Chances are, your Nikon DSLR came with a kit lens so you could get cracking straightaway with the types of subjects and situations people generally want to capture – travel, family events, landscape, nature, action… Soon, though, as you discover the possibilities of DSLR photography, you might also discover that there’s one specific type of photography that especially captures your imagination. The clue that you’ll need a new lens to explore it lies in your feet. If you’re constantly walking closer, stepping back, circling around to get a closer or wider view or an angle that eliminates distractions from the frame, then it’s time to think about a lens best suited to what you now want to achieve.
But there are rather a lot of NIKKOR lenses to choose from – 89 at the last count in the current range, not to mention hundreds of legacy lenses that can still be used with today’s DSLRs, thanks to NIKKOR’s ongoing loyalty to the F-mount.
So, if you don’t know your ED from your G, or your FX from your DX, if you can’t decide between prime and zoom, or you’re confused about which is the right lens to invest in for landscapes, portraits, wildlife shots, our comprehensive guide will help you get some focus…
DX and FX
Let’s start with format – the size of your camera’s image sensor. At 24x16mm, the Nikon DX-format is the smaller sensor, while the larger FX-format sensor measures 36x24mm, roughly the same size as 35mm film (which is why it’s sometimes referred to as ‘full frame’).
Different NIKKOR lenses are designed to accommodate these different sensor sizes. DX lenses (no prizes for guessing that they’re the ones with DX in their name) are optimised for use with the smaller DX sensor, and tend to be smaller and lighter than non-DX lenses. This not only keeps down the weight of your DX camera in use, but it also means DX lenses are cheaper to produce than non-DX lenses, since less material is used in their construction. FX lenses are designed for use on Nikon FX-format DSLRs cameras, and they don’t have DX (or FX, for that matter) in their names.
The DX’s smaller sensor covers a correspondingly smaller proportion of the image (around 44.44% of the FX sensor) projected by the lens, resulting in a 1.5x crop factor compared to what an FX camera’s sensor can cover. This means that a 24mm lens on a DX sensor camera will provide basically the same view as a 36mm lens (24mm x 1.5) on an FX camera. The larger FX sensor has a proportionately greater ‘light-gathering’ area, and offers higher sensitivity and generally lower noise, with no crop factor.
A DX-format camera can use both DX and FX lenses, but if you attach a DX lens to an FX camera, it will automatically select DX crop mode – recording an image only from the centre section of the sensor – to avoid vignetting, so the image will be magnified 1.5x times.
Zooms and Primes
There are two basic types of lenses – primes and zooms. Prime lenses have a single fixed focal length, while zooms have variable focal lengths.
Using a zoom reduces the number of times you need to change lenses, which saves time and limits the chances of dust entering the camera. It also enables fast changes in perspective without you having to move an inch, which can be very handy for sports and candids. But the zoom’s main advantage is its versatility: it’s ideal when you’re shooting a range of subjects, such as landscapes and portraits, and you just want one lens to cover them all. A couple of zooms can do the job of a whole bag of primes, saving you money, as well as weight and bulk when you’re on the move.
Primes tend to be more compact and lightweight than zooms, as their construction is usually simpler, and that can also mean they’re a bit cheaper (although that’s not always the case!). They also tend to be ‘faster’ – having a larger maximum aperture (e.g. f/1.4 to f/2.8) that allows more light to hit the sensor. This is particularly helpful when shooting in low light, as it increases the possibility of hand-holding the camera and freezing the subject without shake or blur. That large aperture also means you can get a really shallow depth of field, which is handy for portraiture where you might want a softer or blurred background (‘bokeh’) to focus attention on your subject. And, because you physically have to walk into or step back from your subject when shooting with a prime, you might even find it prompts you to be more creative in your picture making.
Autofocus and Manual
Nikon’s current lens line-up is mostly autofocusing, with 10 lenses that are manual focus only. Of course, you can actually manually focus any autofocus NIKKOR lens, simply by setting it to the manual focus mode.
