Best standard prime lenses for Nikons: 8 tested
18th Jun 2012 | 08:00
The fastest prime lenses for your Nikon body
Prime lenses explained
Zoom lenses are undeniably great when it comes to convenience and versatility, delivering a wide range of focal lengths at the flick of a wrist. However, they demand a compromise in terms of outright image quality. With complex arrangements of large groups of lens elements moving back and forth to enable zoom, the optical purity suffers.
Sharpness is often the first casualty, and barrel and pin-cushion distortions often appear at the wide-angle and telephoto ends of the zoom range respectively. You can also expect an increase in chromatic aberration (colour fringing around high-contrast edges in a scene) and vignetting (darkened corners).
The latter effect is most commonly seen when you're using large apertures at the wide-angle end. Zoom lenses are also often more prone to ghosting and flare.
Switch to a high-quality prime lens and distortion and vignetting should be much less noticeable. Sharpness should also be excellent, so you can really make the most of the high-resolution sensors fitted to Nikon's current range of DSLRs.
A dramatic decrease in colour fringing is good to have too. Even though recent Nikon DSLRs tune out chromatic aberration when you shoot in JPEG mode or process raw images with Nikon software, it won't be corrected if you use an independent program such as Photoshop Elements for converting NEF files.
Need for speed
A big bonus of prime lenses is that they're usually 'faster'. This means they have a larger maximum aperture, which enables quicker shutter speeds. For example, a typical 18-55mm zoom lens has a maximum aperture of roughly f/4 at the wide-angle end, shrinking to a mere f/5.6 at about 50mm.
Switch to a 50mm f/1.4 prime lens and the largest available aperture is four stops faster. In low light you'd be limited to a shutter speed of, say, 1/15 sec with a typical zoom (unless you increase your ISO setting).
However, an f/1.4 lens will enable a much faster shutter speed of 1/250 sec. An f/1.8 lens is 3.3 stops faster than an f/5.6 lens, and even an f/2.8 model is two stops faster.
So-called 'faster' lenses aren't just good for avoiding camera-shake and freezing the action in dull lighting conditions. Another big advantage is that you can get a much tighter depth of field, enabling you to isolate the main point of interest in a shot by blurring the background. It's a favourite trick in portraiture, especially when the background is cluttered and would otherwise be a distraction.
It can be tricky to use large apertures in bright, sunny conditions, but you can get round the problem by fitting a neutral density (ND) filter. Variable NDs are a great option when you're shooting video and want the cinematic, shallow depth of field that's all the rage.
An important factor to consider when you're buying a prime lens is which focal length to go for. Back in the days of 35mm film, a 50mm prime was considered a 'standard' lens. That's because it gives pretty much the same perspective as viewing a scene with the human eye, without the magnification of a telephoto lens or the shrinkage a wide-angle lens uses to squeeze more into the frame.
Therefore, a 50mm lens can still be regarded as a standard prime lens, whereas 35mm and 28mm lenses offer increasingly wide-angle potential with progressively wider angles of view. However, everything changes when you're using more typical Nikon DSLRs that have an APS-C format (Advanced Photo System - Classic) sensor.
In the frame
Because APS-C format sensors are smaller than their full-frame counterparts, only the central area of the image circle from a full-frame compatible lens is used. This is known as the crop factor, which works out as 1.5x for Nikon DSLRs from the D3100 to the D7000 and D300s.
A 28mm or 35mm lens will therefore give you an effective focal length of 42mm or 52.5mm respectively, which feels much more like a standard prime on these cameras.
Fit a 50mm lens to an APS-C format body and you get an effective focal length of 75mm. This is a little long for standard shooting, but absolutely perfect for portraiture. The short telephoto equivalent enables you to keep a comfortable distance from your subject, which means they're less likely to feel too crowded and can be more relaxed and uninhibited. This attitude will really show through in the photos you take.
While so-called FX lenses are compatible with both full-frame and APS-C format bodies, DX lenses are designed specifically for APS-C bodies and can't generally be used on full-frame DSLRs. This is because the reduced size of the image circle produced by the lens isn't large enough to cover the whole of an FX sensor. However, some Nikon full-frame cameras have a crop mode that enables you to use DX lenses.
Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF
Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF - £100/$125
This unassuming little lens is some 20 years old now, so there's nothing remotely modern about it. It has an aperture ring that would suit film cameras from way back when, and it lacks a built-in autofocus motor. With cameras such as the D7000 and D300s, which have a screw drive to operate autofocus, focusing is quick but a little noisy.
The front element extends from the body at shorter focus distances, but doesn't rotate. As such, filters such as circular polarisers are easy to use. The lens isn't supplied with a hood, although one is available for £34/$20, but it really doesn't need one - the front element is recessed deep within the lens barrel. There's plenty of physical protection, as well as good shielding from stray light.
