Nikon now has a trio of affordable f/1.8 AFS-G primes that are of great interest to both aspiring and professional photographers who wish to gain the advantages of shooting with primes, yet avoid the hefty price tag of the f/1.4 top-tier lenses.
Nikon’s 28m f/1.8 is the third and most recent of the new f/1.8 AFS-G primes, the first two being the 50mm f/1.8 AFS-G and 85mm f/1.8 AFS-G. Both of those lenses delivered great overall build quality and fantastic images, so my standards were set very high for this 28mm. Unfortunately, wider angle image quality is the most difficult to achieve, with corner sharpness, vignetting, and bokeh being difficult to perfect especially in an affordable option.
So, does the Nikon 28mm f/1.8 deliver the goods? Let’s find out in this review!
This review is NOT done in a laboratory. It is a field test, a personal experience. There are plenty of “labs” out there for you, if you simply want to read numbers on a chart and draw your own “on-paper” conclusions. However if you want to read the personal, professional opinion of a full-time photographer then you have come to the right place.
This review is based on field testing in various types of shooting conditions, from casual “day at the park” type shooting, to professional wedding photography.
The Nikon 28mm f/1.8 is a very solidly built lens. I would feel comfortable using it full-time as a professional, for anything from portraiture and weddings to landscapes and astro-photography. Like the other new f/1.8 AFS-G primes it has no external zooming parts during focus, and a rubber weather-sealing gasket at the rear mount.
In other words, don’t be fooled by the on-paper specification that this is a plastic lens made in China. Personally, I’m happy to save weight and cost as long as I don’t sacrifice any overall construction quality or image quality. The 28mm f/1.8 is a whole 10 oz lighter than it’s big brother, the 24mm f/1.4 AFS-G. This may not seem like much to anyone who has never packed camera gear for miles and miles on their shoulders, but it makes a huge difference to those who do.
The focus ring is smooth, as good as modern autofocus lenses can be. (Meaning it’s no AIS manual focus prime, or a Zeiss manual focus prime, but neither does it feel clunky. The precision is very manageable.)
The included hood is nice thick plastic; I recommend leaving it on your lens at all times even if there is no risk of sun flare; the lens hood also acts as overall protection against bumps and drops. In fact I prefer hoods for lens protection much more than UV filters; a metal UV filter on a plastic lens is only going to translate all shock and impact directly to the lens’ internals, while a hood will absorb impact almost like an airbag. (Side note: YAY Nikon for including hoods with affordable primes, unlike Canon who hardly ever includes hoods for any lens below the $900 mark!)
In short, the 28mm f/1.8 delivers the goods. It lives up to the high standards that its 50mm and 85mm siblings have set.
On most lenses these days, central sharpness is at least “acceptable” wide open, and it improves quickly when stopping down 1-2 stops. Well, the 28mm f/1.8 is NOT one of those lenses. The 28mm is one of the lenses with such ridiculous sharpness, you can barely tell whether you’re shooting at f/1.8 or f/8. I won’t even bother inserting 100% crops from the center, they are identical. It is just that good!
For photojournalism and other types of work where only central sharpness really matters, I wouldn’t hesitate to use this lens wide open even if it were the highest-paying job I’ve ever had. Of course wide open your depth of field is getting a little thin at closer ranges, and there are plenty of reasons to stop down to f/2.8 or f/4. Rest assured, if DOF requires it, you’ll have flawless corner-to-corner sharpness by f/2.8-f/4.
The extreme corners also look great, only showing mild softness in the last few pixels of corner. Wide open there is some coma, which is a concern for things like star photography, although most every fast wide prime ever made has coma.
Chromatic aberration is something I stopped paying attention to long ago, since Adobe Lightroom (ACR) can totally eliminate CA with lens profiling, however I will still note that the Nikon 28mm f/1.8 has little or no chromatic aberration. In bright sun, shooting wide open photos of finely detailed / contrasty edges will reveal some faint fringing, especially if you don’t nail focus perfectly, but again the levels are less than or equal to any other wide angle lens on the market.
Vignetting is also present, as usual for fast & wide lenses, but again I’ve stopped worrying about this too much since Adobe’s corrective profiles are fantastic at eliminating this and Nikon’s shadow recovery is phenomenal.
The bokeh is beautiful. At far distances it is not very present, however for close up detail photos it delivers a soft and pleasant bokeh. Specular highlights appear smooth and round, and flare is almost non-existent unless you stop down very far.
Bottom line: Compared to any f/2.8 zoom, stopping down to f/2.8 on the 28mm will generate sharper corners, less vignetting, less fringing / aberration, less coma, …pretty much flawless image quality across the board.
