a bit short.

So if you have those extreme needs or feel a bit FX-ed short, we always have the almost eleven-pound 600mm f/4G AF-S VR. Here’s the problem I have with it: airlines continue to crack down on photographers. Especially with the recent high fuel costs, you’ll find significant weight limitations if you start traveling internationally or even just need to hop on the occasional bush plane in Alaska. While I love the idea of owning the 600mm, what I’ve found is that the sweet spot is the 500mm f/4G AF-S VR, simply because of weight and size considerations. I know I’ll get grief on that comment, but after you’ve packed a big exotic into a single carry-on and trampled around the globe a few 100,000 miles, see if you don’t agree with me. The 500mm has a smaller diameter front (5.5” compared to 6.5” of the 600mm f/4), and a lighter weight (7.6 pounds versus 11.2 for the 600mm f/4). Both those things have become meaningful for me in my travels, so the 500mm f/4 is my current choice of the Nikon exotics. (Why is the diameter important? Because you’re going to run into 50-seat regional jets [and turbo props in extreme locales], which have very minimal in-plane storage and won’t fit some of the bags necessary to accommodate the larger lenses. Yes, you can manage to stuff a 600mm f/4 under the seat if you can convince the stewardess to let you lug it into the plane, but with padding you’ll have a tight fit. The 500mm is a little easier to both stuff and protect. The biggest lens I've found that I can safely get into the overhead on the RJs with appropriate padding is the 400mm f/2.8.)

That’s not to say the 500mm is the best optically. It isn’t. The 400mm f/2.8 AF-S and 600mm f/4 AF-S are slightly better wide open and the 400mm is better with converters. The 600mm is simply a stellar lens all around, with or without converters. None of these lenses are slouches. I’d be happy shooting with any of them. I'm just trying to point out that some are slightly better choices than others, and not just because of image quality. Indeed, in terms of optical quality, I think I'd rank them this way (places number 4 and 5 are very close):

  1. 300mm f/2.8G AF-S VR
  2. 200mm f/2G AF-S VR
  3. 400mm f/2.8G AF-S VR
  4. 600mm f/4G AF-S VR
  5. 500mm f/4G AF-S VR
  6. 200-400mm f/4G AF-S VR

Yet, in terms of which make the most sense overall, I'd rank them this way:

  1. 300mm f/2.8G AF-S VR
  2. 500mm f/4G AF-S VR
  3. 200-400mm f/4G AF-S VR
  4. 400mm f/2.8G AF-S VR

I won't rank the other two lenses in this second list because you generally buy the 200mm f/2 and 600mm f/4 because you have a specific need, not an overall need for a general purpose exotic. And on any given day I might be convinced to swap places 2 and 3. But today, what I just wrote is what I currently feel.

What I’m not happy about is spending the money for them. These beasts are not only going to break your back, but your bank, as well; your Visa card is going to go places it likely hasn’t been before (prices current in US as of 2/19/2011):

200mm f/2G AF-S VR -- US$4500
200-400mm f/4G AF-S VR – US$5700
300mm f/2.8G AF-S VR – US$5800
400mm f/2.8G AF-S VR -- US$8900
500mm f/4G AF-S VR -- US$8500
600mm f/4G AF-S VR -– US$10300

Ouch! One solution is to rent these lenses only when you need them. For example, you can generally rent the older 400mm f/2.8D for about $300 a week, which is something you ought to do anyway before making a commitment to caring for one of these special beasts. Worse still, many of these lenses tend to be in short supply in the US and difficult to get anyway. Renting is a good option, just make sure that you give yourself extra time up front before your trip with your rental lens so you can both practice with it and test the AF Fine Tune on your camera.

(Side note: most users of the Nikon exotics carry both the TC-14E and TC-20E III with them. Moreover, they’ve filed off the little tab that keeps the two TC’s from being able to mount together and they carry a very small extension tube to place between them. Yes, in a pinch, you can mount a TC-14E and TC-20E on a 500mm f/4 and end up with a slightly kludged 1400mm f/11 lens with acceptable, but not great, optically quality. Sure beats carrying that 1400mm f/11 lens with you [Nikon did make a 1200mm f/11 lens, but their real superstar is the special order, 36-pound, 1200-1700mm f/5.6-8P IF-ED; darned if that isn’t a wonderful lens, though it costs more than a Porsche Cayenne.] These days, a better solution for huge reach is to carry a V1 with FT1 in your bag. With my 400mm this makes for a pretty incredible 1080mm equivalent, with better image quality and focusing than you're going to get out of TCs on your normal camera.)