At 63x39mm and just 155g, this is the smallest and lightest lens in the group, but it produces razor-sharp images with fabulous contrast. The diaphragm has a reasonably generous seven blades, which helps add a pleasing softness to defocused image areas. Small, bright subjects can take on a hexagonal shape, though.
Impressive even at its largest aperture of f/1.8, this old-timer is top of the entire group at f/8.
Sharpness at f/2.8: 1587
Sharpness at f/8: 1947
Sharpness at f/16: 1605
There's more colour fringing at the very largest aperture settings, but it's nothing to worry about.
Fringing at f/2.8: 0.27
Fringing at f/8: 0.15
Fringing at f/16: 0.19
With only the barest hint of a barrel effect, this lens is second only to the Sigma 50mm Macro in terms of distortion.
Image test verdict
This is the cheapest lens in the group by far, but the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D's image quality is absolutely excellent, making it a real bargain.
Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S
Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S - £180/$220
A major revamp of the 50mm f/1.8D lens, this lens is perfectly suited to digital photography. The antiquated aperture ring has been ditched in favour of a modern G-type design. More importantly for owners of cameras such as the D3100 and D5100, autofocus is available thanks to the addition of Nikon's Silent Wave system. Unlike the autofocus in some of Nikon's cheapest zoom lenses, it's a ring-type system that's practically silent in operation and offers full-time manual focus override in AF mode.
Other new features include an aspherical lens element, and the f/1.8G comes complete with a lens hood and pouch, both of which are lacking on Nikon's f/1.8D. The f/1.8G is a fair bit larger, but only 30g heavier, so still quite lightweight.
One feature that this lens shares with the older f/1.8D is the aperture diaphragm, which is based on seven blades in both models. This is pretty good for a budget lens, but isn't perfect - the blades themselves aren't very rounded, so small, bright objects such as streetlights take on a seven-sided shape.
As with the older Nikon 50mm f/1.8D, sharpness is extremely good throughout the aperture range.
Sharpness at f/2.8: 1731
Sharpness at f/8: 1873
Sharpness at f/16: 1649
Negligible at the largest apertures, colour fringing is only slightly evident at settings of f/8 and smaller.
Fringing at f/2.8: 0.14
Fringing at f/8: 0.3
Fringing at f/16: 0.31
There's only minimal barrel distortion, although the lens is beaten by the older D-type lens in this respect.
Image test verdict
Bokeh could be a little better, but image quality is extremely good, making the new G-type lens well worth the money.
Sigma 50mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro
Sigma 50mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro - £270/$370
It's hard to resist a 'buy one get one free' offer and, on the face of it, this Sigma is two lenses in one. It's a 50mm prime suitable for both full-frame and APS-C format bodies, and has full 1.0x magnification for macro work. This means that at its closest focus distance, small objects are reproduced life-size on the image sensor.
Ultimately, however, the lens feels like a bit of a compromise. The maximum aperture of f/2.8 is more than a stop slower than that of an f/1.8 lens, and it's more difficult to blur backgrounds. Also, unlike the macro lenses that we featured in last issue's roundup, the fairly short focal length of 50mm puts the front of the lens uncomfortably close to the macro subject you're shooting.
There's also no built-in motor so, as with the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D, the Sigma won't autofocus on entry-level cameras such as the D3100.
This lens is sharp, and distortion is minimal. However, the bokeh effect isn't very impressive and lacks the smoothness you get with the Nikon f/1.8 lenses. Like them, the Sigma uses a seven-blade diaphragm.
You'd expect excellent sharpness from a macro lens, and the Sigma only drops off at apertures of f/22 and smaller.
Sharpness at f/2.8: 1764
Sharpness at f/8: 1865
Sharpness at f/16: 1732
At medium and small apertures, this lens banishes chromatic aberration better than the pricier Sigma 30mm and 50mm.
Fringing at f/2.8: 0.22
Fringing at f/8: 0.25
Fringing at f/16: 0.21
The best on test for distortion, there's the merest hint of a pin-cushion effect but it's practically negligible.
Image test verdict
The Sigma does well in the lab, but the maximum aperture of f/2.8 is limiting and the bokeh effects aren't the most pleasing either.
Nikon 50mm f/1.4G AF-S
Nikon 50mm f/1.4G AF-S - £290/$460
This is a well-engineered lens with a sturdy finish and reassuring weight. Indeed, despite being almost the same size as the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G, it's about 50 per cent heavier at 280g. Luxuries include ring-type ultrasonic autofocus with full-time manual override, and a weather-proofing rubber ring in the mounting plate.
