Monday, March 4, 2013

Nikon 28 1.8G: Moody Artist?

One night at a French cafe

When Nikon had its recently-finished sale (now extended to end of March), the one lens that I considered buying was the Nikkor 28 1.8G.  To be honest, I don't really have a need for a lens like it.  I already have the Tokina 11-16 (reviewed here), which at 16mm (24mm equivalent) provides a similar focal length.  But I kept hearing great things about this lens and seeing beautiful sample shots.

The 28 1.8G was also tempting because it is from the same family as the Nikkor 85 1.8G (reviewed here), a lens that is now among my favorite lenses.  Like the 85 1.8G (and the 50 1.8G), the 28 1.8G is a new lens intended as an economical alternative to Nikon's top-of-the-line prime lens in its respective category, without a significant sacrifice in performance.

As I was wondering whether it would be worth buying this lens at its discounted price, I saw a used copy that was significantly cheaper than the already-discounted price.  I decided to go ahead and give it a try.

The good news is that this lens is optically as awesome as others have said.  Unfortunately, my copy was a very inconsistent performer.

The 28 1.8G is Nikon's budget-friendly option for a fast wide angle prime.  A few years ago, Nikon did not have many options for fast wide angle.  The primary option was the Nikkor 28 1.4D, which is very expensive (used copies are being offered for at least $2000 or even as high as $3000 on eBay).  In 2010, Nikon released the 24 1.4G, an up-to-date alternative for fast wide angle primes. However, the 24 1.4G retails for over $2000, beyond what most enthusiasts would be willing to spend.  Fortunately, for the rest of us, Nikon produced the 28 1.8G.  Slightly less wide and a half stop slower but far more affordable at $699.

The 28 1.8G is from the same family of affordable primes as the 50 1.8G and 85 1.8G, so unsurprisingly, they share similarities in terms of build quality.  The 28 1.8G's body is plastic except for the lens mount, and it is extremely light, about as much as you'd expect for a hollow PVC pipe of the same size.  The 28 1.8G is made in China.  Nonetheless build quality feels very solid, and does not feel cheap at all (unless you only want metal lenses).

The 28 1.8G is wide enough to be considered a true wide angle lens.  Because of its wide field of view, it can be used for scene setters.

However, fast wide angle lenses are most useful for photos of people (as opposed to landscapes or general scenery).  In that regard, one concern some may have is whether wide angle lenses distort how people look.  That concern is based on a misconception.  Some wide angle lenses do have barrel or pincushion distortion (which does distort how people look), but decent lenses usually don't have too much of either.  The distortion that most people associate with wide angles is really from perspective distortion which results when a subject is very close to the camera.  That perspective distortion occurs regardless of the lens' focal length, although to be fair, wide angle lenses are of course more often used at closer distances than are telephoto lenses.

So, going back to the topic, does the 28 1.8G distort its subjects?  Not really.  To me, the 28 1.8G is intended to capture people in their environment, and when I take a shot that way, I'm usually at a typical conversational distance from the subject, and at that distance, subjects don't look distorted.

Granted, most portrait shooters prefer to shoot with the subject around 6 feet away or more, because the perspective appears more flattering to the subject.  To me, however, shooting with the subject closer has a more intimate feeling, as if you are there with the subject, not just a distant observer.  The other thing is that I believe that rule about being at least 6 feet away doesn't apply to all subjects.  Some subjects, for example, have larger noses, and I can see how shooting from a distance would make the subject's nose look more proportional.  However, the flip side is that some subjects look perfectly fine at close distances.

The 28 1.8G does have the ability to focus very closely (minimum focusing distance is 10 inches) so if you want to, you can get very close to the subject for intentional perspective distortion.  Otherwise, as long as you're not trying to use it for a headshot, you're probably not going to get close enough to distort subjects with this lens.

There are several lenses that have a wide angle and an aperture as wide as f/2.8, such as the Nikkor 24-70, or any other fast standard zoom.  Therefore, to me, the purpose of getting a wide angle prime is to use a wider aperture, which would be useful in low light or for a shallower depth of field.  One of my biggest concerns with the 28 1.8G therefore was whether it could create a sufficiently shallow depth of field.

Fortunately I found that it is indeed possible to get a noticeably shallow DOF even at this short focal length, at realistic/practical distances.  In the shot below, my wife was about arms' length away from me, and the blonde lady was perhaps about 6 or 7 feet away.  At these distances and with the aperture at f/1.8, the background is unmistakably blurred.

