This is an in-depth review of the Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G lens, which was announced on January 27, 2013 together with the super telephoto Nikon 800mm f/5.6E VR. The lens replaces the existing 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D, an old autofocus lens released back in August of 2000. With its rather weak optical design optimized for film cameras, the old version was never quite considered to be among Nikon’s top performing lenses. It suffered from decreased corner performance, strong distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberration issues, making it a weak candidate for modern DSLR cameras. After 13 long years, Nikon finally completely revamped the design of the lens and reintroduced it to the market as a budget lens for modern full-frame cameras. The AF-S NIKKOR 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED went through drastic changes in optical design and now looks nothing like its predecessor both physically and optically.
While Nikon already has a constant aperture optically-stabilized Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR (see our in-depth review) in its current line-up, this particular lens has a shorter zoom range, variable aperture, no stabilization and comes at a much lower price point. So in a way, it can be considered as a budget version of the 16-35mm f/4. In this review, I will be comparing the Nikon 18-35mm to its AF-D predecessor, as well as the Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR in terms of optics, features and handling.
1) Lens Specifications
- Wide-angle to standard zoom versatility
- 77mm screw-on filter thread
- ED glass and aspherical lens elements are utilized for a new optical design that achieves high resolution
- Ultra fast and ultra quiet focusing with built-in Silent Wave Motor (SWM)
- Two focus modes selectable – M/A and M
- Focal length: 18-35mm
- Maximum aperture: f/3.5-4.5
- Minimum aperture: f/22-29
- Lens construction: 12 elements in 8 groups (with two ED glass and three aspherical lens elements)
- Angle of view: 100° – 63° (76° – 44° with Nikon DX format)
- Closest focusing distance: 0.28 m (0.92 ft.)
- Maximum reproduction ratio: 0.2x
- No. of diaphragm blades: 7 (rounded)
- Filter/attachment size: 77mm
- Diameter x length (extension from the camera’s lens-mount flange): Approximately 83 x 95 mm
- Weight: 385 g/13.6 oz.
- Supplied accessories: LC-77 Snap-On Front Lens Cap 77mm, HB-66 Bayonet Lens Hood, LF-4 Rear Lens Cap, CL-1118 Soft Lens Case
2) Lens Handling and Build
Being a budget lens, the Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G is mostly made of plastic. The lens features the same type of plastic exterior shell seen on many modern Nikon lenses. Judging by the light weight of the lens, the mount seems to be one of the few parts of the lens made of metal. Most of the interior components, including the zoom and focus rings are plastic (the exterior of the rings is rubber). So when compared to the almost twice heavier Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR, the difference in build quality and feel are pretty obvious.
The lens is about 30mm shorter than the 16-35mm f/4, and a tad longer than its predecessor. At just 385 grams of weight, the lens would be a perfect fit in terms of balance for lightweight cameras like Nikon D600. So it is a pretty compact and lightweight lens when compared to other professional wide angle prime and zoom lenses. Take a look at the below image for a size comparison (From left to right: Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D, Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G, Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR):
Being an Internal Focus (IF) lens, the front of the lens does not rotate during focusing like most of the screw-drive AF-D lenses did in the past. The length of the lens also stays constant while zooming, with only the front element traveling slightly in and out. The focus ring located on the front of the lens is pretty narrow and does not feel as dampened as on pro-level lenses. The zoom ring was a little stiff in the beginning, but got much smoother after about 2 weeks of use. The 77mm filter thread at the front of the barrel is far enough not to touch the front element at 18mm, which is the focal length where the element extends the most.
Since it is a “G” type lens, there is no aperture ring anymore. As with all the latest Nikkor lenses, the 18-35mm also has a rubber gasket at the lens mount to reduce potential dust and other debris from entering the lens and the camera. While this is a good measure for basic protection against dust, the lens itself is not weather sealed. The lens ships with a plastic petal-shaped hood, which sits pretty securely once attached and does not wobble.
Overall, the build quality is not bad, but obviously not as good as on professional Nikkor lenses.