Manual focus NIKKORS focus silently, and they’re all fast primes. There are two main types of autofocus (AF) NIKKORs: AF and AF-S. An AF lens doesn’t have a built-in focus motor, which means the camera needs its own focus motor to utilise the lens’s AF capabilities. Nikon’s enthusiast and pro DSLRs (including the D7200, D750, D810, D4S and D5) all incorporate a focus motor. If you use an AF lens with a camera that doesn’t have one, you’ll have to manually focus the lens yourself. The electronic rangefinder – visible in the lower left of the viewfinder – will confirm when your subject is in focus by lighting up with a green dot.
An AF-S lens comes with Nikon’s exclusive Silent Wave Motor (SWM) built in. This enables the lens to control the focusing function, and results in faster and far quieter autofocusing. AF-S lenses can be used by any type of Nikon DSLR – both those without a built-in focus motor (consumer-level DSLRs such as the D5300 and D5500) and those with. Nikon has also just introduced AF-P lenses into its NIKKOR range, which use stepping motors to drive the autofocus for fast and quiet AF (these are already used in Nikon 1 system lenses).
Your passion, your lens choice
We’ve highlighted some of the best lenses for popular subjects, from people to wildlife, street to architecture, close-ups to sweeping landscapes. Many of these lenses will work well across multiple subjects, so it pays to spend the time checking out what’s available to build your optimum kit.
You can also explore the entire NIKKOR range here.
Landscape & travel
If travel images are in your plans, you might want to opt for the AF-S DX 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VRII. It doesn’t have quite the maximum magnification of the DX 55-300mm , but it’s lighter and smaller.
The AF-S DX 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR is another versatile one-stop lens. If you’re after breathtaking landscapes, there are two NIKKOR ultra-wide zoom lenses that can capture their drama: the AF-S DX 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G ED and the AF-S DX 12-24mm f/4G IF-ED.
If you’re really serious, the classic pro photographer’s landscape lens kit comprises the 14-24mm f/2.8, the 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR and the 70-200mm f/2.8 (or, if keeping the weight down is paramount, the f/4, which is nearly 700g lighter).
Action & Sports
If you want to get closer to the action and isolate your subjects from the background, or you want to create a classic big-ball-in-the-sky sunset shot, a perfect choice would be the AF-S DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR lens. At 300mm you’re six times closer than you’d be at 55mm, so the reach is ideal for sports events where you’re shooting from the sidelines. The 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR is super-sharp and ideal for sports ‘feature’ shots, while the 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR and the 70-200mm f/2.8 are the ‘go-to’ action zooms for many top pro sports photographers if you want to make the investment.
Macro (close-up details)
If your interest is in the close-up world of nature or the small details of everyday life, choose a Micro-NIKKOR lens, like the AF-S DX Micro-NIKKOR 40mm f/2.8G or the AF-S DX Micro-NIKKOR 85mm f/3.5G ED VR, which will both get you close enough for life-size reproduction of your subjects. For the details of flowers or architecture, coins or stamps, the working distance of the 40mm will be just fine, but for images of bees, butterflies or both, the 85mm’s working distance might be the better choice. Also, remember that these lenses are also fully functional at their prime focal length, so the 85mm f/3.5 is brilliant for portraiture or action photography and D-Movies on a DX-format DSLR, while the Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8 IF-ED VR is also a great portrait lens for FX-format DSLRs.
If you’re a people person, consider the AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G, a medium telephoto that’s ideal for portraits as well as general and low-light shooting. The AF-S 50mm f/1.8G is also a popular lens for shooting with DX -format cameras, offering almost the exact field of view that the human eye sees. This is an FX lens, giving a 75mm equivalent. And do check out the capabilities of Nikon’s Micro lens range, too (above).
