I’ll admit, the widest focal length in a prime lens I had ever shot up until now was 50mm. Due mostly to a lack of necessity I simply never purchased anything wider. Seeing as sports photography for the summer has generally dried up for me (which require the use of my telephoto primes), I feel that expanding my focal range on the wider end can also help me expand my creative possibilities. Using the 35mm focal length, new perspectives have opened up, wider shots are now possible, and the general feeling of attempting something different for my shooting keeps things interesting.
In this review, one of Nikon’s simplest (and cheapest) 35mm SLR lenses is put to the test on a modern APS-C camera, the Sony NEX-7 via an adapter. Part of Nikon’s Series-E lenses (for detailed info, see my first impressions of the lens and mir.com), the 35mm f/2.5 is an extremely lightweight, compact, and inexpensive optic; in good condition you should be able to find one for about $50/€40. The question is, can this little lens from the past stand up to a modern-day digital sensor? Let’s find out!
Full Title: Nikon 35mm 1:2.5 Series-E (note, lacks the “Nikkor” designation)
Dimensions: 2.5 inches (63.5mm) in diameter, 1.75 inches (44.5mm) long, with a weight of a very light 5.3 ounces (150 grams)
Close Focus: marked at 1 foot/.3 meters, though you can get a tad closer. Technically not a macro lens, but you can focus closer than you need to for “big” small things up close very well. See macro section for more information.
Miscellaneous: 7 straight-bladed aperture that stops down to f/22, 52mm filter thread
Two great attributes of the Series-E lenses are their compactness and lightness, specifically for the primes in the line-up. The 28mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.8, 100mm f/2.8, and even 135mm f/2.8 share this feeling of “a lot of lens in a little space”. Since the Series-E lenses were designed for some of the cheaper, smaller, and lighter consumer models of film SLRs, it only makes sense they are a stark contrast to the dense AI-s lenses in size and weight. Nothing is too good to be true, as this is a trade-off. Nikon had to cut a few corners with their Series-E’s mainly in design (but not in function, thankfully) to keep production costs down. This means less metal, and more plastic. Back in 1979, a lens made of plastic was automatically deemed as dinky and worthless. Many of these lenses were made, relatively few were sold. Their unpopularity has extended even to today. For instance, the Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 AI-s sells for around $200. The Series-E version? Around $75. I have seen how well the 50mm f/1.8 E performs compared to a couple of Nikon’s other 50’s (Pre-AI f/1.4, and AI f/2), and initial results from the 135mm f/2.8 E seem promising. With this in mind, it appears the basic optical formulas in these lenses are either the same or very similar. In the case of the 28mm’s listed above, this fact begs the question if the AI-s version really is worth over 2.5 times as much money as the Series-E. Over time (and more lens reviews), this question will hopefully be answered. In my opinion? I don’t think the AI-s counterparts will be 2.5 times as good optically. I hope to prove myself wrong!
Regardless, before I get off on too much of a tangent, let’s return to this lens. It is indeed made of plastic. Boo-hoo. Most, if not all, consumer lenses today are made of plastic, and I don’t hear too many complaints. To its favor, the 35mm f/2.5 E actually has a metal mount, a feature lacking from line-ups of all three of the current 18-55 kit zooms from Sony, Canon, and Nikon. Just because it is made from less than stellar materials doesn’t mean that the lens doesn’t function smoothly. The lens mounts securely (thank you metal!), the aperture ring clicks at each f-stop with no fuss, and the grab ring is screwed in firmly to the barrel of the lens for a secure holding point. One thing I have noticed with the Series-E lenses is their ridiculously smooth focusing with no play. I’m almost positive that it isn’t due to world-class focus helicoids, but rather a liberal amount of grease. I’m not complaining. I feel this smoothness when going from infinity to close focus, but on my particular copy, close back to infinity can get stiff sometimes. It may just need more grease, I am not sure. In any case, general operation is great. The weight with the adapter is still less than the camera, so it rear-balances nicely into the NEX-7’s grip and right thumb when attempting one-handed shots.
The Nikon 35mm f/2.5 Series-E is not a pro-grade lens. Let me just put that out there. Let me also mention that if you can snag a copy in good working and optical order for about $50, the performance-per-dollar ratio (an arbitrary figure, but important nonetheless for the budget-savvy out there) is great. Focusing solely on performance, the 35mm isn’t a lens I am too particularly pleased with. Though it may have done just fine (and even great) on film, I feel that I have to edit pictures heavier than compared with other lenses to get pleasing results. When shot around f/5.6-8, overall performance is “good” to “very good”. Thanks to the 1 foot close-focus, this lens does surprisingly well for “large” macro work. Many sites and individuals have noticed the interesting characteristic of the NEX-7’s sensor to heavily out-resolve a lens compared to less-dense digital sensors, especially in the corners. This is true here. This means that though I cannot recommend using the 35mm f/2.5 on the NEX-7; usage on mirrorless cameras such as the NEX-5n and Olympus EM-5 may be much better. Given the cost of the lens, it’s worth a try if you have these cameras.
