Nikon 28mm f/1.4E - How is the 35mm f/1.4 still a thing?
How is a fast 35mm lens still a thing? For the longest time, the only fast wide angle lens available was the venerable 35mm f/1.4. It was such an essential tool that every professional photographer found it mandatory to have one in their bag. Having said that, I never really liked the 35mm focal length. I've always felt it wasn't wide enough to document at closer focusing range. As such, my favorite lens for the longest time was the Nikon 28mm f/1.4D. I adored it. It was my hands-down go-to lens on my Nikon F4 and D700.
Besides, it's not as if Nikon had an autofocus version of a fast 35 until the release of the 35mm f/1.4G.
Despite how I felt about the fast 35, even I had to eventually succumb to getting one. With improvement in digital sensors and autofocus technology, my trusty 28mm f/1.4D could no longer keep up with the times. But the 35mm f/1.4G was just never wide enough. For that reason, my go-to lens on the Nikon D800E was the much wider 24mm f/1.4G. Unfortunately, 24mm is much too wide for me. Whenever I shot with it, I always ended up cropping the resulting images to the 28mm equivalent - albeit unintentionally. Still, cropping was better than not being wide enough.
So when Nikon announced the release of the new 28mm f/1.4E, I was over the moon. I couldn't wait to get one. Unfortunately, I was away from Hong Kong when they started to ship. Like clockwork, I was stuck in New York. As such had to wait an extra week before I could finally lay my hands on one.
Fortunately, that week passed by quickly.
Long story short. I'm in Hong Kong. I have my 28mm f/1.4E. And it's everything I dreamed it would be. It is a fantastic lens.
I have always been of the opinion that the purpose of such a lens is to shoot up close, in low light, for maximum bokeh. So naturally, the first thing I did right after picking it up from my vendor was fire off a couple of shots to see how the 28mm f/1.4E performed at its closest minimum focusing distance. As a Leica photographer, you forget how close you can focus with a DSLR. I kept going closer and closer until finally I stopped at around 0.92 feet (roughly 11 inches or 0.28 meters).
Admittedly, the 28mm f/1.4E does not focus as close as the 24mm f/1.4G, which can go in an inch closer. But in my opinion, the impression of close focusing is stronger with the 28mm f/1.4E given the relatively tighter focal length. And when compared to the previous 28mm f/1.4D, this updated version can focus almost 3 inches closer.
Of course, what this all means is the background blur of the 28mm f/1.4E is monumental. Though more importantly, it also means that the 28mm f/1.4E might possibly be the most perfect all around lens to ever grace a full frame autofocus camera system. Hear me out. I know I am putting the cart before the horse in making such an outlandish claim. I mean, I've only fired off two sample shots. But OMG, they're amazing!
What I saw in the 28mm f/1.4E was the idiomatic "triple threat" with regards to its functionality. It shoots fast, shoots close up, and shoots just wide enough. In all intent and purpose, I saw no equal to this lens. I was in love with it. Not even my favorite Leica 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M could match that - with a minimum focusing distance of 2.3 feet (or 0.7 meters). It's no wonder why I never take food pictures with my Leica. But with this Nikon, I'm sure I will.
These are exciting times to be a Nikon photographer. For so many years, we were forced to endure the indignity of uninspiring new product releases. How disappointed I was with the 58mm f/1.4G. Nikon couldn't even give us an extra half a stop in evoking the 58mm f/1.2 Noct-Nikkor as its spiritual descendent. And don't get me started on the Nikon Df. I only kept mine for the sake of reviewing Nikon lenses.
But with the release of the 105mm f/1.4E and now, the 28mm f/1.4E, Nikon is doing something it hasn't done in a very long time. Nikon is making niche lenses that no other manufacturers are making. The 105mm f/1.4E is the ultimate portrait lens. As for the 28mm f/1.4E, it is the ultimate everyday lens.
It is just unfortunate that Nikon doesn't have a decent full frame camera to do it justice - other than the D5. For this test, I used the Nikon Df and the D800E. Both cameras felt like dinosaurs compared to the Sony A9 and the Canon 5D Mark IV. Having said that, I was enormously jet lagged during the lens review, so I shot everything in live view, face detection, set to aperture priority. So as you could imagine, the slow shutter lag wore at my jet lagged diminished patience.
In conducting a review for the 28mm f/1.4E, I decided to wait until nightfall. It only made sense, given the lens's maximum aperture. Mind you, diminished capacity from jet lag prevented me from doing it during the day. Plus, Mother Nature made it that way, given the calm from the unending downpour unleashed throughout the week, on the night we tested. Besides, Anna wasn't available earlier. Really, it was the perfect storm of reasons that pushed the scheduling beyond the hours of available light.
Of course, we could have conducted all our testing indoors, and avoided the drama unfolding from the tempest all week. But, that wouldn't make sense. The 28mm f/1.4E begs to be tested outside the confines of a controlled environment. At that focal length, it enabled one to environmentally document a subject close enough without the threat of photobombing becoming a nuisance.
