Did all the Nikon lens designers retire, or what?
Note: versions of this article have appeared periodically for almost ten years on my sites. I've updated the article over time as Nikon's lenses and body choices have changed. This is the 2016 version ;~).
Some of Nikon’s lens announcements (e.g., the recent DX AF-P lenses) provoke a "where are the lenses" complaint from many Nikon faithful. I decided to look to see what I'd written about missing lenses, and, whoa, I wrote something back in 2004 (and updated it in 2007; this article was original created in late 2009 and has been updated again in 2010 and twice in 2014, and now again in 2016). I was kind of hoping that a few things on previous lists I put out might actually have made it to market. Well, we got some PC-Es, though not the one I wanted.
Oh my! I originally listed 20 lenses that I felt needed to be produced. We got...wait for it…none of them. It appears I need to do a better job describing what we have and what we need (at a minimum). So here we go:
Let's start with what we have:
✓ Primes: 10.5mm f/2.8 fisheye, 35mm f/1.8, 40mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor, 85mm f/3.5 Micro-Nikkor
✓ Consumer: 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5, 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5, 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 VR, 55-200mm f/4-5.6 VR, 55-300mm f/4-5.6 VR, 70-300mm f/4-5.6, 70-300mm f/4-5.6 VR
✓ Pro: 12-24mm f/4, 16-80mm f/2.8-4, 17-55mm f/2.8
Let's start with a premise: that the DX lens line should be reasonably complete by itself (without siphoning off FX lenses). The rationale behind that thought is that most DX lenses should be smaller and lighter than FX lenses, and the mostly consumer (slightly prosumer) DX crowd wants reduced size and weight, and a more modest cost. So what's missing? Simple:
- Any wide angle DX prime. Any of the following would suffice: 12mm, 14mm, 16mm, 18mm. We can argue about maximum apertures, but even f/2.8 lenses would be a step forward (and consistent with small/light).
- Technically, the 17-55mm could use an update and VR, though the recent 16-80mm f/2.8-4 somewhat fills that position now.
- A prosumer telephoto zoom: 50-150mm f/2.8 VR.
- Also for the prosumer, a DX PC-E option: 16mm f/4 PC-E.
Why modest apertures on the wide angle lenses? Price and size. Technically, all the wide angle primes should be faster than f/2.8 to keep up with the mirrorless competition. But remember the premise: DX lenses are going mostly onto consumer/prosumer kits. Even pros that go DX usually are doing so for its compact size. We also have higher priced and bigger FX variants that can suffice for some faster wide lenses (e.g. 20mm f/1.8 and 24mm f/1.4).
So, at a minimum, Nikon is probably missing seven DX lenses, and has been missing quite a few for some time. Any new wide angle primes would give more options to a new DSLR user. A 16mm f/2.8 and 50-150mm f/2.8 would both sell quite decently, I’ll bet. A DX PC-E lens would simply be a clear indication that Nikon wants DX users to be able to do pretty much everything DLSRs can do.
Meanwhile, the following two DX lenses really need a refresh: 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5, 12-24mm f/4.
So, Nikon has nine DX lenses it needs to get cranking on.
DX needed nine lenses to round out and update the offerings. FX needs more, believe it or not, especially since FX lenses fill out gaps for DX, as well. But let's look at what we've got (lenses marked with an * are lenses that need significant updating):
✓ Primes: 14mm f/2.8*, 16mm f/2.8 fisheye*, 20mm f/2.8*, 20mm f/1.8, 24mm f/1.4, 24mm f/1.8, 24mm f/2.8*, 28mm f/1.8, 28mm f/2.8*, 35mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.8, 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.4*, 50mm f/1.8*, 58mm f/1.4, 60mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor, 85mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8, 105mm f/1.4, 105mm f/2*, 105mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor VR, 135mm f/2*, 180mm f/2.8*, 200mm f/2 VR*, 200mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor*, 300mm f/2.8 VR*, 300mm f/4E, 400mm f/2.8E VR, 500mm f/4E VR, 600mm f/4E VR, 800mm f/5.6E VR
✓ Consumer: 16-35mm f/4, 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5, 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5, 24-120mm f/4 VR, 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6, 70-200mm f/4 VR, 70-300mm f/4-5.6 VR*, 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR, 200-500mm f/5.6
✓ Pro: 14-24mm f/2.8mm, 17-35mm f/2.8*, 24-70mm f/2.8E, 24-85mm f/2.8-4*, 70-200mm f/2.8 VR*, 80-200mm f/2.8*, 200-400mm f/4 VR*
What's immediately startling to me is that of the 47 lenses on that FX list, 19 need updating! Yes, 19 (the 35mm f/2 no longer needs updating given the 35mm f/1.8). Other things that stand out immediately are that Nikon has a lot of primes (though many of them need updating), but fewer consumer lenses (fortunately all good ones now, with only one needing updating). We've got a lot of work to do here:
- Prime Overhaul. We need updated AF-S G versions that work well on the D8xx of the 14mm, 16mm, 24mm, and 28mm (f/2.8 versions). The 50mm f/1.4 and f/1.8 seem to be underperforms, too, and need updating. The 135mm and 180mm need AF-S and VR. That's a lot of work to catch up on right there.