This isn't technically an internal-focusing lens, as the deeply recessed front element extends towards the front of the barrel at close focus distances. However, the overall length of the lens remains unchanged and the front element doesn't rotate during focusing. It's still well shaded, and a hood and carrying pouch are supplied as standard extras.
Sharpness isn't fabulous at the top aperture of f/1.4, but the lens gives a lovely, dreamy look to portraits at this aperture. At smaller apertures it's pin-sharp - the sharpest on test at f/11 to f/16, kept up across the entire frame. The rounded nine-blade diaphragm helps avoid unwanted geometric shapes in defocused highlights. These areas look smooth and are the best from any lens in the group.
Not that sharp at the largest apertures but decent in mid-range settings and supreme at f/16 and across the frame.
Sharpness at f/2.8: 1269
Sharpness at f/8: 1802
Sharpness at f/16: 1853
Colour fringing is basically a non-issue with this lens. It turns in the best lab scores out of the whole test group.
Fringing at f/2.8: 0.1
Fringing at f/8: 0.13
Fringing at f/16: 0.07
There's a little barrel distortion, but it's not noticeable in the vast majority of images taken with this lens.
Image test verdict
All-round image quality from this Nikon lens is the best of any lens in the group, with particularly beautiful bokeh effects on offer.
Sigma 28mm f/1.8 EX DG
Sigma 28mm f/1.8 EX DG - £345/$450
The Sigma 28mm is designed first and foremost as a fast, wide-angle prime lens for full-frame cameras. As such, it's a big, heavy optic - the largest in the group by quite a margin. The lack of an internal autofocus motor isn't too much of a drawback, as all full-frame Nikon DSLRs have a screw drive for actuating autofocus directly from the camera body.
With an effective focal length of 42mm on APS-C format cameras, there's also the temptation to use this as a 'standard' prime lens on DX bodies. However, size and weight make the Sigma 28mm less than ideal. The camera-driven autofocus is a bit sluggish, but sharpness is great even at the maximum aperture of f/1.8.
This lens is a good choice for indoor, handheld shooting, with wide-angle potential on a full-frame body. However, there's noticeable vignetting at f/1.8, although this disappears at smaller apertures or when you use the lens on an APS-C format camera. Barrel distortion is noticeable and rather worse than that displayed by many of the other lenses in the group.
Sharpness is both impressive and consistent throughout the aperture range, only dropping off at f/16 to f/22.
Sharpness at f/2.8: 1905
Sharpness at f/8: 1920
Sharpness at f/16: 1691
Chromatic aberration is well contained, making the Sigma 28mm a good choice for landscape shoots on full-frame cameras.
Fringing at f/2.8: 0.19
Fringing at f/8: 0.26
Fringing at f/16: 0.21
The second-worst lens on test in terms of distortion, there's a clear barrel effect. However, it's still better than most zooms.
Image test verdict
Apart from some noticeable barrel distortion, the Sigma 28mm is optically very good, and is well suited to full-frame use.
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM - £370/$500
Compared with the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, which has the same maximum aperture, Sigma's equivalent lens is bigger and 225g heavier. The filter thread is also relatively large at 77mm, compared with the Nikon's 58mm. On the plus side, the lens feels robust and well built, although it lacks the Nikon's rubber sealing ring around the mounting plate.
High-end features include a ring-type HSM (Hyper-Sonic Motor), which comes complete with full-time manual override. As with the ring-type Nikon lenses, autofocus is practically silent. Another similarity is that the overall length of the lens doesn't increase at short focus distances - despite the lens not having a true internal-focus design, the front element only extends within the boundary of the outer barrel.
There's plenty of sharpness and contrast between f/4 and f/16, but between f/1.4 and f/2.8 performance is disappointing. The rounded, nine-blade diaphragm helps create a beautiful bokeh, but no better than that formed with the Nikon 50mm f/1.4. At £80/$40 more, the Sigma is relatively poor value.
The lack of sharpness at large apertures is disappointing, although results are good at f/4 and smaller.
Sharpness at f/2.8: 656
Sharpness at f/8: 1886
Sharpness at f/16: 1779
Lab scores for colour fringing are poor for a prime lens of this price. The cheaper Nikon 50mm f/1.4G fares much better.
Fringing at f/2.8: 0.32
Fringing at f/8: 0.28
Fringing at f/16: 0.42
There's some barrel distortion but it's not noticeable in most pictures, as is the case with the equivalent Nikon lens.
Image test verdict
Let down by a real lack of sharpness and contrast at large apertures, and the image quality isn't a match for that from cheaper Nikon lenses.