If you’re absolutely set on building a garage for your own exotic to rest in, you might want to consider the Sigma lineup. I’ve only used the 500mm f/4.5 HSM extensively at this point, so I’ll limit my review-type comments to it. It’s a fraction of a pound lighter and has a slightly smaller diameter than the Nikon 500 f/4, so is even more airline friendly. At US$4200, compared to the Nikon it only consumes a bit more than half your checking account when you use your debit card. So far, so good. Optically, the Sigma holds its own, and the HSM focusing seems to work about the same as AF-S in speed most of the time, though it hunts more often than Nikkor. Where the Sigma falls down, in my estimation, is with converters. The 500mm f/4.5 with the Sigma 1.4x HSM converter shows more image quality fall-off than the Nikkor 500mm f/4 with the TC-14E. This is more obvious with the 2x converters. That’s not to say it’s unusable, but be aware of what you’re sacrificing. Oh yes, you also don't get VR.

Recently, Sigma introduced a 300-800mm f/5.6 exotic (US$7000) that also bears looking at. I've handled one but haven’t really shot anything more than a few tests with it, so I can’t really tell you how it performs optically in every situation (other than to tell you that 300mm f/5.6 seems a bit dim when you’re used to f/2.8 or f/4). It’s also over 12 pounds in the muscle building department, and it's a very awkward length and heavily front-loaded in weight, so consider how and where you’ll be transporting it (that’s over half of the carry-on baggage limit for most overseas flights). Most reviews have been very positive with this lens, and my limited testing tends to confirm that; having the flexibility of a zoom in an exotic is very tempting.

I'd also be remiss to point out that you shouldn't fall into the latest/greatest syndrome. Nikon has made AF-I, AF-S, AF-S II, and now AF-S VR versions of most of the exotics. Optically, they're all very similar (obviously, the latest VR version has an optical component--the VR shifter--that the others don't, but the overall design formulas are similar enough to be considered the same). There's no shame in picking up a good quality used 300mm f/2.8 AF-I lens instead of a spanking new 300mm f/2.8G AF-S VR. Indeed, you can get some quite good bargains from all those dumping their non-VR versions if you shop around. Optically, you'll be no worse off.

Finally, one other economy approach is to give up the autofocus. The manual focus Nikkor 500mm f/4P works perfectly fine on all the DSLR bodies (yes, matrix metering works), and can be found at just over US$2000 used in decent condition. To me, that's a real bargain. In practice, I think it’s as sharp as the latest VR version, too. Another bargain option I use a lot is the Nikkor 400mm f/5.6 AI-S, which in good condition used goes for about US$500-600. On the D200, D300 series, D700, D800, D7000, D2 series, D3 series, and D4 bodies you really don't give up anything (all can be configured to meter with it), and it's svelte and optically excellent. In fact, when people ask what's the best way to get to 400mm without buying the expensive exotic, this is my first answer, always. Why Nikon doesn't make an autofocus version of this lens I don't know.

Third-Party Manual Focus
Recently we've seen a number of manual focus lens introductions, most notably from Zeiss and Voigtlander. These classic designs have been modestly updated for the modern era.

Zeiss makes 18mm, 21mm, 25mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 100mm lenses that fit the Nikon mount. These are all essentially equivalent to AI-S lenses, so you need a camera with the ability to set CPU lens data (D200, D300 series, D700, D800, D7000, D2 series, D3 series, D4) for the exposure meter to work. Optically, these are all fine lenses--many are better than Nikkor equivalents. They're also very nicely built, have focus scales and really smooth focus rings. But they're also all fairly large, heavy, and expensive. Still, if you're into prime lenses and manual focusing, all of these lenses are worth exploring, there's not a dud amongst them.