3) Autofocus Performance and Accuracy
The Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G lens is equipped with the silent wave motor, which means that autofocus will work on any modern camera, even on entry-level cameras like Nikon D5200 without an autofocus motor. The AF-S motor is also very quiet, especially compared to its AF-D predecessor. Autofocus speed is pretty comparable to other modern AF-S lenses, but the AF-D version seemed to be a little faster. The nice thing about AF-S lenses, is the ability to override focus by simply rotating the focus ring. On old AF-D lenses, including the Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D, one had to switch to manual focus before being able to rotate the focus ring. As I have already mentioned above, the front element of the lens does not rotate during AF operation, making it a good candidate for use of polarizing filters.
When it comes to autofocus accuracy, the Nikon 18-35mm seems to be quite reliable. It may not be as accurate as pro-level f/2.8 levels in low-light conditions, but it is pretty comparable to the 16-35mm VR. In good light, I have yet to see an out of focus image as a result of lens’ fault, whether shooting at close distances or infinity. I primarily used the lens on the Nikon D800E camera body and I certainly cannot complain about the autofocus performance of the lens.
It is worth noting that the lens has some “lens breathing” when focusing at very close distances. At 35mm and a close target at about 5 feet, the lens behaved more like a 30mm lens in terms of field of view. As you move further away, the effect starts to quickly wear off though, so it is really not an issue in most situations. If this was a telephoto lens, I would express some concerns for photographing close subjects, but not for a wide-angle zoom.
4) Lens sharpness, contrast and color rendition
As I reveal further down below, the sharpness performance of the Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G is very impressive. I measured MTF performance of the lens using Imatest software and to my surprise, the lens had excellent center performance (even at maximum aperture) and very good mid to corner performance when compared to the Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR. For sure, this lens is nothing like its predecessor optically. Microcontrast levels are very high and the lens does not suffer from heavy field curvature issues.
When it comes to colors, I personally like images out of the Nikon 16-35mm VR better. In my experience, Nano coating does positively impact the color reproduction of a lens, especially in high-contrast situations.
Some Technical Info:
Camera: Nikon D800E
Focus Method: Live View Contrast Detect + Manual Focus
Image Format: 14-bit RAW
Workflow: Import RAW into Lightroom 4 with default settings, Export in JPEG format, 100% Quality
Analysis Software: Imatest 3.9, Master Edition
Testing was performed at f/3.5, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11 and f/16 apertures
5) Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G MTF Performance
Let’s take a look at the resolving capabilities of the Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G in detail. Here is the lens performance at the short end of the zoom range, at 18mm:
The lens shows very impressive sharpness in the center right at f/3.5, which is rather surprising for a variable aperture lens. Most variable aperture lenses at this price start out rather weak and only improve when stopped down to f/5.6 or smaller. As you can see from the above chart, the lens is almost as good as f/3.5, as it is at f/5.6! Peak performance in the center is reached at f/5.6 and goes down from there. Mid-frame sharpness levels are also very good and follow a similar pattern as the center, with f/5.6-f/8 showing the best overall performance. The corners, unfortunately, are a little weak wide open. They also improve dramatically as you stop down to f/5.6 and decrease in sharpness beyond f/8 due to diffraction.
Here is the lens at 24mm:
As the lens is zoomed in to 24mm, the maximum aperture changes to f/4. Center sharpness stays about the same, with f/5.6 giving the best sharpness. Mid-frame starts a little weaker at f/4, but gets much better by f/8. Corners are improved at this focal length at large apertures reaching peak performance at f/5.6, but drop off at f/8 and smaller.
And finally, here is the lens performance at 35mm:
Once again, the center performance stays consistently good, with f/5.6 being the sharpest. Mid-frame is also very good, but the corners is where the lens shows a pretty dramatic fall in performance. This is in line with what happens with other lenses, including the Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR.
Here is how the sharpness figures translate to real images. Take a look at the below shot of flowers:
And then take a look at the 100% crop from the above image:
Now that’s what I call sharp!
