The best lenses for your Nikon D600

By Kevin Carter - Wednesday May 15 2013

Lens Recommendations
Introduction | General Overview | Wide Angles and Telephotos | Standard zooms and primes

Ultra-wide angle lenses are ideal for single-shot ‘panoramas’, architecture and interiors, while wide-angle lenses are more suited to photojournalism, travel, environmental portraiture, street and documentary photography. We’ve looked at a total of 19 different wide and ultra-wide angle models including primes and zooms mounted on a 24MPix Nikon D600.

As well as various lenses made by Nikon we’ve also included some popular models made by Samyang, Sigma, Tamron and Tokina.

Some of the wide-angle lenses we’ve tested include:

We’ve also reviewed 14 fixed focal length telephoto lenses from 85mm to 150mm, seven telephoto zooms and nine ‘super-zooms’ encompassing wide-to-telephoto ranges. This latter group includes lenses such the AF-S Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR and the more compact Tamron equivalent that sound promising, offering  a versatile ‘all-round’ solution, but can they really deliver the optical performance required by a still very demanding sensor?

Some of the popular telephoto and telephoto zooms we put through the labs for this round-up include:

Other full-frame (FX) lenses that are in the remit of the review, but not yet tested include:

  • Nikon AF Nikkor 14mm f/2.8D ED
  • Tokina AT-X 17-35mm f/4 PRO FX
  • Nikon AF-S Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED
  • Nikon AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D
  • Nikon PC-E Nikkor 24mm f/3.5D ED
  • Sigma 24mm f1.8 EX DG Aspherical Macro
  • Sigma 28mm f1.8 EX DG Aspherical Macro
  • Samyang 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC
  • Samyang 24mm f/3.5 AS UMC Tilt /Shift
  • Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD
  • Nikon AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR
  • Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II
  • Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D IF-ED
  • Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II

These lenses will be tested in the coming months, and we hope to update the review to reflect the findings.

 

DxOMark Selection

Ultra-wide angle prime (fixed focal length)

Carl Zeiss Distagon T 21mm f/2.8 ZF2 Nikon 1732 25
Samyang 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC Aspherical Nikon 409 25
Sigma 20mm F1.8 EX DG ASP RF Nikon 629 25
Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 2.8/15 ZF.2 Nikon 2950 25
Nikon AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8D 570 24
Carl Zeiss Distagon T 18mm f/3.5 ZF2 Nikon 1395 22
Sigma 14mm F2.8 EX Aspherical HSM Nikon 749 19
Lenses selection delivering higher sharpness (P-Mpix) on the D800 over the D600


The shorter, more extreme focal lengths suffer more from image degrading aberrations (distortion, vignetting and colour fringing) than moderately wide-angle lenses.

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The manual focus ultra-wide Samyang 14mm f/2.8 scores highly for optical quality and value for money

Needless to say, as the widest the two lenses that really stand out are the Samyang 14mm f/2.8 and the Zeiss Distagon T* 2,8/ 15. These two both achieve the same DxOMark score as the Zeiss and Sigma 20mm lenses.

The Zeiss Distagon T* 2,8/15 ZF.2 and 2,8/21 are among the best tested on the D600

Scoring the same overall DxOMark score of 25 the Samyang 14mm f2.8 IF ED UMC Aspherical and the only AF lens in the top four, the large aperture Sigma 20mm f/1.8 EX DG Asperhrical RF, are the best value for money based on optical quality alone.

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The 14mm Samyang and 20mm Sigma are the two best value for money ultra-wides for the D600

The $409 Samyang even has the highest sharpness levels of the four, with an 19P-Mpix rating, while the 20mm Sigma with its less extreme field of view also has good sharpness (at 16P-Mpix). On the downside, the Samyang has high levels of distortion and chromatic aberration compared to the Zeiss Distagon T* 2,8/15 and the Sigma. 

Wide angle prime

Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM A Nikon 899 37
Samyang 35mm F1.4 AS UMC Nikon 599 34
Carl Zeiss Distagon T 35mm f/1.4 ZF2 Nikon 1843 34
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED 2200 33
Carl Zeiss Distagon T 35mm f/2 ZF2 Nikon 1005 33
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G 1797 33
Carl Zeiss Distagon T 25mm f/2 ZF.2 Nikon 1700 33
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 28mm f/1.8G 699 32
Carl Zeiss Distagon T 28mm f/2 ZF2 Nikon 1283 29
Nikon AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8D 280 26
Nikon AF Nikkor 35mm f/2D 365 25
Carl Zeiss Distagon T 25mm f/2.8 ZF2 Nikon 1005 22

Coming in first place among the wide-angles on test, with a convincing lead and a DxOMark score of 37 points is the keenly-priced $899 Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM (A012).

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The top scoring Sigma and Samyang 35mm f1.4 models offer some of the best value of the group.

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The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM is the best scoring wide-angle on the D600.

The outstanding Sigma 35mm f1.4 lens has performed well on the Nikon D800 and, with excellent corner-to-corner sharpness resulting in an 19P-Mpix rating, and low levels of chromatic aberration it scores well on the D600.

