Which lenses for your Nikon D800?

By David Newton - Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Lens Recommendations
Introduction | 24 Mpix to 36 Mpix, is there any good reasons to switch? | Nikon D800 and standard lens choices | The Nikon D800 and telephoto lenses | The Nikon D800 and wide-angle lenses

In this second part of the Nikon D800 and lenses review, we’re looking at the standard focal lengths. Within this group, there is a very wide range available. When searching for a standard lens, you have the option of both prime and zoom, depending on what suits your needs best. To help make it easy to select the right lens, we’ll look at the 50mm primes, 85mm primes, macro lenses and finally the standard focal range zooms.

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In total, the DxOMark labs have tested 28 lenses within this focal range, 22 of which are prime lenses from 50mm to 105mm, and 6 fall within the standard zoom category with focal lengths around the 24-70mm type focal range.

An interesting factor found through the labs is that the 50mm and 85mm focal lengths tend to outperform all other prime lenses tested, with the 85mm and 105mm lenses scoring particularly highly. In fact, the highest scoring lenses tested by the DxOMark labs have all been 85mm primes – certainly something to consider if you’re looking for the ‘best’ lenses on any camera.

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If you’re looking for the best lenses ever tested by DxOMark labs, take a look at the 85mm primes – they top the tables.

In addition to this, the often repeated line that prime lenses are better than zoom lenses is once again borne out here, with prime lenses outperforming zoom lenses by between 20 and 30% - a quite significant difference that you may feel more than justifies the lack of versatility provided by prime lens models.

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Primes vs Zooms ? Primes win by between 20 and 30% in DxOMark tests.

50mm

If you’re looking for a true standard lens, then 50mm is the focal length you should be choosing. Within the 50mm options, DxOMark have tested 7 different models. There are three models that come out on top, but the top five are all very close.

Lens Price ($) DxOMark
Score
Sigma 50mm F1.4 EX DG HSM Nikon 499 32
Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 D 329 32
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 G 448 32
Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T 50mm f/2 ZF2 Nikon 1280 31
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G 219 31
Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 D 134 29
Carl Zeiss Planar T 50mm f/1.4 ZF2 Nikon 725 26

The three top scorers are from Nikon and Sigma - the Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D, Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G and Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM. All three managed 32 on the DxOMark scores putting them at the top of the list for 50mm lenses on the D800. Strangely the Sigma 50mm lens is the most expensive of the trio, but given that the price difference is not much more than $100 between the three, unless budget is a real concern, this and the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G are the two top choices. That said, the performance of the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G makes it a very worthy consideration if budget is a concern.

The three top-rated 50mm lenses tested on the Nikon D800. All three make great choices and really it is only budget or brand loyalty that will help you pick between them.

85mm to 105mm

In this focal range, DxOMark have tested 14 different lenses, so your choice for a portrait lens is huge.

Lens Price ($) DxOMark
Score
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G 2199 40
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G 690 40
Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T 100mm f/2 ZF2 Nikon 1840 36
Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Aspherical IF Nikon 328 36
Sigma 85mm F1.4 EX DG HSM Nikon 969 35
Nikon AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 D IF 1230 33
Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G 890 32
Nikon AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D 460 32
Carl Zeiss Planar T 85mm f/1.4 ZF2 Nikon 1280 29
Tamron SP AF 90mm F/2.8 Di MACRO Nikon 460 29
Sigma 105mm F2.8 EX DG Macro Nikon 640 28
Sigma 105mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM Nikon 969 28

Within this range, the story is much the same as with the 50mm lenses, with two Nikon lenses taking top honors and surprisingly a Samyang model rounding out the top three. In this case, it’s the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G, the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G and the Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Aspherical IF. The two Nikon lenses both scored the same on the DxOMark overall metrics, managing 40, while the Samyang model is fractionally behind on 36. In terms of choice, if you want the wider aperture of the f/1.4 it will cost you, with that lens coming in at nearly $2200, but it will provide the highest overall sharpness at 22P-Mpix. However the slightly slower, but optically just as good, 85mm f/1.8G looks to be a fantastic bargain at only $690 and offers less vignetting, chromatic aberration and distortion than its more expensive stable-mate, while losing out only slightly in overall sharpness. In terms of selecting one of these models, it is very hard to choose against the cheaper option because the more expensive model does not do enough to justify the higher price tag.