Voigtlander lenses have been brought back by Cosina with a twist: Cosina is putting CPU chips in the lenses for the Nikon mount. This means that they're equivalent to AI-P, which means they'll meter on all Nikon DSLRs. The other interesting aspect to them is that they tend to have modest apertures and are very small in size. The 20mm f/3.5, 40mm f/2, and 180mm f/4 are all remarkably small lenses for their focal lengths. The first two are small enough to hide in your hand. Voightlander has also made a 58mm f/1.4 as well as some shorter telephoto variants like the 90mm. I'm happy to report that they're all optically quite good. Not quite at the level of Zeiss (which is about as good as you can get), but better than many Nikkors and most zooms. A D3100 with a 20mm, 40mm, 58mm, and 180mm is a very small travel kit that's still flexible, with the only disadvantage being that you have to manually focus. But buy these lenses when you can, as they're produced in low numbers and tend to sell out within months of appearing on the market.

Best Lens at Every Focal Length

Let’s assume for a moment that money and carrying logistics are no problem for you (you have a well-endowed partner for the former and a well-endowed porter for the latter). What Nikon lens would you use for optimal results on a Nikon DSLR at each and every focal length? Good question; get ready for another long-winded answer. One thing before we start: there's a bias amongst some that primes are better than zooms. As you're about to find out, that's not necessarily true, in my opinion. Many recent zoom designs have performance that would be the envy of some primes. Indeed, let me pick on one prime for a moment: every current Nikkor zoom option that hits 18mm for the FX frame is optically better than the old 18mm f/2.8D fixed focal length Nikkor. Every one. In sharpness and in handling of corners and in chromatic aberration. Maybe not in linear distortion, but that's easy enough to correct in software. The 14-24mm f/2.8G runs rings around the 18mm f/2.8D in every test I've tried. So before reading on, please let go of your primes-are-better-than-zooms bias, if you have one. Computer design, aspherical element creation, better glass, and a host of other things have evened up the playing field. You can design great zooms or primes, or bad ones.

Also note that I'm going to mostly restrict myself to currently available lenses. In a few cases where a previously made lens is so good that it warrants attention over the currently available, I'll point that out. But for the most part we're going to go with the stuff you'll find on your dealer's shelves currently (or at least were until the latest buying frenzy snapped them all up). Also, we'll be sticking (again mostly) to Nikkors.

We've got a lot of range to cover, so let's go:

10.5mm – Well, there’s no choice here, so the 10.5mm DX is it for the DX cameras (the 16mm f/2.8D or the Sigma 15mm f/3.5 are the equivalent choices for an FX camera). But this lens isn’t without its problems. It’s a full-frame fisheye (180 degrees diagonally from corner to corner), so straight lines that don’t go through the center axis will have pronounced barrel effects. Moreover, there’s visible chromatic aberration in the corners, especially wide open. Nikon Capture NX2 allows you to (mostly) correct for curved lines and CA, and Photoshop CS4 and later lets you correct for the CA, but neither allows you to do both corrections perfectly. Essentially, this is a special purpose focal length for the APS-sized sensors, and should be treated as such.

12mm – Again, the lack of choice pretty much gives you the 12-24mm f/4G DX lens. On the APS-sized sensors there’s a hint of softness and chromatic aberration wide open, and depth of field is very difficult to get right (the lens is only marked at five distances). In general, I’m mostly happy with the 12-24mm at 12mm on my bodies, but there’s room for a better lens here (please, Nikon, a 12mm f/2.8 fixed!). The Nikkor 10-24mm is nearly the same optically as the 12-24mm, but the build quality is lower and it's variable aperture. In my samples, I'd still have to rank the 12-24mm over the 10-24mm, but only slightly. Sigma does have a 12-24mm lens that covers the full frame that you might want to try out (I haven’t) if you need this focal length for an FX body. Note: while I haven't reviewed the Tamron and Tokina options that cover this range and this list isn't about third-party lenses, the Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina options are all viable at this focal length. None are perfect. The Nikkor 12-24mm has one thing going for it the others don't, though: it can go DX or FX. That's right, it makes a perfectly fine 18-24mm lens on an FX body, covering the full FX frame at those focal lengths.

14mm – The 12-24mm f/4G DX lens on the DX cameras, the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G on the FX bodies. Optically, the 14-24mm is the better choice and has fewer optical problems, but the 12-24mm allows the use of (very thin) filters and is a reasonably close second (but it doesn’t cover the FX frame at 14mm). The 14mm f/2.8D has more distortion, more chromatic aberration, plus more edge effects when used wide open, so it is a distant third choice on any camera.

