Every so often I come across a lens that just gets me totally hooked and obsessed with photography.
Like a Ring of Power, it whispers to me. My eyes glaze over as it consumes my mind, my wife in the background asking, “do you want chicken again, or should we make steak?” echos past my consciousness. “Why are ignoring me,” she says flustered. But I am lost. Only at the sound of a squealing Orc wielding a chocolate popsicle over the white carpet does reality snap back in.
My latest precious has been the Nikkor Z 35mm f1.8 S and I’ll explain why in a minute.
Or like, here, a picture is worth a thousand words. So there you go – that’s why.
No, but seriously – let me explain.
I don’t feel like I’m very good at shooting with 35mm lenses but they just work so well with kids where you want to capture them, in their element with the world around them. You want their world to feel big because as a kid, the world does feel big. The 35mm focal length is just perfect for that without introducing too much distortion as you would get with a wider lens.
While the 35mm f1.8 is fairly expensive, it has a little magic to it that I noticed right away. A bit more character than the 85mm or the 50mm. By character, in this case, I mean micro-contrast. That fabled term that many believe as pseudoscience even though Zeiss has posted several articles on the subject.
Character can also mean other things, a fun flair, some strange color shifts, etc.
What is Micro-Contrast? Well, that’s a different topic I’m going to try to address in the future, but basically, it makes your images feel alive. While it’s not always important, sometimes I like having a crisper punch when I’m just trying to capture lifes little moments. This is different then sharpness. Sharpness is just focused light and is independent of the coherency of light.
There are artistic, stylized forms of photography, then there is capturing life photography. For the latter, I like having that punchier high micro-contrast look, where the images feel sharp, and detail, even though they might not necessarily be in perfect focus or maybe have a little motion blur.
The 35mm f1.8 is one of the better micro-contrast lenses in the Z lineup, and it especially comes alive at f2.8.
Getting Used To F1.8
The Nikon Z lenses are my first fairly fast lenses with good autofocus, aside from my Fujifilm 56mm f1.2, and also I had a Sony 50mm f1.8 which had pretty terrible CA and chunky AF so I never used it much, although it had insane micro-contrast. Actually never mind, I had a Nikon 50mm f1.8D for years too that I never used much. Just ignore this whole sentence.
So anyway, what I meant to say was, my first fast AF lens that I loved and used a lot was the Fujifilm 56mm f1.2 which would give you a look similar to f1.8 because of the APS-C crop factor. The other Fujinon f1.4 lenses do not have as shallow of depth as the full-frame f1.8 lenses, so they produce an image a little bit more like f2.1 full frame.
Before these lenses, I’ve only had very fast manual focus prime lenses, but I never abused them wide open because it was too hard to focus.
- My favorite ultra-fast APS-C Manual lens right now is the Kamaln 50mm f1 II.
But with this f1.8 full-frame autofocus lenses that I’m now using a lot, I tend to just shoot wide open a lot more than I should, and it’s really taught me something important – I don’t really like the ultra-shallow depth look for a lot of stuff and even f1.8 can be too much.
Too shallow of depth I think often looks bad, looks amateurish or overdone. It looks to me like the photographer is trying too hard. So with this 35mm f1.8, I’ve kind of discovered the best way to shoot with it is to stop down a little to get the depth of field that looks natural, but not distracting like some special effect.
The last thing you want is for someone to look at your photos and say, “Ooo that must have been a nice camera.” You want them to say, “Ooooo that’s an awesome image.”
If you’re doing all this crazy stuff with shallow depth of field, you’re going to only bring attention to the technical aspect of the photos, because it’s super distracting and unnatural. Of course, you might think it’s good because fast lenses are usually more expensive, so it must be better right?
I think this is why everyone loves their results with those Fujinon f1.4 lenses. They give you just the right amount of depth, without making things look strange. Having that slower aperture restricting you, literally makes you a better photographer because you don’t have to ever worry about making the mistake of having a depth of field that’s too shallow.
Of course, having ultra-shallow depth is sometimes the lesser of two evils if you’re in a crazy environment and need to eliminate a busy background. A wedding photographer for instance should have some fast lenses for those times when they really needs to bring attention to the subject and only the subject.
Finding A Lenses Sweet Spot
There is a special attribute a lot of these Z lenses have where at f1.8 and f2, you get more of a dreamier look with the colors blending a bit more and things blooming a little more. The saturation is soft and calm. Especially on the 85mm f1.8. Then when you stop down to f2.8, the image clicks into a totally different look. Very crisp, more punchy.
So I think going forward, the best way to shoot with this Z 35mm f1.8 S is to stick to f2.8 since that seems to be the sweet spot. Then only go down to f1.8 when needed, like with the full-body portraits. Up close I think f2.8 is looking way better with fewer distractions from too shallow of depth with issues like only one eye being in focus.
