Saturday, March 16, 2013

Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED lens: Hands on review

One of my favorite lenses of all time has been a 20 or 21mm focal length super wide angle. I use if for landscape and travel photography and find it particularly handy to integrate the foreground and background or for creating frames for composition. Nikon makes a 20mm f/2.8 prime. I used this lens when I shot film, ever since it was introduced in 1989, but I never found it adequate for newer digital sensors, and I kept waiting for Nikon to update it. The recently introduced Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G lens with ED glass may be as close as I am going to get to my wish for the time being.

At first I was skeptical about Nikon's claims for corner sharpness in such a relatively inexpensive lens. My skepticism was quickly dispelled, however, as soon as I began my tests. The lens fulfilled the promise of all that was claimed for it.

A new Nikon 18-35mm lens shown on a Nikon D600 with my old favorite film lens, the Nikon 20mm, in the rear.
This zoom is light weight (13.58oz or 385grams), relatively compact, and best of all is the sharpest wide angle Nikon super-wide zoom I have tested except for the 14-24mm. The biggest weakness of these super wides with digital sensors is their lack of edge and corner sharpness. The 14-24mm is the only super wide zoom I know of that maintains corner sharpness, even wide open. Enter the new Nikon 18-35mm, where for a fraction of the cost ($747 versus almost $2000 for the 14-24mm), you have a lens that achieves acceptable (not perfect) corner sharpness wide open, and excellent sharpness once stopped down to a customary working range of f/5.6 or -- better yet -- f/8.

This lens out performs the two other Nikon lenses in its class, the 16-35mm f/4 and 17-35mm f/2.8 -- both of which cost considerably more. Furthermore, the new 18-35mm is lighter and more compact -- much easier to carry.

So what do you give up for the lower price? For one thing, you give up a fixed aperture. In landscape or architectural photography where this focal length is often used, the lens is mostly used stopped down anyway.  So the variable aperture really doesn't matter much in any negative way. The other drawback, no vibration reduction control, is also rather inconsequential because a tripod is often used for the normal shooting purposes of this focal length. In other words, for travel, landscape, or architectural photography, you sacrifice nothing and gain the added edge sharpness this lens has to offer.

The focal length of this lens is perfect for relating foreground to background or framing your subject.

The lens does suffer from barrel distortion and vignetting, but so do most other lenses of this focal length including the famous Nikon 14-24mm. The good new is that these distortions, along with much of the chromatic distortion that appears on frame edges where there is high contrast, are easy to deal with automatically in post-processing. The latest version of Nikon Capture NX2 software already has a built-in correction for this lens.  Photoshop does not as yet, but probably will in the near future.  In the interim, I have found by trial and error that the lens correction for a Nikon DX 18-55mm lens in Photoshop works well as a good approximation fix with only some minor tweaking.

The two images below illustrate the distortion correction for this lens. The top photo shows the barrel and vignetting distortion at the 18mm focal length. In the bottom photo it has easily been auto corrected by software.

The two images below illustrate how I would typically use a super wide angle lens for travel and landscape photography. Neither of these photos were not take with this lens. I include them to illustrate the qualities I am looking for while I am reviewing a lens of this focal length. You can readily see from these two illustrations why edge sharpness is such an important consideration.

If the lens is not sharp in the corners, then the tile work in the ceiling would not be in focus. A tripod was used for this photo and the one below so the lens aperture could be closed down.
In landscape photography I am looking for a super wide angle lens that can focus on the foreground and provide sharp detail that enhances the overall scene.  In a situation like the one about the lens must be sharp in the corners or the foreground detail at the bottom of the image would be unacceptably soft.
The 18-35mm lens can focus very close at about 11". This is perfect for photos where the focus in on the foreground detail. The close up of apples below shows practically no distortion and is unusual for such a wide angle.

This close up of apples is sharp over all. The main focus was on the apple with the leaf, but at f/11 everything is in focus. Note that there is a lack of distortion in the apples on the lower right. Normally with ultra wide angle lenses they would be subject to a distortion called volume anamorphosis, which would cause them to stretch out of shape and become elongated towards the corners of the image frame.

While this is considered a consumer grade lens, I think it will find its place in many a pro camera bag once its optical qualities are discovered. Plus, its 77mm filter size will accept the same filters as the other pro Nikon lenses.

I have waited a long time for my favorite 20mm focal length to be updated. That still has not happened, but this lens is the next best thing, and for sharpness and compactness in one package it can't be beat.

A subject like this with high contrast windows along the edges and corners is very susceptible to chromatic aberration (color fringing). Fringing was present here, as anticipated, but it was easily eliminated using a lens calibration in post-processing.

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