17mm – The 14-24mm f/2.8G, no questions asked. This is a ground-breaking lens. Indeed, I can’t really find any fault with it at 17mm that I can’t live with. The 17-35mm f/2.8D is the choice at this focal length if you need to use filters, though you will need thin filters to keep from vignetting on full-frame cameras. The 12-24mm is a noticeable, but not large, drop downwards in optical performance at this focal length, plus, of course, it can’t cover a full frame at this focal length nor go to f/2.8. But the 12-24mm is a reasonable second choice at this focal length for the APS-sensor crowd. As are the 17-55mm f/2.8G DX, plus the 16-35mm f/4G VR for the FX crowd.

18mm – Six lenses are pretty much equal here: the 17-35mm f/2.8D AF-S, the 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D, the 16-35mm f/4G VR, the 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S, the 17-55mm f/2.8G DX, and the 12-24mm f/4G DX. On a full-frame camera, the 14-24mm wins, especially if you need a fast aperture (the 12-24mm DX is a close second on an FX body, believe it or not). But if you’re using this focal length predominately for wide-angle landscapes on a DX body, all four are so close to each other at f/11 and f/16 that it’s a complete toss-up. That’s good news all the way round, as the 18-35mm is quite reasonably priced and the 12-24mm tends to make it into a lot of kits simply for its wide end. The 16-35mm is the choice for those that need optical stabilization. Lens to avoid at this focal length: the 18mm f/2.8D. I never thought much of it on a film body, as it produced too much chromatic aberration in the corners and had significant light fall-off, but on a digital body these problems are exacerbated and the results hideous.

20mm – Probably the 20mm f/2.8D on an FX body (the 14-24mm may be optically better, but it's big, heavy, and doesn't take filters); your choice of the 16-35mm, 17-35mm, 17-55mm, 14-24mm, or 12-24mm on a DX body. This is another very close race. None of the five are perfect at this focal length (the 17-35mm is getting worse as we zoom in, the 12-24mm better, the 14-24mm is marvelous at any of its focal lengths). There's no easy choice here. (The Voigtlander 20mm and Zeiss 21mm are viable alternatives since there isn't a great Nikon choice. Indeed, the Voigtlander 20mm is what I use when I want a small 20mm lens, and it performs admirably on FX as well as DX.)

24mm – On all bodies: the 12-24mm f/4G DX, the 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S, or the 24mm f/1.4G. Surprised? So was I. At 24mm, these may be the sharpest lenses Nikon has produced to date, and that’s saying something since the 24mm f/2.8D is no slouch, nor is the 24-70mm f/2.8G AF-S. The 24mm f/2.8D doesn’t fare quite as well on digital bodies as it does on film bodies (a trait that continues for most of the older-design prime lenses as we move up the focal length chart). The 17-35mm f/2.8D does a very respectable job at this focal length (and is almost free from distortion at 24mm). The 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D is starting to fall off in optical performance at this focal length, but still worth considering if you’re trying to rationalize one lens over multiple focal lengths. The 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G AF-S is more than acceptable at this focal length, but not the equal of the other choices, in my opinion. The 24-85mm f/2.8-4D isn’t as good at 24mm, and it and the 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S VR is barely acceptable at this focal length (the 24-120mm f/4 version is better, but still not up to the level of the best lenses at 24mm). You've got a lot of choices to pick from, but those first two I mentioned are the ones you should probably consider. Update: the recent 24mm PC-E is the new winner here for FX bodies if you're going for landscape, architectural, or other work that would benefit from the tilt-shift. In low light, the new 24mm f/1.4G AF-S is also a clear-cut winner, but you're going to pay big money for that, and it's a physically large and heavy lens.

28mm – The 28-70mm f/2.8D or the 24-70mm f/2.8G AF-S. The 16-35mm f/4G VR and 17-35mm f/2.8D are respectable performers, but not quite at the same level. Beginning at this focal length, the older prime lens designs just don’t seem to deliver on the digital bodies, though the 28mm f/2.8D is more than acceptable. The 28mm f/1.4D has a rear element design that I think contributes to less than ideal results on digital bodies, and I don’t really recommend it unless you need that fast aperture. It's good, but not great, IMHO. A number of zooms make it through this focal range adequately (the 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D, the 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5D, all of the 24-xx zooms, and the 28-300mm), but adequate isn’t what we’re looking for. The older 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6D and 28-200mm f/3.4-5.6G can both be dismissed out of hand at this focal length. You are compromising optical performance with those lenses for either low cost or focal length convenience. Don’t.

