The second 2x zoom in the “consumer” rated Series-E lenses by Nikon, the 36-72mm E comes in as the most compact zoom of the three, thanks to its pancake design. When at 72mm (collapsed), the lens is actually about the same size as the 100mm E. Despited my general dissatisfaction with zoom lenses, the convenience they offer to photographers by having multiple focal lengths in one lens makes traveling light easy, and, theoretically, more shots are possible at any given time since composition can be more flexible. In my case, personal habits acquired from shooting prime lenses still carry over even to zooms: I either use this lens at the wide or tele end. Rarely do I zoom to get a shot. As such, I treat it as two prime lenses in one.
As many know, features such as fast maximum apertures, non-distorted lines, and close-focus abilities are often sacrificed to gain convenience, especially in the smaller zooms. The question here then is does the compactness and generally useful focal range (on APS-C) of the 36-72mm E outweigh likely performance drops? Let’s find out!
Full Name: Nikon 36~72mm 1:3.5 Series-E
Dimensions: 2.8 inches/72mm in length (collapsed), 2.6 inches/67mm in diameter, with a very light weight of 13.4 ounces/380 grams. For reference, this is a little over an ounce/28 grams heavier than the NEX-7.
Close-Focus: Marked at 4 feet/1.2 meters throughout the focal range. This is terrible. For reference, the 75-150mm E can focus to 3.5 feet/1 meter at any focal length. In other words, don’t even think of using this lens for macro.
Average Online Price: $40 for good condition, $60 for mint
Miscellaneous: 7 straight-bladed aperture stopping down to f/22, focal lengths marked at 36/50/72mm, depth-of-field curves marked for f/11 and f/22, infrared focusing curve, 52mm metal filter thread, metal mount, push/pull zooming and focus mechanism.
As mentioned above, if a lens doesn’t handle well, I don’t care how sharp and amazing the images are. You’ll never see me use it (the exceptions to this are ultra-heavy special purpose lenses such as the 300mm f/2.8). Thanks mostly to the excellent push/pull focus and zoom mechanism of the 36-72 E, handling is just fine: zooming and focusing are both damped perfectly (luckily my copy of the lens doesn’t have the common zoom creep of the Series-E zooms), the lens balances nicely in the hand, the aperture ring clicks into place with authority, and mounting is smooth as silk.
For build quality, it’s about the same as all the other Series-E lenses, meaning the lens is constructed mostly out of metal, but with some plastic parts on the outside. There is one loose item on my copy that appears to be normal, the piece under the rubber grab ring with distance markings can rattle around, almost as if it isn’t actually attached to anything. Honestly, it’s a non-issue, but I’m just throwing that out there.
Now, does the lens pass my four personal pillars of shootability (small size, lightweight, smooth operation, mostly favorable optical performance)? Well, the 36-72 E is obviously quite compact when collapsed, it’s only a tad heavier than the incredibly light NEX-7, and the push/pull mechanism makes operation smooth. However, I’m not entirely satisfied with the overall optical performance. I’ll go into detail on that below.
From a purely technical point of view, the 36-72mm does a lot of things right: sharpness is generally good, vignetting is non-existant, bokeh (the few times you can get it) can be potentially smooth, and purple fringing is well-controlled. Unfortunately, problems such as distortion, flare, bokeh highlights, and corner sharpness do much to hurt the lens’ overall performance. But my biggest gripe–many times, this lens gets in the way of getting a shot. What I mean by this, due to the small aperture and focal length, acquiring shallow depth-of-field is a pipe dream. With the painfully-far close-focus distance, macro is impossible. Due to the distortion, heavy correction is required for images with straight lines. Lenses are tools to photographers. When the tool gets in the way of its designed action, it no longer is a good tool. Regardless, let’s get into a bit of detail on the 36-72 E’s ups and downs.
Sharpness is supposed to be only a small component in a lens’ performance, but many feel it is the deciding factor between a good or bad optic. I personally fall somewhere in the middle. I love seeing pixel-level sharpness (especially with a 24MP sensor), but it isn’t terribly important that all my shots are sharp when viewing at 100% on screen. Sharpness on the 36-72 E is good (to even great) for the most part, though the corners lag behind noticeably. Showing 100% crops at all marked focal lengths and at all apertures would take up its own page (and results would end up being pretty redundant). Instead, I’ll keep it to the extremes, showing only the important focal lengths (in this case, wide and tele) and apertures (wide-open, optimum, and fully stopped down). Commentary on other areas will still be provided.
