This is not an article about what Nikon DX lenses you need to buy to make better photos, or even a definitive list of the very best Nikon lenses. My belief is that one can make great photos with a single cheap lens. Heck, I put plenty of cheap plastic and bits of junk in front of my digital sensor just to make something different! This is really about my lens buying experience on a budget and what has worked for me. But if you really want a hard truth upfront, I’ll happily tell you now that you can stick with your Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Samsung or Sony kit lenses and make great photos and have plenty of fun! The truth is that the optical qualities of even the cheapest kit lenses for digital cameras outstrip many of the cheap lenses of the height of the film camera era.
I’ve focussed on best Nikon lenses because my first serious DSLR was a Nikon D5100, but even brands like Canon offer similar lenses at similar pricepoints. Like most people, I started out with the kit lens – in this case an 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens. It’s light, small and makes very nice images. I used it a lot for night photography and for day to day general photos. You can see an example of the 18-55mm lens at work in this photo of the Viterra building. Despite the plastic mount and the cheap construction, the glass is really pretty sharp, and as I said earlier, outstrips plenty of older lenses from the film era.
The problem is that most new photographers think that they NEED to buy more and better lenses, and that the kit lens supplied with their camera is inferior. I’ll tell you right now that this is just marketing speak to sell more gear in the majority of cases. It’s true that different gear will allow you to get some jobs done faster, more efficently, or even offer you more control and options, but digital camera technology has improved now to the point that even kit lenses are adequate for most tasks. That said, there’s nothing wrong with expanding your lens collection if you want to get into certain types of photography; and this is what I really want to focus on rather than just buying gear for the sake of buying the latest and greatest.
My Basic DX Nikon Lens Kit
At this point, I should say that my basic lens kit consisted of the following:
- 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 DX Nikkor kit lens: Optically very good for a kit lens (DXO number suggest better than the Canon equivalent); sharp enough when combined with good technique; very light due to mostly plastic construction; plastic construction and plastic mount also makes it prone to breakage.
- 35mm 1.8G DX Nikkor lens: One of the best value DX prime lenses in the Nikkor line; very very sharp; excellent low light lens due to the maximum aperture of f1.8; 52mm filter size means that if you invest in filters, you’ll be paying less; a great bargain lens at most listed retail prices; well balanced on smaller Nikon DX bodies.
- 55-200mm DX Nikkor lens: Complements the 18-55mm kit lens perfectly, and gives the photographer extra reach for wildlife and other types of photography; it’s available at a very nice price; pladtic build quality makes it prone to breakage but also very light for carrying around.
The above three lenses alone represent great value in the Nikon lens line-up. Out of the three the 35mm is the best optically, but we’re really talking about intense pixel peeping and testing charts; things that only the fussiest pf photographers worry about, and that have very little impact in real world use. I consider this a very good basic lens kit for little financial outlay. It covers everything from 18mm to 200mm on Nikon DX bodies; and the addition of the 35mm Nikkor adds great low light capability and a fantastic lens for everyday use.
Upgrading the Basic Nikon DX Lens Kit
Before going on our holiday to Hong Kong in 2013, I did a lot of research on the best Nikon lenses to buy on a budget. I wanted a good walkaround lens similar to the kit lens that would give me more flexibility in lower light; I wanted an ultra-wide angle lens of at least 16mm; and possibly a 300mm lens. Hong Kong is a great resource for photographers looking for gear. If you can avoid some of the switch and bait tactics and visit the well known stores – like Wing Shing Photo Supplies pictured above – you’ll find more lenses that you can poke a stick at, and sales people who know how to help.
The day I walked into Wing Shing, it was packed with people. I should point out that it’s packed most of the time! In fact, Mong Kok is one of the most people dense places on the planet! Anyway, I walked in with two lenses in my budget: The Tokina 11-16mm ultra-wide angle, and the Tamron AF 17-50mm 2.8 lens. I confidently told the sales guy and he quickly nipped out to the store room to retreive them. Unsurprisingly, Wing Shing had both of them in stock that day (and every other day I suspect!).
- Tokina SD 11-16mm 2.8 DXII lens: My research suggested this as a bargain ultra-wide, which are often quite expensive; very sharp; great build quality with plastic and metal parts; SD lens elements provide extra light dispersion for flare control; constant 2.8 aperture provides added flexibility. The Sigma 10-20mm ultra-wide angle lens was also a strong consideration and has received many glowing reviews. It has a more usable focal length and goes even wider than the Tokina I chose.
- Tamron AF 17-50mm 2.8 IF: The non-VC (vibration control) version is considered the sharper of the two; hefty lens with solid build quality; constant aperture of f2.8 provides great flexibility even in lo light; auto focus is a little noisy but accurate; very sharp with corners tending to mush a little wide open; great lens for everyday use but heavier than the kit lens. I have since sold my 18-55mm kit lens.
The Tamron lens is a direct replacement for the 18-55mm kit lens and is a joy to use. The constant apeture of 2.8 isn’t especially fast, but provides much more flexibility in more light conditions. The Tokina adds a great quality wide angle to my DX lens line-up. Nikon DX bodies struggle a bit at the really wide end because of the 1.5x crop factor of the sensor. This always needs to be taken into account when buying lenses for crop sensor bodies, and means that the 35mm Nikkor becomes a nifty fifty 52mm lens in the kit bag.
One could well argue that an ultra-wide angle lens like the Tokina is really a specialist lens, but the truth is that Nikon have seen fit not to make any really wide angle DX lenses available; and if the DX format needs anything, it certainly needs wide angle choices due to the 1.5 crop factor! Nikon like to make consumer zooms and telephotos for their DX customers, but the lens line-up is far from complete. Luckily, third parties like Tokina, Tamron and Sigma are there to fill in the gaps that Nikon management seems to have completely neglected. Just remember: the best Nikon lenses are not necessarily made by Nikon!
Adding Extra Depth to your Nikon DX Lens Selection
All of the lenses listed above are good enough for most of my needs, but after going to Hong Kong and blowing through my camere gear budget, I realised that I wanted to add two more types of lenses to my kit bag: a good quality Macro lens and a super telephoto lens. As much as I highly recommend the 55-200mm Nikkor lens listed as part of my basic lens kit, but there are times when a 300mm would certainly be just that bit better for my needs. And a Macro lens would really just fill a gear hole rather than be something I would use everyday. In short: neither lens is essential for me, but both would fill out a lens bag admirably.
These are the extra lenses I ended up adding to my kit bag:
- AF-S DX Nikkor 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR lens: I had actually considered the full-frame (I hate that term because it’s just another sensor size to me) AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor ED 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF. It is a very good lens, even if not a direct focal length replacement for the 55-200mm. In the end, I opted to buy the cheaper 55-300mm; a fairly solid lens that performs about as well as the 55-200mm lens. All of these zoo photos I made using it. I sold off my 55-200mm lens.
- Tamron SP 60mm F2 Macro: The other Macro lens option worth considering is the DX Nikkor 40mm Macro, which was actually a bit cheaper at the time. Th eonly issue is that the 40mm focal length means that you have to get really really close to your subject; and if the subject is either moving, flying or venemous, you could be in a spot of bother! The Tamron lens offers a little extra room to move in this regard, but for serious macro types, a 100mm focal length minimum would be better. The Tamron is slow to focus, like most macro lenses, but it can also double as a bit of a portrait lens due to the 90mm equivalent focal length on a crop sensor body. In fact, I believe that at the time of purchasing, Tamron were marketing it as the portrait-macro lens.
The Best Nikon Lenses
The best Nikon lenses are the ones that work for you. I’ve changed my approach to photography in only a few years, and the early decisions I made about body and lens selection I probably wouldn’t make now.
What lens decisions have you made for your chosen camera brand? What are your favourite lenses for your style? If you’re a Canon camera user, what are your best Canon lenses?
My best Nikon lenses are not necessarily your best Nikon lenses – or any other brand – so let me know what you think!