I am Nikon camera system user since my beginnings in photography in 2005. During my “DSLR period” I was always an advocate of zoom lenses. The “holy trinity” and occasional telephoto or macro lens was my everyday gear. I owned Nikon 50mm f1.4G and 85mm f1.4G lenses but I sold them after a while. Now with mirrorless system, I use Nikon Z prime lenses a lot more. Why?
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I own four prime lenses, 20mm 1.8 S, 35mm 1.8 S, 50mm 1.8 S and 85mm 1.8 S. I purchased them with my own money and I am not affiliated with Nikon. These are my independent thoughts, slightly biased, as I really like the Z system 🙂
Why I use Nikon Z Prime Lenses?
There are two main reasons why I use these lenses nowadays, focus accuracy and sharpness at open apertures. Below I expand on these two plus other reasons.
First reason I started to use Nikon Z prime lenses is the focus accuracy. With Eye AF the focus is spot on in most situations. I just know it will be where intended. The focus peaking also helps tremendously when shooting in manual focus mode. The most frustrating thing with primes on DSLRs was the inconsistent focus – it was a struggle to get focus on the eye when shooting wide open. This was bothering me so much I ended up selling my 85mm and 50mm f1.4G lenses. With mirrorless cameras, this problem is gone.
Note that focus accuracy is not focus speed or focus tracking. I don’t care much about these two as my subjects are not moving that much (except for my two boys!). This applies to all camera manufacturers including Canon, Sony and others. The way how focusing works on mirrorless, together with latest focusing algorithms, it completely changed how we use AF nowadays.
Sharpness at wide open aperture
The second decisive reason is the sharpness of Nikon’s new 1.8 S lenses. These are all tack sharp at f1.8 (even if the optimal sharpness is a little bit more stopped down). With old f-mount lenses it was often the case that they were acceptably sharp when you stopped down one, two, even three stops. Why bother with fast apertures like f1.4 then? I know, some photographers will prefer the softness for portraiture. Not me. Nikon is killing it with the new lens designs which allow sharpness at wide apertures and in the corners of the image.
Combination with f4 zoom lenses
Two of my favourite lenses, the 14-30mm f4 S and 24-70 f4 S are superb and much lighter than my old trusty 14-24 f2.8G and 24-70mm f2.8G lenses. They are sharper, lighter, smaller. The only downside is that with f4 sometimes I wish a little faster lens. Here come in the new prime lenses. With saving so much weight and size, I can easily put one or two primes in my backpack. Depending on the subject, I might throw in 20mm, 35mm, 50mm or 85mm 1.8 S lens. I still save some weight and my gear is more versatile than before.
Let’s make something clear. Nikon Z prime lenses are not replacing my zoom lenses. They rather complement my system so I can get the most out of it.
- When going to the mountains to do night photography, 20mm and 24-200mm are my lenses of choice.
- Family outings 50mm and 24-200mm.
- When travelling for portraits and street photography, 35mm and 85mm. I photographed the Nizwa goat market in Oman using solely these two lenses.
- When doing closeups and macro photography in nature, 50mm, 85mm and extension tubes.
More thoughts on Nikon Z Prime Lenses
When I was still on DSLR cameras, I always shot with my eyes on the viewfinder. It was just more intuitive and I could spot more details when working on the composition. With eye-AF I realised I shoot more and more with my camera in hands, away from my face. This has multiple implications. First, the connection with the person I photograph is more direct as I am not hiding my face behind the camera. Second, when travelling, this seems less “professional” and can help with getting trust or lowering the guard when doing travel portraits.
This also means less accurate framing, I often miss some important element in my shot. Also, I shoot less vertical shots (mostly because the backscreen doesn’t flip vertically).
(A few) Downsides
What are the downsides of using primes vs zooms? First, convenience. Instead of 2-3 zoom lenses, one has to carry 4-6 primes. This quickly becomes bulky and heavy. Second, not all focal lengths are covered yet. I would love to see a wider lens, in the range of 14-16mm for astrophotography. Also something longer than 85mm. This could also be a macro 105 f2.8 which could be used for much more than just macro (this lens was recently released but I do not own it yet). And ultimately a killer portrait lens, 135mm.
The new Nikon Z prime lenses are expensive. I was expecting more affordable prices. Even the 50mm 1.8 S is expensive, more than double of what the f-mount 50mm f1.8 was traditionally costing. This said, the optical quality of these 1.8 lenses is superb and the lenses can be used for professional work.
These lenses are also quite big. Not only the Noct and 50mm 1.2 S, all the 1.8 S lenses are bigger than their f-mount counterparts. The reason for this is more sophisticated lens design which allows for superb optical performance of these lenses. Personally, I’d prefer smaller design. It is not a deal breaker though. For small size and versatility, I use the f4 zooms and 24-200mm all rounder lens.
How I use my Nikon Z Prime Lenses
Nikon Z 20mm 1.8 S lens
This is my newest lens and I purchased it for specific reasons. First, night photography. My other wide angle lens is 14-30mm f4 S, a fantastic lens but with f4 max aperture it doesn’t excel in low light. The second reason is video. Again, low light recording is the main reason here. This lens also gives a nice shallow depth of field which is unusual look for wide angle lenses.
I have used this lens a lot on my recent trip to Montenegro. It served me very well as a landscape photography lens, not only at night but also during the day. I often replaced my 14-30mm lens with this one in my hiking backpack.
Nikon Z 35mm 1.8 S lens
35mm focal length is a very versatile and I use this lens for a variety of subjects. I find it especially great for portraits where I want to include some environment. This lens also gives the most beautiful sun star effect from all Z mount lenses I have tried so far. This makes it a good choice for blue hour shots in the city too.
Sometimes I use this 35mm 1.8 S Nikon lens for closeup and macro work too. It allows close focusing and it works well with extension tubes as well.
Often I will bring this lens for video. This focal length gives a very natural view. If there was only one lens I could use for video, this one is the choice.
Nikon Z 50mm 1.8 S lens
The “nifty fifty” still applies here. This lens is a real gem and it was my first Nikon Z prime. It beats my old 50mm f1.4G in every aspect except for 2/3 of an f-stop. True, it is not as small as f-mount 50mm lenses, but it is optically so good that it is worth the extra size (and money). I use it a lot for my family portraits, video and macro (in combination with extension tubes).
If I had to recommend one Z-mount prime lens, this is the one.
Nikon Z 85mm 1.8 S lens
Probably my favourite Z mount lens. This is typically portrait lens and I use it for this reason a lot. However, a beautiful bokeh and a shallow depth of field make it useful in nature and landscape photography as well. When you need to throw the background out of focus, this lens is a great choice. It works well with extension tubes, creating an artistic/dreamy feel to the bokeh.
The four Nikon Z prime lenses that own completely changed the way I shoot. From the “holy trinity” lenses advocate (the 14-24mm, 27-70mm and 70-200mm lenses, all f2.8) I become a fan of prime lenses. The primes however, did not stop me from using the zoom lenses. I still love the convenience of having a flexible zoom. But I don’t have the need for heavy f2.8 glass anymore and I like to combine the f4 zoom with my new 1.8 primes.
If you like this kind of “real life review”, check out my post on Nikon Z 24-200mm lens.
What about you? Do you own and prime lenses? What is the use case you like to use them the most?