Completing my exploration of the prime lenses in Nikon’s “consumer-rated” Series-E’s, the 28mm E fills the last focal length hole: wide angle. When used on a film or full-frame camera, this lens behaves similar to how an 18mm lens would on APS-C, or a 14mm on m4/3. Unfortunately, due to the crop factors of smaller sensors, this lens instead performs like a short normal (42mm FoV on APS-C) or a long normal (56mm on m4/3). This presents a bit of a challenge in use, as on the NEX-7, the 28mm E isn’t wide enough to normally “get everything in”, nor is it long enough to have any reach. However, the 35mm-50mm general FoV is rather useful for a “walk-around” perspective such as in street photography, so there are still applications for an odd-man-out like this.
There is GREAT news for those still wanting to get wide-angle performance out of this lens: when used with the NEX-7’s built in “sweep panorama” feature (or when shots are manually stitched), a noticeably wider view is obtained, both in vertical and horizontal orientation. More on that at the end. Is the 28mm E a lens I can recommend? Let’s find out!
Full Name: Nikon 28mm 1:2.8 Series-E (lacks the Nikkor designation)
Close-Focus: Marked at 1 foot/.3 meters. You can’t really get any closer. This is disappointing, as though the 35mm E can be a “poor-man’s macro” with the same 1 foot close-focus, the 28mm can’t “get as close” due to the wider focal length.
Miscellaneous: 7 straight-bladed aperture, stopping down to f/22, 52mm filter thread, metal mount. As mentioned, the FoV on APS-C is 42mm, and 56mm on m4/3.
- Built well with smooth operation
- Optically favorable at and near optimum aperture
Unfortunately the 28mm E is not a cheap lens compared to some of the other primes in the same series. It took some serious hunting on eBay to get my copy for $72/€59. Most all copies, especially those in excellent condition, go for at least $100/€82.
Aesthetically, the 28mm E looks great! Donning the faux-chrome grab ring, indicative my copy is of the cosmetically-revised 2nd version of the Series-Es, the lens looks very much like its larger AI-s counterpart. With a construction of about half-plastic (not cheapo plastic though) and half metal, the 28mm E isn’t as well built as the AI-s’, but still feels tight and snappy. Just as with the other Series-E primes, focusing is super smooth, but with a short travel (about 40 degrees–good for quick focus acquisition, bad for critical focusing).
Coming from the previously-reviewed 100mm E with its amazing optical performance and value, I’m a bit disappointed with the 28mm E overall. Though it is by no means a “bad” lens, I was just expecting a little more given the market price. Areas such as corner sharpness, distortion, and flare performance leave much to be desired. At the same time, center sharpness is always good, while the “shootability” of this 5.5 ounce lens is great! Shooting this lens at or near optimum is recommended—because of the focal length and not-so-fast maximum aperture, getting subject separation is only possible near close-focus.
Though sharpness is supposed to be only a small component in a lens’ performance, 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. With that in mind, I have tested the 28mm E to have “okay” sharpness overall, with good contrast in the optimum aperture range. Before we get started, I must note focus shift isn’t bad with this lens, but field curvature is noticeable at larger apertures.
Onto some 100 % center crops (meaning, clicking on them will not make them any bigger), by aperture:
Starting wide-open, detail is pretty soft and contrast is low due to veiling haze. At f/4, sharpness and contrast have improved to a good degree. Sharpness increases again at f/5.6–at this aperture contrast has peaked. By f/8, optimum sharpness has been reached, while contrast has started to decline (but is still good). From f/11 on, diffraction sets in, limiting both sharpness and contrast, with f/22 appearing about the same as wide-open. Center resolution on the 28mm E holds up pretty well, save for the far extremes of the aperture range. Unless the situation calls for maximum light hitting the sensor, or a greater depth-of-field up close is required, I would stay from f/5.6-11 for best center sharpness.
Corner sharpness is where everything falls apart. By aperture:
Ouch…these look bad. Detail from wide open to f/5.6 goes from terrible to bad, though contrast improves at each f-stop. F/8 could be considered optimum, with sharpness and contrast getting as good as it will ever get. At f/11 detail is about the same as f/8, though contrast has started to decline. Diffraction begins at f/16, and f/22 is about the same as f/5.6. What surprises me is the 28mm E was designed to cover a 35mm full-frame. With corner performance this bad on APS-C, I’d hate to see some 100% crops from a modern FF Nikon. If corner performance is of any importance to your shooting, stick to f/8-11 for the best results. Even then, this is not a lens that gets close to sharp-across-the-frame performance. For critical landscape shots, I would pass on the 28mm E.