As you can see, the 28mm f/1.8 is incredibly sharp, with only the
extreme corner showing any difference from wide open until about f/5.6
Compared to the Nikon 24-70 f/2.8
The biggest reason NOT to buy the 28mm f/1.8 lens might be if you already have the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8. If f/2.8 is fast enough for your aperture needs, (shutter speeds and DOF) …and if you don’t mind lugging around the added weight, (a whopping 20 oz heavier) …then maybe you don’t need the 28mm. However, in comparing the two lenses I did notice a few other differences:
- Diffraction limitations:
For some reason, the Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 begins to cause diffraction on my Nikon D700 at f/16 very noticeably, while the Nikon 28mm f/1.8 appears to deliver absolutely identical image quality at f/8, f/11, and f/16. For someone who shoots stopped down to f/16 very frequently for DOF control on full-frame, I did find this to be an advantage in favor of the 28mm. Results might be different on higher megapixel cameras such as the Nikon D600 or Nikon D800.
- Corner sharpness:
In short, while both lenses deliver incredible image quality across the board, there is a noticeable difference in the extreme corners. (The last ~200 pixels, on a ~12 megapixel image) The 28mm f/1.8 delivers absolutely flawless corners by f/5.6, while the 24-70’s corners don’t become truly perfect until f/11. And wide open at f/2.8, the 28mm’s corners are much sharper and less vignetted. This is the advantage of using a prime instead of a zoom lens; even though the image quality may be identical at f/8 or f/11, you will often get better results from the prime at faster apertures compared to the zoom when at the same aperture.
- Macro Capability:
Surprisingly enough, the Nikon 24-70mm falls short when used at it’s closest focusing distance and 70mm. You need to stop down to f/5.6 before images get sharp, and if you’re trying to hand-hold a macro photo on-the-fly at a wedding reception for example, this can be a major issue. The 28mm f/1.8 on the other hand maintains it’s prickly-sharp image quality even at it’s closest magnification, and does a great job of snapping quick details in low light.
Against the Nikon 24-70, at f/2.8 the Nikon 28mm wins. (in the corners)
At f/5.6, the 28mm achieves perfect corners while the 24-70 has a litttle way to go.
To make a long story short, the two lens’ corners don’t match until f/11 and f/16.
Who should buy the Nikon 28mm f/1.8?
All of this information is nice and handy to have, but what does it mean? What purpose does such a lens serve, and who should buy it?
Mainly, this lens is awesome for four things: casual walk-around photography, low-light photojournalism, detail images, and astro photography. Both amateurs and professionals alike will appreciate the usefulness of such a lens for low-light situations.
- Astro Photography
Let’s be honest here; sometimes f/2.8 just doesn’t cut it when you’re trying to photograph the milky way sharply, without having it blur into a “star trail”. This is why many photographers lust after 24mm f/1.4 lenses. Unfortunately, the Nikon 24mm f/1.4 costs around $2K. At only $696, the 28mm f/1.8 is one of the best value options for anyone interested in astro photography. However, one should also consider third-party lenses such as the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, which is also quite sharp and well-built if you don’t mind the manual focus.
- Casual low-light photojournalism and general shooting
Casual photographers can enjoy the 28mm f/1.8 for it’s affordability and portability, which is perfect for casual shooting. When I am “off the job”, I don’t know about you but I hate lugging around heavy gear. Instead of a D800 or a D4 with a 24-70 or 70-200, I would much rather have a D600 and a 28mm f/1.8 or 85mm f/1.8. If you value weight savings like I do, you’ll love this lens as a casual shooter.
- Professional low-light photojournalism, details, and wedding photography
Pros, don’t count this lens out either! It is a great alternative to the 24mm and 35mm f/1.4’s, which cost between $1,500 and $2,000. Say for example you shoot primarily with f/2.8 zooms, and cannot justify spending $2K on a specialty prime that you will hardly ever use, …the 28mm f/1.8 is a perfect choice. Or, if you simply find 24mm to be a little too wide and 35mm to be a little too long for your particular line of work, the 28mm f/1.8 is a perfect middle ground. As a full-time wedding photographer, I found the 28mm to be perfect for lots of different things from general candids, to detail photos, and even low-light environmental portraiture.
Nikon 28mm f/1.8 AFS-G, 6 sec. @ f/5.6 (Tripod)
Nikon 28mm f/1.8 AFS-G, 30 sec @ f/16 (Tripod)
- Price: $696
- Weight – 11.64 oz. (330 g.)
- Aperture blades – 7
- Filter threads – 67mm
- Angle of view – 75 degrees
- Minimum focus distance: 9.8″
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