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Thursday
Apr042013

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1 vs. Nikon 28mm f/1.8G

Sigma's brand new 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM A1, or Nikon's new-ish 28mm f/1.8G AF-S... which one is right for you?

These two prime lenses have similar focal-lengths, similar maximum apertures, and similar price-points. It's no wonder that I see them discussed and compared with each other on forums fairly often. Given $700-900 to spend on a fast, relatively-wide, prime lens, which do you get? First, let's take a look at a high-level specifications summary to get a feel for what they offer (clear winners highlighted in green):

To summarize: the Nikon is a bit wider, smaller, and lighter than the Sigma. It's also a bit slower (2/3rds of a stop), but it's a good deal less expensive as well.

Construction and Handling

The Sigma really outshines the Nikon in both construction and handling. When I first got my Nikon 28/1.8G, I was disappointed with the light, plastic feel of the lens. The focus ring feel light and cheap. It most certainly doesn't feel like a $700 prime lens should. Unlike the Nikon, Sigma uses a metal lens barrel with a very smooth, well-damped focus ring. It's also larger and heavier than the Nikon, which really give the Sigma a nice, high-quality feel. The flip-side of that is that the light weight and smaller size of the Nikon can certainly work to its advantage. I prefer to travel light, especially when hiking, where every single ounce really adds up. In that sort of situation, the Nikon would be my go-to lens.

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1 HSM DG

Focal Length

Focal lengths are tricky. What works perfectly for one photographer may feel completely wrong for another. To that effect, I've created two GIFs, below, which help to illustrate the difference in focal lengths. Please note that these comparisons are for the field-of-view on full-frame / FX cameras.

Focal Length Comparison: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1 vs. Nikon 28mm f/1.8G (16:9 crop)

Focal Length Comparison: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1 vs. Nikon 28mm f/1.8G

As you can see, the fields of view these lenses provide are actually quite similar. The Nikon may be slightly better suited towards landscape photos, and the Sigma might be a bit better suited for things like portraits and street photogoraphy. However, I like to challenge these sorts of assumptions, and I really think that either lens could be excellent for landscape, street, travel, and most other general types of photography - when placed in the right hands, of course. To give you an example, below is a landscape photo taken with the Sigma 35/1.4, and an environmental portrait taken with the Nikon 28/1.8.

Yosemite Falls (Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1, landscape)

"Sailing, J24, Boston Harbor" (Nikon 28mm f/1.8G, environmental portrait)

Optical Quality

I don't have the right resources or knowledge to do a full optical assessment of both lenses. The general consensus across the web is that the Sigma is the new resolution benchmark to beat. From what I've seen, I have to agree. It's pretty astonishing in terms of center resolution and sharpness.

That said, the Nikon is nearly as good as the Sigma, and I have absolutely no complaints about its resolution or performance. If you're eager to look at some charts and numbers, the brilliant folks at Photozone.de have reviewed both lenes:

As you can see, the resolution numbers are quite similar. In terms of flare-resistance, both lenses performed very, very well during testing. I didn't have any issues with flare, even with the sun in the frame. It appears that Sigma's multi-coatings are beginning to rival Nikon's expensive "Nano-Crystal" coatings.

In short: both lenses are optically excellent.

Bokeh

I enjoy bokeh (out-of-focus blur) as much as the next guy, but I tend not to obsess over it. In this case, the Sigma wins out over the Nikon 28mm f/1.8G. This is simply due to the slightly longer focal-length and faster aperture, which just makes it more "bokeh-rific" than the Nikon (given the same subject at the same distance). Nevertheless, the Nikon's bokeh is pleasing and soft in certain situations, and about as strong as one might expect from any 28/1.8.

Autofocus

Both lenses feature fast, quiet, ultrasonic motors. I've encountered reports of the Nikon 28/1.8 having some focus-shift issues at different apertures (in-focus at f/1.8 may be out-of-focus at f/5.6). I've thoroughly tested my copy, and have had no such problems. There is some noticeable field curvature that one must be aware of, but that's expected of a moderately wide, fast lens. I didn't notice any field curvature with the Sigma.