Tokina 35mm f/2.8 Macro AT-X PRO DX
Tokina 35mm f/2.8 Macro AT-X PRO DX - £375/$300
Incompatible with full-frame bodies, the DX-format Tokina has an effective focal length of 52.5mm on APS-C format Nikons. Because it's designed exclusively for these cameras, it's a shame that Tokina hasn't fitted an autofocus motor, which rules out autofocus completely on models such as the D3100 and D5100. For Nikon photographers, compatible cameras are limited to the likes of the D7000 and D300s.
Like the Sigma 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, the Tokina has a relatively slow maximum aperture of f/2.8, plus a full 1.0x magnification facility, but the minimum focus distance for this is 14cm, which means the front of the lens comes to within just 15mm of the object when you shoot in full macro mode.
Sharpness and contrast are impressive, even at the largest available aperture. Autofocus is a little noisy with the screw drive of compatible cameras, but is reasonably quick nonetheless. The nine-blade diaphragm also helps to deliver a fairly pleasing bokeh. Like its macro Sigma cousin, however, the lens feels like a poor compromise between fast prime and macro.
Contrast and sharpness are great even at the largest available aperture, albeit a relatively pedestrian f/2.8.
Sharpness at f/2.8: 1795
Sharpness at f/8: 1779
Sharpness at f/16: 1645
Colour fringing is noticeable towards the corners of the frame, especially at large aperture settings.
Fringing at f/2.8: 0.37
Fringing at f/8: 0.28
Fringing at f/16: 0.21
There's a bit of barrel distortion but it's reasonably well contained and not normally a problem.
Image test verdict
There's not much wrong with the Tokina's image quality but we'd still prefer a larger aperture than the less-than-useful 1.0x magnification.
Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM
Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM - £380/$490
With an effective focal length of 45mm on APS-C bodies ranging from the D3100 to the D7000 and D300s, this is potentially an ideal 'standard' prime lens rather than a portrait model. It combines a fast f/1.4 maximum aperture with quick and near-silent HSM (Hyper-Sonic Motor) autofocus that has full-time manual focus override.
Designed for APS-C format bodies, it's large for a 30mm lens, and is bigger and heavier than Nikon's full-frame 50mm f/1.4G. It also has a larger filter thread of 62mm, compared with the Nikon's 58mm. Build quality is solid, but the closest focus distance of 40cm is disappointing for a 30mm lens, the maximum magnification of 0.1x being the lowest on test.
There's a danger of increased vignetting when using a DX lens on an APS-C body, as the image circle is smaller than that in an FX lens. However, this Sigma acquits itself well even at its largest aperture. Centre sharpness is also good, but drops off somewhat towards image edges, and alarmingly so at the borders. Barrel distortion is also noticeable, with the worst results in the group.
The scores don't tell the full story as this lens lacks sharpness towards the edges and corners of the frame.
Sharpness at f/2.8: 1467
Sharpness at f/8: 1889
Sharpness at f/16: 1763
Colour fringing is only slightly noticeable, and is pretty much on a par with that from the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G.
Fringing at f/2.8: 0.16
Fringing at f/8: 0.38
Fringing at f/16: 0.32
Barrel distortion results are the worst in the test group, and are particularly unimpressive for a fixed focal length lens.
Image test verdict
With noticeable barrel distortion and poor edge/corner sharpness, the Sigma struggles to justify its high asking price.
Verdict: best prime lens
The Nikon 50mm f/1.4G does everything right, so is our winner. It's a good weight and feels well balanced on the camera. Build quality is reassuringly rugged, and the ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system works a treat on any Nikon body.
The lens gives a dreamy look to portraits at its maximum aperture, and is super sharp at mid-range and small aperture settings across the whole image. The diaphragm is based on nine curved blades and helps give beautiful bokeh that's soft and sumptuous.
Plus, considering it costs less than the bulkier and heavier Sigma equivalent, it's a bargain.
Modernity isn't everything, of course, and proving that classics still have a lot to offer the digital photographer, Nikon's 50mm f/1.8D delivers spectacularly sharp images with bags of contrast and is an absolute steal at £100/$125.
However, it won't autofocus on bodies such as the D3100 and D5100, which lack a screw drive for camera-based autofocus actuation. Therefore, the newer Nikon 50mm f/1.8G is the next best thing if you're on a tight budget.
The Sigma 28mm works best as a wide-angle lens on full-frame cameras, but is a bit on the large and heavy side for a 'standard' prime on APS-C format bodies. The Sigma 30mm is a better option for DX shooters but isn't without its flaws - the most noticeable is a lack of sharpness at the edges and corners of the frame.
The Sigma 50mm f/2.8 and Tokina 35mm f/2.8 macro lenses offer full life-size magnification at their closest focus distances but, ultimately, the smaller maximum aperture makes them a bit of a compromise for general shooting.