My Five Favorite Nikkors

I've resisted doing this sort of article in the past. That's partly because my type of shooting doesn't always equate to yours. Thus, my favorite lenses might apply to someone shooting like me, but not to everyone (or even most). 

That said, I think it is reasonable to understand what Nikkor lenses really stand out for me and why. I'll give you an alternative bargain list when I'm done to round things out, but here are my five favorite Nikkors, (mostly) in ascending focal length order:

  • 70-200mm f/2.8E FL — This third generation of a staple lens just busts what we think is a good lens and establishes a new norm, at least for FX users (the original version is arguably the best choice for a DX user). Nikon's optical designers just hit this one out of the park. I don't know of any other zoom (and not many telephoto primes) that can hold sharpness into the corners as well as this lens. The center is as good as I've measured, even wide open. The electronic aperture gets rid of one of the banes of the high fps shooter and makes for deadly accurate exposures. And if that weren't enough, it dropped 8% in weight, something I wish I could do personally. I'm not alone in my praise for this lens. Every pro I've met who's tried it thinks the same thing as me: this is a winner. US$2800.
  • 105mm f/1.4E — It's not a perfect lens, but if you shoot events, portraits, or sports and like this focal length, I'm not sure what you're going to find to use that's better. Let's skip to the top attribute: it's sharp wide open, all the way to the corners. It stays sharp as you stop down all the way until diffraction starts to take its toll. The bokeh is very nice. So what's the drawback? Price, size, and maybe some will find the vignetting wide open to be a bit much (one and two-thirds stops). Even size isn't that big an issue, but you'll find this lens is very noticeably bigger and heavier than the 85mm f/1.4 you're probably used to. US$2200.
  • 200mm f/2G — There might not be a better lens out there at this focal length. As improved as the 70-200mm f/2.8E is, this lens can match or top it and give you another stop of aperture while doing so. It's often called the Fat Boy, and that's probably its one key drawback: it's big and heavy and slightly awkward to hand hold. Oh what all of us would give for Nikon to bring this lens up to E FL status: a bit of weight loss coupled with the latest tech would make this lens essentially as good as I can reasonably imagine. US$6000.
  • 300mm f/4E PF — This was a surprise when it appeared in 2015, and if you haven't picked one up and tried it, it will still surprise you today. Any D500 owner that doesn't own one who shoots anything that requires real telephoto should have their head examined (or maybe find a job that pays better so that they can afford this lens ;~). There's not a better small DSLR telephoto combo than the D500+300mm f/4E. Heck, go ahead and add the TC-14EIII—something I'm reluctant to do on most lenses—and you've got the full frame equivalent of 610mm f/5.6 in a package that is easily hand-held. And surprisingly, still performs really well (you may have to do some AF Fine Tuning with the combo to fully dial it in, though). On full frame cameras you'll still be happy with this lens, though it's reach won't be as impressive, even with the TC. US$2000.
  • You might have noticed that everything so far has been telephoto. Nikon's been nailing the top telephoto lenses. As I was going through the full Nikkor lens list and thinking about the wide angle side—Nikon makes fairly nondescript "normal" lenses—I couldn't think of any Nikkor lenses that I truly think is outstanding other than one I've just been coming to grips with: 19mm f/4E tilt-shift lens. Optically, there's nothing to complain about unshifted (still evaluating the shifts): it's excellent center to corner on a D850, even wide open. There's just no chromatic aberration. Despite the big, bulbous front element, flare is remarkably well handled (gotta love Nano coating). Barrel distortion is present, though, which you'll want to correct if you're using this lens for architecture. The tilt-shift mechanism is the way it should have been years ago, allowing for any shift-tilt combination (and on the D5 generation bodies, you don't hit the prism at the extremes). Yes, it's a manual focus lens, but now that we have Peaking on the Live View screen, dialing in the right focus (even with tilt) is remarkably simple to get right. Review coming. US$3400.

Wait, Thom didn't put his 400mm f/2.8 in his favorite five? Well, yes, it is when the situation is appropriate. But with the true exotics (400mm f/2.8 and up) we're getting really pricey and you really have to need those lenses' abilities to put them in your kit. So here's a bonus #6: 400mm f/2.8E FL. There's not a better long, fast telephoto in Nikon's lineup. The 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 aren't quite as wicked with acuity, the 800mm f/5.6 is a beast that few can manage. I haven't evaluated the 180-400mm f/4E yet (and it may be awhile before I manage to get one to try).

