Review: Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 and Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5

As I promised in my last entry, here are quick reviews of the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 and the Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5.

The Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 sit back-to-back. They are among the smallest lenses in this class. The 50mm is known as a "pancake" lens because it's so flat.
The Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 sit back-to-back. They are among the smallest lenses in this class. The 50mm is known as a “pancake” lens because it’s so flat.

One thing I have heard and sometimes even said is that there are no “bad” large-aperture 50mm lenses, but I can think of two: my original Nikkor 50mm f/1.2, and the lens in this review, the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 “pancake” lens of 1984 vintage.

The 50mm f/1.2 seemed like a dream lens when I bought it. It was magnificently made and finished, and commanded respect on the front of my cameras. The only problem with it: it was absolutely unusable unless you stopped it down to f/2.0. The problem with that is that I didn’t pay $300 (in 1983) for an f/1.2 lens just to shoot it at f/2.0. I already owned a 50mm that was sharp at f/2.0, and it did so weighing less than half, and costing a third as much.

This is Summer the Chihuahua shot with the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 at f/1.8. It is adequately sharp, but contrast is low, and the image is a bit lifeless.
This is Summer the Chihuahua shot with the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 at f/1.8. It is adequately sharp, but contrast is low, and the image is a bit lifeless.

Within a few years, I sold the f/1.2 to a collector, where that lens belonged.

Hawken the Irish Wolfhound had a roll in the grass right before I shot this, so he looks a little rough. The selective focus ability of the 50mm, though, is evident.
Hawken the Irish Wolfhound had a roll in the grass right before I shot this, so he looks a little rough. The selective focus ability of the 50mm, though, is evident.

In my days, I have owned nearly a dozen 50mm lenses, from the Nikkor-S Auto 50mm f/1.4 of late 1960s vintage to the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G of today, which I use all the time. A good example of work from this lens can be seen in some night work I did on The Plaza at Santa Fe at the end of our 2019 anniversary vacation, The Winding Road (link).

One nice thing about older 50mm lenses is that shot wide open, they flare and ghost like old movies or dreams, an effect I love having in my kit.
One nice thing about older 50mm lenses is that shot wide open, they flare and ghost like old movies or dreams, an effect I love having in my kit.

The 50mm focal length on small sensors like 36x24mm or APS-C is something of a double-edged sword: it can create compelling images with a sense of intimacy, but it can also end up creating boring perspectives. As a news photographer, I have to make a point to get out this focal length, and make a point to push it to the edges to get interesting images.

I shot this frame of Abby's owl yard ornament expressly to analyze the 50mm's bokeh, which I would call average.
I shot this frame of Abby’s owl yard ornament expressly to analyze the 50mm’s bokeh, which I would call average.

But back to what I said about this 50mm being one of just two “bad” 50mm lenses. I can’t give this lens high marks on anything, because any of my 50mm lenses, including the other Nikkor lenses, and my Fujinon 50mm f/2.2 of 1978 vintage and my Pentax 50mm f/1.4 lenses easily outperform it; sharper, closer focus, better handling, better build. The only 50mm I own that disappoints as much as the pancake lens is a Canon 50mm f/1.8 from the FD era.

A very tiny spider floats in a sea of flare at sunset on our property recently. Shot with the 50mm f/1.8, images like this might be the one thing that this lens does right.
A very tiny spider floats in a sea of flare at sunset on our property recently. Shot with the 50mm f/1.8, images like this might be the one thing that this lens does right.

The 35-70mm is really just a 50mm with the convenience of a little bit of zoom. Honestly, I can make a 50mm work better than a 35-70mm for almost everything, and it is lighter and brighter than any zoom. I know there are many photographers, including the super-talented R. E. Stinson, who love the 35-70mm (though Robert loves the f/2.8 version), but when I shoot with them, they are just teasing me with focal lengths just out of their reach, like 24mm or 105mm.

It's easy to criticize cheap lenses by saying that they aren't sharp, but honestly, I don't ask as much of these lenses, and when I do, like in this image at 35mm at f/3.3, I am happy enough with the result.
It’s easy to criticize cheap lenses by saying that they aren’t sharp, but honestly, I don’t ask as much of these lenses, and when I do, like in this image at 35mm at f/3.3, I am happy enough with the result.

Ken Rockwell has nothing but bad things to say about the 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5, but in the evening I spent with it, I found nothing  to support the idea that it is, “a cheap and crappy lens. This lens simply isn’t very sharp.”

Also from his web site: “Sharpness is the most overrated aspect of lens performance. Lens sharpness seems like it ought to be related to making sharp photos, but it isn’t.” So, meh.

Shot with the 35-70mm at 35mm, stopped down to f/8, the image is sharp, but the bokeh is predictably ratty and cluttered.
Shot with the 35-70mm at 35mm, stopped down to f/8, the image is sharp, but the bokeh is predictably ratty and cluttered.

This particular 35-70mm is slightly broken: if you push the zoom or focus ring forward away from the camera, a gap shows up that isn’t supposed to. When I shot with it, I made sure to pull back slightly to keep that from happening.

So I was able to get sharp images with it, and I was able to create compelling compositions, but I ran into the same problem as before; it’s not a fast 50, and it’s not wide enough or long enough.

If someone gives you one of these (someone did give me this one), take it and fool around with it, but don’t pay more than a dollar for it at a garage sale.

The Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 is a good-looking lens, and is well-made.
The Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 is a good-looking lens, and is well-made.

1 Comment

  1. Good insight. You put to words at least part of my experience on this lens. I do love my 35 – 70 f/2.8 it is of course an entirely different animal. Many sad noises on the pancake lens. They’re just so tiny and cute I love them all. I just want them to make us proud.

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