35mm – Toss-up: The 24-70mm f/2.8G AF-S, the 28-70mm f/2.8D, and the 35-70mm f/2.8D, with the 16-35mm f/4 VR and 17-35mm f/2.8D being not too far behind. I’m not a fan of mid-range focal lengths (which I’d define as 35mm to 70mm on FX, and 24-50mm on DX), so the mid-range zooms don’t generally excite me, despite their fine optical performance at this and other focal lengths. To me, these are expensive lenses that rarely get used, so I ended up selling mine. The 35mm f/2D does a very respectable job at this focal length, by the way, so don’t toss it if you have it. The 35mm f/1.8G DX is a bargain; not a perfect performer but excellent for the cost and worth carrying in most DX bags. I have not yet tested the 35mm f/1.4G AF-S, but like the 24mm f/1.4G update, it's a big, heavy, expensive lens. My comments in the 28mm group about the rest of the zoom pack apply here as well.

50mm – The 45mm f/2.8P, or the new 50mm f/1.4G or 50mm f/1.8G with mild reservations. Both of the older Nikkor 50mm lenses (f/1.8D and f/1.4D) have significant central circle aberrations at small apertures (most noticeable on the Pro 14n, but still present on every body I've tried to some degree, and clearly seen on IR-converted cameras). The 60mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkors (old or new version) aren’t really optimized for far-field and infinity use even though they perform very well there, so that leaves us with only one older “normal” lens and one newer one to consider. The 45mm is a fine, sharp, optic that shows just how poor the 50mm’s really are. The newest 50mm f/1.4G and f/1.8G are very good, but not great. The biggest issue I see with the f/1.4G is clear longitudinal chromatic aberration, which makes that f/1.4 less usable. If you're a rich and patient person and don't mind manual focusing, consider the 58mm f/1.2 NOCT. Ever since I wrote early after the D1's appearance that I felt it was the best portrait lens for DX, they've been hard to get and very expensive. Nikon made very few of them, but the NOCT is an exquisite lens.

70mm – The 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II. Close second for the original 70-200mm f/2.8G VR, 80-200mm f/2.8D (obviously at 80mm), 24-70mm f/2.8G AF-S, the 28-70mm f/2.8D, and the 35-70mm f/2.8D. Nothing else comes close to these six lenses, so one of these should be in your kit if you shoot at this focal length much. The big FX issue will be light falloff and sharpness in the corners. The best performers are the mid-range zooms.

85mm – The 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II. Close second for the 85mm f/1.4D and 85mm f/1.4G. The 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S VR II just dominates much of the moderate telephoto realm—it’s fast, it is optically excellent, it has fast focusing, it has VR, and it works well with converters. Yes, the 85mm f/1.4D and f/1.4G have somewhat better bokeh (but not by a lot) and they go to f/1.4, but you have to shoot a lot at this focal length to prefer them over the 70-200mm, in my opinion. The 85mm f/1.8D isn’t in the same class when used on the digital cameras (and it also is prone to the center spot artifact at small apertures); the newer f/1.4G is the preferred model. All of the variable aperture zooms that get into this range (e.g., the 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G AF-S, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G AF-S VR) all have too small an aperture at 85mm to be considered, as you’ll find that you can’t get that great depth of field isolation at f/4.5 or f/5.6 that you can at f/2.8.

105mm – The 70-200mm f/2.8G VR for DX bodies. The 105mm f/2D DC for FX bodies. 80-200mm f/2.8D for budget hunters. The best of the 105mm was the old 105mm f/2.5. The 105mm f/2.8G Micro-Nikkor is good, but it doesn't make it to the same level as the regular lenses.
135mm – The 70-200mm f/2.8G VR for DX bodies. The 135mm f/2D DC for FX bodies. 80-200mm f/2.8D for budget hunters. The 135mm f/2.8 Series E is a strong budget choice for manual focus users.
180mm – The 180mm f/2.8D. But the 70-200mm f/2.8G VR puts in a very respectable performance and becomes the choice simply due to flexibility. 80-200mm f/2.8D or 70-300mm f/4-5.6 VR for budget hunters. Sensing a pattern in the moderate telephoto range?

