Thom’s Recommended Lenses for FX Users

Note: This is different than the Recommended listings you may see in the individual reviews. In the reviews I'm keeping my recommendations to the specific lens. In this article I'm trying to recommend a useful set of lenses together, and so some lenses I do recommend might get left off this list.

FX is a little trickier than DX in that we have a range of pixel densities available at the sensor, currently from 16mp to 45mp in total capture (add in 12mp if you count the D700 and D3/D3s because you’re still using them). A Nikon D810 (or D800/D800E) resolves about 50% more than a D4s (or D4/Df), for instance, and the difference between a D700 and D850 is a little over 100% (4000 pixels wide versus 8256).

When Nikon introduced the D800, they were worried enough about pixel density to publish the D800/D800E Technical Guide, which not only had handling and shooting technique information in it, but a list of lenses Nikon considered producing “enhanced sharpness” on the 36mp cameras (they've also published a list for the 45mp D850, though I can't link to that page due to a certificate issue on the Nikon site).

Let me put one thing out of the way first: the D8xx series does not out-resolve lenses. However, the extra resolution of the D8xx series cameras can certainly and clearly show deficiencies in a lens. Lens edge performance that might have been tolerable on a D3/D3s/D700/D4/D4s/Df suddenly looks a lot less desirable when you pixel peep with a D800/D800E/D810/D850. Contrast, too, is a bit of an issue. In essence, the D8xx series captures more of what we might call micro contrast (when you look at images at the same size) than a D4/D4s/Df does, so lenses with lower MTF characteristics do indeed look a little less “snappy” on the high resolution cameras than on the lower resolution ones. 

Having used a D800, D800E, D810, and D850 for over five years now, I have a lot of experience at which lenses perform well on these cameras.

Here’s how I’m going to handle my recommendations: first, I’ll share my D8xx recommendations; then I’ll supplement that with other current lenses that I believe work just fine on the other Nikon FX bodies.

36mp/45mp Worthy Lenses
The Nikkor list is longer than you think. We’ll go from the easiest calls to the toughest calls, in order:

  • Any telephoto exotic. The 105mm f/1.4, 200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4, and 800mm f/5.6 are all exceptional on a D8xx body. The 105mm, 200mm, and 400mm are the best performers, but none of the others are very far behind at all. The MTF charts for these lenses tend to look as close to flat lines as you’ll find, and I find that produces exceptional micro contrast as well as acuity. With the re-design that produced the 70-200mm f/2.8E FL, I’d add that lens to this list, as well; it’s the best zoom performer we’ve had to date. Another lens I'm adding to the easy-to-call list is the 19mm f/4E PC-E: this lens is superb. 
  • Most of the other telephotos. The 70-200mm f/2.8G VRII, 70-200mm f/4G, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P300mm f/4E, 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G, and 200-500mm f/5.6E each have some minor issues to them compared to the exotics, but they, too, tend to work perfectly fine on the D8xx bodies, surprisingly even that US$599 70-300mm. Corners on the older 70-200mm f/2.8G VRII are a little weak wide open, for instance, but often corners aren’t all that important in telephoto use (the E version doesn’t have this issue, which is why it’s in the category above). The 300mm f/4E has some issues with really strong light sources in frame that reduce contrast around that source in a bad way, but generally you’re not framing strong light sources with it. These are still all top-notch lenses that shine on the D8xx bodies.
  • 14-24mm f/2.8. While it’s a tricky lens to get the focus plane right (due to field curvature), assuming you do it shines on the D8xx bodies. Really no complaints.
  • Most of the other primes. No, not all of them. The f/1.4 versions that shine are the 24mm, 35mm, 58mm, and to a lesser degree the 85mm. The f/1.8 ones that really stand out on the D8xx bodies are the 20mm, 24mm, 28mm (but watch for focus shift), 35mm, and 85mm. The rest of the AF-S f/1.4 and f/1.8 primes I find just not fully up to what the D8xx can achieve. In particular, I don’t really like any of the 50mm primes on my current D850, to the point where I’m considering selling them. That’s not to say they’re bad lenses (and note I do recommend them for the lower resolution bodies), but you buy a high resolution body to get exceptional pixel level performance. The 50’s don’t achieve that in my opinion. We need new 50mm f/1.4E and 50mm f/1.8G designs, I think.
  • The Macros. The 60mm and 105mm Micro-Nikkors do just fine on the D8xx bodies. They only fall in this list towards the bottom because their short working distances make them less usable than what I (or you should) really want. 
  • The Other PC-E Lenses. 24mm f/3.5, 45mm f/2.8, and 85mm f/2.8. They fall down the list for two reasons: fully shifted you’ll see clear edge performance issues; and tilt and shift aren’t independent, making them not as useful as they could be. 
  • The rest of the constant aperture zooms. This includes the 16-35mm f/4, the 24-70mm f/2.8 (both old G and new E versions), and the 24-120mm f/4G. Here there be dragons. Or maybe dragonflies. The non-VR 24-70mm is now showing its age, but the new 24-70mm with VR is back in the game as a potential recommendation. It has some really good aspects to it, and few weaker ones on a D8xx. This new 24-70mm version is better than the older version in terms of overall acuity, but the addition of VR and some of its other attributes also make it worth considering. The 24-120mm has poor corners wide open, but it tends to pull them in a bit better stopped down. The bummer is that the center isn’t quite as good as either 24-70mm f/2.8. The 16-35mm is somewhere between the other two. Plus all of these lenses have some vignetting and linear distortion issues you won’t want to ignore (fixable in in-camera processing or post processing, but still).  

