Finding Perspective with the Nikon Nikkor 28mm F/3.5 AIS 

Finding Perspective with the Nikon Nikkor 28mm F/3.5 AIS 

2000 1125 Hemant Chatterji

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.

Specifications –

  • 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 

Build 

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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Hemant Chatterji

I've always looked for a medium to tell my stories. It's only when photography came into my life that I found my true calling. When I'm not photographing daily life I'm most enthusiastic about building things as a budding engineer.

All stories by:Hemant Chatterji
14 comments
  • I really enjoyed reading your impressions and review of this lens. I have the Ai version of the Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 and it has been a trusty companion for me. I have traveled the world with this lens and it has not let me down, being both very durable, nice to use, and capable of producing lovely photos. I haven’t ever found the f/3.5 max aperture to be terribly limiting since the wide 28mm focal length allows longer shutter speeds to be used while maintaining sharpness. But as the author emphasized, this lens really shines when there is plenty of light. Load a roll of fine-grain film, like Acros II, and this lens will really blow you away with how sharp the images can be, especially considering the low price vs. the f/2.8 version. I bought mine from KEH.com in bargain condition for $65 a few years ago. I highly recommend this lens.

  • I’m sorry to be critical, but volumes have been written on wide angle lenses and countless better reviews have been written on this lens. As long as we are restating what is already known about reinventing the wheel, the main reason to go to the 28mm lens is when you can’t get far away enough for the 35 or 50 or can’t focus fast enough for action shots with the 35 or 50. There is no special ‘look’ achievable with the 28 unless you want the previously stated edge distortion or its foreshortening effect on landscapes. Landscapes with a 28mm usually make the subject appear too small even if it is a mountain. If you want to make someone’s features exaggerated and enlarge the nose, get close and use your 28. If you want to make a wide person look really wide, put them on the edge of a group shot with the 28mm. Normally, this is not desirable. Not enough versatility to take the 28mm over the 35mm along in the bag. The 28 kinda sucks for resolution when compared to most longer normal focal length lenses. It does not even have superior circles of confusion or swirly bokeh.
    When the only reproduction of photographs happening is with scanned snapshots with post processing on websites, you could stick a plastic LOMO meniscus lens on your 20 year old digital camera, smear grease on it, run down the street shaking the camera violently and get results good enough to do lens reviews here.
    >The 28mm is best for taking portrait-distance or closer shots of a person or two in a crowd of jostling people especially with flash since the zone prefocal or hyperfocal setting of the wide lens make it easy to use for quick shots even totally manually without looking through the viewfinder.< Anything from 4 to 30 feet is in focus at f8 with a flash even at very slow shutter speeds. You don't even need autofocus or careful framing.
    For shots that really need a wide angle, the 28 often is not wide enough. When that wide angle distortion is desirable, the 28mm does not produce it enough.Usually, we crop down those 28mm shots so should have used the 35mm in the first place with better composition. The 28mm is perhaps the least useful lens in my possession. It is better to have a wider lens than 28 for those special shots with distorted wide-angle effect. the 35mm lens for landscapes and group portraits, the 50mm for almost 90% of all pictures since it is the best lens ever made, period. Lastly portrait lens somewhere from 80 to 150mm portrait lens. Quality of the portrait lens is least important of all. That is the lens that you want to possess all the weird character, since most portraits require more feel than grain counting resolution. No room for zooms in my bag.
    What is the point is saying everything is great about things that are actually rather mediocre in comparison? Does Casual Photography mean "just get the cheapest camera/lens you can and shoot a roll, write a fluffy article, then throw the old crappy lens in the drawer and forget about it?" Is it casual to remember always to shoot with a tripod, stop the lens down to f8 or better, then bracket the exposure while refocusing one stop in each direction? That is all you have to do. Get the best 50mm you can afford. Why encourage mediocrity when you can try a little for improved results? Casually strive for casual perfection. Casual does not have to mean lackadaisical.

    • John, do you have any work, any writing, any photos, anything at all except your many criticisms or others’ work on this site (and presumably others) that you have braved to put out there for all the world to see? I for one would love to see it.