200mm – The 200mm f/2G AF-S VR, hands down. Nothing else is even within shouting distance. Curiously, at 200mm the 70-300mm VR pretty much wins against the old 70-200mm, especially on FX bodies, but it's not in the same league as the 200mm f/2. For close in work, the 200mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor comes into play.

300mm – The 300mm f/2.8G AF-S VR, hands down. Again, nothing else is close. The latest 300mm f/2.8 is arguably the best exotic telephoto Nikon has made. Still, both the 300mm f/4D and the 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II with a TC-14E do a respectable job here, almost equaling the bigger lens at anything beyond f/5.6. But as you move up in telephoto range, depth of field control becomes an important consideration, and the 300mm f/2.8G AF-S VR is the choice because of that, even if it weren't such a stellar performer.

400mm – The 400mm f/2.8G AF-S VR, hands down. Again no contest; nothing else comes close. The 300mm f/2.8D with a TC-14E falls into a slightly distant second place that's quite usable. The 80-400mm f/4-5.6D VR isn’t in the same league, though it will produce acceptable results on the APS-sized sensor bodies with careful shot discipline. Corners on a full-frame body are problematic at 400mm with the 80-400mm. The best budget choice is the 400mm f/5.6 AI-S, purchased used.

500mm – The 500mm f/4G AF-S VR or f/4P. I throw the f/4P in here because I think it might actually be just a wee bit better wide open than the latest AF-S version. It can also be found in good condition used for a bit more than US$2000, for which the only thing you really give up is autofocus. The 400mm f/2.8 with a TC-14E makes a good 560mm f/4, by the way.

600mm – The 600mm f/4G AF-S VR. This is a decision by default: there is nothing else Nikon makes at this focal length. The 300mm f/2.8D with the TC-20E gives barely acceptable results here, as would the 400mm f/2.8D with the TC-14E, but if you shoot at this focal length regularly, you don’t want any compromise, so just mortgage the house (if you've still got one) and get the 600mm f/4G AF-S VR.

If you were keeping track, that means you need the following lenses to be “maxed” out at every focal length:

12-24mm f/4G DX*
14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S
20mm f/2.8D (or Voigtlander 20mm)
24-70mm f/2.8G AF-S*
45mm f/2.8P (or 50mm f/1.8G)
70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S VR II*
180mm f/2.8D
200mm f/2G AF-S VR
300mm f/2.8G AF-S VR
400mm f/2.8G AF-S VR
500mm f/4G AF-S VR
600mm f/4G AF-S VR

Except for the stable of exotics at the end, that’s pretty much exactly what’s in my lens locker. Moreover, note the lenses with asterisks: observant folk will already have figured out that these are in one of the Let’s-Go-Pro kits, and arguably we gain very little by adding the 20mm, 45mm, and 180mm to the kit. So if money were no object and I wanted to be ready for both DX and FX, a potential five lens set looks like this:

14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S or 12-24mm f/4G DX
24-70mm f/2.8D AF-S
70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S VR II
300mm f/2.8G AF-S VR
600mm f/4G AF-S VR

Expensive? Yes. Exceptional optics across the board? Yes. With converters that could take you from 14 to 1200mm! Still, there's something to be said for lenses like the 85mm f/1.4G and others that didn't make these last two lists. I'm an "opportunity shooter," meaning that I will try to pick the lenses I bring for the opportunity I'm shooting. At a wedding reception, for example, I'd want that 85mm f/1.4G over the 70-200mm f/2.8. Sitting on top of my Land Cruiser in Masai Mara, I want the 70-200mm on one body and a longer exotic on my other.

Oddballs

I still have some cleanup to do, as there are a lot of things I haven't said that relate to lenses.

