Nikon’s early attempts to produce a 35mm lens with an ultra-fast maximum aperture of f/1.4 for an SLR camera can be traced back to 1971, or even earlier, it’s believed, when it worked on a prototype for its S series rangefinders, which was dropped to concentrate on the Nikon F.
With its nine aperture blades, thorium glass to increase the refractive index, close-range correction (floating rear elements) and the first Nikkor to adopt multi-coating on each glass surface, it was regarded as an advanced lens. The radioactive thoriated glass, which later revealed its use by turning an orange/brown colour over time, was later dropped due to potential health concerns in favour of lanthanum. Nikon was concerned with keeping the size down, at least the diameter, not only to keep aberrations in check, but to provide a consistent 52mm filter thread across a number of different focal length lenses ranging from 20mm up to 200mm.
That trend can be seen to this day with the manual focus 35mm f/1.4 Ai-S, a more popular lens, perhaps by virtue of its long production run. Although that design dates back to 1982, it’s still in the range and can be ordered through pro dealers. However, while the overall performance is excellent, that particular lens is well known for its sagital coma flare at and close to the maximum aperture. Although Nikon dropped the manual focus 35mm f/2.8, the 35mm f/2 was replaced by an AF version in 1989. Later lenses such as the AF-S 17-35mm and 28-70mm f/2.8 proved more popular with Nikon’s traditional press market, and both have since been superseded.
It’s only now, after two decades or more, that the 35mm f/1.4 has been updated to include autofocus. Recent updates to popular pro models, such as the AF-S 50mm and 85mm f/1.4, along with a brand new addition in the shape of the AF-S 24mm f/1.4, suggested that Nikon could be working its way through this influential, but seemingly neglected range. Even so, the update to the 35mm f/1.4 has come somewhat unexpectedly.
Bigger and better
This is no compact lens; it dwarfs both the AF-D 35mm f/2 and manual-focus 35mm f/1.4 Ai-S, and at 600g it’s heavy. As a pro-grade G-series lens it has the distinctive brass ring, at one time indicating the use of ED glass elements, but of the 10 elements arranged in seven groups, there is just one aspheric element and no mention of close range correction.
Barrel Distortion: Edge and centre performance is at its finest at f/5.6 on an FX body, although in this image certain imaging characteristics are visible. First is the slight barreling and, second, equally slight lateral chromatic aberration is noticeable on the high-contrast boundaries. Both are simple to correct in post. Image © Kevin Carter.
There’s no aperture ring limiting backwards compatibility to certain film camera either, although this does allow for a more weatherproof construction. The press material says the body is made out of magnesium, though the outer and filter ring is made of plastic, like that of the slightly cheaper 85mm f/1.4. And it’s likely there is an inner barrel of magnesium. Nikon does this with some barrel sections of its telephoto lenses, such as the AF-S 200-400mm f/4, but the build doesn’t feel in the same league as the AF-S 24mm f/1.4. On a D700 the balance is good, but handling suffers on smaller bodies, such as the D7000. Nikon abandoned small filter sizes decades ago, so the 67mm diameter seems an odd choice, especially as the wider barrel doesn’t appear to improve corner shading. At over 2EV in the corners at the maximum aperture, dropping to 1.3EV at f/2, this is noticeable and requires attention in post, at least with raw files. Current Nikon bodies can remove corner shading with out-of-camera JPEGs, so it will be less of an issue with the intended users.
Like the 24mm and 85mm f/1.4 lenses, the new 35mm adopts the AF-S moniker, indicating an internal Silent Wave Motor is used to focus the optical cell, while at the same time offering full-time manual focus override with automatic declutching of the drive mechanism.
Manual focusing is a delight. The wide-rubber coated focus ring is highly geared, allowing extremely fine focus control; it’s far superior to the current 35mm f/2 AF-D, for instance, though the short distance scale results in depth-of-field markings for f/16 only. Unlike the new 24mm and 85mm lenses, the 35mm f/1.4 has a rasping sound during AF operation, which, while not loud, is unexpected at this level.
With the lens being available in North America months before shipments arrived in the UK and Europe, the net was alight with claims of focus inaccuracies. Both front- and back-focus issues at different distances were reported, although I was unable to find any issues with the review sample to back up these claims.
Corner Shading: At maximum aperture, the main issue is not edge sharpness but peripheral illumination. At 2.25 EV behind the centre, corner shading is easily noticeable. Image © Kevin Carter.
The sample supplied with a 12-megapixel D700 from Nikon UK performed faultlessly, indeed with greater accuracy and reliability than one might expect for a large-aperture lens, in both real-world use and against test targets. I even had the opportunity to assess the accuracy with the new Datacolor Lenscal tool, albeit at close distances only. Both lens and camera body behaved impeccably, although I wasn’t able to test the lens with another body.
The overall performance is marked by some barrel distortion and, while that’s not a complete surprise, it’s more visible than I would have expected, and is slightly more than that of the current 35mm f/2 AF-D. Care must be taken with vertical and horizontal surfaces, although it’s fairly uniform and simple enough to remove in post. I would be hesitant, however, to use it for serious architectural work.
Performance wide open is very good, corner-shading excepted. Resultant images have high contrast with excellent central sharpness, with the periphery only revealing marginal softness, improving somewhat at f/2, and then gradually upon stopping down. Corner and edge performance at the maximum aperture and with successively stopping down to f/5.6 is manifestly superior to the 35mm f/2. And with the inclusion of a single aspheric element coma it is greatly reduced over the 35mm f/1.4 Ai-S.
Images are well delineated, although the drawing style is more like that of the AF-S 85mm f/1.4 than the AF-S 24mm f/1.4, and then extends to defocused areas, where the bokeh has soft double-edged effects. Some lateral and axial chromatic aberration is also noticeable, the latter particularly on out-of-focus highlights, where a tinge of either green or purple can be seen. It’s particularly difficult to remove, but again expected without the adoption of ED glass elements. Resistance to flare and ghosting, thanks to the addition of Nano crystal coating is very good, although some loss of contrast is inevitable with the sun in the frame.
As a pro-grade lens for reportage, this new addition is a commendable successor to the eminent 35mm f/1.4 Ai-S, and by far the better choice over the 35mm f/2 AF-D, if price is of no concern (£1700 as opposed to around £265 for the f/2 lens). There are some shortcomings, notably the corner shading and axial distortion and, while it’s a pity the 35mm doesn’t quite match the build and performance of the AF-S 24mm f/1.4, it certainly stands out for its all-round abilities. The only real rival is the new Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 ZF2, which, while chipped, lacks the autofocus capability of the new Nikkor and has yet to prove its optical prowess.
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