If the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G doesn’t fit your budget, then take a long look at the Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Aspherical IF. It lacks any autofocus ability, but a score of 36 is remarkably good for such a low priced lens. If you can live with the manual limitations, it is worth serious consideration.

With both Nikon lenses scoring the same in the DxOMark scores, the choice really comes down to what you prioritize for your lenses. Given the large price differential, it is hard to recommend against the cheaper AF-S 85mm f/1.8G because what it loses in absolute sharpness, it makes up for in other areas at a much lower price point. The Samyang is the dark horse here, performing remarkably well.

50mm to 105mm macro lenses

If a macro function is important to you, then the best macro lens around this focal range is the Carl Zeiss Makro-Plana T 100mm f/2 ZF2 Nikon, which scored 36. However, the cost is high at around $1840 and the lack of autofocus ability means it is one for the purist who is willing to put up with the fully manual nature of the lens. The Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED however is a slightly more budget conscious choice at $890. It scored almost as well at 32 and has the added benefit of full AF and a vibration reduction system to help avoid camera shake - something that is even more obvious in macro photography.

If you prefer working closer in to your subjects, then it is also worth considering the Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T 50mm f/2 ZF2 Nikon. This is a 50mm macro lens, that scored 31 in the overall DxOMark scores and managed the joint highest sharpness score for all the macro lenses tested, at 17P-Mpix. At $1280USD it follows the familiar Zeiss trend of being at the top of the price bracket, but the quality is unquestionable and if you are looking for a macro lens around this focal length, then the lack of autofocus should not necessarily put you off.

The top three macro lenses tested on the Nikon D800. Both Zeiss lenses are fully manual, so while they provide excellent image quality, you need to be willing to work within their ergonomic limitations.

Standard Zoom lenses

Within those tested, it is clear that the Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD and  Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED are the best choices for image quality. For zoom lenses to score 29 and 28 is pretty impressive, especially given the high resolution of the camera, where flaws caused by compromises in optical design are much more obvious. At $1,800, however, the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 is pricey. The new Tamron, sporting a pricetag of $1,299, is definitely a viable choice, given the circumstances.

Tamron SP 24-70mm F2.8 Di VC USD Nikon 1299 29
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED 1800 28
Nikon AF Zoom-Nikkor 24-85mm f/2.8-4D IF 700 23
Tamron SP AF 28-75mm F/2.8 XR Di LD Aspherical [IF] Nikon 499 23
Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 IF EX DG HSM Nikon 899 23
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR 599 22
Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 24-120mm f/4G ED 1300 22
Nikon AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G IF-ED 299 21
Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED 600 18

Within those tested, it is clear that the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED is the best choice for image quality. For a zoom lens to score 28 is pretty impressive, especially given the high resolution of the camera, where flaws caused by compromises in optical design are more obvious. At $1800 it is expensive though.

Below these two lenses, there are three models that all scored 23. They are the the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 XR Di LD Aspherical (IF), the Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 IF EX DG HSM Nikon and the Nikon AF Zoom-Nikkor 24-85mm f/2.8-4D IF. Of the three, the Sigma lens comes out on top in the sharpness test, managing a very respectable 16P-MPix that even beats the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED mentioned above. Sadly, it is hampered by its chromatic aberration, which scores a very poor 26µm. At $899, it is also the most expensive of the three.

If you’re looking for the real “budget star” of the trio, then the Tamron is the best choice With a sharpness score of 13M-Pix, it beats the Nikon and is the cheapest ($499) of the three by a noticeable margin. For it to match the scores of several more expensive lenses is a fantastic achievement, and it should get the nod as the best bargain of the bunch.

Conclusion

Since they have such different uses, there can be no clear winner in these groups, so the results should be used to help you build a kit of lenses to cover your shooting needs. Clearly the best image quality possible comes from the 85mm lenses, though if you don’t shoot portraits, you may well find an 85mm lens surplus to requirements.

In part 3 of this series we’ll be looking at the telephoto lenses as well as the super-zoom models that provide a lot of versatility. The question is, how will they stand up to the rigors of being mounted to the Nikon D800?