Just like many other ultra wide-angle lenses, this lens is not really designed to yield beautiful bokeh, due to its small maximum aperture and short focal range, which results in large depth of field. I tried to take some shots at 35mm @ f/4.5 (maximum aperture) to show bokeh, so here is a sample image:
Not bad, but you would get much better bokeh with a fast aperture prime like the Sigma 35mm f/1.4. At f/4.5, bokeh options at the longest focal length are still quite limited. You would have to get your subject extremely close to be able to get some subject isolation.
There is a heavy amount of vignetting present when shooting wide open at 18mm @ f/3.5, as seen below. Stopping down reduces vignetting quite a bit, but still is pretty moderate at this focal length. Zooming in to 24mm reduces vignetting drastically and stopping down to f/5.6 makes it barely visible. Vignetting is at its lowest level at 35mm. Take a look at the following chart, measured by Imatest:
And here is the illustration of the worst case scenario (18mm, f/3.5):
If you are planning to use a standard polarizing filter on this lens, it will vignette quite heavily in the corners at 18mm (very dark corners that will have to be cropped). I would recommend to use a slim polarizing filter instead to reduce the amount of vignetting.
8) Ghosting and Flare
The amount of ghosting and flare you get from this lens depends on the position of the sun/bright spot and the focal length. At 18mm, the lens shows the least amount of ghosting and flares, as illustrated in the below sample image:
Flare is practically non-existent, which is good news. There are some visible ghosts and brighter spots here and there, but nothing that would hurt the image.
The lens is definitely a good candidate to shoot against the sun. Here is an image of a sunset, with the sun in the right top corner:
You can see a little bit of a streak of red in the middle of the frame, but other than that, it is a pretty clean shot.
Just like the 16-35mm f/4G VR, the Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G exhibits very strong barrel distortion, especially at the widest focal length. At 18mm, distortion is very noticeable and you will need to correct it in post-production to avoid curvy lines. Distortion is reduced as you zoom in, with 24mm still showing a modest amount of barrel distortion and at 35mm, distortion is minimal:
Unfortunately, as of 07/27/2013, neither Lightroom 4.4 nor Lightroom 5 have built-in support for automatic lens corrections, so you cannot correct these issues with a single click yet (will need to apply Manual corrections).
10) Chromatic Aberration
Lateral chromatic aberration levels are pretty moderate, averaging 1.5 pixels at 18mm. CA levels drop down to around 1 pixel mark at 24mm and even lower at 35mm:
Lateral chromatic aberrations are generally not a problem and can be easily fixed in Lightroom and Photoshop. Longitudinal chromatic aberration is also under control, which is good news.
11) Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G vs Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D @ 18mm
Let’s take a look at how the lens compares to its predecessor at 18mm:
The difference in sharpness is pretty obvious – the old 18-35mm AF-D is quite poor optically. Its center sharpness only gets at a good level at f/5.6 and the lens suffers from heavy dome-like field curvature that impacts the sharpness of the mid-frame and the corners severely. The corners never quite recover, even at f/11. By far, this is one of the worst lenses I have tested in my lab. The corners are extremely poor, something I would consider “unacceptable” on a full-frame camera body. It is not as bad on DX, where corner sharpness is pretty close to what the mid-frames look like above.
12) Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G vs Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D @ 24mm
Let’s compare the lenses at 24mm:
The Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D is even more disappointing at 24mm, with poor center performance wide open. Mid-frame and corners are still poor at large apertures and only get better at f/11.
13) Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G vs Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D @ 35mm
Finally, here is a comparison at 35mm:
The Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D recovers a bit at 35mm, but again, the performance difference between the two is very obvious.
Without a doubt, the old Nikon 18-35mm AF-D is poor sharpness-wise, with a number of optical problems. Its center sharpness is not good wide open, often requiring to stop down to f/8 to get good results. Its mid-frame and corners are very poor and never quire recover, even when stopped down to f/11. Worst of all, the old 18-35mm suffers from really nasty distortion problems, where distortion is not linear in the center, in a “wavy” pattern. It goes from a straight line to a circular shape, then back to a straight line again – this type of distortion can be difficult to fix in post-production.
