The Nikon NIKKOR Z 35mm f/1.8 S is a professional-grade prime lens that was released as part of Nikon’s first full-frame mirrorless system release in 2018. Although the Nikon Z6 together with the 50mm f/1.8 S were slightly delayed, the 24-70mm f/4 S and the 35mm f/1.8 S were the first two lenses that were readily available to be used on the Nikon Z7 when it was publicly released. Thus, the 35mm f/1.8 S can be considered Nikon’s first prime lens for the Z mount.
We have been using the lens for over 8 months now and have been able to test several copies of it to make our review as comprehensive and accurate as possible. Below we will take a look at how the lens performs on Z-series cameras like the Nikon Z6 and Z7, discuss its ergonomics, features and optical characteristics, and compare it to its F-mount counterparts from Nikon and Sigma.
With its retail price of $849, the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 S is not a cheap lens, especially considering that its F-mount version, the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G ED retails for $529. However, it is important to note that despite having an f/1.8 aperture, the 35mm f/1.8 S is a professional-grade lens that features the latest optical technologies Nikon has to offer.
Its big brother, the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G is much heavier and costs twice as much in comparison, so it belongs to a different league. The highly praised Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art sits at a similar price point and can be adapted on Nikon Z cameras with the FTZ adapter, although it is the largest and the heaviest of the bunch. Thus, the new Z 35mm f/1.8 S cannot be directly compared to its F-mount counterparts.
It is important to note that Z-mount lenses are only designed to be used on Nikon’s Z-series cameras that have industry’s shortest flange distance of 16.0mm, which means that they cannot be adapted on any other camera system on the market today (see lens mounts explained for more information).
Lens Handling and Build Quality
Similar to high-end Nikon F primes, the Nikon Z 35mm f/1.8 S is built very well, thanks to its solid metal base, a tough plastic shell and weather-sealed construction. Although some photographers prefer all-metal lenses for their long-term durability, I personally favor plastic over metal for several reasons. First of all, plastic handles much better in extremely cold weather conditions, while metal gets too cold to touch with bare hands. Second, use of plastic significantly reduces the weight of lenses, which makes a huge difference when traveling. Third, tough plastic does better when you bump it against hard surfaces compared to metal. Lastly, plastic is cheaper to support and replace for the manufacturer, which can potentially reduce long term maintenance costs in case of damage in the field.
The lens mount is made out of metal and has a total of four locking ears for a very secure and tight attachment. Because of this, all Nikon Z lenses fit snugly on Nikon Z-series cameras, with absolutely no detectable wobble on the mount. This is a very important design criterion for a modern camera system that helps prevent lens tilting. To prevent dust and other debris from getting into the lens and the camera, Nikon incorporated a rubber gasket on the part of the mount that touches the camera. Since the lens is of rear focus design, the rear lens element moves while focusing and there is a little gap between the moving element and the back of the lens. If you decide to change lenses in dusty and windy conditions, I would recommend to keep the front element of the lens pointed up to prevent dust from getting into the lens from its rear. You don’t have to worry about this once the lens is mounted on the camera, since it is weather sealed everywhere else (there are a total of six separate rubber rings that protect different parts of the lens, in addition to weather sealing below the A/M switch).
Speaking of weather sealing, I have used the Nikon Z 35mm f/1.8 S in hot, sandy, freezing and rainy weather conditions during the past 8 months and I have not encountered any problems with its weather sealing. On one occasion, I let moderate rain fall directly on the lens that was attached to the Nikon Z6 and both the camera and the lens continued to function without any issues. Please keep in mind that while the lens is weather-resistant, it is not waterproof, so you should still avoid splashing water on the lens and subjecting it to extreme humidity.