Despite the 36-72 E not being able to fill the frame with the chart, sharpness and contrast can still be assessed at the pixel level. However, results here will not be comparable to other lenses which can fill the frame. Starting off with some 100% crops (meaning clicking on them will not make them bigger) from the center by focal length and aperture:
In this tiny sliver, the three alphabets located right at the center of the frame at their respective apertures can be seen. Starting out wide-open, detail is fine, but contrast is low due to veiling haze. Stopping down only to f/4 greatly improves contrast (to the point of peaking), and by f/5.6 sharpness is optimum. The fact the middle alphabet is clearly readable is a testament to the great central sharpness at optimum. As the lens is stopped down further, both sharpness and contrast degrade due to diffraction. By f/22, fine detail is all but gone and is worse-off than wide-open, but it does not affect photographs at the image level.
At the tele end, center sharpness is still good. Wide-open, detail is present, but is hidden as before due to veiling haze lowering contrast. Veiling haze doesn’t go away until f/5.6, where contrast peaks and sharpness increases slightly. By f/8, optimum sharpness is reached, and contrast is about the same. Stopped down further, sharpness and contrast slowly decrease; by f/22 detail is mushy and contrast is low to the point of being worse than wide-open. Again, seeing image-level degradation at this aperture is unlikely.
Now, moving onto the corners. For these 100% crops, I made sure to recompose to put the chart in the upper-right corner:
In these yet again tiny crops at the wide end of the 36-72 E, the lack of fine detail is very noticeable. Wide-open, there is a bit of corner smearing, with low contrast from veiling haze. As before, the contrast peaks at f/4, but optimum sharpness isn’t reached until f/8. Even there, detail really isn’t good, with the alphabets barely readable. As the aperture size decreases, so does sharpness and contrast to showing the alphabets as non-distinct blurs at f/22. Would this be visible at the image level in the corners? Possibly.
The corners at 72mm show an entirely different story than at the wide end. Starting at f/3.5, there is no detail smearing as before, but contrast is still low from veiling haze. Sharpness and contrast peak at f/5.6 (strangely enough), with diffraction setting in soon after;f/22 shows low contrast, but detail is still okay. The only reason I can guess for the much better performance at 72mm is because of some possible centering issues as the focal length changes, i.e. the “center” of the lens groups could be towards the lower-left of the frame at the wide end, and possibly closer to the upper right at the tele end.
Based off of all this, the aperture range to stay in for best results across-the-frame is f/5.6-8 (though at 36mm the image is by no means sharp across-the-frame), not bad for only being 1-2 stops down from wide-open! That’s one of the things I’m starting to like about the Series-E zooms, they reach optimum performance very close to the wide-open aperture, often peaking at the same apertures as the much faster primes in the series do. Two important notes: the 50mm tests weren’t shown for this lens as it would be redundant (the results are squarely in-between 36 and 72mm), and there is little to no focus shift with this lens. Though, given the short focus traveling range, this is hardly surprising. Field curvature is present more at the wide-end, but isn’t extreme.
Remember, sharpness never made a bad photograph good, and these tests are evaluating sharpness at the pixel level. Seeing sharpness (or lack-thereof) affect your images will not happen unless shooting at f/22, cropping heavily, or printing big (think 12×18 or larger).
Sharpness at Infinity
To asses sharpness at the infinity focusing distance, I shot this boring scene with far-off lettering on a building:
Unfortunately the corners do even worse at infinity. Getting across-the-frame sharpness is undoable at 36mm.
Unlike 36mm, at 72mm the 36-72 E does better at infinity. Across-the-frame sharpness is attained at f/8.
Sharpness at Macro
As brought up in the specifications, the 36-72 E is one of the worst choices imaginable for macro work due to the painfully-distant 4 feet/1.2 meter close-focus distance. The above test chart pictures could easily be called upon for how this lens performs at close focus, but just to keep things consistent, I’ll still give a visual example of how far 4 feet is at 72mm:
For a real-world visual example of how “close” you can get:
“Bokeh” is an artistic term of Japanese origin for the character of anything in the image that is not in focus. Typically, smooth bokeh, where out of focus objects and highlights seem to “melt” into the background, is favorable. Seeing as getting noticeable bokeh is only possible at close-focus distances at 72mm, this is what we will analyze.
By aperture at 72mm:
The good news is bokeh is pretty smooth at the three tested apertures (past f/8, everything begins to get into focus), with the exception of slightly busy foreground bokeh at f/5.6. The bad news is far background bokeh, seen in the macro shot in the last section, is very distracting; edges of plants and other objects do not smooth out and take on a less-defined, but still noticeable, shape. This is unfortunate given the bokeh performance near the focus point.