Now let's go to the Bargain Bin. In this category I select Nikkors I'm really pleased with in terms of price/performance. They might not be the best lens you can select, but they hit well above their weight class.

One word of warning before I get to the list: as you get down into the lower consumer pricing these lenses sit at, sample variation can and does start to enter the picture. I've very rarely seen a bad sample of the top lenses I list above, but I have seen several bad samples of the lenses I list below. If you're going to shop in this category and be happy, you need to know how to do some basic lens testing when you get the lens, and have return privileges if you find you've gotten the proverbial rotten apple.

  • 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G — Originally intended for the D610 and maybe D750 crowd, this basic wide angle lens actually performs well above its price class (again, assuming a good sample). There are things you'll want to be cogniscent of: it's very high in mustache linear distortion, and the corners are poor without stopping down, and remain only good in most of the focal range even when you've stopped down to f/8 or f/11. You really want to avoid 18mm if corners are important, but 24mm f/8 is enough to get something reasonable. For a light, casual walk-around type of lens, I'm pretty happy with this Nikkor even on a D850. But you absolutely will want to apply lens corrections and avoid putting significant detail in corners. US$750.
  • 24mm f/1.8G — If you need a fast wide angle lens that's a bargain, this lens is probably the answer. A bit of barrel distortion plus a lot of vignetting at f/1.8 are the only real drawbacks, but the positive is this: excellent optical performance. Even the corners are very good at f/1.8, but by the time you get to f/2.8 I'm not sure what more you could expect from a lens at this or even a higher price. Given how good a few of the f/1.8 Nikkor primes are, it's been difficult for Nikon to convince me to spend a lot more for an f/1.4 lens. US$750.
  • 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G — You might be sensing a theme, and you're right. These consumer zooms Nikon has produced all have very similar appeal. They're light and small, and within some constraints, they are highly competent. This mid-range zoom has high linear distortion: barrel in the wide angle, and pincushion in the telephoto. Fortunately, there's no mustache complications, so it's easy to correct. Also like the partner wide angle zoom, the optical weakness is really the extreme corners. The center is really, really excellent. Out to the borders the lens still performs well; I'd call it good at pretty much every aperture and focal length combination. But in the corners? You have to stop down to pull them into the good territory. f/5.6 is enough at everything except 24mm, where you really need use f/8 or f/11 to pull corners into something you might leave detail in. Vignetting is a little high at 24mm, too, so again you'll be wanting to use lens corrections and stop down when you want to extract everything you can from this small, light lens. US$500.
  • 85mm f/1.8G — I'm tempted to say that this lens has no faults. Minimal pin cushion distortion, moderate vignetting, low lateral chromatic aberration. Yes, there's a bokeh that's got a small amount of color fringing to it (typical of many fast lenses). But in terms of acuity? Use it at any aperture and you're going to be pretty darned happy, even on a D850. Given the price and the performance, this may be the biggest bargain of the bunch.  US$480.
  • 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P — If you had been using the older 70-300mm, putting this new version on your camera instead is almost like you had laser eye surgery: you should immediately see the acuity difference. Immediately. I was astounded to find that this lens performs really nicely on a D850. Enough so that it has become my walk-around telephoto zoom for places like the Galapagos Islands. It's particularly better at the long end of the focal range, where the older version just didn't shine on the high pixel density bodies. Couple that with faster focus and you have a clear winner. The one downside, if there is one, is that you need a post D3 body to use this lens, and some of those D3 to D4 generation bodies still have some minor liabilities with this lens. But assuming you've kept your body reasonably up to date, that's simply not an issue, and you're going to find that Live View focuses faster than ever before with an AF-P lens. You might wonder about the comparison to the 70-200mm f/4G: Yes, that f/4 zoom is a little better in the center, but only a little. It's not worth the US$650 price difference in my mind unless you need 200mm f/4 (e.g. sports venues in lower light). US$750.

I'm tempted to say this: what can't you shoot well with the above five bargain Nikkors? The 24mm makes for a reasonable landscape lens, the 85mm a great sports/portrait/moderate telephoto lens. The 18-35mm and 24-85mm are pretty good travel lenses that keep your kit light and compact, though you'll want to watch the corners and stop down when you can. The 70-300mm is a workhorse telephoto zoom that has made the 70-200mm f/4 a bit redundant in my gear closet, to the point where it is on my purge list. 

And what did this bargain lens kit cost me? US$3230. Actually less than that, as I picked up a few of these as refurbished or on sale. 

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