As far as accuracy is concerned, both lenses are very accurate. Over the course of my week shooting with the Sigma, I only experienced one hiccup and missed-shot due to an AF problem. This was while using the extreme, center-bottom focus point. Some users have reported problems with the Sigma on the D800 when using the extreme outer focus points, but other than my one missed shot, I didn't have any issues. In fact, I also missed a shot in a similar situation with the Nikon during the same time period. Overall, I'd say that these lenses are about equal when it comes to AF performance and accuracy. Neither one is absolutely perfect, but they're not terrible either. In fact, they're both quite good.

Sample Images

I've been taking photos with the Nikon 28/1.8G for nearly a year now, so I've had time to amass a number of sample images that I'm very happy with. Unfortunately I only had the Sigma 35/1.4 for less than a week, since I rented it from the wonderful people over at LensRentals.com. Nevertheless, I managed to get a handful of images that I'm content to display.

"Port Tack, Boston Harbor" (Nikon 28mm f/1.8G)

"Sunset, Delicate Arch" (Nikon 28mm f/1.8G)

"Untitled" (Nikon 28mm f/1.8G)

"Wine Tasting, Napa" (Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1)

"Summit Celebration" (Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1)

"Tunnel View, Yosemite" (Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1)

Summary & Conclusion

You really can't go wrong with either of these lenses. If cost, weight, and build quality are of negligible concern, then the decision could boil down to just one very subjective factor: focal-length. It really all comes down to the photographer's preference. Gary Winogrand famously used a 28mm lens for most of his street photography, but Henri Cartier-Bresson shot primarily with a 35mm.

For landscapes, I usually reach for a zoom (typically the 17-35/2.8 or 24-120/4) so that I can compose more precisely. For me, primes are more useful for travel, street, and portrait photography. Because of this, I find the slightly tighter focal length of the Sigma more appealing for general use. I also prefer the heavier and more solid construction of the Sigma over the Nikon. Conversely, I can see myself reaching for the Nikon when traveling light, like when hiking, where every ounce really counts. Other photographers might prefer working with primes for landscape photography, where the 28mm might be more appropriate than the 35mm.

If you're having a hard time deciding, I suggest renting these lenses from LensRentals.com before you choose. Or, you might try scotch-taping your zoom lens at each focal-length for a few days. It'll quickly become apparent which one you prefer.

Sigma 35/1.4 Pros

  • outstanding optical quality
  • 2/3rds of a stop faster than the Nikon
  • robust construction
  • nice, normal-wide field-of-view on FX
  • on DX it yields a "normal" 50mm equivalent field-of-view

Sigma 35/1.4 Cons

  • heavy
  • more expensive than the Nikon
  • no rear dust gasket/seal on mount

Nikon 28/1.8 Pros

  • outstanding optical quality
  • light and relatively compact design
  • nice, moderate-wide field-of-view on FX
  • less expensive than the Sigma
  • has rear dust gasket/seal on mout

Nikon 28/1.8 Cons

  • 2/3rds of a stop slower than the Sigma
  • cheap-feeling construction
  • on DX it yields a slightly strange 42mm field-of-view
Monday
Mar042013

Finally, a new 80-400mm... and a Curious DX Coolpix

Nikon has just announced a new version of the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens, which seems to have all the features and updates that Nikon shooters have been clamoring for over the last several years:

  • AF-S motor: Finally, faster autofocus that'll work on the lower-end Nikon bodies, too!
  • VR II: Nikon's 2nd generation stabilization system, which works much better than the 1st gen. Remember, the old 80-400 was Nikon's first production lens with VR. Yes, it was that old. One odd decision here is that it does NOT have the 3rd generation VR III system that's included on the new 70-200 f/4, which was announced a few months ago.
  • New optical formula: The old lens was pretty weak past 300mm. This newer one looks to be a lot better judging by the MTF charts.

