It’s no secret that the 28mm lens is a favorite amongst all types of photographers. Even here at CP where we’re often using a diverse set of gear, there’s that one focal length that seems to find a spot time and time again on the home page. And I’ve recently been shooting an old classic in this length – the Nikon Nikkor 28mm F/3.5.
History, Specifications, and Reasoning Behind my Choice
Nikon has a history of revising lenses which might not have needed revisions. No surprise than, that this lens has a lot of history and a ton of brothers and sisters as well. The earliest of which is a pretty famous lens, the 2.8cm F/3.5 H Auto Nikkor, which at the time carried a reputation for being the very best that Nikon (or Nippon Kogaku, as it was then known) had to offer.
The H Auto first went on sale in March of 1960. It was a time dominated by rangefinders, and SLRs were still considered a very niche market. Having developed the Nikon F in 1959, Nikon wanted to offer the first all-around camera capable of catering to every shooting condition. For that dream to become a reality, a wide-angle lens was direly needed in the portfolio. It was under these conditions that Zenji Wakimoto found himself at the helm and took charge of the development of this new generation lens.
A common way of approaching the wide-angle lens made for SLRs back then involved a technique known as retro focus technology. This was first pioneered by Angenieux in their 35mm lens. Carrying this same focusing methodology over to the 28mm focal length proved to be disastrous in terms of optical performance, especially in the departments of coma and flaring. Mr. Wakimoto would go on to solve this problem by rearranging a few elements in the retro focus configuration and the rest is history.
The lens we have in question today is the spiritual successor of this original design. Encompassing all of its characteristics but re-imagined for the new age SLR market with the AI/AIS technology that Nikon was developing in the late 1970s.
As for my journey to finding this lens, I knew I needed a wider focal length Nikkor to bring along on my mini-adventures but not something overly wide and overly fast (and thus, expensive). I needed a fresh perspective, one that would be vastly different to my usual 50mm. I must admit at this point, as Sroyon so eloquently puts it in his article of the 28mm Voigtlander Ultron, I too am somewhat of a victim of the anti-Goldilocks principle; I tend to use only the extremities of any zoom lens that I happen to get my hands on. And after reading Sroyon’s review (and some other 28mm lens reviews here on CP) I decided that 28mm would be the focal length for me.
The F/2.8 variant of the Nikon 28mm has a few minor advantages over the F/3.5, mainly in the areas of corner sharpness and distortion, but the more obvious difference between the two is the faster aperture. A wider aperture tends to create a more versatile lens, usable in more scenarios. For me, the applications for my would-be 28mm lens were mainly focused on landscape and a few fun portraits mostly taken in the broad of daylight, so the advantages of the wider aperture weren’t so obvious. Lastly, and importantly, there was the price difference; the F/2.8 version costs far more for not much of a performance increase. So, after some thinking, there I was a few days later (and just 70$ poorer) with my Nikkor 28mm F/3.5.
- Focal Length (on 35mm): 28mm
- Maximum aperture: F/3.5
- Minimum aperture: F/22
- Minimum Focus Distance: 0.3m
- Optics: 6 elements in 6 groups
- Aperture blades: 7
- Filter thread size: 52mm
When I held the lens for the very first time, I was just blown away by the quality. It was essentially my first look at a “mint+++” category lens. My 50mm, while being my trusted old friend, is quite the beater in terms of look and feel. The focus ring is quite stiff and not so discreet. This 28mm on the other hand is silky smooth, making focusing just a breeze with one finger. The paint is immaculate with detailed prints designated for aperture and focus scales. The aperture ring moves with a very distinct click with one-stop differences. One difference to note is that my copy is the older LMIJ (Lens made in Japan) variant instead of the latter MIJ (Made in Japan) variant, and therefore the focus scale indicators are on the black lens barrel instead of the knurled silver ring. Optically there are no changes between the two models, just their serial numbers.
The lens mount is metal as is the case with every Nikon lens from the era, and the fit and finish of the lens are of the tightest tolerances. It has a 52mm filter thread that accepts screw-in lens hoods as well. Apart from a few notable differences between other ais lenses, this one is pretty much on par with the Nikon’s bulletproof- like build quality.
The build quality has also held the test of time, even when exposed to the natural elements. Over the time that I have had the 28mm, the lens has been through a lot. At an instance even having survived a flash flood, which caused all of my gear to be soaked in the muddy waters of a river. The lens was good to go after a tear-down and giving all the parts a thorough clean-up. The only visible scar from this adventure was the wearing off of the internal coating in one of the glass elements. You can be rest assured that this lens can take all you can throw at it and then some.
Image Quality and Shooting Experience
Shooting with the 28mm for the first time was like a breath of fresh air. Not able to take it out much at first, I resorted to a shoot in my home with one of my mom’s plants, swapping out between the 50mm and the 28mm to see the difference in perspective.
One immediately noticeable difference was the closer minimum focus distance of 0.3m compared to the 0.45m on the 50mm. As a result of which I was able to play around a little more with composition creatively, which did need some shifting of things as often there’s just a lot going on in the frame. On the other hand, an accurate focus was not the easiest to achieve as the subjects appear to be further away from you when compared to longer focal lengths. For example, the 50mm has a much clearer distinction between the out-of-focus zones, which helps a lot when shooting on the go. This was particularly more difficult on the horizontal split prism focus screen that is standard in my FM2n. It is definitely something which requires getting used to.
I was eventually able to take the lens on a short hike where it did quite well as a landscape lens. Occasionally I did notice some viewfinder darkening issues, especially near the center of the frame. This would hinder focusing as one-half of the split prism would completely blackout. I suspect this is due to the lower aperture which struggles in difficult lighting conditions, but that’s just nitpicking.
Image quality is very good with strong performance even wide open. Center sharpness is more than adequate at F/3.5, with pin-sharp photographs. The corners are slightly affected but that does seem to go away with stopping down the lens. Contrast is consistent and adequately present. There is some vignetting at the very corner of the image at F/3.5. Barrel Distortion is present but it’s to be expected when shooting a wide-angle lens. Portraits taken on this lens have a slightly funny look to them due to their wide perspective. It does lend the lens a unique character that works in its favor. Having taken the lens out recently after a long break in photography for some general landscape photos, I was left pleasantly surprised with the image quality on digital systems. Chromatic aberration while still very much present around sharp edges, is definitely controlled and can be easily corrected in post.
Overall this lens is spectacular for daylight shooting and for a general walk-around lens the experience is quite pleasing. My initial dismissal of the significance of the smaller aperture did come back to bite me later. A faster aperture does go a long way in making the lens more friendly to use while maintaining versatility over different scenes. It is just something to actively consider when choosing to go with a slower lens. The strong build quality and small form factor do contribute to a very confident feeling lens. The wide frame opens up a host of different creative outlooks and perspectives for streets and our own surroundings.
After using the lens for some time it comes as no surprise that the 28mm is a favorite amongst the writers at CP and its readers too. The wide perspective has a lot going for it, in terms of creative compositions and changing your shooting style. For me, the ability to place your subjects closer than usual lends a very intimate look to portraits. At the same time adjusting the elements in your composition for landscape photography makes you think actively, enabling you to be more engaged with your surroundings. These few things paired with the wide availability of 28mm lenses do seem to answer the question of its popularity.
My lens, the Nikon Nikkor 28mm F/3.5, though not as impressive or as coveted as its faster older sibling, does provide an affordable entry point into the whole new “wide” world. A unique look at photographs I didn’t know I was missing. A perspective I happily find myself just getting started with.
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