Review: The Nikon AFS 28/1.8 G

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Due to a risky mixture of popular request and a slight but gnawing dissatisfaction with my the performance of my 24/1.4 G on the D800E, I recently acquired the Nikon AFS 28mm f1.8 G to review. (Hereafter referred to as the 28G) The 28G was released earlier this year, and is now available with relative ease. It’s a 11/9 design with a near focus limit of just 25cm, and magnification of 0.22x.

All images in this review may be clicked on for larger versions. Photographs from this review were shot with a Nikon D800E on my last assignment to Geneva.

A note on testing methodology: I’m not a lab reviewer, but I do try and make my testing as scientific as possible. It’s part of getting to know the limitations of you gear, so you can make the most out of it on assignment and in the field. This means that if I see some odd behavior, I’ll do my best to replicate it before reporting it’s an issue. Please go by what I say, not by the images – it’s impossible to judge optical characteristics on web-sized jpegs; I’ve been looking at hundreds of D800E raw files.

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The lens is both light in the hand, and fortunately also light on the wallet. At a street price of around US$650 (in Malaysia, at least) – it represents excellent value for money compared to both the AFS 24/1.4 G, and the notoriously difficult to find AF 28/1.4 D. Being a huge fan of the 28mm focal length, I find myself with few options – 24 and 35 are much more popular, and have everything from f1.4 options to macros and tilt-shifts. (To the best of my knowledge, the only perspective-control 28mm made was an early Nikon 28/3.5, which only allowed shift and no tilt.) Until now, my go-to lens at 28mm has been the Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon T* – to be the subject of a future review – which has some pretty unique optical qualities, not least its hugely pronounced field curvature.

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Although the 28G carries the gold front ring signifying contents of ED glass and professional level construction, it definitely doesn’t feel like it. This is one of the lightest lenses for its size I’ve ever handled; similar in weight and size to the 18-135 DX kit lens, actually. The shell is entirely polycarbonate, and the only metal to be found anywhere is on the mount and screws. Looking at the edges of the back element, I suspect there’s a moulded aspherical element or two in there also. Still, build quality seems decent enough, with no creaks, rattles or clunking, and the focusing ring is both easy to turn and without any free play. The lens also has a rear gasket and is weather sealed.

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This is a proper AF-S lens, which means that there’s full time focus override, no hard stops at either end of the focusing scale (though the resistance increases noticeably) and reasonably fast and accurate focus. It acquires focus at about the same speed or slightly faster than the 24/1.4, actually. Most of the time, the lens snaps into focus quickly and positively. I’ve had a couple of occasional ‘near misses’ where the camera thought the lens was in focus but it was just out of critical sharpness range – near enough – but only when shooting at f1.8. I don’t know if this is an issue with the lens or the D800E (and its focusing issues). Some further investigation is in order, I think. The lens is somewhat prone to the left-side AF issue of the D800/D800E, though only for the extreme most points (the column of three) – all of the other points focus as expected, at least on my D800E body.

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100% crop of above

Optically, the 28G does a great job in the center – it’s sharp from wide open even on the D800E, however you need to stop down a bit to reach maximum microcontrast. Optimal sharpness in the center comes at about f5.6. There’s almost no CA or flare, even when shooting high contrast subjects; a testament to Nikon’s Nano-Crystal Coating doing the job it was designed for. There is, however, some uncorrected speherochromatism and longitudinal chromatic aberration – the latter which appears as both bloom and red/green fringing when shot wide open. The lens makes nice sunstars, too – with minimal ghosting.

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100% crop of the above image, shot through glass (hence the fringing)

The corners, are a different story – they’re not sharp til about f8, and noticeably vignetted. However, it seems that the 28G also suffers from pronounced field curvature – much like the Zeiss Distagon – because there is a sharp plane of focus, curved in front of the subject and back towards the camera. It isn’t quite as pronounce as the Zeiss, but it’s definitely there. Technical shooters will hate this because it isn’t a flat-field lens, but personally I think it’s great for environmental portraiture and reportage – placing your subject somewhere in the central region means that the lens actually helps you to achieve better separation by relatively defocusing the background further. Speaking of technical shooters, there’s a hint of pincushion distortion, but nothing that isn’t easily fixable with the profiles available in Photoshop/ ACR.

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Let’s talk a bit about bokeh – it’s best described as neutral to good. There are some bright edges on circular OOF highlights, but nothing too bad; there’s also a hint of texturing inside the same circles, which points to the use of a moulded aspherical element or two somewhere inside. I can’t help but think a circular 9-bladed diaphragm, similar to that used in the f1.4 G lenses, would have improved things a bit – the pennies had to be saved somewhere, and we have to make do with a 7-bladed and slightly angular iris.

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If you’ve got enough distance between subject and background, the lens renders the scene with rather nice ‘pop’ – subjects are well separated from the background. Although the 28G has a maximum aperture of f1.8, it has about the same isolating power as the 24/1.4 due to the slightly longer focal length. I still wouldn’t use it for close up portraits though, the wide angle perspective distortion is definitely not flattering.

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In what must be a first for any Nikon lens, the 28G seems to out-transmit its Zeiss counterpart, aperture-for aperture. The 28G has a T stop that’s about 1/3 stop greater than the 28 Distagon; a rather surprising result. (The Zeiss 85 Planar is nearly a whole T stop faster than the 85/1.4 D, and about a third of a stop faster than the 85/1.4 G.) The front elements have the same nearly-invisible look as those of the Distagon. More importantly, transmission throughout the color range is pleasingly neutral; scenes are rendered with clarity and natural saturation – though not quite with the same microcontrast punch and overall saturation of the Zeiss

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Oops, missed the sensor dust.

If at this point it seems that the review has somewhat turned into a comparison between the Zeiss ZF.2 28 Distagon and the 28G, you’d be right – in my mind, these are natural competitors (at least they are in my lens cupboard, at any rate). It’s very difficult to choose between the two – the Zeiss does have a certain hard-to-define quality about its microcontrast structure and bokeh that just makes images shot with it slightly more vivid and three-dimensional; however, you lose very little with the Nikon, and gain much convenience by way of autofocus.

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I am a 28mm junkie (at the last count, I’ve got nine ways to get there on four different sensor sizes) so you might want to take this conclusion in context – I can see reasons for having both. If I was shooting something for which I had time to be deliberate in the setup and craft the scene – I’d pick the Zeiss. However, if I was doing documentary work, or travel, or anything which might possibly have a hint of run-and-gun to it – I’d mount the Nikon. MT

The Nikon AFS 28/1.8 G is available here from B&H or Amazon.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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Update: My 28 stopped working yesterday; up til this point it hasn’t had any issues, but suddenly none of my cameras would recognize the lens. Nikon service says it’ll be three weeks to get replacement parts (AF motor, PCB, some connectors) – which frankly is pretty unacceptable for a lens that’s only three weeks old! To make it worse, there aren’t any loan units or similar lenses other than a slow zoom or two.

To their credit though, they arranged a replacement through my usual dealer within about half an hour. With the number of problems with Nikon’s recent products, I’m starting to think that QC has suffered quite a bit following the tsunami – or it could just be because the lens is made in China.

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