If you’re really keen on architecture and want mastery over converging verticals in camera rather than in post-production, look no further than our perspective-control PC-E range – including the wideangle PC-E 24mm f/3.5D ED, the PC-E Micro-NIKKOR 45mm f/2.8D ED and the PC-E Micro-NIKKOR 85mm f/2.8D. These are also brilliant for portraits, product shots and still lives (and it’s worth noting that these are all manual focus lenses).
The speed of your kit lens – that is, its maximum aperture – will be suitable for average lighting conditions, but if you’ve worked with your camera and lens combo for a while and often find yourself in low-light situations where you don’t want to use flash or a tripod, the AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G is a good option. It’s a great all-rounder that approximates the angle of view of human vision, and its compact size will be a plus if you’re trying to shoot unobtrusively, making it ideal for street photography too.
A basic wildlife lens kit is generally all about speed and reach – you want to be able to capture your subjects without disturbing them, which generally means a focal length of at least 300mm, and the faster your lens is, the faster a shutter speed you can use, so you won’t miss that elusive action shot. Having said that, this type of spec comes at a cost, so if you’re still at the experimenting stage, why not go for a super-telephoto zoom like the AF-S DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR, or the AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR.
The secret of great street shots is being unobtrusive and ready for action, so you want a ‘walk-around’ lens that’s discreet and compact. The new AF-P DX 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 might be just the job, with fast, super-quiet focusing, and a retractable barrel so it’s even easier to carry around. There’s also a VR version allowing for handholding up to 4 stops slower, so it’s ideal for low-light situations. The AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G is a terrific fast prime for street shots, weighing just 200g.
Ideally, for an all-round video lens kit you’d pair a couple of key zooms with a couple of primes.
Prime lenses – such as the AF-S 50mm f/1.4G or the 50mm f/1.8G – give you the ability to maximise edge-to-edge sharpness in your video footage, and also to achieve a shallow depth of field if desired (something that is generally difficult to do with a ‘traditional’ video camera). Zooms give you the freedom to shoot a wide range of focal lengths without having to change lenses,
VR (Vibration Reduction) image stabilisation is built into some of the best zoom lenses, including the 24-120mm f/4G ED VR. Using a lens without VR can be a deal-breaker if you’re shooting on the go as it can be really hard to steady the video handheld.
Decoding the lens barrel
- Here’s what those letters and numbers on the lens barrel mean…
- D – a D-type lens relays subject-to-camera-distance information to Nikon DSLRs with 3D Color Matrix Metering, 3D Matrix Metering, 3D Multi-Sensor Balanced Fill-Flash and i-TTL Balanced Fill-Flash. Many D-type lenses have an aperture ring, which is especially useful for adjusting aperture while recording D-movies .
- ED – an ED lens features Nikon’s ED (extra-low dispersion) glass, which corrects chromatic aberrations, yielding sharper images with better colour contrast.
- G – this indicates the lens doesn’t have an aperture ring, and therefore will be slightly lighter than an equivalent lens with an aperture ring.
- IF – this stands for internal focusing. Internally focused lenses don’t change length externally when you focus – all the activity is taking place inside the lens.
- MA/M – an MA or M switch on the side of the lens means you can go from autofocus to manual with virtually no time lag, and without changing any settings on the camera.
- N – this means the lens has Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coat, an incredibly effective anti-reflective coating (this minimises reflections, reducing ghosting and flare)
- VR – stands for Vibration Reduction, an image-stabilising technology that enables you to hand-hold several stops slower without causing blur, so it’s ideal for low-light shooting. Some VR lenses also have a Normal/Active switch, with Active designed for more unstable situations e.g. high winds.This is designed to offset just one specific axis of movement when the other is intentional (as might be found when shooting from a moving vehicle)
- VR II – indicates that this is the second generation of that particular lens, with enhanced VR capabalities usually one stop over its predecessor.
- 1:1, 1:2, 1:4 etc. – you’ll see these numbers on Micro-NIKKOR lenses, which are designed for close-up photography, and they indicate the reproduction ratio. 1:1 is life-size, 1:2 is half life-size, and so on.
Original post on nikoninframe.co.uk