The Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G (35DX) was introduced in 2009, and launched in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the death of Henri Cartier-Bresson. HCB almost exlcusively shot with 50mm lenses with his full-frame Leica film camera. The 35DX provides a good approximation to 50mm on full frame and is diminutive enough to give us a fairly small and portable package when paired with a smaller Nikon APS camera body. Indeed, HCB would have approved of its portability as well as its performance.
This review will be slightly different from other reviews I have done in the past. While I still focus on real-world usage results and experience instead of numbers and graphs from a “real people don’t actually shoot this boring stuff in this boring laboratory”, I do not have any images to share. I use the 35DX for portraits, and due to privacy concerns no images taken with it will be shown. I also use the 35DX near wide-open 99% of the time for shallow DOF and a little dreamy look, so I have no information regarding corner-to-corner sharpness or how well the lens behaves at optimum, stopped-down apertures. If you are looking for such information, you may have to look elsewhere. But if you want to know how this lens performs wide-open for portraits, welcome!
It is small. It weights 200g. It feels fairly well made and has dust and moisture seals at its mount, but is most definitely not certified to be weather-resilient. Like most Nikon lenses I expect it to weather standard day-to-day usage fairly well. In summary, a small and convenient high-performance prime lens you can stash into your camera bag without taking much weight and space. Exactly what DX users appreciate.
AF works as expected. For shooting sports and wildlife you are better off using a more expensive Nikon telephoto with an optimised AF engine. But for shooting everything else a 35mm (DX) lens is usually used to shoot, the AF performance is totally sufficient.
To me, the 35DX’s wide-open performance is absolutely satisfactory. In fact with proper photographic discipline, I am surprised by the amount of detail I can extract with this lens wide-open. On “dreamy” compositions where only the subject’s eyes are in actual focus, there is definitely sufficient sharpness at the points of focus. I am also surprised that it can render details of skin pores wide-open in close-ups. Quite a feat for a small, cheapo prime lens!
Speaking of close-ups, most full-frame 50mm lenses have a minimum focus distance of 45mm. Premium f/1.4 50mm lenses usually shorten this to 40mm. the 35DX with its full-frame equivalence of ~53mm has a minimum focus distance of 30cm on its spec sheet! In actual use it actually moves closer than that. This makes it more versatile than most of its 50mm full-frame counterparts.
Speaking of 50mm full-frame lenses, I also compared the 35DX it to the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G which I reviewed here. The 35DX wins. One complaint I have for the 50 f/1.8G is that although it can be sharp, the rendering is too harsh. I prefer the rendering from the 35DX. To me, the 35DX is clearly the better lens.
I have not run into big problems with chromatic aberrations, though spherochromatism will show up when shooting wide-open. It is not especially apparent, and casual observers may miss it. Spherochromtism also shows up in premium fast lenses that are 10-20 times more expensive than the 35DX, so it is no big deal. It is just one of those imaging inconveniences you will have to fix during post-processing.
I use the 35DX for portraiture. Yes it is too wide for standard head-and-shoulders shots – you are going to see your subject visibly become fatter. I use it for environmental portraiture, group shots, or for half-body (or bigger) shots where the subject will not take up a sizable part of the whole frame. The close-up focus capability is especially useful for photographing infants. It is also useful for when I simply do not have enough working space to use a longer focal length. In such cases I will have to come up with some creative composition to compensate for the inevitable distortion on my subject.
Of course the 35DX has many other uses such as street photography, where it fits nicely as a small, fast and competent replacement for a 50mm on full-frame. I have not used it in such situations myself, but see no reason why it will not work well. The close-focus capability also makes it very flexible and useful as a small, do-many-things lens.
It is cheap. It is small. It delivers excellent performance. Get it if you think you need it. I always caution people against buying stuff just because something is cheap and good because they may not actually need it. This is also the case for the 35DX. But if you can justify you have a use for a fast 35mm with a Nikon DX camera, get it and you will be happy.