Old-School Classic - The Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 AI-s
What this isn’t is a technical review of a lens. There are no MTF charts, no treatises on barrel or pin-cushion distortion, no scientific lab tests (I will have you know I am a scientist, but work and play I keep apart). You’ll find plenty of those on the internet to keep yourself amused on a rainy afternoon. What this IS, however, is a user’s review of one of his favourite lenses, from his own experience of owning and using it (no, I haven’t made it big enough yet for Nikon to send me their lenses to review or to sponsor my gear (Nikon, are you reading this?)).
I had my eye on the Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 AI-s for a while but, unfortunately, couldn’t find one in India. Having read a lot about this medium wide-angle, and not having the opportunity to take it for a test drive, I decided to throw in the kitchen sink and just go ahead and buy one. My sister was coming over from the United States, and as B&H was still selling copies of this lens (Nikon officially stopped manufacturing it in 2005; B&H is brilliant), I had it shipped to her and got her to bring it over. That was 2012. This is 2015.
I did my homework before buying this lens, and everything I read said that this was one of Nikon's best ever - and having used it extensively for the better part of three years, I have to say I agree with the reviews. I've been nothing less than mightily impressed with the colour rendition and contrast, and without getting into the technicalities of distortion and edge-to-edge sharpness, I will just say that barrel distortion is minimal enough to be insignificant, and the lens is as sharp as a tack at any aperture smaller than f/5.6 and still pretty damned good at f/2.8.
What most people don’t know about this lens because it’s mostly used as a landscape/ cityscape/architecture lens, and because the fact is not really advertised, is that it close-focuses like a macro lens. It’s one of the closest focusing lenses that Nikon makes, and with a MFD of 7 inches from the sensor plane, you can get seriously close. It’s just that with the relatively wide angle of 28mm, you’re not going to get the blown-up details you would at 105mm, but you do get some really interesting perspectives. With the depth-of-field you get when stopped down to f/11 or less, it doubles as a great walkabout street photography lens because you can get really close to your subjects, you don’t have to keep adjusting the focus ring because you’ll still have a lot of your frame in sharp focus, and you still get enough background for context. The aperture indexing (that’s what the AI stands for) allows me to use the "non-CPU lens data" option in the menu of my D810 and D600 to meter and get EXIF data.
In my opinion, this lens is about as close as you can get to optical perfection. It compares favourably with the venerable Zeiss Contax 28mm f2.8 Distagon (for a more informed review, click here). The fact that it stayed in production for almost 30 years is testament to its quality. The focus ring is beautifully damped and has a long focus throw, which is a world away from today’s AF lenses when switched to MF mode. And for the astrophotographers among you who enjoy shooting star trails, infinity focus on this lens is exactly that. Infinity focus. You can simply set your camera up on your tripod in the dark, focus all the way to the infinity stop, and not worry about your stars being blurry or your Milky Way looking washed out. You can’t invest that kind of faith in most other lenses.
There is something about the solid feel of an old lens that puts a smile on a photographer’s face, and this one is no exception. It has phenomenal build quality, it’s all metal and feels substantial, in spite of its small size. Lots of glass, lots of chrome, clicking aperture stops, two sets of painted aperture indicators, a DoF scale, and straight aperture blades for those brilliant sunstars. It even has those coupling prongs that stick out like WALL-E’s eyes (they’re sometimes referred to as rabbit ears, but they remind me more of WALL-E), and were used to couple the lens aperture mechanically to older camera bodies, with those holes in the prongs that allowed light through so you could view the smaller set of aperture indicators (aperture direct readout (ADR) scale) directly through the viewfinder! Now that’s seriously old-school!
There is a very good reason this lens has been around for the past 3 decades. It is among Nikon's best. It is probably the sharpest wide-angle lens that Nikon makes, has incredible buttery bokeh for something as wide as 28mm, great manual focus 'feel' and minimal distortion. It is one of the closest focusing wide-angle lenses out there. Image quality is superb throughout the focusing range. I can't really think of any negatives about this lens. Get one if you can. It will make you a better photographer because it will make you rely on your eye and manual focus, it will make you think about composition differently, and reward you with beautiful images afterwards.