Let's start with converters – If you have the 70-200mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8 II, the 200mm f/2, the 200-400mm f/4 (either version), the 300mm f/2.8, the 300mm f/4, the 400mm f/2.8, the 500mm f/4, or the 600mm f/4, you should get a converter or two. The non-zoom lenses do quite fine with the TC-14E, even wide open. The zoom lenses tend to need to be stopped down a stop to get optimal results. In my opinion the old TC-20E is too much converter for anything other than the 200mm f/2 and 300mm f/2.8 in all but a pinch, and even on those two lenses you'll see clear lowering of image quality. The new TC-20E III works well with the 70-200mm II, the 200mm, 300mm, and 400mm, and seems to work okay on near subjects with the 200-400mm. On the f/4 lenses you'll probably lose reliable autofocus. The TC-17E is somewhere between the two other converters in terms of image quality, but seems to retain decent focus performance on all of the lenses I've tried it on, including two of the f/4 lenses. D800 and D4 users should note that the new autofocus system does indeed make the longer TCs more interesting, as focus is maintained. I used to carry a TC-14E and old TC-20E. These days I carry all three: TC-14E, TC-17E, and TC-20E III. Note that while you can (usually) use third party converters with the Nikkors, I've yet to find any that match the TCs in quality. Some models also don't pass information correctly between lens and camera. Also, you really shouldn't be trying to use teleconverters on new Nikkors other than ones just listed as the optical decisions for lens and converter were considered together (obviously, many older Nikkors have TCs that were designed to work with them, but that's another article: "best of the older lenses"). In some cases, you can damage your lens if you tried the wrong converter (Nikon's TCs all clear the rear element of Nikon exotics correctly).

Macro Lenses – The 40mm f/2.8G DX or 60mm f/2.8G Micro-Nikkor for copy stand work, the 200mm f/4D Micro-Nikkor or the 70-180mm f/4-5.6D Micro-Nikkor for most outdoor nature work, depending upon your macro shooting style, or the 105mm f/2.8G VR for casual (largish) flower work. Of these, the 200mm f/4D is probably the sharpest, but they're all very sharp lenses. The 70-180mm makes for very quick macro set ups in the field, but only goes to about 1:2, so you end up carrying either extension tubes or close-up lenses for really close work. Nature photographers should have at least one of the latter two and should probably avoid the 60mm and 105mm Micro-Nikkors simply due to the close working distances involved (note that they all lose focal length at full extension, and even with the SB-R200's it's difficult to get light on all subjects reliably). The economy macro solution is the Tamron 90mm (see the end of my 105mm review). Sigma also makes several macro lenses that others seem to like, but I haven't tried them. The alternative for people who don't want to invest in a macro lens is to use "close-up" lenses (such as the Canon 500D on the 70-200mm) or extension tubes. Both these economy alternatives work quite well in terms of image quality, but are difficult to set up (it'll take you time to learn how both impact what you can and can't focus on, as both will change the focus range of the lens you put them on).

Finally, we have perspective control lenses. At present, there are six choices, three new, three old. The old choices are the 28mm and 35mm shift lenses and the first generation 85mm tilt-shift lens. The two older wide angles are only modestly useful and aren't in the same league as the new ones. On digital cameras the limit you can shift them and retain good image quality (and no vignetting) is significantly less than the lenses are capable of moving (perhaps 8mm instead of the full 12mm). Plus they only shift. The older 85mm, however, is just as good as the new one, with the main differential being the metering flexibility of the new one. The new 24mm PC-E, 45mm PC-E, and 85mm PC-E are full tilt and shift lenses and incorporate a new metering option that works only with the most recent Nikon bodies (post D3/D300). All are excellent optically, and the new PC-E design makes doing tilt-shift on a D300 or D3 or later DSLR less painful than ever before. However, to me the choice boils down to one of two: the new 24mm on an FX body if you are into landscape or architectural photography, either version of the 85mm on DX or FX body if you're doing product photography (e.g. catalogs, eBay, etc.). All the PC-E lenses make for a convenient modest panorama stitch option, giving you high quality at about 24x52mm on a D3 (see this article for more).

So, if you're keeping score, the final tally:

14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S or 12-24mm f/4G DX
24-70mm f/2.8D AF-S
70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S VR
300mm f/2.8G AF-S VR
600mm f/4G AF-S VR
TC-14E
TC-17E
70-180mm f/4-5.6D Micro-Nikkor or other Micro-Nikkor based upon your need
24mm f/2.8 PC-E or 85mm f/2.8 PC-E based upon your need

Sprinkle in one or two fast prime lenses--perhaps even a Zeiss or Voigtlander manual focus--for some situational uses, and you've got enough glass to shoot just about anything.

But lest you bemoan the fact that you'll never have enough disposable income to afford all that, remember this: there will be a few photographers out there with that D3100 and two kit lenses that are shooting up a storm. People keep asking me what the best lenses are. You now have two answers. One is the list of lenses you see above, the other is what you've got, used right. Start by learning to do the latter, then add better options as you can afford to.

 

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