I will start this review with a glimpse of the conclusion: Sometimes, you buy into a particular camera brand for certain advantages that you are looking for that is not available in the ecosystem of other camera brands. The AF-S Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5 – 4.5G ED (abbreviated 18-35G) is a wonder that deserves this honour in the current Nikon lineup. There is no other camera system that offers a wide-angle zoom lens covering a full-frame sensor area that can fulfill a 3X criteria of being so light-weight, so high-performing, and so affordable. Nikon FX users who are looking for a wide-angle zoom and know that you will be stopping-down most of the time, just get the 18-35G now.
I got the 18-35G at the start of 2015, so it has received a good full year of use before I write this. Indeed its flexibility and performance is so good that my Nikkor 28mm f/1.8G ED saw much less action, and the 18-35G became my most-used lens.
(Usual disclaimer: This is not a scientific review with detailed graphs, charts, numbers and corner crops. There are already plenty of these on the internet. I believe those kinds of reviews fulfill a necessary function, but we don’t use our equipment in a laboratory. We use them to capture all manners of three-dimensional subjects in a multitude of environments at different distances under myriad lighting conditions. Since I always find myself looking for such actual end-user experience impressions, I decided to do one myself. 🙂 )
The look and feel of the 18-35G is not inspiring at first contact. The zoom ring is fine, but the focus ring feels a little stiff. It is definitely not built for manual focus. The mount is weather-sealed but not the rest of the body. The whole physical package feels somewhat humble.
However these are all minor quibbles considering the sum total of its physical attributes. A plastic, physical feel translates directly to being light-weight. At a mere 385g with a compact dimension(for a lens of this type) of 83x95mm, I can’t help but feel Nikon’s lens designers have somehow cheated the laws of physics. I can have this on my camera all day. It is also a joy to pack it into a bag without worrying much about total weight and the space it takes up. There may be bigger, heavier lenses that offer slightly better performance, but those are as good as useless if they are a hassle to bring out with you. It is going to be the lenses you have easy access to that will get you most of your pictures.
The 18-35G covers a very convenient wide angle focal range. 20mm is about as wide as you can get before serious distortion of perspective starts to set in. I personally feel that I should already start paying attention to perspective distortion at focal lengths wider than 28mm. In addition, most architecture photographers rarely go wider than 20mm as that runs a serious risk of mis-representing the property they are paid to shoot. (Conversely some unscrupulous real-estate agents and photographers prefer to go as wide as possible to give a fake impression of large size to lure clients.) Landscape photographers also start to be careful of their composition as they are pulling a lot of foreground into their frame at such wide angles. when professionals ever need a larger field of coverage, they stick a 35mm lens on a sliding rack, take multiple shots, then stitch the images together. Professionals rather do this than risk image distortion and mis-representation with super wide focal lengths. Although I can think of a few cases where having an even wider focal length will be helpful, 18mm is wide enough for most people’s needs. Being able to zoom up to the super-convenient general-purpose 35mm makes the 18-35mm even more useful. Fantastic focal range which can perform triple duty for landscape, architecture and street photography – wow!
Flare and ghosts are well controlled. There are only two instances in my history of using this lens that I managed to produce bad flare and ghosting because I was pointing the lens into the sun. The glare was so bad that I had a problem looking into the viewfinder myself. CA is surprisingly well controlled, though that could be because the maximum aperture is not too big to start with.
The most notable problem with the 18-35G is the high amount of distortion at the wide-end. This is moustache distortion, so correcting it is not easy. Nikon’s Capture NX-D and the usual post-processing software options such as ACR have lens profiles that help correct this, but some waviness remain. This will be a challenging problem for people who enjoy photographing straight lines, and the fact that optical viewfinders may add some distortion of their own makes matters more difficult. One workaround I have developed recently is to switch to live-view mode when photographing subjects with straight lines. With some patience during image-capture and post-processing, it is not impossible to produce images of geometrical subjects with relatively well-behaved lines. However if Nikon announces a successor to the 18-35G that improves on this aspect, I will buy it immediately. 😀
In terms of resolving power, there are plenty of tests conducted in laboratories and by end users which suggest that the 18-35G delivers the best resolution at it’s widest angle. The performance progressively diminishes as we move toward the longer end of the focal range. This is true in practice. We already have good resolution wide-open at 18mm, and results peak around f/5.6. f/8 is recommended at the extreme narrow end, though pixel peepers who scrutinize the borders and corners may still find them to be not ideal. However we are still dealing with fairly good results that are usable in most circumstances.
One thing that I disagree with the laboratory charts which measured this lens is the suggestion that at its best performing focal lengths at the wide end, its resolving power stopped-down is equivalent to the modern Nikkor f/1.8G prime lenses stopped-down. Having spent the last year with this lens on my camera 80% of the time, I can say confidently that these laboratory results produced by non-living measurement tools do not correlate with the evidence of my eyes. Although the 18-35G has wonderful resolving power, it does not measure up to the f/1.8G primes stopped-down examined at 1-1 magnification when I perform noise reduction and sharpening. At least, it does not measure up to the three f/1.8G primes I used – the 28 f/1.8G, 50 f/1.8G and 85 f/1.8G. It still produces very good images, but the f/1.8G prime lenses are evidently better.
There is no other modern wide-angle zoom lens that covers a full-frame sensor and offers this level of performance, light-weight compactness, a very-convenient 18-35mm focal range, and this kind of affordable price. This not only includes Nikon’s system, but also every other camera brands’ systems. This humble variable-aperture lens is a magical item that punches out many competitors in real-world practical usefulness. Alternatives are either fixed focal lengths, significantly more expensive, bigger and heavier, do not resolve as well, or suffer from performance spoilers such as flare and ghosts.
The 18-35G is usually compared to Nikon’s own 16-35mm f/4G ED VR. However that lens is much heavier, bigger, longer and unwieldy. VR is also only useful if a user is absolutely certain there is no movement in the scene. Grass swaying in the breeze causes blur. In the case where you actually want blur, VR is not good enough for pleasing long-exposure blurring. You will have to stick a lens on a tripod for such effects. If you are confident the VR and additional 2mm is useful to you and you do not mind the additional size and weight, pick the 16-35G instead.
Tokina has some wide-angle zooms that deliver exceptional resolution and great distortion control. However all Tokina zoom lenses are extremely flare-and-ghost prone. You can’t rescue a flare-and-ghost infested image in post-production.
There are also the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 and Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lenses. However both are significantly more expensive, larger and heavier. Neither one can accept a filter.
If you know you will be shooting wide angles most of the time stopped-down, have no problem correcting the tricky distortion at the widest focal lengths, and prefer carrying a smaller, lighter lens whenever you can – just save yourself some money and get the 18-35G. This is an under-rated piece of optical excellence.