I read recently on a well known photography website a list of “the best cheap lenses” for Nikon F mount and was surprised that I didn’t agree with any of the choices. This inspired me to write my own list of cheap(ish, perhaps “reasonably priced” would be more accurate) but great primes for F mount. I will focus on FX lenses for the simple reason that I don’t have an DX camera. These are in no particular order.
Nikon 18-35mm f3.5-4.5G
This is a sharp, but slow zoom lens. That doesn’t really do it justice, but if it were a little less subject to distortion, it would be exceptional. As it is, optically it outperforms the Nikon 16-35 at wider focal lengths, it’s small , takes filters, and doesn’t suffer as much as some other UWA lenses from flare. Aside from distortion and the maximum aperture, the only real issue is the lack of VR.
Nikon 20mm F1.8 G
See my more detailed thoughts here. One of the more expensive lenses on this post but also one of the best. I suspect this is actually a top grade design which has been cheapened in materials and construction for the mass market, nevertheless producing excellent results.
Nikon 28mm F1.8G
Really sharp, fast, light and small. Has Nikon’s proprietary nano surface coating for flare resistance and great colour. Drawbacks include field curvature and focus shift at wider apertures, but still a must have if you like the focal length.
Nikon 35mm F1.8G FX
You may begin to sense a theme here ;-). Doesn’t have nano coating but is supernaturally flare resistant. Even smaller than the 28mm, this is sharper and has fewer optical aberrations. If I had to be critical, the bokeh can be a bit weak at times. Only really eclipsed in terms of performance by the Sigma 35mm F1.4, but that is a bigger, heavier lens.
Nikon 50mm F1.4/F1.8G
Both of these 50mm lenses are extraordinary value for money and very light and small. The F1.8 lens is cheaper, faster to focus and has higher resolution at wider apertures. However, the F1.4 lens has really lovely Bokeh (the F1.8g has weak to average backgrounds) and is sharper stopped down. I personally prefer the colours and bokeh of the F1.4 lens, but both are screaming bargains.
Nikon 85mm F1.8G
Ultra sharp, contrast by the bucketload, this isn’t just a screaming bargain, it’s genuinely one of the sharpest (highest resolving) lenses for F mount. That makes it fantastic for my purposes (mostly landscape) but possibly a bit too sharp for portrait in some cases. TBH my view is that you can always soften an over detailed result, but you can’t recover detail you don’t have.
You could do a crazier thing than using all or any of the above as your entry point into Nikon FX lenses, or indeed substituting them for constant aperture zooms if weight of kit is telling on you.
There are other great F mount lenses out there, notably manual focus and 3rd party glass, but I will try and cover them separately in a different post. Nikon still sells many of its 90s era AFD glass, but many of these aren’t really in the same league as the newer AF-S glass (nor, in some cases, the AIS glass that preceded it). Nikon also make excellent lenses that are more expensive too (the 14-24, 24-70, 70-200, 24, 35 F1.4, 85 F1.4 etc) which it would be lovely to cover in a future post (Nikon, if you are reading this feel free to send me an 85 F1.4G for this purpose…). However, if one more person tells me that you have to spend a fortune, go to Canon or switch to mirrorless for good glass, I may have to make them eat their hat (or possibly a lens)… Also worth noting that all of the above are reasonably sized too (and compete with mirrorless lenses for size and weight).
*Everything is relative, even price. Some of these are more expensive, but in general where they are there’s a much more expensive alternative.