The full specifications are available on Nikon's website. The price is $2700, which is rather expensive. The old version was selling at $2300 MSRP, and has been selling for $1500-1700 new for the past few years. One odd thing about the $2700 price point is that it's currently exactly the same price as a 70-200 f/2.8 VR II, with a 2x teleconverter (TC20eIII). With that combination you get a superb 70-200 VR II, as well as a very good 140-400 f/5.6. Surely the new 80-400 will be better than that combination past 200mm, but unless you really need that extra reach all the time, it's worth considering the 70-200 + 2x TC for the same money. I hope that once the reviews start appearing, the new 80-400 blows us all away with superb image quality.

If you're interested, it's available for pre-order on Amazon.com.

Now comes Nikon's puzzling other announcement: a Coolpix with a 16 megapixel APS-C sensor, and a fixed focal-length 18mm f/2.8 lens (actually, it's an 18.5mm lens, giving a 28mm FX equivalent field of view). Here's Nikon's product page. They're calling it the Coolpix A. I guess 1 was already taken! ;-)

Looks great, right!? Finally, what we've all been asking for - a photographer's compact! Unfortunately there's a lot missing, and the price-point is rather high: $1100! That's nearly as much as a Fujifilm X100s, another compact APS-C camera with a fixed-lens. However, the X100s has better manual controls, built-in optical and electronic viewfinders, and a one-stop faster f/2.0 lens (at a 35mm equivalent, rather than the Nikon's 28). What you do get with the Nikon is a much, much smaller body. It appears to be the size of a slightly chunky point & shoot camera, which is something that's impossible to find in any other camera with an APS-C sensor. For comparison, the compact Sony RX100 is 101 x 58 x 36mm, and the Coolpix A is 111 x 64 x 40mm - a bit larger but remains pocketable with a much, much bigger sensor than the RX100. The tradeoff there is that the RX100 has a more flexible zoom lens. For comparison, the Fuji X100s is 127 x 74 x 54mm - considerably larger.

It's certainly an interesting proposition, but there's much more bang for the buck available out there. Unless you really need the small size of the Nikon, and you really love the 28mm equivalent fixed focal length, look elsewhere to systems like Micro 4/3, entry-level DSLRs, the Sony RX100, or the aforementioned X100 / X100s. Nevertheless, if you're interested, it's available for preorder on Amazon.com.

Wednesday
Dec142011

Battle of the 300mm Zooms

55-300 VR vs. 70-300 VR: Which is Best?

This comparison will cover two of Nikon's most popular 300mm telephoto zoom lenses: the relatively new Nikon 55-300 f/4.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S DX, and the tried-and-true Nikon 70-300 f/4.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S VR. To add some context, I'll also cover the old screw-drive 300mm f/4 AF (the predecessor to this lens), and the very budget-friendly Nikon 55-200 f/4-5.6G ED IF AF-S DX VR.

Vital Stats

Click for Full-Sized Stats Image

Size and Handling

From left to right: 55-200 VR, 55-300 VR, 70-300 VR, and 300mm f/4 AF.

Hoods extended:

A few handling notes:

  1. The 70-300 VR is the only lens in this bunch to have full-time AF override by simply turning the focus ring. All three other lenses must be switched to manual-focus mode before their focus rings may be adjusted.
  2. The 55-300 VR grows a bit in size when focused at its minimum. Take a look at this image to see the difference.
  3. The 55-300 VR features an innovative new snap-on lens hood. Unlike the 55-200 VR and 70-300 VR which have hoods that turn to lock and unlock, this new hood simply clicks on in any position. To remove it, there are two small buttons on the side which have to be depressed. I found installation to be a breeze (it clips on easily in either direction), but removal can be tricky sometimes due to the slightly finicky buttons on the hood.
  4. The 55-300 VR has a front element which rotates while autofocusing. This can be a serious downside to shooters who frequently shoot through polarizing filters. Oddly enough, the even cheaper 55-200 VR does not suffer from this fault

How well are these lenses built? All three 300mm lenses feel very solid. The only real disappointment of the bunch is the 55-200 VR, which has a very light and plastic-ridden feel to it, though this is expected due to its $150 pricetag. The older, all-metal-bodied 300mm f/4 is built like a tank, and has an incredibly strudy and solid feel. The 70-300 VR is made of plastic, but despite this it has a very solid and high-quality feel to it. The real surprise of the bunch is the 55-300 VR, which is incredibly well-made lens given its $250 pricetag.