Even when the subject is a little further away (about 4.5 feet), the background still looks blurred.

One of the remarkable things about the 28 1.8G is its sharpness.  I don't have the equipment to measure MTF but the ones out there (such as Photozone's review) show that it has edge-to-edge sharpness even wide open, and it is actually sharper across the frame than even the 28 1.4D.  My experience with this lens bears this out.  Even wide open it has high resolution, though of course it gets sharper if stopped down.

In terms of acutance, to me it doesn't look as impressive as the Nikkor 85 1.8G or the Tamron 70-300 VC (previewed here), but I can compensate for this in post-processing.

With respect to chromatic aberration, the 28 1.8G is not immune.  Magenta and green outlines can easily be seen in bright highlights.  However, personally I am not bothered by CA.

For wide angle lenses, flare resistance is usually important because the wide field of view increases the chance that there will be a bright light source near the frame.  In my case, it is even more important because I like shooting with backlight or rim light.

The 28 1.8G truly excels in flare resistance.  Even when there is a bright light source in the frame, the contrast of the shot remains very high.  In the shot below, the sun was reflecting off the water and right into the camera but the image retains good contrast, and there are no flare artifacts to be seen.

So far, a great lens.  Now let's talk about autofocus performance.  The 28 1.8G has very fast and quiet autofocus.  The first time I used it, I even wondered whether it had focused at all because I heard nothing, and it happened so quickly.  It is definitely faster and more silent than the 85 1.8G's autofocus.

This was how fast the autofocus was.  I framed the shot with nothing but the trees in the shot.  In the brief moment that my daughter swung into the frame, the autofocus was able to lock immediately:

As for accuracy, I'll just use a shot to demonstrate.  The focus on the shot below looks ok:

Not until you zoom in that you notice that the focus is actually off (the focal plane is on the leaf).

Sadly, that backfocusing was very typical of my copy of the 28 1.8G.  It was not something that I could correct with AF fine tuning because sometimes the focus was accurate (as demonstrated by the swing shot), while at other times it was not.  I had tried many ways of autofocusing: Auto Area AF vs. single point, AF-S vs. AF-C.  The only time autofocusing was reliable was when I was using live view contrast detection AF.  However, I didn't want to be limited to live view because in that mode I find it difficult to control the timing of the shot.

Because the 28 1.8G is a wide angle lens, it's a little harder to see the slight focusing error.  One question is therefore whether the focusing errors are tolerable.  For me, they are not.  Part of the allure of this lens is its sharpness.  When the focus is a little off, the shot might look ok from a small viewing size but the intended focusing point loses its crispness.  It is noticeable even at normal viewing sizes, partly because the actual focal point is noticeably sharper.

selected AF point was near eye (my daughter's left eye on camera right) but the actual focus was on the far eye.
It is possible that my copy is just an outlier.  The other reviews I've seen either have no criticism of its autofocus or only mention the focus shift issue (the focus shifts backward when a narrower aperture is used -- not a big deal for me because I intend to use this lens at wider apertures).  On the other hand, a reader of this blog who has this lens also mentioned to me the issues he had with autofocus (he is on his second copy because Nikon was unable to fix the AF of the first copy despite 3 attempts).  Also, Ming Thein does note "occasional near misses."  So, I think there may be a real issue with AF, at least on some copies.  Part of me wants to get a new copy of this lens and hope for the best but for me the risk is too high.

I found the Nikon 28 1.8G's focal length to be useful, and it offered an adequately shallow DOF under typical scenarios.  Optically, it is superb: sharp, with amazing flare resistance.  If you can get a good copy, it is an impressive lens.  Unfortunately the copy I got has very inconsistent autofocus accuracy, and there is some evidence to suggest this might not be unique to my copy.  If you're getting this lens, I strongly recommend getting it from a source with a good return policy.  Please note also that Nikon USA's warranty is extended to 5 years only if you register the lens within 10 days from purchase.

In my case, I am returning this lens to the seller.  However, because I found it very useful, I decided to get a somewhat similar lens with a reputation of its own: the Sigma 35 1.4.  Stay tuned!

Ming Thein (uses the 28 1.8G for street photography)
Ryan Brenizer (weddings)
Neil van Niekerk (weddings, portraits)
Nasim Mansurov (weddings)
Photozone review

Review of the 85 1.8G
Leaving the Safety of the Typical Zoom Combo (85 1.8G)
Fearless Photography (85 1.8G)