Though sharpness is supposed to be only a small factor in a lens’ performance, many feel it is the most important. I personally fall somewhere in the middle. I love seeing pixel-level sharpness, but it isn’t terribly important that all my shots are sharp when viewing at 100% on screen. With that in mind, I have found the 35mm f/2.5 to not perform very well (specifically in the corners) at the “larger” apertures. For these tests the camera was placed on a tripod, and the exposures were tripped with a remote release to ensure camera vibration is not a factor.
First up, center 100% crops by aperture (you will not get a bigger image by clicking on these):
Starting off wide open at f/2.5, detail is fuzzy and contrast is lacking. 1/3 of a stop down, contrast improves a bit, but sharpness (or a lack-thereof) is the same. At f/4 contrast and sharpness have noticeably improved. Zooming in to 400% in Lightroom (pointless to actual photography), center sharpness and contrast is the same and optimum from f/5.6-8. Starting at f/11-16 diffraction starts to take hold in reducing contrast, and by f/22, contrast and sharpness is even worse than wide open. With the field of view on this lens, the only times you’ll ever really need to stop down fully are to get more in focus at the close end of the focus range, or to make longer exposures for artistic purposes. If you can help it, avoid shooting at this aperture. Unless shallow depth of field at close distances (as the field of view with this lens at normal focusing distances doesn’t allow for much subject separation) or maximum light-gathering in low-light are major concerns, I do not recommending shooting much at f/2.5-2.8; f/4 is a good place to start.
Anyways, on to corner sharpness. The 35mm doesn’t do too hot here even given its slow maximum aperture:
Ouch, these really don’t look good. This sub-par corner performance is surprising given that in theory the 35mm f/2.5 should perform much better on an APS-C sensor than on film. If the corners look this bad now (possibly due in part to the NEX-7’s pixel density as mentioned before), I’d hate to see them on either film or a full-frame sensor camera. From f/2.5-4, the corners are at varying levels of mush with low contrast. Finally at f/5.6 sharpness improves, and f/8-11 are about identical–the optimum range for corner sharpness and contrast. At f/16 diffraction starts showing up, and at f/22, contrast is destroyed while sharpness has deteriorated to about that of f/5.6. Those corners are not something that can be fixed with editing. Given the relatively slow maximum aperture, I’m also surprised at how poorly the corners do not only wide open, but also at their “optimum” range. Things just aren’t that “pixel-level-sharp” that I am used to seeing with some of my AI-s lenses. Put simply, this is not the lens to use for corner-to-corner sharpness on any camera. I say any because there’s no way the corners would look that much better on lower pixel dense sensors.
Sharpness at Infinity
I didn’t feel like even trying to get a good capture at infinity in the corners based off the disparaging results from the test chart. That said, center resolution at infinity and f/8 is just fine. Not super, but just “good”.
Sharpness at Macro
Now this is an area I was particularly surprised at. When focused at the lens’ closest distance—1 foot—the center resolution is actually pretty impressive at f/5.6-8. Even more baffling is the lens’ performance, seeing as it lacks Nikon’s “Close Range Correction”, put into lenses to help them maintain optimum performance at their minimum focus distances.
And now for a “real-world” example:
“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. In regards to the 35mm f/2.5, where getting real out of focus backgrounds and foregrounds will happen only at close focus distances, bokeh is mediocre. Since getting extremely out of focus areas is difficult due to the aperture and field of view, this isn’t really a problem, but is something to take into consideration if you plan to use this as a make-shift macro. You can see in the shot of the bee on the flower bush above that the background bokeh is very busy (easy to spot in the upper-right). In an attempt to get some consistency by aperture, the following objects have been set up to assess both foreground/background bokeh, as well as the lens’ handling of out of focus highlights:
As mentioned above, there aren’t too many apertures where bokeh can really be assessed. Regardless, let’s look at a few of the larger apertures (all these figures are the same size, the perceived difference is due to the perspective of the 35mm):
From what I can tell, foreground bokeh is busy at all apertures where it can be reproduced, with distracting doubling obvious at f/2.8-4. Generally it is best to keep from having objects in the foreground anyway (it tricks the eyes to try to bring them into focus), but due to the wider angle of the 35mm it is harder to get everything framed correctly. With regards to background bokeh, it seems busy as well, though to a less-distracting degree, especially at f/4-5.6; at f/2.8 there is some doubling in far objects.