Weight

Lens weight/size is a very important issue for me since I often use my camera while traveling, on hikes, and during other strenuous activities. The 55-200 VR is incredibly light, and for this reason it has been my favorite telephoto zoom to bring traveling or on a hike. The 55-300 VR is a bit heavier (1.6 times heavier than the 55-200 VR, to be exact), but it's still light enough to bring on a hike without having to think twice about it. Of course it has the added advantage of being able to reach 300mm, so it will most likely replace my 55-200 VR as my hiking telephoto. The 70-300 VR is on the heavy side for long hikes, and it can even be tiring to hand-hold during an all-day walk at the zoo. The 300mm f/4 is quite heavy, and so I tend to only use this lens when the added image quality potential really outweighs the difficulty that's required to get it where I need to go.

To recap the weight relationships: the 55-200 VR is very light. The 55-300 VR is about one-and-a-half 55-200 VRs... still on the light-enough side to take hiking. The 70-300 VR is about one-and-a-half 55-300 VRs... getting heavy. The 300 f/4 is a portly thing weighing in at four 55-200 VRs, or about two 70-300 VRs. For the exact weights, see the vital stats image above.

Autofocus

The 70-300 VR and, surprisingly, the 55-200 VR really shine here. Both have very snappy and accurate AF systems. The 300mm f/4 is a tad bit sluggish on consumer DX bodies like the D7000 and D90 due to its screw-drive AF system. It's much faster on bodies like the D3 or older film cameras like the F100. The only real disappointment is the new 55-300 VR, which has very slow AF, taking about twice as long to focus as the 55-200 VR, or almost four times as long to focus as the 70-300 VR.

Check out the video below:

Image Quality

70-300 VR: excellent pro-sumer level image quality. Good results wide-open, and even better when stopped-down.

70-300 VR @ 300mm, f/5.6 70-300 VR: @ 300mm f/8.0 70-300 VR @ 300mm, f/5.6 (close subject and bokeh)

55-300 VR: again, the surprise of the bunch with image quality that matches the 70-300 VR, at a lower price and in a smaller package.

55-300 VR @ 300mm, f/5.6 55-300 VR @ 300mm, f/8.0 55-300 VR @ 300mm, f/5.6 (close subject and bokeh)

300mm f/4: beautiful bokeh and sharp results wide-open on close-up subjects. Best-of-bunch resolving power and sharpness when stopped-down to f/8.

300mm f/4 @ f/4 300mm f/4 @ f/5.6 300mm f/4 @ f/8.0 300mm f/4 @ f/4 (close subject and bokeh)

55-200 VR: adequate-enough image quality, especially when stopped-down to f/8. The 200mm maximum focal length can be limiting, especially for wildlife.

55-200 VR @ f/5.6 55-200 VR @ f/8.0 55-200 VR @ f/5.6 (close subject and bokeh)

Real-World Sample Images

Note: Since the 55-300 VR is a recent acquisition, I do not yet have any real-world sample images to post for it. Look for an update with these after I've spent a little more time with this lens.