But I think f1.8 does a great job of background separation even on full-body shots, plus a nice thing about being “limited” to f1.8 is you don’t have to use an ND filter in sunlight as you would with an f1.4 or f1.2 if you wanted to keep that mechanical shutter which is limited to 1/8000 on most cameras. You can see in these images my exposure is often f1.8, ISO 100, 1/8000. That’s the limit of what the cameras can do, outside in the sun without the use of an ND filter.
The more you make these little discoveries, the more you realize Nikon really knows what they are doing and they really think things out.
f2.8 just looks so much better to me than f1.8 when close to the subject.
For those that have my CORE presets, these were all made with the 2b – Film Core II.3 Aged C2 looks. Just turn the contrast down a touch when using these high contrast Nikon lenses and you’re good to go.
Back to F1.8
F1.8 is great for full-body portraits when you’re standing further back and still want subject separation.
A great read, thanks for posting. As a wedding photographer I will be testing out the Z system next year and may start out with the 35 & 85 1.8s. Right now I only have the 50 1.8s now, which is incredible. Please keep sharing your images & thoughts on these lenses!
Will do. Thinking of getting maybe a 20mm or 24mm at some point if they don’t have soap bubble bokeh like my Fujinon 16mm – which completely ruined a firefly shoot I did last year. Haven’t looked at any reviews yet. Or the 14-24mm f2.8 look so good too, it’s only a little heavier and bigger than my Sony 16-35mm f4.
Ah yes, the Fujinon 16mm. I tried to love it but the bokeh literally brought on a mild headache. I currently use the Sony 24mm 1.4 GM, which is wonderful in so many ways. I’d love to get your thoughts on the Nikon 24mm 1.8s, as a possible buddy for the new behemoth 50 1.2 at smaller weddings.
The 20/1.8S seems magical. Though I’ve heard the 24/1.8S is the best Nikkor ever.
Oh really. I’ll have to figure out which one to get then. I’m leaning more towards the 24mm. But at the same time, I still don’t have the kit 24-70mm f4 which I’ll probably bundle with the next update to the cameras if I decide to upgrade. And since I’ll be using the 24mm a lot for video I think the kit might be totally fine. Wouldn’t need faster than f4 for video anyway and don’t really need optical perfection for video either.
The kit leans is amazing. IMO that f4 gives you enough dof to add an accent to your subject with not too much separation, yet it won’t fix your photo if it was initially pretty bad – just like Fuji primes 😀
Here is a sample taken at 50mm wide open, the background is like 10 yards away, so it’s quite blurred.
Funny, I can’t tell a big difference between the nikon z 20 and sony 20mm in sample galleries, but the z is so much bigger, wish I knew why.
Great microcontrast with 11 elements?
It’s one of the better micro-contrast lenses of the Zs. Which you can see in the samples. It’s not bad.
I was shooting with the 50 and the 85mm before this lens and noticed and improvement right away. I don’t know if they’re using thinner elements, or if just wider lenses lend themselves better to micro-contrast, which almost seems like that’s how it works. Because it seems like the 50mm is better than the 85mm and this lens is even better than the 50mm and they all use 11 elements.
I’m going to be putting together an article in a few weeks about this. Comparing some of these Z lenses and some zoom lenses to some of my lower element lenses.
I would say the Z lenses in general are not great micro-contrast lenses. They just sit somewhere in the middle for primes. Better than the crazy 17 element primes, but not as good as the 7-9 element primes Sony and Fujifilm make sometimes. And not as good as our old 5 element lenses, although a lot of those have such bad coatings that you get so much ghosting and light scatter it’s hard to get good contrast in bright environments.
What do you think of the IQ of this Vs Fuji 23mm f2 ignoring the light gathering benefits of course?
If I remember correctly – the 23mm f2 does hide a lot of distortion and vignetting behind baked in lens corrections. So there are a few little issues that could come up from that. But I really like the 23mm f2 for run and gun stuff with the kids, It was one of my go-to lenses all of 2018. It’s a lot smaller than this lens and still great at AF. I will say this NIKKOR has a special look to it, a smoother rendering even stopped down, but the Fujinon 23mm f2 has a touch better pop to it.
I’m not sure how they compare on sharpness, but they both have great contrast, maybe the Fujinon is a touch better here? I remember being it really good, it pulled slightly better color and contrast than the 23mm f1.4. So it probably beats this lens on that, but the Nikkor is more of an artistic look with its focus falloff. It’s like the lens even looks like it has more depth of field than it does.
Are you gonna test the volt rod lenses for fujifilm? I’d love to see them
I have to say I struggle to understand or see what microcontrast is. I feel a difference between the Z primes and the 24-70/4S which is not sharpness. The primes do have more mojo to them but I can’t exactly locate what this is.
I have used many of the old manual Nikkors and even though they have fewer elements and supposedly better micro contrast, they’re jus not as good lenses. Notably the colour-contrast and saturation suck compared with the Nikkor Z lenses. Sharpness is of course on a whole other level. Especially apparent on a high megapixel body.
I would appreciate if you found a way to accentuate the difference between a high element and low element lens. What is the difference? Does a low element lens have better edge definition? Similar effect to mid level sharpening?
