Thursday, January 14, 2016

Professional DX Lens Options


After the somewhat surprising (although still long-anticipated) announcement of the Nikon D500, many of us Nikon users are in a sort of blissful daydreaming state. Finally, the successor to the highly successful D300 is finally here, right? However, as I explained in my D500 article last week, if we get out of the cloud-9 phase we'll realize that, when all is said and done, there are no DX lenses to fully match this DX flagship camera.

Fair enough, if you are a safari or sports photographer, this probably doesn't concern you. You can just pick any FX tele and be happy, you don't need any wide-angle for sports, right?

But what if you're a portrait photographer, or a landscape photographer, or a wedding photographer? What if you need a fast wide-angle or a fast midrange zoom? Nikon seems to think you're a weirdo for needing professional-grade lenses on a DX, so they offer you the 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G and the 16-80mm f/2.8-f/4, respectively. Err, no... I don't think so. These are both fine lenses, but they're not pro-level lenses by any stretch of the imagination.

In today's article I'll offer you some professional DX lens options, to match your newly pre-ordered D500 or any other DX camera you own. As I said, there are plenty of tele options for you - because you can use FX lenses (oh, 200mm f/2.8 DX, where art thou?). So, I'll offer suggestions for wide-angle and fast midrange zoom options. Since this is meant as a pro-level list, I chose lenses whose maximum aperture is f/2.8 or larger, while priority is also given to: a) optical quality; b) construction quality; c) operational consistency.

With these in mind, let's begin.

The Lenses

Instead of listing separate lenses, I list pairs - you can consider them the DX professional's wide- and midrange lineups. I picked 3 pairs in total (+ a bonus section, you'll see), each consisting of two lenses, one wide-angle and one midrange zoom.

Option 1: Budget-minded

- Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-X
Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS

The total sum comes to about $800, which is probably the best you can hope for in this context. Let's see the pros and cons of this pair.

+ price is excellent (and value, more broadly, is very good)
+ autofocus fast, reliable, and consistent
+ image quality is, generally speaking, very good...

- ...although the Sigma has some minor weaknesses in wide-angle, wide-open
- the construction quality of the Sigma isn't what I'd call 'pro-level'
- the focal length range of the Tokina is limited, which means you might have to change to the Sigma more often than you might want.

Option 2: Balanced Option

- Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-X
Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 SP XR Di II VC

At first this looks like a slight variation of the option above. The wide-angle Tokina remains, and we exchanged one third-party lens for another - of the same focal length range and with similar characteristics. There are two differences: a) the price is slightly higher; b) the overall quality of the pair has increased.

+ as a lineup, this is more balanced in terms of construction quality and reliability
+ absolutely no complaints about image quality
+ reliable stabilization (on the Tamron)

- autofocus works fine, but I hate Tamron's micromotors - it's just not as good as Nikon's or Sigma's
- what I said before about the limited focal length range of the Tokina is still applicable.
- the Tokina takes 77mm filters, the Tamron 72mm. Uh-oh...

Option 3: Take My Money

Nikkor AF-S FX 14-24mm f/2.8G
Nikkor AF-S DX 17-55mm f/2.8G

Oh, Nikon, the irony... Someone needs to get an FX lens to get below 16mm and have f/2.8. This is absurd. At the same time, your only true pro-level DX midrange zoom is over 12 years old. But, having said that, this duo is unbeatable in terms of optical quality and reliability. If you want the absolute best, this is it.

+ as I just said, unbeatable optical quality. No flaws, period.
+ tough, reliable, consistent.
+ fact, accurate autofocus.

- expensive. Very expensive. Very, very expensive.
- the 14-24 is fat like an elephant - it's an FX lens after all. The 17-55 is not exactly flyweight either.
- in terms of wide-angle, the 14-24 is slightly out of balance lineup-wise. It's not as wide in DX standards (compared to the 11mm Tokina), and it overlaps quite a bit with the 17-55.

Bonus option: The Lone Wolf

Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM

This lens is something Nikon ought to have produced a long, long time ago. Kudos to Sigma for being brave about it. This is not an easy lens to use (or even like), but for those who can live with its focal-length limitations, it's stellar.

+ the only f/1.8 zoom. 1+ stop advantage is not insignificant
+ superb image quality, no flaws to speak of
+ dependable autofocus (it has always been a strong point of Sigma lenses)

- limited focal length range - neither too wide, nor too long
- somewhat big and heavy (but it's to be expected)
- although the price is about right for the quality of the lens, the whole package is questionable in terms of scope. With the same money you could get Option 1, above, and have 11-50mm - but having to swap lenses and losing that 1+ stop.


When you read this article through, you realize the immense void in Nikon's DX lineup. In terms of prime wide-angle, it reveals a void in general. It's quite unthinkable, if you ponder on it. As I asked last week: where is a 16mm f/2 DX prime? At the same time, Nikon doesn't really believe there is a need for an upgraded 17-55mm f/2.8 - and boy, is this old one expensive. There are several third-party options, as you saw in this article, but let's face it: the situation is not optimal. It feels as if Nikon believes there is no market for DX professionals - or, in any case, they really try hard to push them to FX. To an extent I understand it, but I also know quite a few folks who use DX cameras to make money - one of them told me the other day that he won't go FX unless they make a camera the size of a D5500 (which is what he's using, I kid you not).

So, what should you do? Well, as with everything else, it's up to you and your needs (and your budget). If money is not a problem, option #3 above is clearly superior in about everything except if you need the widest angle you can get your hands on. At the same time, it's only half DX (and even the 17-55 is not exactly a DX-sized lens). Option #3 is the only option Nikon offers you, to boot - at least if we're talking about f/2.8 lenses, and I think a variable aperture or an f/4 lens is not enough (someone buying a D500 deserves better).

What would I do? I'd probably give the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 a good, decent try in a pro- situation. It's not gonna be very wide, and it's not gonna be very long (I think you'd need to pair it with a short tele for portraits). But given the options (or lack thereof), it just might be "the one".

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