Saturday, May 25, 2013

In-Depth Review: Nikon's Nikkor 28 f1.4 AF-D Aspherical Lens

Tech Specs
Focal Length: 28mm
Dimensions: 3.1 x 3.0 in.
Weight: 18.3oz.
Maximum Aperture: f1.4
Minimum Aperture: f16
Diaphragm Blades: 9
Front Element: non-rotating, non-extending
Optical arrangement: 11 elements in 8 groups
Autofocus Mechanism: Mechanical Drive
Closest Focus: 1.15 feet
Maximum magnification: 1:8.3
Filter Size: 72mm

Shout-Out: First of all, a big thank you goes out to Tyler Beckman of for making this review possible.

For indoor and/or available light shooters in the film era (when anything above ISO 1600 was unheard of), fast aperture lenses, typically those of f1.4 were the golden standard of optics for the simple reason that only their light-gathering ability can provide enough aperture to get shots in any photographic condition. Unfortunately, the standard, cheap to make 50s are often simply not wide enough for indoors, which was the impetus for opticians to try and take the f1.4 aperture into the wide-angle range. In the 1969, Nikon came up with the 35 f1.4, which would be updated to AI and AI-S in the coming decades. With the advent of autofocus in the mid 1980s, Nikon was suddenly without an AF, ultra-wide, ultra-fast optic. In 1994, many photographers' demand was finally satisfied with the release of the 28 f1.4D Aspherical, which set records for aperture at such a wide focal length at that time. So, is Nikon's record breaker's bite as strong as it's bark? Read on to find out!

Build Quality 5/5
The Nikkor 28 f1.4D Aspherical is built like the proverbial tank. By picking up the lens, one immediately recognizes that this is a serious photographic tool, not a toy. The first thing one notices is the cool temperature of the lens, which quickly indicates that it is virtually all metal in construction. From lens mount to filter threads, the only plastic to be found on this Nikkor is the aperture and AF/MF ring. Honestly, if this lens were flatter, it could probably double as a hockey puck (just remember to keep the caps on!) Moving up the barrel, one comes to the focus ring, which is highly textured, rubberized, and extremely smooth in action. Continuing on, one ends at the filter rings, which use the 72mm variety and are solid metal, too. 

AF Performance 5/5
Being a 'D' lens, the Nikkor 28 f1.4D Asphericql does not feature the latest AF-S drive, but the old-style mechanical slotted screw AF drive. On the D700, which sports Nikon's most powerful AF motor, focus is fast, accurate, and very quiet for this older design, creating only a soft buzzing noise that is far quieter than the actual slap of the SLR's mirror. On other cameras with different AF motors, speed may differ but, being a wide angle lens with a short focus path, AF speed should be on the quick side, too. Now, if your camera doesn't feature a built-in motor (D5200 and lower), there will be no AF with your camera, but the lens still can be focused manually.

Of special note here is the AF/MF switch mechanism, which takes the form of a small ring on the lens barrel. Used only for a short time in the early to mid 1990s on high-end lenses, the AF/MF switch on this lens in pure genius in design. Unlike most Nikkors of similar vintage, the focus ring does not spin during AF thank s to the floating focus ring design, so feel free to grab the lens anywhere when shooting with it. To go to MF mode, press the small silver button on the ring and rotate it so that the arrow moves away from the 'A' and points to the 'M' on the barrel. By doing this, one engages the focus ring so that the lens can be focused manually. The great thing about this design is that there is no need to fumble around with the camera's unseen (from the back) focus mode switch, which makes switching modes a whole lot simpler and faster. An even better thing is that there is no chance of accidentally messing up your focus by bumping the focus ring like on current AF-S lenses. Really, it's too bad that Nikon didn't decide to implement such a design on more lenses.
Optics: 5/5
A lot goes into determining the optical quality of a lens, so let's look at them individually.
 Center sharpness

 Mid-frame sharpness.