Personally I feel sceptical because you find concepts of “purity” all over – that a certain thing performs better because there is “less interference” with the light or whatever energy we are talking about.
At the same time my favourite lenses ever are the Hasselblad V system lenses. German made Zeiss glass.
To find the answer to this question, I went down a two year rabbit hole into the depths of photon physics. Which gets into quantum mechanics which is kinda . . . retarded. Using math to create reality out of thought experiments.
It’s hard for anyone to understand any of this because you ask about photons on a physics forum and people take into a circle. Is it a wave or a particle. What about in a vacuum. If it’s in a vacuum what’s waving. A photon is a wave function collapsing. . . what?
The only reason we say it’s a wave is because of an outdated interpretation of the double slit experiment back 200 years ago before we could even perform one with good equipment and measure what’s going on with good equipment. Same with gravity to be honest. Then they’ll do the same experiments with a free electrons, which are not the same because they’re influenced by drag, but then apply the same principles the photon. Super wacky stuff, and now all this old science is kept alive with confirmation bias.
Anyways. It would seem that a “photon” is more of a collection of force bits that move in a frequency. Richard Feynman touched on this briefly but never went anywhere with it. But a recent experiment where two lasers were used to create matter would also suggest this is reality. This kind of has to be true based on that because a single photon or its polarity would already be larger than several thousand atoms, yet photons only interfere with electrons. So something smaller has to be moving those electrons.
So my basic understand of a photon is a group of soldiers marching in perfect unison. They clump up with different densities to form frequencies. This is a perfect signal of light coming off different surfaces to make different colors and shapes. Groups of soldiers marching perfectly in unison with frequency.
Now having light go through a lens is going to heavily influence that signal. Glass is completely haphazardly strung together with its crystalline structure which will send individual bits all over the place.
But I like to think of micro-contrast as a group of marching soldiers like in a parade, going through a forest and their arrangement gets all messed up. Many of them might not even make it out the other side, but when they do come out they can still be focused on their target, but their structure is all patchy and missing soldiers who ran into trees or were deflected. Enough of them make it through to complete the ‘photon’ but it’s a weaker structure than it was before it went in. And a photon with its polarity with the colors we see needs to hit with its frequency a surface area that is several thousand atoms across to create the effect of color and light. So even a patchy photon can perturb enough electrons to create “red” but it’s not as strong of a signal.
I think this is essential what happens with high element lenses. You can still get great focus, and global contrast, but so much of the structure of the lights coherency has been altered. So the signal received lacks a fidelity and definition.
And now new modern coatings and lenses do a lot to reduce scatter which improves contrast and they even have coatings now that can bend different frequencies of light more than others to improve CA. This all helps with the focus of light and getting all the colors to converge properly across the entire focal plane, but in doing so they still lose some of the coherency.
This is actually also why it seems like you get better micro-contrast using high powered studio strobes. Because it has a higher coherency to start with than ambient light.
Theoretically you could fix a lot of this this with perfect glass with a perfect atomic structure which we can do today, but we’re a long way before that makes it into camera lenses.
So that’s my rabbit hole. Enjoy. I’ll do a full article on this when I tackle micro-contrast. It will probably get me into some trouble since it’s not perfectly in line with the current model of photons, which is completely broken. But hey, it will open up for some debate.
Haruo Sato seemed to be involved in the creation of this lens. He is the undisputed king of lens design for great focus falloff. See Nikon 35mm 1.4g and 58mm 1.4g
I also really like the falloff of the Z 35mm, certainly has more pop than the Z 50mm 1.8
Yeah, of my three Z lenses, the 85mm, 50mm and now this one, the 35mm definitely has the best look. That’s cool info about Haruo Sato, I’ll have to look him up.
I agree this lens is awesome. Indeed micro-contrast is high, as well as sunstars, this lens love to produce sunstars with any strong source of light.
It’s also the lightest native Z lens to date.
I wished it was a tad wider, I hope the incoming Nikon 28mm will keep the same IQ even though it would be “limited” to f2.8
What are your thoughts against the xf 16 f1.4? I am a bit tempted to return back to an x-t3, I missed the retro dials look and lighter wider FOV lenses. The Z 24mm is very nice but way too heavy and large, that’s why I am thinking to switch from my z6 to x-t3 + 16 f1.4. I shoot landscape, street mainly
Hi there Alik,
thanks so much for the great write-up and awesome snaps. What’s your take on the Nikon with the 35mm 1.8 (which as you describe is anyways mostly used at 2.8) vs the Fuji X100V? I am using the A7III with the Sony 35mm 1.4 and totally get your point about pics looking unnatural which is why I love shooting the little Fuji. It is also so much more intimate and people just love the looks and I feel it makes the process of having the photo taken less intimidating.
Cheers from Barcelona
I can’t agree more! One of my favourite lenses. I have the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art collecting dust even if it gives more separation and is technically sharper. Love this 35 so much.