    • Boy, did somebody get up on the wrong side of the bed! Nice review, Hermant. It got me to pluck my unmetered Nikon F with its 28mm 3.5 H off the shelf, apologize for neglecting it for so long, and then load it with a roll of Tri-X. When the sun comes out on Friday I’ll venture out, knowing that some combination of f11 or f16 and 1/1000 or 1/500 will give me sharp, contrasty photos. Thanks!

    • I think Hemant was writing from the perspective of someone who hadn’t experienced very much in the way of using a wide angle lens, and as someone who found an affordable 28mm lens and ended up really loving it. Obviously you have way more experience in this particular area than Hemant might, and as the editor of the site I recognized that there were technical details missing from this review. However, I think the perspective is valuable. Where you have found the article lacking, someone in Hemant’s position (ie. a new wide angle shooter, or a young person just discovering that their SLR can change lenses…) might see this article and feel excited and bolstered by the idea of a new perspective at a low price. In fact, most of our 3 million readers this year were under the age of 30, so I suspect that many people are just discovering this whole thing.

      Anyway, none of this is to say that your comment is without merit. We have some very serious-minded and technically-obsessed people writing lens reviews for this site as well. Please look for Cheyenne’s or Sroyon’s (or dare I say, my own) lens reviews and perhaps those will be more up your alley!

      And I will also add that if you’d like to write the kind of lens reviews that you want to see on this site, please send me a message. I pay my writers, and I’m sure that there are other readers like you who would value YOUR particular flavor of review!

    • Lighten up, Francis.

    • I really like this great review from this great gentleman because he gas given a lesson to me. I have the famous Ais 28mm/f2.8 mint conditions : I just realise that it is not strongly better than this great 3.5, but the 2.8 is far more expensive. Sorry, it is still normal prices compare to Leica or others, but the 2.8 is more expensive.
      I love this review because it is like Casualphotophile reviews it is realistic with real experience and example.
      The images are wonderful.
      I think this one more great review here.
      Thank you so much for your review, your great pictures, and excellent writing.
      THIS IS VERY VERY USEFUL!

    • Plainly you aren’t actually sorry to be critical, John. It’s quite clear that you derive some twisted satisfaction from being unproductively negative.

    • To me, this site is about people’s personal experiences and opinions far more than dry technical ‘reviews’ of hardware, which are all over the internet already. Yes, this is a mainstream Nikon lens that was in production for decades, so it’s hardly a rarity – I’ve got one somewhere too – but Hemant has told us what it meant to him in terms of photographic opportunities, and shown us the results. That’s the sort of thing I come here for. Nice job, Hemant!

  • ahhhhhh 😉
    Great review one more time.
    Especially when it is about film.
    One more time when it comes to Nikon it is difficult to go wrong.

  • Angenieux didn’t invent the retrofocus lens, though they did coin the word. They were the first to use the technology on a 35mm SLR. Retrofocus lenses or ‘inverted telephoto’, as they were called, were pioneered by Taylor Hobson for 35mm movie cameras using a 1930 patent.

  • Thanks again indeed for your insight (and king of poetry when writing!)

    May i ask if the lens suffers from field curvature?
    I have different minolta lens, and most at 28 and 35mm have the issue, which bothers me a bit.
    Is nikon better here or is it the same problem with all old manual lens????

    Best regards, Mickael

  • Hemant, thanks for writing this review and sharing your experiences! I have this same lens and an FM2 attached to the back of it. You mentioned your viewfinder darkening due to the slower maximum aperture; I swapped my stock focusing screen for a Nikon K3, originally for the FM3A, and that helped quite a bit. Though it is supposed to affect the meter, I have not seen a big difference, or it biased mine in a way that compensated for some neede adjustments. They’re still available new from larger retailers, I believe.

  • Enjoyed your review. I have an older silver nosed version of this lens. I use it often. Usually accompanied by a 55 3.5 & 135 3.5.

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Hemant Chatterji

I've always looked for a medium to tell my stories. It's only when photography came into my life that I found my true calling. When I'm not photographing daily life I'm most enthusiastic about building things as a budding engineer.

All stories by:Hemant Chatterji