 

In joint second place the Samyang and Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 models both achieve the same DxOMark scores, but the latter’s impressive Sharpness, Distortion and Vignetting scores are balanced by the former’s homogenous sharpness and lower chromatic aberration. Neither boast AF, but the Samyang is less than one third the price of its distinguished rival.

Wide angle zoom

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED 2000 28
Tokina AT-X 16-28 F2.8 PRO FX Nikon 849 24
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm f/4G ED VR 1260 23
Nikon AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED 1764 21
Nikon AF Zoom-Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D IF-ED 610 20
Sigma 12-24mm F4.5-5.6 EX DG HSM II Nikon 1400 17
Sigma 12-24mm f4.5-5.6 EX DG Nikon 840 17
 

Any existing or potential Nikon camera owner will be aware of the reputation of the AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8G ED, and it comes as no surprise to learn that model sits at the very top of the wide-angle zooms tested with a DxOMark score of 28 and a convincing 4-point lead over the next closest model, the Tokina AT-X 16-28mm f/2.8 PRO FX.

Compared to both the Zeiss and the Tokina, the ultra-wide Nikkor is a compelling choice.

Mounted on the D600 the ultra-wide Nikkor zoom performs very well indeed. At 14mm it’s slightly wider at 104-degrees than the 100-degree (horizontal) angle of view of the Zeiss and yet it has higher acutance in the image field even when stopped down.

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Even when stopped down, the Nikkor maintains the lead in sharpness across the image frame.

At 16mm and with a 96.7-degree angle of view, the Tokina can’t quite match the sharpness across the frame of the Nikkor zoom. With less extreme ambitions, the Tamron has lower levels of distortion and chromatic aberration, not to mention the more attractive price all need be taken into consideration if on a budget.

High end Short Telephoto (70-200mm) zooms

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II 2699 27
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR 1399 26
Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED 1850 25
Tamron SP AF 70-200mm F/2.8 Di LD (IF) MACRO Nikon 770 25
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM Nikon 1699 24
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO Macro HSM II Nikon 949 24
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO HSM Nikon 880 23

 Nikon’s fairly recent redesign of the AF-S Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8G resulting in the VR II version along with a hefty increase in price it must be said, sees that particular model head up of our results for the 70-200mm category. In second place is the firm’s new f/4G VR model, which not only is great deal lighter in weight overall (850 g/30.0 oz. vs. 1,540 g/3.4 lb) but is also much lighter on the wallet.

Nikon’s last three 70-200mm lenses have all been top-performers, though the older f/2.8 version has varying optical performance throughout the zoom range.

Like all the older models in our database the previous f/2.8G model is included in the comparison for academic purposes. Although full aperture performance isn’t on a par with the newer models at 200mm it still manages joint third-place and a very respectable 25 points in our DxOMark rating.

Although it has very good performance at 70mm,at full-aperture the two newer zooms out-perform the older f/2.8 VR lens at longer focal lengths.

Although announced in 2008 Tamron’s older SP AF 70-200mm f/2.8 Di LD (IF) Macro may be worth considering, a new high end model has been introduced to the range boasting image stabilization and an ultra-sonic type motor (the previous version adopted a micro-motor for Nikon bodies). Tamron are to produce both lenses side-by-side but at $1,500 it’s not cheap but it should undercut the Sigma.

As a budget lens, the Tamron holds up well against the pricier Sigma and Nikon versions. Note a new $1500 model from Tamron is set to run alongside

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Both the Tamron f/2.8 and Nikkor f/4VR models score well with regard to value and DxOMark rating

Telephoto Zoom

Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED 669 21
Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 APO-M DG Macro Nikon 209 20
Nikon AF Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED 196 20
Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 DG OS Nikon 359 20
Tamron SP 70-300 F/4-5.6 Di VC USD Nikon 449 19
Sigma 120-400mm F4.5-5.6 DG APO OS HSM Nikon 999 19
 

One point to mention about the scores of the six telephoto zoom lenses we have tested on the D600 is that the best performing, the AF-S Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF ED is only separated by three points from the worst. However, this is purely meant as a quick guide and, as always, it’s worth looking at how the lenses differ.

Despite the seemingly close scores between the two Nikon lenses the pricier VR f/4.5 version has very good sharpness across the frame at full-aperture between 70 to 135mm than the more affordable f/4 non-VR. After that, the full-aperture performance is better across the frame in f/4 D-type variant but while it’s cheaper the pricier model has the advantage of VR and a SWM ultrasonic type motor. Unusually, the Sigma APO is slightly more expensive than the older Nikkor, but either make a good choice if the budget doesn’t extend to the $669 of the VR equipped Nikkor.

Conclusion

It used to be said zoom lenses couldn’t match the image quality of the same focal length prime, that’s no longer true thanks to lenses like the outstanding AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED. Zooms offer the greatest versatility and there are usually some benefits in weight and affordability if it’s to replace several fixed focal length models. However, depending on your precise needs you’ll make your own decisions when choosing certain models. Few primes have poor image quality these days. Perhaps the most significant point from this is that while the  Nikon D600 has a less demanding sensor than the D800 it is almost as capable  and in fact maintains excellent sharpness power with a broader range of lenses.

Stay tuned for our third and final section on standard and short tele-photo lenses.