In summary, there is simply no comparison between the old and the new lens.
14) Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G vs Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR @ 16-18mm
Let’s see how the Nikon 18-35mm AF-S compares to my favorite Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR optically (see my review of the 16-35mm). Here is a comparison of lenses at 18mm and 16mm (shortest focal length on both lenses):
As you can see from the above charts, the 18-35mm slightly outperforms its bigger brother in the center and the corners, with weaker mid-frame (due to more pronounced field curvature). Stopped down to f/8, there is no difference between the two lenses.
15) Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G vs Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR @ 24mm
Here are both lenses at 24mm:
At 24mm, both lenses increase in center resolution. Center and mid-frame performance is somewhat comparable. However, have a closer look at the corners – the 18-35mm again outperforms the 16-35mm at larger apertures. When stopped down to f/8, the 16-35mm is very sharp throughout the frame though and that’s where its corners pick up.
16) Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G vs Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR @ 35mm
Finally, here are both at 35mm:
Both lenses are rather weak at 35mm, especially in the corners. Performance seems to be almost identical between the two, with perhaps a very slight resolution advantage on behalf of the 18-35mm.
Now keep in mind that the above lenses have quite different characteristics. The 16-35mm still has richer features than the 18-35mm. First, it is wider by 2mm, which is a big difference for a wide-angle lens. Second, it has excellent VR (image stabilization), which is extremely useful for shooting at very slow shutter speeds. The 16-35mm also has Nano Coating, which not only helps with ghosting and flare, but also produces better colors. And lastly, the 16-35mm feels like a solid lens in hands, while the 18-35mm feels a little “plasticky” in comparison. Still, that’s a difference of $500 in pricing between the two!
The old Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D lens was never a performance champ with its mediocre sharpness, field curvature, wavy distortion and other optical issues. While it performed fine on film, cropped-sensor and low resolution cameras, it was simply not designed for modern high resolution DSLRs like Nikon D600 and D800. So it was about time for Nikon to finally replace it. I am happy to say that the Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G is yet another successful update to the existing Nikkor line. The new lens has a redesigned optical formula that takes care of the sharpness issues, addresses the wavy distortion problem and reduces all aberrations. In short, there is simply no comparison between the old AF-D version and the new one, as I have demonstrated in the lens comparisons section of this review.
What I found surprising when I first tested the lens, was how good it was when compared to the much more expensive Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR. When I first tested the lens in my lab using Imatest, I could not believe what I was seeing – the 18-35mm was pretty much on par with the 16-35mm in center resolution and outperformed it in the corners. I then went back and did it all over again, very carefully. Again, the 18-35mm showed the same impressive results. I knew it was a sharp lens from the images I took with it during the first days of use, but I had no idea that it would be that good. Now I am not trying to say that the 18-35mm is a better lens. Keep in mind that these lenses have quite different characteristics – the 16-35mm still has richer features than the 18-35mm. First, it is wider by 2mm, which is a big difference for a wide-angle lens. Second, it has excellent VR (image stabilization), which is extremely useful for shooting at very slow shutter speeds. Third, the 16-35mm has Nano Coating, which not only helps with ghosting and flare, but also produces better colors. And lastly, the 16-35mm feels like a solid lens in hands, while the 18-35mm feels a little “plasticky”. So I would still personally prefer the 16-35mm f/4G VR over the 18-35mm for the above reasons. However, for someone who cannot afford the 16-35mm lens, or does not feel like spending over $1K for a wide-angle lens, the 18-35mm is a great alternative.
I am very impressed by the performance of the new Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED lens. At its current price of $750 USD, it is $500 cheaper than the 16-35mm f/4G VR and almost as good optically, making it a bargain lens with a lot of value.
18) Where to buy and availability
B&H is currently selling the Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED lens for $746.95 (as of 07/27/2013).
19) More Image Samples
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.
Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G
- Optical Performance
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating