35mm is my favourite focal length. I shoot most of my daily photos using a 35mm lens, I also use it to shoot quite a bit of weddings and other documentary type photos. In this review I’m comparing a few Nikon mount 35mm prime lenses. The lenses I’m testing are:
Nikon AI-S 35mm f/1.4 Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2.0 ZF.2 Kerlee 1.2/35 Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG ART
(I will call them: Nikon AI-S, Zeiss, Kerlee, Nikon AF-S and Sigma in this review)
The first three lenses, Nikon AI-S, Zeiss and Kerlee are manual focus lenses and the remaining two are autofocus.
Size wise, the Nikon AI-S is the smallest and lightest, followed by the Zeiss. The manual focus Kerlee, even though is a manual focus lens, is actually about the same size and weight as the two autofocus lenses (Sigma and Nikon AF-S) because of it’s full metal construction and ultra fast f/1.2 maximum aperture.
The Nikon AI-S is the oldest design and it was released more than 30 years ago. The Kerlee is the newest and it was released just few months ago. While they are from different manufacturer and probably designed with different priority and goals, it should be quite interesting to see how all these lenses performance is like when compare to each other. I’m going to look at some of the optical performance and I’ll share with you my thoughts about these lenses. But feel free to examine the comparison photos yourself and see what you think as some of the differences are quite small and subjective.
But first, let’s have a look at all the lenses individually.
Nikon AI-S 35mm f/1.4
The Nikon AI-S is the oldest of the five and was introduced back in 1980s. It is a manual focus lens designed for the film SLR and has full mechanical, full metal construction. Surprisingly just like the Nikon AI-S 50mm f/1.2, Nikon is still making this old manual focus lens and you can buy them brand new. It is the only lens that has the “rabbit ear” and therefore metering would work on the old non-Ai Nikon film SLR cameras.
Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2.0
Based on the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2.0 ZF, the manual focus ZF.2 is an updated CPU version announced in 2010 which is otherwise optically identical to it’s predecessor. Build quality is the best out of the five lenses, every component is perfectly put together and the buttery smooth manual focus ring feel absolutely fantastic. While it’s one of the most expensive lens in this review (brand new price), it’s also the slowest lens with maximum aperture of f/2.
Kerlee 35mm f/1.2
The new kid of the block is the Kerlee 1.2/35. Not only it’s the fastest lens in this review, it’s also the first and only 35mm f/1.2 lens for full frame SLR cameras. Being the cheapest lens in this review (comparing brand new price), this ultra fast lens from China surprised me with it’s exceptionally good build quality and also full metal construction. Unfortunately the lens doesn’t have auto aperture which can be a hassle for people who shoot at smaller aperture regularly.
Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G
The latest fast 35mm prime lens from Nikon, the Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G is what a lot of professional photographer have in their camera bags and probably also my most used DSLR lens as well. The gold ring at the front indicates it’s one of the best lens from Nikon and it is also the most expensive lens in this review. However this modern Nikkor does feel more plasticky when compare with the manual focus lenses.
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG ART
The A (stands for ART ) logo on the Sigma 35mm f/1.4DG ART is almost equivalent to Nikon gold ring and Canon red ring. Being an ART lens means it is one of the best autofocus lens you can buy for your DSLR even though the price is half of the Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G. While the size and weight of the Sigma is almost the same as the Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G, and I actually prefer Sigma’s build quality over the Nikon.
All the sharpness comparison photos were taken using a Nikon D800 at ISO 100, camera was on a tripod and in timer mode to minimise blur and variation.
Centre Sharpness – 100% crop
Looking at the 100% centre crops, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART is really sharp even at f/1.4. The Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G is slightly softer than the Sigma and the Zeiss not too far behind. The Kerlee is a bit soft especially at near wide open. But for portraits and kinds of photo that doesn’t require critical sharpness, the Kerlee is actually quite useable even at f/1.2. The Nikon AIS is the softest and also have quite low contrast at f/1.4 but improves significantly from f/2 onwards.
Corner Sharpness – 100% crop
The Sigma is again the best performer when it comes to corner sharpness, pretty sharp at f/1.4. The Zeiss appears to be slightly sharper than the Nikon AF-S at the same aperture. Surprisingly the Kerlee’s corner sharpness is very good even at f/1.2. While I won’t say the Kerlee is sharper than the Zeiss, it has the advantage of being able to shoot at over 1 stop faster. Having said that the difference between these four lenses are quite small and probably unnoticeable when shooting real world photos. The Nikon AI-S is again the worst and it’s really quite soft and the photo look a bit cloudy until f/2.8.
At wide open, bokeh from all the lenses are round and smooth. But the two Nikon lenses does have a bit more halo than the other lenses. The Sigma and the Nikon AF-S also displays a bit of onion-ring bokeh. Kerlee is very interesting as it’s bokeh at f/1.2 look very different. The bokeh is very soft and the edges almost melt into the background which gives it a dreamy look when shooting real life photos. When stop down, the Nikon AI-S’s bokeh quickly turn into polygon shape while the other lenses remain relatively round even when stop down to f/5.6. Bokeh from the Kerlee remains really round even at f/5.6 thanks to it’s 14 curved blades.
Colour and View Angle
Camera was fixed on a tripod. All photos were shot in RAW at ISO 100 and f/2.8, applied the same postprocessing settings (e.g. same white balance settings)
There really isn’t too much different in terms of colour rendition. The Sigma seems to have a slightly wider view angle but difference isn’t very big.
The Zeiss and the Nikon AF-S are the best when it comes to flare control. The Kerlee, Sigma and Nikon AI-S have more noticeable flare but the flare all look quite different. When shooting real world photos, the Nikon AI-S is the lens suffers the most from lens flare while the other four lenses have acceptable to excellent lens flare control.
All these fast 35mm lenses have visible vignetting at wide open and even when stop down by 1 stop. At f/2.8 the two Nikon lenses (AF-S and AI-S) have the least amount of vignetting. The Zeiss at f/2.8 is the worst partially because it’s a f/2 lens.
Kerlee has strong field curvature which makes it not really suitable for shooting landscape photos when you require a sharp, correctly focused photo from centre to the corners. If you want to buy the Zeiss and there is a chance you might want to use it with your non-Ai film SLR, get the original ZF version instead which has the rabbit ear. The optical performance should be the same for the ZF and ZF.2.
There are quite a few things I could have compared in this review. For example chromatic abbreviation or barrel distortion. Unfortunately a few last minute reviews and other personal commitments interrupted this review and by the time I finished all the other more urgent stuff I don’t have all the lenses with me anymore so I can only skip some of the tests.
But looking at the results I got and from my real life shooting experience, the Nikon AI-S 35mm f/1.4 is really showing it’s age and is lagging behind other lenses in pretty much every area. However, it’s soft output and the way it renders bokeh does give the images a unique, some may call it dreamy look when shooting close subjects at maximum aperture. The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG ART is clearly the sharpest lens but the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2.0 ZF.2 and the Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G are both really solid all round performer as well. I guess what surprised me the most is the Kerlee 1.2/35. Being the first photographic lens from the DZOptics and with an ambitious goal of being the first ever 35mm f/1.2 lens for full frame SLR cameras, the picture quality is actually not bad at all and f/1.2 is quite useable. The build quality is really impressive as well. Hopefully the lens is also commercially successful for DZOptics as I would love to see more lenses from this company.
So which is the best 35mm lens? The answer really depends on what is most important to you. Is it the sharpness? Bokeh? Build Quality? Price? Or is it the size or weight? Look at the area that matters to you the most and decide it yourself. But it’s good for us to have so many choices so we can choose the one that suit us the most.
This article was originally published on Review by Richard, a website run by New Zealand wedding and portrait photographer Richard Wong. If you like his reviews you can check out his Facebook here. All images and text reprinted with permission.