Corner sharpness
Designing a 28mm lens that starts at f1.4 and is usable at the same time is no small undertaking. Most lenses of such a fast aperture are rather soft wide open, not so with the Nikkor 28 f1.4D Aspherical, which has contributed to the legend of this one of a kind lens. Wide open, this lens is sharp across virtually the entire frame, the exception being the extreme corners, where there is some falloff. The good news is that, unless one is printing poster-sized images, no one is going to notice an optical shortcoming impacting such a tiny area of the picture. By f2.8, the central and mid regions are as good as they're going to get. At f5.6, the lens is tack-sharp right across the entire frame.

Vignetting across the f-range. 

If there is one weakness (although not an unexpected one) in the optical design of this lens, it is the vignetting. Shooting wide open at f1.4, there is obvious darkening caused by light falloff. Stopping down to f2 greatly alleviates, but does not eliminate thus problem as the shading is now moved out to the periphery of the image. By f2.8, vignetting is gone. On DX cameras, vignetting should be a non-issue.

For real life examples, see below.

Night shots at f1.4 (top), f2 (middle), and f2.8 (bottom).

Day shots at f1.4 (top) and f2 (bottom). Note how much stopping down just one click reduces the vignetting.

There isn't any.

Chromatic Aberration
This lens does show a very minimal amount of CAs, but nothing to worry about in non pixel-peeping terms. 

Shooting into the Sun, there isn't any flare/ghosting visible.

This lens is not a dedicated macro by far.

Value: 4/5
Well, an out of production lens that commonly sells for over $3,000 is not cheap by any means, so how does this lens score a so high on value? Simple: it's just that good. The build is top-notch, the AF is fast and accurate, the optics are good right from the get-go at f1.4 (how many lenses can you say that about?), and it is usable with any Nikon SLR ever produced, too. Needless to say, the lens has earned its reputation as one of the finest Nikkors ever produced. The only reason I'm not giving it a 5 is that there is a current, cheaper 24 f1.4 available right now.

Odds and Ends:Competition
Nikkor 28 f1.4D vs. Nikkor 24 f1.4G 
Obviously, the most clear-cut competition for the Nikkor 28 f1.4D Aspherical comes in the form of the new 24 f1.4G, released in 2010. NOTE: I have never played around in-depth with the 24 like I have the 28, but have only had a brief hands-on with one (still, that's enough to make a lot of useful comparisons). In fact, it's hard to believe that Nikon allowed for a 4-year gap in between phasing out the 28 and introducing the 24. So, when comparing the 28 to the 24 (which costs less), let's look at the pros and cons and keep a running score.

Build quality: Both lenses are well built, but there is no denying that the 28 has better construction quality, with the only plastic coming on the aperture and AF/MF ring. On the other hand, the 24 uses plastic for parts of the barrel as well as filter threads. One point for the 28.

Autofocus: Neither lens is a slouch in regards to AF, but the 24 comes with AF-S, which means quieter focus and the ability to be used on any current Nikon dSLR. The 28? It can only focus on D7100/D90 (plus ancestors) and up models. One point for the 24. 

Durability: When it comes to mechanics, there's no doubt that the 28 will outlast a 24 because of one simple reason: the 28 is a mechanical drive AF while the 24 uses a built-in motor. End result: your camera will die before the 28 while the opposite could be true for the 24. One point for the 28. 

Comfort factor: despite being a solid metal construction, the 28 is actually lighter than the plastic and metal 24. The 28 is quite a bit smaller, too. While no lightweight (it weighs just over 18 ounces), the 28 won't be as taxing on one's wrist as the 24. One point for the 28. 

Compatibility: The 24 will work on all current Nikon cameras just perfectly but will have problems when getting back to first generation AF cameras and, thanks to its lack of aperture ring, will be just about useless on a manual focus film camera. The 28 will work to a degree on all Nikon SLRs ever produced, with the only restriction being that it won't AF on current, cheap cameras. It's a draw here. 

Environment-resistance: Neither lens changes length when focusing (thus minimizing the chances of any crud getting inside), but the 24 has the added advantage of a rubber gasket at the mount, which is more crucial than ever for today's delicate digital cameras. One point for the 24.