- Definitive Consumer FX Zooms. D8xx users are forced to the pro lenses, though a few of the new consumer lenses hold up well on the camera for some uses. A good quality, reasonably sized mid-range zoom with lesser specs is absolutely necessary. A perfect offering would be: 16-35mm f/4, 24-85mm f/4 VR, and 70-200mm f/4 VR, all AF-S. Of those, we're missing that middle. Yes, I know we have a 24-120mm, but we need to come down some on size/weight, especially given the D750 appearing. All three together would provide a strong offering from very wide to decent telephoto in three smaller lenses that have some overlap.
- Make the Pro Lineup Shine. The pro zooms are in the best shape of the bunch, but even here we still need some work: we could still use a fast wide angle zoom with filter rings (17-35mm f/2.8). We need an updated 70-200mm E-style with Flourine coating, but there's nothing really wrong with the 14-24mm. The 200-400mm f/4 is looking less desirable since the appearance of the Canon version with a built-in TC, and it also had a distance shooting issue that was never addressed. It, too, is a candidate for redesign, bringing it into the E-era if nothing else.
- Telephoto Options. We need a slower, smaller long option or two, such as a 400mm f/4 or 500mm f/5.6. Better still, make those PF ala the 300mm f/4 PF. We had long telephoto with slower apertures many years ago in manual focus versions, I don’t understand why we can’t have them with autofocus.
- Exotica. The 200mm Micro-Nikkor needs redesign, probably VR, and definitely AF-S. The PC-E lenses need to be able to have tilt/shift regardless of orientation, ala the latest Canon ones. And a wider PC-E would be nice (17mm PC-E f/4).
- More Clarity on E. The exotic telephotos are now all E from 400mm up, the 300mm f/4 is now an E, the latest DX zoom is an E. Okay. This seems to indicate that we’re moving from G to E across the board, which means that many more lenses need E versions. The Pro Zoom lineup is the obvious next candidate, but all those f/1.4 and f/1.8 primes suddenly seem to need it, too.
Let's put everything into a couple of simple charts. The black lenses in the following lists exist, the red lenses are my proposed additions/changes/updates; stars are primes, lines are zooms.
- Primes:10.5mm f/2.8 fisheye, 16mm f/2.8, 16mm f/4 PC-E, 18mm f/2.8, 35mm f/1.8, 40mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor, 58mm f/1.8, 85mm f/3.5 Micro-Nikkor
- Consumer Zoom: 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5, 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 VR, 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6, 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3, 55-200mm f/4-5.6 VR, 55-300mm f/4-5.6, 70-300mm f/4-5.6
- Pro Zoom: 12-24mm f/4, 16-85mm f/4, 17-55mm f/2.8 VR, 50-150mm f/2.8 VR
It would be an odd DX user who wouldn't be mostly happy with that lineup. Especially since they could supplement with FX lenses. Final tally: 14 existing lenses, 8 missing lenses, 2 needing update.
