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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Comparing 5 Budget Normal Primes for Nikon


First of all, a quick definition for anyone not knowing what a "normal" prime lens is: We simply use that name to refer to a lens with a focal length somewhere between 40mm-60mm (in terms of full-frame equivalent). So, for a full-frame camera a normal prime lens is a lens with focal length between 45-60mm (most typically 50mm), while for a DX camera, a typical normal prime lens has a focal length between 30mm-40mm. If you're wondering why it's called "normal", it has to do with the fact that at this focal length, the field of view is more or less what the human eye can see.

Normal prime lenses are a part (or should be!) of many photographers' bags. The reason is that they are generally small, cheap, and very good. Of course, this doesn't mean there aren't some very expensive solutions out there (more about this in the Final Verdict section). So, today I'll offer you a comparison of five very popular Nikon normal primes. The list consists of both DX and FX offerings - this will be clearly indicated. For the purposes of this article, I had two rules for my selection:
a) price (new) less than $500
b) fully compatible with all digital Nikons (in other words, only lenses with autofocus motors)

The Lenses

The five lenses I chose are:

1) Nikon Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8

2) Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM

3) Nikon Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8

4) Nikon Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4

5) Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM


So, let's have a quick and to-the-point look at the five lenses.

1) Nikon Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8
+ unbeatable price/performance ratio.
+ optically very good @ f/2.8, excellent between f/2.8-f/8
+ small, light, cheap. Everything a DX lens should be

- if you count your pixels, f/1.8 isn't as tack-sharp as f/2.8 (then again, at this price, show me a lens that is)
- no focus distance window/indicators
- autofocus slightly on the slow side.

2) Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM
+ fast, f/1.4 max aperture
+ again, small and light, like a DX lens should be
+ pretty balanced optical quality corner-to-corner...

- still, I wouldn't call it excellent. It's very good, but (again, if you count your pixels), there's something missing
- a bit expensive for a normal prime DX lens.
- although 30mm is within the "normal" range for a DX lens, it might still feel a tad short for certain applications (see: portraits)

3) Nikon Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8
+ excellent price/performance (if you own a motorized body, the AF-D version is even better!)
+ optically nothing to complain about. Exactly what you'd expect (with a couple of footnotes, see below)
+ small, cheap, light. This is pretty much the FX version of the 35mm f/1.8 we saw above.

- there is a bit of distortion. It's not much, but frankly, a lens of this type should not have any.
- no aperture ring means it might not be compatible with some older film cameras.
- although a bit better than its predecessor, stopped-down bokeh can be a bit unpredictable with strong light sources in the background.

4) Nikon Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4
+ for an FX lens, it's very balanced in every way. Price/performance very good, size & weight very reasonable.
+ consistent corner-to-corner, good for landscapes
+ fast, accurate autofocus.

- a copy died on me after a while, another has been bit squeaky. If you buy, buy new or certified refurbished (with guarantee)
- although it's consistent corner-to-corner, the center could have been better (wide-open)
- compared to the f/1.8 version, it's double the price for 2/3 stops gain.

5) Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM
+ optically brilliant, particularly in the center. Paired with the fact that...
+ ...bokeh is wonderful, this is a great FX lens for portraits (and perhaps even better for DX, as the focal length is a bit more natural for portraiture in DX)
+ fast, silent, accurate autofocus

- big and heavy
- FX corners could be better wide-open.
- although the performance is there, it's still an expensive lens (in the category we're examining).

Final Verdict

These are lenses that have several things in common, but also some important differences. Yes, they are all normal primes (the first two for DX; the latter three for FX), but their intended audiences are different. Here's how to pick:

If you're a DX user, it's a matter of scope.
- If portraits will be the main use, perhaps a 50mm lens will be a better option. The most balanced choice (in terms of size, weight, and price) is the Nikon Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8. If you don't mind the size, weight, and price, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM is a really sweet lens for DX portraits, but let me emphasize it once more: it's a fat chunk of glass, and sometimes you can take better photos when you don't have to worry about such things.
- For general photography (also including the occasional portrait), the Nikon Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8 is a no-brainer. Seriously, it's that sense-making (read further below, when I talk about the expensive options).

If you're an FX user, it basically boils down to budget. If you want to save some money, there is really nothing wrong with the Nikon Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8 (not to mention, if you're an FX user, you ought to consider the AF-D version). If you want/need the extra 2/3 stop, I'd probably go for the Nikon Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4. It's a bit more balanced all-around, not to mention smaller and lighter.

What about the best-of-the-best?
There is a new (well, not necessarily) trend lately, that has pushed companies to offer a large variety of best-of-the-best, very expensive prime lenses.

Even here, there is a large gap between the rather reasonably priced (and definitely not anything special in terms of performance) Tamron 45mm f/1.8 VC and the drop-dead-gorgeous optically, $4000 Zeiss Otus.

The real question is: Suppose you have the Zeiss Otus in your hands. For 1% of you, for 1% of the occasions, it might make the difference. But generally speaking, how can you quantify how much better it is compare to the less-than-two-hundred-bucks Nikkor 35mm f/1.8? It's 20 times more expensive, can you say it's 20 times better? How do you go about measuring something like that? They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so let me try to say it with a photo. Sometimes people ask me if camera X or lens Y is good enough (and more often than not, they mean "sharp enough"). My answer is the following image, taken with the 35mm f/1.8 mounted on an "obsolete" D40.

Click to open, to see the full amount of detail captured. A 6-megapixel sensor, with a <$200 lens.

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