Similar to other Z-series lenses (including the pro-grade Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S), the filter thread is plastic. And as expected from a modern lens, the front section of the lens does not rotate when focusing, which makes it easy to use such filters as polarizing and variable ND filters. Speaking of filters, the Nikon Z 35mm f/1.8 S has a 62mm filter size, and if you decide to also purchase the excellent Z 50mm f/1.8 S, you will be able to share filters between the two, as both use identical filter size. Another good news is that the front element of the lens does not move in and out like it does on some older Nikkor lenses and it is not recessed deep inside, making it easy to clean and maintain.
Size-wise, the Nikon Z 35mm f/1.8 S is noticeably longer than the 35mm f/1.8G and just 3mm shorter than the 35mm f/1.4G. Due to the length of the lens, Nikon decided to go ahead with a very large focusing ring, which is great. Although I don’t rely much on manual focusing with mirrorless cameras, I have found it to work really well with Nikon Z lenses on Z-series cameras, including the Z 35mm f/1.8 S. My only request to Nikon would be to allow one to be able to control focusing speed through the camera menu. Since all Nikon Z lenses use a “focus by wire” stepping motor, it would be really easy to implement. At this time, Nikon has it set to move the speed of focus depending on how quickly one rotates the focus ring – a slower motion results in slower focusing.
The plastic HB-89 bayonet hood is fairly big and does a great job protecting sun rays from reaching the front lens element. It attaches, locks and unlocks very easily, and if you want to reduce the footprint of the lens when storing it in your camera bag, you can attach it in reverse position.
Autofocus Performance and Accuracy
As I have already pointed out earlier, all Nikon Z-series lenses including the Z 35mm f/1.8 S use a “focus by wire” stepping motor for focusing, which basically means that focusing is fully electronic. This means that when the camera is turned off, moving the focus ring does absolutely nothing – it only gets activated when the camera is powered on. While there are some current issues with Nikon’s implementation of stepping motors (for example, focus gets reset when the camera is turned off and turned back on), most of these issues can be addressed via firmware updates.
Personally, I believe that the future potential advantage of the focus by wire system far outweighs its current problems and limitations. so I believe that Nikon made the right decision by incorporating it into all Z lenses. With the focus by wire system, it is possible to not only improve autofocus speed and accuracy, but also to provide more fine-tuned control of focusing operations. In addition, since the focus ring is operated electronically, those who do not particularly care for manual focusing can reprogram it to adjust other camera settings such as camera aperture.
At the moment, the biggest benefits of the focus by wire system on Z-series lenses are: quiet AF operation, fast focusing speed and superb AF precision. Although Nikon’s SWM (Silent Wave Motor) has the word “silent” in it, many Nikon shooters know that when Nikon F mount lenses focus, they produce quite a bit of audible noise, which can be annoying when shooting videos. In comparison, Nikon’s new stepping motors are noticeably quieter than their SWM counterparts. Stepping motors also deliver improved focusing speed, since they have more powerful focus actuators. But these are small benefits compared to AF precision. I am not sure what Nikon has done with its focusing algorithm and how it interacts with the focus by wire system, but as we have previously reported in our Nikon Z7 review, autofocus precision has improved dramatically compared to DSLR cameras, especially when shooting in low-light conditions. While I often find myself slightly tweaking focus after using autofocus in live view mode on Nikon’s DSLRs, I no longer have to do that on Nikon Z mirrorless cameras – autofocus precision is extremely accurate in almost every case. This is a drastic improvement and something absolutely worth mentioning. As a result of the above, the Nikon Z 35mm f/1.8 S stands out when compared to its F mount peers – it is quieter, faster and more precise in its autofocus performance.
However, it is not all fine and dandy. Those who like to manually focus their lenses might be disappointed with the different feel of manual focus operation and a slight lag they might experience when manually rotating the focusing ring. Those who refer to focus scales and like sticking gaffer tape to a particular focus position might also be frustrated that they can no longer do it on focus by wire lenses. Lastly, until Nikon fixes the issue of focus resetting when a camera is turned off, it will certainly frustrate many photographers out there, since they might be used to turning off their camera with their focus position locked. I hope Nikon comes up with firmware fixes for most of these problems sooner than later…