Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Three Very Cheap and Very Good Nikon DX Lenses

I've said this many times: Photography can be an expensive hobby, but it doesn't have to be. Let's assume that an expensive lens is optically better than a cheap one (although this isn't always the case). But can you quantify this? If you compare a lens such as the brilliant Nikon Nikkor AFS DX 35mm f/1.8, which costs less than $200, with this one, that costs almost $4000, what kind of conclusions can you reach? The expensive lens is obviously better optically, but is it 20 times better? How would you even begin to measure such a thing?

Today I will offer you a group review of three Nikon DX lenses which, in my opinion, deserve a place in your camera bag. Of course, we are all different. You might be a macro shooter that values portability. Or, you might be a portrait photographer working in low light. Take my advice and adapt it to your personal needs.

Nikkor 35mm f/1.8
What more could you possibly want from a lens? Taken with the AF-S 35mm f/1.8 - a lens costing less than $200 brand new

My choice was made with these requirements in mind:
- the lenses should be fully compatible with all Nikon DX cameras (read: they should have autofocus motor, so that they can be also used with entry-level Nikon cameras, such as the D3300, D5500, etc.)
- the lenses should be somewhat complementary. In other words, I chose lenses that could be seen in terms of lineup (giving three great 18-xx zooms is kinda pointless).
- the price of each individual lens should be up to $300-350*, for a collective price of no more than $1000. That's still a lot of money for many people, but remember that this lineup could be all that you'll ever need (not to mention, it's still cheaper than Nikon's newest AF-S DX 16-80mm f/2.8-4E lens).

* I'm now talking about new lenses, including refurbished or gray market items. Generally speaking I advise against grey market items, but not so when it's about a cheap lens. It's one thing to be without guarantee purchasing a $2000 camera, and entirely another when purchasing a cheap, simple, $300 consumer lens.

So, without further delay, here we go:

The three lenses I picked are:
- Nikon Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR
- Nikon Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G
- Tamron AF 90mm f/2.8 Di SP AF/MF 1:1 Macro

The total price of these three lenses is about $750 (for a grey market 18-140 and a refurbished or grey market Tamron. The price of the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 was calculated based on the price of a new lens. If you count every cent, you can get a refurbished 35mm f/1.8 and lower the price even further. Needless to say, if you really count every cent you can even get them used (when shopping through Amazon you can still return them and claim a refund if you don't like something) and bring the total to about $600. That's a steal, considering the following:

Nikon Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR

+ optically very, very good. More importantly, it's well-balanced (i.e. consistent) throughout the range
+ although it's not exactly cheap, it's not terribly expensive either. Good value
+ good, reliable autofocus & VR operation

- very plasticky, it looks cheap; then again, did you expect a pro-build for such a lens?
- quite a bit of distortion (again, what do you expect for a 18-140mm zoom?)
- extends quite a bit when zooming

Nikon Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G

+ small and light, it easily fits in your bag's secondary pockets
+ excellent image quality between f/2.8 and f/5.6, more than decent @ f/1.8
+ focal length/maximum aperture combo make this one of the best low-light lenses (when you don't want to mortgage the house to get a lens, anyway)

- Schizophrenic Goldilocks. Sometimes the focal length is JUST right, in others is either too short or too long
- f/1.8 is sharp alright, but it requires focus discipline to get it right (Depth of Field very short; practice)
- Autofocus isn't slow, but not fast either.

Tamron AF 90mm f/2.8 Di SP AF/MF 1:1 Macro

+ optically pretty much flawless
+ excellent macro range for DX
+ superb value, you get a lot of performance for not much money

- construction quality not a problem, but inferior to Nikon's
- autofocus slow and hunting when focus limiter is not used (engaging the limiter makes a lot of difference)
- extends significantly during focusing in macro range (but front element does not rotate)

Final Words
First of all, let's see this in terms of lineup. You get a do-it-all zoom (and a very good one), a small, light and discreet lens for general photography (particularly in very low light) and an optically brilliant lens that is in its element for macros and portraits.

What is missing? Basically, only a very long tele and a fast tele zoom. The only situations I can think of that you'll be missing them is: a) shooting wildlife from afar; b) shooting sports in low light, again from some distance. Both of these require very specialized and expensive solutions - basically some obscenely long (reaching 500mm) tele and a fast 70-200 f/2.8 kind of zoom. If you're just an enthusiast photographing a live concert at the local pub or a parent taking photos at your child's basketball game, just use the Tamron - get as close to the sidelines as possible, use the focus limiter (you don't need focus nearer than 5ft/2m anyway), and be happy.

Another special kind of lens missing: A zoom wider than 18mm (don't be tempted by any 16-xx zoom; you'll need a lens around 10-11mm to really see a difference compared to the 18-xx zoom)

In terms of focal length, you have two brilliant lenses for 35mm and 90mm, covering two important parts of the DX world: the "normal" and the short tele. The 18-140 zoom not only nicely covers the wide-angle part, but it also serves as a great all-around lens for general photography and travels.

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