Here's my full proposed FX lineup (blue again indicates lenses that need an update, like AF-S or realigning the tilt/shift; red indicates a whole new lens [VR requires redesign], green, gray and black are existing lenses):
- Primes: 14mm f/2.8, 16mm f/2.8 fisheye, 17mm f/4 PC-E, 20mm f/1.8, 24mm f/1.4, 24mm f/1.8, 24mm f/3.5 PC-E, 28mm f/1.8, 35mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.8, 45mm f/2.8 PC-E, 50mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.8, 58mm f/1.4, 60mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor, 85mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8, 85mm f/2.8 PC-E, 105mm f/1.4, 105mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor VR, 135mm f/2, 180mm f/2.8, 200mm f/2 VR, 200mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor VR, 300mm f/2.8 VR, 300mm f/4 VR, 400mm f/2.8 VR, 400mm f/4 PF VR, 500mm f/4 VR, 500mm f/5.6 PF VR, 600mm f/4 VR, 800mm f/5.6 VR
- Consumer Zoom: 16-35mm f/4 VR, 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5, 24-85mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, 24-85mm f/4, 24-120 f/4 VR, 28-300mm f/4-5.6, 70-300mm f/4-5.6 VR, 70-200mm f/4 VR, 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR
- Pro Zoom: 14-24mm f/2.8, 17-35mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8 VR, 70-200mm f/2.8 VR, 200-400mm f/4 VR
As you can probably see, even the FX line needs a lot of work bringing it fully up to modern standards (G, AF-S, VR, weather sealing), but has only a few needed additions. The irony is that Nikon has made nine out-of-the-park hits with the D3, D3s, D3x, D4/D4s, D5, D700, D750, D800/D800E, and D810, all FX cameras, plus the D600, D610, and Df are darned good, too. Despite many good new FX lenses, we’re still running short of a full, modern set. Final tally: 27 existing lenses, 4 missing lenses, 15 lenses needing work.
By my count, Nikon therefore has 29 lenses (DX and FX) that should be in design. At 6 lenses a year, Nikon's average, that means that Nikon is arguably about seven years behind where they should be right now. I'll repeat: seven years behind where the users want them to be.
The one good thing about all the above is that, at least in a handful of cases, there are third-party alternatives available while we wait for Nikon. Still, there are significant missing components to a full F-Mount lens set (18mm PC-E or 400mm f/5.6 VR, for example). So what are the significant third party filler lenses as I see them? Here are my choices for third party lenses until Nikon's lineup becomes what I want it to be:
- DX wide angle prime: no acceptable candidate
- DX PC-E lens: no acceptable candidate
- DX portrait lens: Tamron 60mm f/2 Macro, Nikon FX 58mm f/1.4G
- DX pro mid-range zoom: Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC or Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 OS or perhaps Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8
- DX pro telephoto lens: Sigma 50-100mm f/1.8 HSM OS, Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 HSM OS
- FX 14, 16, 135, 180: no acceptable AF candidates at present
- FX 17, 24, 45, 85 PC-E: Samyang 24mm
- FX long macro: Sigma 180mm f/3.5 HSM OS
- FX 300mm f/4, 400mm f/5.6: no acceptable candidates
- FX 80-200mm: no acceptable candidates (though we have lots of 70-200mm lenses)
One comment about third party lenses: I've seen more sample variation with third party lenses than I have with Nikkors, so be sure to get return privileges or try out the actual lens in a store before buying it.
Lenses We Don't Need
Meanwhile, I'm not at all interested in the following, and I doubt many of you are either:
- Any additional DX consumer zooms that start at 18mm (unless they are updates that seriously improve an existing one).
- Any additional macro lenses unless they have a very long working distance (200mm), great flexibility (70-180mm), or greater than 1:1 capability.
- Any mediocre update of mid-range zooms. Indeed, we have enough variable aperture mid-range FX zooms that are decent, so mediocrity is below the bar here.
- Any additional mid-range or telephoto lenses that don't have VR.
- Any additional PC-E lenses that have the single orientation of tilt/shift.
A few comments from those that have read the article that I need to address:
- There’s a fair question as to whether Nikon would be better off having five 18-xx variable aperture lenses or whether they should put some more variety into the consumer DX zooms. For instance, making the 18-70mm VR a constant aperture f/4 lens was one such suggestion. I'll have to admit that I kept my list conservative and as close to Nikon's current products and capabilities as I could. The less Nikon has to change, the faster we would get it. That said, I do like the idea of a constant aperture consumer DX zoom.
- Questions about my originally proposed 55mm DX lens have caused me to update my spec slightly, to 58mm. The current 50mm f/1.8 is a bit too short for DX portraits, and the 58mm f/1.4 is too expensive to be considered by most users.
- Does Nikon really need a boatload of FX primes (22+)? No, they probably don't. The f/2.8 primes could all probably go away without too much whining, especially if we get the complete set of f/1.8 and f/2 updates. Still, I'm hesitant to suggest that Nikon cut into that list to do other things. In and around the studio, I'd rather be using primes, especially if they have long focus throws (the zooms tend have minimal focus ring movement).