70-300 VR: Jonathan Papelbon

70-300 VR: Hummingbird

70-300 VR: Jarno Trulli

70-300 VR: Meow

300mm f/4: Great Blue Heron

300mm f/4: Spring Has Sprung

300mm f/4: Why Hello There

55-200 VR: Harbor Seal

55-200 VR: Welcome to Portugal

55-200 VR: Cinematic Boston

Conclusion

The 55-300 VR is a lens that's full of compromises. Its image quality (in terms of sharpness and contrast) is quite good, especially for lens of its size. It absolutely blows the older 55-200 VR out of the water, especially since it has an extra 100mm of reach. However, the AF performance and odd build choices (rotating front element, strange lens hood) can be serious drawbacks. The FX shooter doesn't have to think twice here, but what about the DX shooter? Can a 55-300 VR replace the 70-300 VR which you already carry in your bag? For me, this answer is an emphatic "yes", especially since the image quality between these are fairly similar. The light weight and relatively small size of the 55-300 VR make up for its slow autofocus and other small faults. The extra focal length available over the 55-200 VR and the fact that it only weighs a bit more make it a top choice for me while hiking and traveling. Casual wildlife shooters who currently use the 70-300 VR will probably want to pass on the 55-300 VR because of the glacial AF performance. For serious wildlife shooting, I'll be sticking to my 300mm f/4, but for my lightweight telephoto needs, the 55-300 VR will be replacing both my 55-200 VR and my 70-300 VR.

Wednesday
Jul132011

Nikon 16-85 VR vs. Sigma 17-50 f/2.8 OS

Introduction

I've now owned Nikon's elaborately named "AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR" lens for well over two years, and I'm incredibly happy with it. The excellent focal range makes it a superb walk-around lens. The 16mm wide-end is really something special on a "normal" range DX zoom, since most only go as wide as 18mm. Its superb sharpness when combined with those extra 2mm make for a very capable landscape lens. The brilliant optical stabilization system (Nikon's VR) makes getting hand-held low-light shots a breeze.

All of these characteristics make it an absolutely oustanding lens, especially for casual travelers. Photographing the interior of a dimly-lit cathedral? No problem: the 16mm wide end and VR stabilization make it a breeze. Want to capture the some of the exterior architectural details? Again, no big deal: the 85mm long end and superb sharpness can make it happen.

These features all add up to mean that it has been my primary travel and walk-around lens ever since I purchased it back in 2009. Many of the most viewed images in my portfolio have been taken with it:

Underground RailBoston Celtics

Waiting for the Red Line

Harry Elkins Widener

So, what is there to complain about? Not much, but I've always wanted something that's a bit faster. Constant fast-aperture "normal" zoom lenses are great for subject isolation at events like weddings, and their focal length coverage means that they're also handy all sorts of other things (including landscapes). They can also make for excellent travel lenses. One can easily go from shooting serene landscapes (stopped-down a bit at the wide-end), to beautiful portraits (wide-open at the long end) without having to swap lenses.

Nikon makes a well-reviewed 17-55mm f/2.8 zoom, but it lacks VR stabilization and is quite expensive (around $1500 at the time of this article's publication). Fortuantely, Sigma has recently released the stabilized "17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM". At $670, it's comparatively priced to Nikon's 16-85 VR which sells for $650. The Sigma gives up 1mm on the wide end and 35mm on the long end, but makes up for it with an f/2.8 constant fast aperture. It's also worth noting that the Sigma has a more common 77mm filter thread, while the Nikon 16-85 uses 67mm filters.

Photozone.de has excellent technical reviews of both of these lenses. You can compare the resolution, distortion, abberations, bokeh, and other factors at the links below:

On paper the 16-85 VR is a bit sharper than the 17-50 OS when stopped down to their sharpest settings (f/8.0 and f/5.6, respectively). The 17-50 is actually quite sharp in the center when wide-open, which is great news for the casual portrait photographer. But the real question is, how do they stack up against each other, image-for-image? Let's find out.

Field of View

Below are some GIF images which compare the lenses at their different settings.

16-85 vs. 17-50 @ widest focal lengths

16-85 vs. 17-50 @ widest focal lengths

16-85 vs. 17-50 @ longest focal lengths (and 50mm)

As you can see, the 16-85 VR has a significantly wider field-of-view than the 17-50 OS. The difference is so large, in fact, that I believe the focal length of the Sigma is more like 18mm. That's quite disappointing. Of course, it also has significantly less reach on the long end, but that's expected. The Nikon most certainly wins here.

Sharpness

Time for some 100% crops. Center first, at their widest focal lengths and sharpest apertures.

