Nikon FF lens selection

Keeping it simple.

Yesterday I mentioned that I had bought a Nikon D700 full frame body. The project I need this for, which will span an extended period, involves documentation of a large building site and its people. The environment will be dusty and dirty, hence the appeal of the D700’s dust sealed body.

As I want to keep it simple and because Full Frame gear is so heavy and bulky, I set to determining the optimal lenses for the project. There’s no need for anything very long, but the highest optical quality is essential given the need for large prints. I set the goal of keeping things down to just two lenses, which meant either a prime ultrawide plus a medium range zoom or an ultrawide zoom with a prime portrait lens. Long time pro-Nikon using friends were invaluable in slimming down the selection based on years of practical experience with the short listed optics.

My shortlist was as follows:

Option A – ultrawide prime plus mid-range zoom:

10 ounces. I had tremendous success using the (sadly discontinued) Canon 15mm full frame fisheye on my Canon 5D and ‘defishing’ the result in LR3 for an effective focal length of 12mm. Micro contrast was decent if not fabulous, and for what you got the lens was inexpensive. So the Nikon equivalent was a natural candidate for a prime ultrawide.

32 ounces. Everyone raves about this lens as one of the very best ever mid-range zooms. It is reputed to surpass primes for sharpness, but that performance comes at a tremendous weight penalty for the fast f/2.8 aperture, which does not drop at the long end.

24 ounces. An alternative mid-range zoom which adds length but trades it for a one stop slower f/4 aperture, while also shedding weight in the process. I don’t really need 120mm but the lens came highly recommended from Nikon users I know, and they have forgotten more about the marque than I will ever know. One big advantage is the inclusion of Vibration Reduction, missing from the 24-70mm optic. Incidentally, I owned the Canon 24-105mm L lens with my 5D and while it was optically fine, it was unusable. The lens has zero sealing or baffling so, when zoomed, it acts as a powerful air blower blasting dirt onto the 5D’s sensor. It’s so bad that you can remove the lens and feel the ‘whoosh’ of air when it’s zoomed. Once I stopped using it I no longer had to clean the 5D’s sensor after each outing. The 5D/II largely fixes that with a sensor dust removal system, but that body was not available at the time I was a 5D user.

Option B – ultrawide zoom plus prime portrait lens:

34 ounces. Another optic everyone loves, very wide and very heavy. I was troubled by the exposed front glass whose profile prevents use of a protective filter, but the optics are known to be as good as it gets. A miracle of optical engineering.

24 ounces. A lens almost as wide as the 14-24, lighter, has VR (likely not needed at these short focal lengths) but with known heavy barrel distortion at 16-17mm. I downloaded a specimen imaged from Photozone, loading it in LR3 where I found that correcting the barrel distortion was very easy. The extreme edges are not the greatest at f/4 and 16mm, but quickly improve by the time you get to f/8. Otherwise it’s a crackerjack optic and much lighter than the 14-24mm. At 18mm and full aperture the only extreme edge aberration is slight color fringing, easily corrected in LR3. Definition is to die for, requiring the merest hint of sharpening in post processing. Note that Photozone’s results are for the non-IF Mark I version. Mine is the IF Mark II; we’ll see if it’s better.

13 ounces. Once again, I had tremendous results with the similarly specified Canon on the 5D. This optic has been around for ever and has a tremendous reputation. This lens is discontinued, replaced by the new ‘G’ verison which deletes the aperture ring (not needed on the D700 in any case). The older lens is a known quantity and easily found lightly used.

23 ounces. The costlier f/1.4 variant is simply faster than I need and way too heavy to carry around.

The decision:

I went with a new 16-35 zoom, which comes with a four year Nikon USA warranty. Used examples sell for just 10-15% less and do not come with a warranty – a false economy. Like all Nikon’s pro zooms, the lens is dust sealed which is ideal for my contemplated use. The wide angle range meshes nicely with my way of seeing – I tend to see ’35mm and wider’. The lens does not change length when zoomed and the rear element is fixed, so that there’s none of that dust pumping action enjoyed by Canon 24-105mm L users. The lighter weight compared with the other shorter zooms is a significant point, also. Then I added a used 85mm f/1.8 ($339). It’s not dust sealed but, at that price, who cares? And the wide aperture is ideal for close-up portraits with blurred backgrounds, something the zooms here cannot offer. At f/2.2 the 85mm is near its peak performance.

Thus the total outfit weight is D700 – 35 ounces, 16-35mm – 24 ounces, 85mm – 13 ounces, for a total of 4.5 pounds. Well, it’s not MFT but that’s the penalty you pay for full frame quality. My Panny G3 with the Oly 9-18mm, and the Panny 14-45mm and 45-200mm lenses weighs in at just 3.0 pounds and that includes a really long 90-400mm zoom. Drop the zoom and the Panny kit comes to a scant 1 pound 12 ounces which is the fairer comparison, though there’s nothing to compare with the fast f/1.8 included in the Nikon outfit. So full frame means lugging an extra 2 pounds 12 ounces – the price of respectability!

Modern DSLR users are spoiled for choice, but the above reasoning, with help from friends, got me through the jungle.