Optics: Unfortunately, not having done any in-depth playing around with a 24, I can't comment on this. No points here. 

So . . . which one to buy?
If you like to shoot both film as well as digital, the 28, thanks to its complete reverse-compatibility, is a no-brainer as it will work on any Nikon camera ever made. For anyone who knows that photography is not a passing interest, I recommend the 28 as well thanks to its durability (those modern AF-S motors may be fancier, but they're much more prone to breaking). For anyone who has no intention of shooting film and/or who lists cost as a top concern, the 24 is your lens as it was designed for digital and costs, on average, about $1,000 less than the 28. DX shooters? Skip both, save a ton of cash, and buy the 35 f1.8 instead.

Other Competition:
The closest non-Nikon lens out there to the 28 f1.4D Aspherical are the 'bargain buckets' from Sigma, namely the 20, 24, and 28 f1.8 models. Honestly, despite having never played with any of these, I can feel safe to assume that the only advantage these Sigmas offer over the Nikkor is in terms of price. In camp Nikon, the closest thing is the new 28 f1.8G, which has the same compatibilities and rubber gasket as the 24 f1.4, but costs around $700 thanks to slower aperture and cheaper construction. Again, not having played with one, I can't offer any optical comparisons except for the obvious notion that the Nikkor will probably kick the pants off the Sigmas.

Yes, this picture is hand-held and those are stars!
Infinity is not infinity on the Nikkor 28 1.4D (at least on digital), which means that you'll have to play around a bit for perfect focus on stars. To save you the trouble, just manually focus to a distance of 15 feet and you'll be good to go all night. 
That rear aperture ring means that the 28 f1.4D can be used on any F-mount film camera dating back to 1959, sweet!

The Nikkor 28 f1.4D Aspherical will work on any Nikon SLR ever made, going back to the original Nikon F of 1959. The only incompatibility comes with recent cameras that lack the built-in motor that powers the AF slotted screw drive.

See all that glass? People are willing to pay big bucks for it, why is why the value of this lens has appreciated so much since it went out of production.

Shadow by Moonlight: why all that glass matters!

Should I sit on one?
When it comes to high-tech toys, age is usually bad news. Key word: usually. When it last sold new, the 28 f1.4D Aspherical was going for around $1,700, the most expensive lens in Nikon's lineup until you got to the 300 f2.8. After production ceased, many people still wanted the lens and, there being a very limited supply, prices skyrocketed to over $4,000 for ones in like-new condition, which begs the question: should I buy one now in order to sell it in the future at a higher price? My answer: no. No one knows what the future market asking price will be 1, 3, or 10 years down the road. My bet, with the 24 f1.4 and 28 f1.8 out now, prices on the 28 f1.4D will start to drop as there are now cheaper, virtual replacements of this lens on the market.

The Nikkor 28 f1.4D Aspherical: a lens you'll love to have on your camera!
Conclusion: 4.75/5
The Nikkor 28 f1.4D Aspherical is quite a lens, and its reputation as one of the finest ever produced by Nikon is well-deserved. Honestly, everything about the lens is of the highest grade with the only minor nitpick being the vignetting, which is very noticeable when shot wide open on FX/film, even in darker settings. The good news: stopping down to f2 or shooting JPEG while employing the vignette correction will cure this problem. Bottom line: if you are an indoor FX/film shooter who hates to use flash, this could be the only lens you ever need thanks to its whopping maximum aperture which, surprisingly, not only produces usable images, but downright good ones. Recommendation? Commonly selling for over $3,000 used, this lens is no cheap piece of glass but, for people who are either working pros and/or have the money to burn, you won't regret purchasing a 28 f1.4D, that is if you can find one. This is an outstanding lens and people hold onto them, which is why they're so rare on the used market (and expensive when they do show up). 


Humble Requests:

If you found this informative (or at least entertaining), help me pay my bills and check out my Examiner pages for space news, cleveland photography, national photography, and astronomy for more great stuff.

If you think this was cool, why not tell a friend?

For something even better, follow this blog.