16-85 VR @ 16mm, f/8.0 (center crop)17-50 OS @ 17mm, f/5.6 (center crop)The 17-50 is most certainly sharper in the center at 17mm. What about at the extreme edges?

16-85 VR @ 16mm, f/8.0 (corner crop)17-50 OS @ 17mm, f/5.6 (corner crop)The Sigma loses this battle. But what if we stop it down to f/8.0?

17-50 OS @ 17mm, f/8.0 (corner crop)

Getting better... but still not as good as the Nikon. At 50mm these lenses look virtually identical in the center. However, again, the Sigma loses sharpness in the very extreme corners. It's worth noting that only the most extreme corners are problematic with the Sigma. The non-corner edges look quite good, and the average sharpness across the frame is outstanding.

Verdict? This one is a draw. It comes down to this: do you prefer the Nikon's overall sharpness consistency over the Sigma's slightly sharper center and slightly worse extreme corners?

Aperture

One advantage that the 17-50 OS does have, however is the f/2.8 constant aperture. This can make for some pretty decent portraits at (or around) 50mm.

17-50 OS @ 45mm, f/2.8

The above photo is cropped a bit. If I had been standing a bit closer and had framed it properly, the background would look much more bokeh-licious (more blurry). Here's a 100% crop:

17-50 OS @ 45mm, f/2.8 (center crop)

Sharp, and very nice. For comparison, I took this portrait a few years ago right after I got my 16-85 VR:

16-85 VR @ 85mm, f/5.6Also very sharp, and actually it's quite good. I had to stand further back and ended up with a tighter framing since I was shooting at 85mm. Both lenses do well here, but I'll give the edge to the Sigma since it has the faster aperture and a creamier look. I wish I had time during this review to take some better portraits. I may update this section in the future if I come up with anything better.

Conclusions

I want to love the 17-50 OS, but it just leaves a bit too much to be desired. Yes, the f/2.8 aperture opens up some great portrait options when used as a casual walk-around lens. The major downside for me is that the 17mm wide end is just too restrictive when compared to the 16-85 VR. That extra little bit makes a huge difference. The Sigma also has a few funny quirks: the zoom ring turns the "wrong" way compared to Nikon lenses, which is rather annoying. The OS works well, but seems to consume battery at a slightly faster rate than the 16-85 VR.

Sigma 17-50 f/2.8 OS PROS

  • fast aperture (excellent in low-light)
  • good construction (on par with the Nikon)
  • excellent sharpness stopped-down (except the extreme corners)
  • excellent center sharpness wide-open
  • OS works well
  • standard 77mm filter size

Sigma 17-50 f/2.8 OS CONS

  • wider would be better (17mm seems more like 18mm)
  • zoom action turns in the wrong direction (for Nikon users, it's hard to get used to)
  • no weather-sealing (missing the butt-gasket, too)
  • larger and heavier than the Nikon
  • focus ring turns in AF mode (make sure those fingers are out of the way!)

Nikon 16-85 VR PROS

  • excellent focal length range (16mm is wide)
  • good construction
  • excellent overall sharpness, especially in the corners
  • VR works well
  • lighter and smaller than the Sigma

Nikon 16-85 VR CONS

  • slow aperture, especially at maximum zoom (bad in low-light)
  • non-standard 67mm filter size
  • no weather-sealing (although it has a butt-gasket to keep moisture from the lens mount area)

What do I really want in a fast-aperture DX "normal" zoom? A 16mm wide-end is a must. Excellent sharpness across the frame is a must as well. Finally, either a slightly longer-than-normal focal length (70mm on the long end) with a moderately fast aperture, or a very fast aperture and a shorter focal length (f/2 and 40mm).

For me, and I suspect for many others, either of these imaginary specs would be perfect:

  • 16-70 f/3.5 (stabilized)
  • 16-40 f/2 (stabilized)

If this rumor has any truth to it, we all may be in luck... but for now I'll probably stick with the 16-85 VR.

Full-Sized Sample Images

I'll leave you with one final image, taken with the Sigma @ 50mm, f/4.0:

Busy Bee