Sharpness at Infinity
Unfortunately the same performance characteristics follow to the maximum focusing distance. Although the optimum aperture overall is still f/8 (with great center detail), corner detail obviously lags behind. To assess infinity sharpness I shot this uninspiring telephone pole with tiny orange numbers inscribed on the side:
And for the 100% crops:
The difference in detail here is plainly visible. Whereas the center is nice and sharp, the corner looks out-of-focus by comparison (and no, it’s not out-of-focus). Again, for critical landscapes, this isn’t your best lens, by a longshot.
Of course, I don’t really care if a lens isn’t tack-sharp at the pixel level for general photography, as long as it doesn’t affect photographs on the image level.
Sharpness at Macro
Compared to the 35mm E with the same close-focus distance, the 28mm E really can’t get that close. Sure, 1 foot is close up by distance terms, but due to the wide angle, everything still looks relatively far away. That said, sharpness at close focus is still great in the center, but just so-so in the corners.
If you are looking for a “poor-man’s macro”, I would definitely recommend the 35mm E over this lens. The 35mm is a bit sharper (especially across the frame), has a greater reproduction ratio, and is cheaper.
“Bokeh” is an artistic term of Japanese origin for the character of anything in the image that is not in focus. Smooth bokeh, where out of focus objects and highlights seem to “melt” into the background, is typically favorable. In regards to the 28mm E, overall bokeh is “good”. Bokeh smoothness is generally pretty good, but the handling of out-of-focus highlights look bad at 100% at a few apertures. Starting first with bokeh smoothness, the following set-up was used for assessment:
By aperture (NOT 100% crops):
Wide-angle lenses aren’t usually known for their bokeh performance (for landscapes, it is often better for everything to be in focus), so the 28mm E’s pretty good performance here is welcome. Backgrounds at all apertures are generally smooth, while foregrounds are smooth as well save for some doubling at f/5.6. Granted, the only times you’ll ever see bokeh like this is at or near close-focus.
As far as highlights are concerned, there are a couple apertures to avoid when out-of-focus highlights are in the frame (i.e. again only at close-focus). To assess bokeh highlights, a sparkled decoration was photographed to get the maximum number of point sources of light in a small space. By aperture:
If smooth, non-distracting highlights are a priority in your photograph, you may want to forget about f/2.8 and f/8 (past f/8 highlights quickly become point sources of light again). At f/2.8 highlights have an obvious ring around the highlight, while at f/8 artifacts inside the highlight are noticeable. From f/4-5.6, bokeh highlights could be considered as “good”, at least by comparison. Do note that the only times the distracting highlights at f/2.8 and f/8 will be so is when viewing at 100% like we are doing here or printing very big (12×18 or more).
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 high contrast, such as branches against sky. Though purple fringing can be cleaned up very well in post processing nowadays, it is still an important point to take into 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, I used this scene of high contrast:
If you are needing to shoot tree branches against the sky at f/2.8 (for whatever reason), don’t use this lens. Remember, these tests are the absolute worst-case scenario. In actual shooting purple fringing isn’t typically as prevalent, but can be very noticeable in some instances. That said, here’s a quick attempt at remedying this fringing wide-open:
Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration
Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration (also known as “bokeh fringing”, abbreviated LoCA) is another form of aberration that is mainly prevalent on large aperture lenses in areas that are out-of-focus (hence the bokeh designation). A lens that suffers from LoCA has objects in the background tinged with green, while objects in the foreground are tinged with purple. Stopping down a lens only marginally helps in reducing LoCA’s, as all stopping down really does in most instances is bring more objects into focus (anything out of focus will still have the aberration). Usually the purple hue on foreground objects is of a different hue than purple fringing, so foreground LoCA can be very difficult to remove in post-processing. Fortunately, Lightroom 4 also has a dedicated aberration slider for the green hue, so at least foreground LoCA’s can be removed easily. If you take a look again at the “fixed” image for purple fringing in the last point, you can see very easily that the upper branch has some purple LoCA left over, while the branch at the bottom has a bit of green LoCA. I must point out that purple fringing is technically a form of LoCA, but is often treated and thought of as a separate fault in lenses (hence my adherence with the norm). Anyways, here is a minute’s worth attempt at fixing these other aberrations:
One of the ways Nikon produced many of the Series-E’s cheaper than their AI-s counterparts was to only single-coat the elements. Lenses that are single-coated tend to not have very good flare control due to many internal lens reflections. Nikon eventually started to give multi-coating to some of the later Series-E’s, but most only got the single treatment. My copy of the 28mm E is definitely single-coated. Not only are there numerous flare artifacts visible when the sun is within 180 degrees of the front element, but the artifacts with the sun in the frame are awful. See the below short video for an idea of what to expect to see at various angles. Shot in black and white to bring out the reflections against the blue sky:
There is also a blue and red “hotspot” at just the wrong angle:
Unfortunately much of the flare is aperture-dependent. The larger the aperture, the worse the flare:
As you can see, flare control with the 28mm E is pretty bad. If I could help it, I would always make sure to never have the sun anywhere near the frame, at my back when possible.