Out-of focus highlights are a completely different story. To analyze how the 36-72 E handles these, I photographed a sparkled decoration to get as many point sources of light as possible. By aperture and again at 72mm, the following are 100% crops:
Definitely not a good showing here. At every aperture, highlights have a defined edge and have many artifacts inside the highlight. These would be distracting in a photograph if printed large, but at smaller sizes or for web use, the artifacts (but not the defined edges) are unnoticeable. In fairness, the likelihood of seeing out-of focus highlights in your photographs with this lens is relatively small since the only way to get them is to focus close at the larger apertures.
Instead of treating purple fringing and other Longitudinal Chromatic Aberrations as separate categories, they’ll now be combined (and they should be classified in the same category). Purple fringing is typically seen in fast lenses at their wider apertures when shooting scenes of high contrast, such as branches against sky. Though purple fringing can be cleaned up very well in post processing nowadays (see my detailed post on that here), it is still an important point to take in consideration if one either doesn’t have the time to post process, or has purple objects in the frame that does not want to be desaturated. To assess purple fringing and other LoCA’s, I shot this scene of high contrast:
Crops taken from just off-center, by aperture:
To not have to worry about correcting except when shot wide-open, the 36-72mm E handles purple fringing well. LoCA’s aren’t really noticeable either. Given the fact getting out of focus backgrounds/foregrounds is rather difficult to do, it really is a non-issue.
In order to keep the cost of this lens in the consumer range (at the time of release), many of Nikon’s Series-E lenses only got single-coating on the lens elements. Single-coated lenses tend to be extremely flare prone whenever a bright source of light is near or in the frame. I do not believe the 36-72 E is multicoated, but flare performance isn’t terrible (considering the amount of elements needed in a zoom). Though there are many internal reflections, this lens doesn’t suffer from contrast-robbing veiling flare:
Thanks to the “sweet spot advantage” of using full-frame designed lenses on smaller sensors, vignetting on the 36-72 E is hardly a problem–if noticeable at all.
Unfortunately, distortion is a big problem on the 36-72 E, surprising given its small zoom range as with the 75-150 E.
As the focal length increases, the distortion starts to flatten out past 50mm, ending with a slight pincushion distortion at 72mm, requiring a small -2 correction in the distortion slider. Basically, don’t use this as an architecture lens (or for any images in which you want straight lines), as the distortion at the wide end gets annoying very quickly.
Let’s hit the old recap. :)
Pros and Cons
- Good build quality with mostly metal and a bit of plastic (with the exception of a loose distance mark ring)
- Relatively high shootability, see optical cons
- Useful focal range on APS-C as a “normal” on the wide end to a mid telephoto on the tele end
- Good to very good overall sharpness (peaking from f/5.6-8), but is dependent on focal length and lens’ centering
- Immediate background and foreground bokeh, where you can get some, is generally smooth
- Well-controlled purple fringing overall, see cons
- No veiling flare
- No vignetting
- Light distortion on tele end
- Lenses with even a bit of plastic in their construction do not have the same feeling as a stone-cold AI-s Nikkor
- Push/pull focusing and zoom ring is susceptible to heavy zoom creep depending on how much the lens has been used
- Centering is uneven throughout the focal range
- Inconsistent sharpness as focus distance changes
- Contrast tends to peak a stop before sharpness does
- Far background bokeh, seen only at 72mm and close-focus, is very busy
- Purple fringing wide-open and at f/4 can be distracting
- Bad flare control due to single-coated elements
- Absolutely terrible close-focus distance
- Noticeable distortion on wide end
- The maximum f/3.5 aperture only gives adequate depth-of-field control at or near close-focus
- Manual focus only, in case you had forgotten
The Bottom Line
The 36-72mm E is a general-purpose zoom that has the potential to give pleasing results at or near optimum apertures. However, in many circumstances, environmental factors such as the sun, areas of high-contrast, or straight lines makes this lens more of a burden than a photographic tool. Considering its relatively cheap price point, it is a good lens, but for critical work where consistent performance is required in multiple scenarios, the 36-72mm is not the best choice for the job. I’ve said enough about the close-focus distance to prove that point.
To wrap things up, here are a few more sample shots taken with this lens and the NEX-7:
That’s all for this post guys and gals, hope you found the review informative, and the accompanying photographs interesting. In the end, I found this lens to be particularly useful for street photography, where shallow depth-of-field isn’t really needed, so I don’t feel too sour about it after all. :)
As always, have a great day!