Naturally then, Anna and I descended onto the street to put the 28mm f/1.4 through its paces. We shot at varying close focusing distances to avoid run-ins from the crowds. But more importantly, we shot closer-up to see how proficiently it rendered the characteristic background lights of Hong Kong into balls of lights. After all, this is the main reason why anyone would want a lens like this. It's for the bokeh.
In handling the 28mm f/1.4E, the autofocus is smooth and silent as one would expect from any contemporary Nikon lens. Focusing manually, the lens also feels good in hand. In terms of size, the 28mm f/1.4 is noticeably longer than its predecessor or the 35mm f/1.4G. But in my opinion, the increase in size is both expected and within reason. I also didn't find the increase in size impacted its weight adversely.
On normal use, the 28mm f/1.4E performs exceptionally well. Unlike the 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M, I didn't notice any chromatic aberration in areas of extreme contrast of light and darkness. There wasn't any purple fringing at wide aperture. Also, I am of the opinion that the lens handles perspective distortion rather well at normal focusing distances. However, it does become an issue when you begin to edge in closer than arms length (roughly three feet or a meter).
Like the 105mm f/1.4E, the 28mm f/1.4E also appears slightly sharper than Nikon's G-Series lenses. However, to determine whether this is the case, I went back to my office to compare it with the following lenses on the Nikon D800E:
1. Nikon 35mm f/1.4G
2. Nikon 24mm f/1.4G
3. Nikon 28mm f/1.4D
I included the 28mm f/1.4D because I thought it would be interesting to see how it compared to its predecessor.
Admittedly, my jet lagged reliance on face detection might have adversely impacted the accuracy of the autofocus when comparing these lenses. For some reason, the autofocus kept locking onto the recessive eye. The only time the autofocus locked onto the lead eye was with the 28mm f/1.4E. Coincidence - I don't know. Having said that, I thought I should disclose this, given how consistent this anomaly was in focus selection.
Insofar as rendering details, the Nikon 28mm f/1.4E is significantly sharper and more contrasty than the 28mm f/1.4D. This is especially evident under high magnification at 36 megapixels. From that perspective, I don't see how anyone would still covet the 28mm f/1.4D - or at least at its current market value.
As for how it compared to the G-series lenses, I am of the opinion that the 28mm f/1.4E retains more details at higher resolution. Making this evaluation was difficult, given the differences in focal length with focusing distance more or less the same. However, the deciding factor for me were the details of the eyelashes reflected on Anna's pupils. It was phenomenal.
In retrospect, I should have conducted this test stopped down to increase the depth of field for ensuring focus. Call it an oversight on account of jet lag. Having said that, I am pretty confident that the 28mm f/1.4E is sharper at higher resolution. Even wide open, the focused regions of the 28mm f/1.4E at high magnification still looks sharper than the G-Series lenses.
It may appear that I am overly biased in my assessment of the 28mm f/1.4E. However, there is reason for my opinion. To prove my point, I decided to do a second day of informal shooting with Anna during the daytime. No, I didn't go outside. I wasn't in any condition. Besides, after my last incident with the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-SL, I knew better than to push my luck.
My final test was simple. I photographed Anna at the focusing distance of a typical restaurant table (of three feet or one meter) without backing up or tilting on my chair. In my opinion, 35mm wasn't wide enough since it made the subject appear too prominent, while 24mm was too wide in capturing too much unnecessary foreground and background. To me, 28mm was the Goldilocks of focal length. It was the perfect balance between subject isolation and background documentation.
Please note I also included the Leica 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M in this comparison - just for fun. Also included for fun is the image set below photographed stopped down at f/5.6. I realize I didn't test corner sharpness at smaller apertures. But I figured there would be loads of other reviewers doing that. Besides, I'm pretty sure that corner and edge sharpness of this lens will be sufficiently detailed.
Overall, I love the Nikon 28mm f/1.4E. Not only does it make me wonder how a fast 35mm lens is still a thing, but it also makes me ask how Canon is still a thing! Admittedly, I know why. Nikon makes horrible DSLRs when compared to the Canon 5D Mark IV. Though in defense of Nikon, they're probably up for an update soon. I can only hope they won't disappoint.
What people need to understand is why the 35mm f/1.4 has been so dominant for so long. It's largely because it offers the best compromise of focal length and speed for reportage or candid documentation. With that said, 35mm isn't wide enough. But since it was the best option for a fast wide angle lens, the 35mm f/1.4 became the standard. Besides, it's not as if there were a fast 28mm alternative.
Professional photographers always knew that the 28mm focal length was better for documentation than 35mm - hence the popularity of the Leica 28mm f/2 Summicron - albeit a stop slower. Unfortunately, the only fast 28mm option for the longest time was Nikon's outdated 28mm f/1.4D, which was expensive due to its uniqueness in construction. Then last year came the Leica 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M, which was noticeably exclusive in pricing. If only there were a reasonably priced 28mm f/1.4 in existence.
Well, now there is. If only Nikon had a better full frame DSLR. But then again, it would only be a matter of time until Canon releases their own version. And when they do, the fast 35mm would no longer be the "proverbial thing".
All images have been optimized in Lightroom. Only images under high magnification have been cropped. All images photographed wide open, unless stated otherwise.
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