Vignetting is the look of darkened corners as a result of shooting near the wide open aperture (sometimes photographers add vignetting in post processing for effect). Most full-frame designed lenses tend to have little to no vignetting when used on APS-C or smaller sensors. The 28mm E doesn’t follow this tendency, as wide-open, vignetting may be noticeable in photographs:
Since I don’t really recommend shooting this lens wide-open anyway (real performance gains start at f/5.6), the vignetting isn’t a real problem.
Wide-angle lenses are typically very prone to distortion, almost always of the barrel variety. The 28mm E is the first Series-E I’ve seen with noticeable distortion that may show up in your photographs. Photographs of architecture, or anything with straight lines, is at risk of appearing distorted.
That said, distortion in the 28mm E is mostly correctable without much image degradation, so don’t worry too much about shooting objects with straight lines.
Now…let’s hit the old recap.
Pros and Cons
- Tight mechanical construction and operation despite the numerous plastic components. The metal mount and filter threads are a great touch.
- Shootability is great, especially at or near optimum aperture.
- Useful short-normal (APS-C) or long-normal (m4/3) field of view, see cons
- Good to great center sharpness at most apertures, with pretty good contrast
- Surprisingly smooth bokeh in many situations (not typical of wide angle lenses)
- Purple fringing negligible at f/4, with other LoCAs not a problem
- When used for panoramas, wide-angle performance can be attained
- Corner sharpness is awful until it improves to only “fair” at optimum
- Close-focus is disappointingly long
- Ringed/artifacted-filled highlights at f/2.8 and f/8
- Combined with the lack of detail, purple fringing is terrible wide open
- Flare control is about as bad as the 50mm E, but the types of flare in the 28mm E are different
- Noticeable vignetting wide-open
- Noticeable barrel distortion
- Relatively useless lens on m4/3, there are much better alternatives that are faster and better optically
- At a $100+ street price, the 28mm E isn’t a cheap lens compared to the much cheaper 50mm E and 35mm E
All NEX cameras have a built-in feature called “Sweep Panorama”. I won’t try explaining it fully, but basically all you have to do is slowly move the camera in a direction of your choice in either vertical orientation (to simulate a wider angled lens) or horizontal orientation (to get the super wide but thin strip panorama) and the camera stitches multiple frames together into one JPEG image. Unfortunately you are forced to use auto ISO and the shutter speed is locked at 1/500 with any non-native lens. Without a doubt the following would have been much better making panoramas the “proper” way (tripod, multiple full-resolution exposures, stitching in post), but I haven’t personally explored that method yet.
And now for a change of pace, here is a FULL RESOLUTION panorama so you can see the detail that is still captured in this limited in-camera mode. Take note of the farmers in the left bailing hay.
Honestly it is very fun and easy to use the sweep panorama feature, and it makes the 28mm a much more versatile lens. For static subjects, I can simulate a wider field of view when I need it, but have a short normal when I don’t. Best of both worlds.
The Bottom Line
Sometimes it’s better to be blunt: the 28mm E is the worst lens in the Series-E lineup (of the primes, anyway), and one that I can’t justify keeping. Though it has great central sharpness, good bokeh, and very high shootability, the terrible corner sharpness, flare control, and relatively useless (and slow) maximum aperture all hold this lens back. The not-so-cheap street price of $100/€82 doesn’t help the value proposition either. All that said, the 28mm E is by no means a bad lens–but for what I’m wanting (a faster and useful maximum aperture), this optic doesn’t fit the bill.
However, good photographs are hardly ever limited by a lens’ performance. Here’s a couple more samples taken from the same countryside outing when the above panoramas were captured. For more, see my first impressions of the lens.
Well…that’s it for the Series-E primes. What a journey it’s been so far, both technically and artistically. I do feel my thorough examination of each of these lenses has provided the most detailed optical report of the primes on the internet so far. As far as where to go now, I’m going to take a break from the Series-E’s for a little bit and review one of my favorite AI-s lenses next. I won’t spoil what it is yet.
As always, have a great one guys and gals. Thanks for dropping by!