Now let’s take a quick look at the 35mm’s handling of out-of-focus highlights by aperture. Again, there are few apertures where highlights become large when out of focus. All of the following are 100% crops:
Due to the small difference in apertures from f/2.5-2.8 (1/3 stop), they both look the same. The 35mm f/2.5 unfortunately does not handle out-of-focus highlights well. At f/2.8 all point sources of light appear as ringed blobs that aren’t even fully circular. Even at normal printing sizes (8×10) these would be very distracting. With some creative editing in photoshop it may be possible to clean and fill in highlights if you have only a streetlight or two in the frame, but with multiple instances such as in these shots it isn’t worth it. At f/4 the aperture shape has already shown up, there are also many halos filling in the highlight. At f/5.6 the highlights start getting smaller and less distracting, and by f/8 highlights generally appear as point sources of light again.
A form of chromatic abberation (a type of distortion where certain colors do not hit the image sensor at the same convergence point), purple fringing is typically seen in fast lenses at their wider apertures when shooting scenes of 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. The 35mm f/2.5 has terrible purple fringing wide open, and it takes stopping down hard to get it to go away. The following tree branch was the subject for these tests:
The following are crops from the center of the frame, by aperture:
What surprises me is not just how much fringing there is wide open, but how much fringing there is considering how small the maximum aperture is (whereas a typical “fast” 35mm would be an f/2 or f/1.4). Wide open at f/2.5, the entire branch is purple. At f/2.8, there is actually a noticeable improvement, about 2 less pixels in width of fringing. By f/4, fringing is visible only on the smaller twigs (take a close look at the bottom-left twig). Finally at f/5.6 fringing is all but totally absent. In an attempt to make light of this problem though, here is the f/2.5 crop after a quick 30 seconds in Lightroom 4 using the purple fringing removal sliders:
One of the cost-cutting measures in the Series-E line was to only single-coat the lenses. Though some later versions of the E lenses got multicoating (which is extremely effective in reducing internal reflections), most only got the single treatment. After looking at a few shots taken in the middle of the day, it’s obvious that this lens in particular only has single-coated optics. Let’s take a quick look:
Though flare with the sun near or in the image isn’t handled particularly well with the 35mm (as it shouldn’t be due to the lack of multi-coating), there is a surprising lack of veiling flare (a good thing). If you can help it, keep the sun either centered or out of your images altogether when using this lens.
Vignetting, to put it simply, are darkened corners as a result of shooting near the wide open aperture. Most full-frame lenses tend to have little to no vignetting problems when used on an APS-C or smaller sensor. Surprisingly, the 35mm instead exhibits a generous amount of vignetting that will be noticeable wide open if shooting scenes with sky or other continuous objects of color. When used on a m4/3 camera, vignetting will be much less noticeable with this lens.
In comparison to zooms, prime lenses tend to almost always have little to no distortion. The 35mm f/2.5 does have a tad bit of barrel distortion, but it is completely irrelevant in field conditions, unless you are photographing a grid. If you must know for creating a lens profile, setting the distortion correction slider to +2 in Lightroom 4 eliminates any and all distortion.
Now let’s hit the old recap:
Pros and Cons
- Good build quality along with solid functionality; the metal mount is a nice touch
- Extremely compact and lightweight—the kit rear-balances in the hand
- Center sharpness at optimum f/5.6-8 apertures is great, especially at close-focus
- Close-focus distance allows for almost macro shots (see sample pictures below)
- There is no distortion
- The performance-per-dollar ratio is great at the current $50/€40 price
- Relatively slow maximum aperture
- Contrast is poor at f/2.5
- Corners never really sharpen up, going from mushy to “okay”
- In general, bokeh is busy and out-of-focus highlights are handled poorly
- Though mostly correctable, purple fringing is terribly bad wide open and doesn’t go away until f/5.6
- Due to the single-coating on the elements, flare control is only “fair” (no veiling flare, but noticeable blobs from strong sources of light)
- Moderate vignetting that is noticeable wide-open
- Manual focus, in case you had forgotten
The Bottom Line
If you are wanting a good, cheap, and compact normal lens for your APS-C camera or short telephoto for your m4/3 camera, give this little Series-E a look–the investment is small enough anyway for personal experimentation on your kit. However, if you are craving top-quality optics for your megapixel-dense camera (think 24 megapixels), you may want to look elsewhere.
Finally, here’s some sample pictures taken with the 35mm f/2.5:
Anyways, that’s it for this review, hope you found it informative and enjoyable. As always, have a great one guys!