So out of Nikon’s 77 current FX lens list, I’m recommending at least 30 for D800, D800E, D810, and D850 users. 

The Rest of FX
If you have a 12mp D700 or D3s; a 16mp D4, D4s, or Df; a 20mp D5; or even a 24mp D600, D610, or D750, I’d add these:

  • The 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 and 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5. The smaller size and weight better complements the 24mp camera bodies, and the optical performance is tuned just about right for those cameras, too. These lenses are almost good enough to recommend to D8xx users, and are actually some of Nikon’s best lens bargains in FX. 

If you have a D700, D3s, D4, D4s, or Df, we can probably add some more:

  • 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6. Even the 28-300mm’s weaknesses are masked with the lower resolution of the 12mp and 16mp sensors, so I wouldn’t rule it out, though I’d still tend to opt for other solutions mentioned above. 
  • The 50’s are probably fine. You can add in the 50mm f/1.4 and f/1.8 to the list of primes that you should consider, though I’d still opt for the 45mm PC-E or the 58mm f/1.4 for true acuity and higher contrast.

So what am I not recommending? 14mm f/2.8, 16mm f/2.8, 17-35mm f/2.8, 20mm f/2.8, 24-85mm f/2.8-4, 24mm f/2.8, 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 (except for low pixel count cameras), 28mm f/2.8, 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.2, 50mm f/1.4 or 1.8 (except for low pixel count cameras), 70-300mm f/4-5.6G (old version), 80-200mm f/2.8, 105mm f/2, 135mm f/2, 180mm f/2.8, and 200-400mm f/4. 

Note that I would certainly recommend a few of these lenses for DX users (the 200-400mm f/4 comes to mind). Many of these lenses were designed before digital and are showing their age, some were designed in the digital age but just don’t resonate with the high megapixel count cameras, plus a few have other liabilities (focus performance on the 105mm f/2 and 135mm f/2, for instance; long distance shooting with the 200-400mm f/4). 

The two lenses you’re probably surprised by not being on my FX recommended list are the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G (old version) and 200-400mm f/4. 

The older 70-300mm just isn’t up to the optical needs of the higher megapixel count cameras, and the new AF-P version is the proof. The older version might suffice in DX because DX is only using the optical center of the lens, but even the high pixel densities in DX now (24mp) are really showing the limitations of this lens, too, and the AF-P DX lens is a better choice for most there.

The 200-400mm falls off my list for a different reason: it just isn’t that great at distance, and the wider angle of view of FX would have you tending to always be using it at 400mm and some distance for most subjects. The 200-400mm’s compromises still work okay for many DX users and close in work, but the 80-400mm is a better choice for virtually all FX users, which is a condemnation of the 200-400mm for FX in my mind. Having spent some time using the Canon 200-400mm f/4 I can say now that the Nikon version is sub-optimal and needs a re-design to stay competitive.

Which brings me to another thing: I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I recommend things because they don’t really put me (or you) in compromised positions. I don’t recommend things when I find the compromises start to infringe on my photographic usage. And yes, I put my money where my mouth is (well, actually fingers): after putting this article together I realized that I had a few lenses that I’m no longer using because I find them compromised a bit for my primary use of the D810. I put those up for sale. Were I shooting more on the D4s and Df, I’d almost certainly keep them. But that’s what happens when you opt for 50% more resolution: some things you own start to not keep up with you.

Third Party Lenses
I just don’t have enough experience with enough third-party FX lenses to make solid and complete recommendations here. That said:

  • Virtually all the Sigma Art lenses. Sigma has been doing an excellent job since their recent move to new designs. Every Art lens I’ve sampled has been better than the Nikon equivalent in terms of overall acuity, micro contrast, and edge-to-edge sharpness. So, if you need a 50mm, this is one place you should look.
  • Virtually all the Zeiss lenses. The bad news is that these are all manual focus for the F-mount, and modern DSLRs aren’t the greatest for assessing focus precision visually, even with Live View. Still, I’ve not had a clunker out of any Zeiss lens I’ve used. Some, like the Otus, are exceptional and unmatched by anything else. The new Milvus line doesn’t have a dud in it, either.

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