I recently did a car pinup shoot where I put my new Nikkor AF-S 35mm 1.8G DX lens to the test. I mainly got this lens because I often work in areas that are small and limited on space. This lens is perfect for boudoir shoots where the rooms are cramped. With my last boudoir shoot, I used my Nikkor AF-S 50mm 1.8G exclusively. Using the 50mm, I often found myself up against walls trying to get far enough away from the model to get the composition I wanted. Had I had the 35mm at the time, things would have been much easier, MAYBE!! Since I now own both lenses, I thought I would do my own comparison of the lenses to see which comes out on top. Sadly, I cannot necessarily crown one the winner over the other, unless I restrict my judging criteria.
First off, the 50mm lens is an FX lens. It is designed to be used with full size sensor Nikon cameras. That being said, you can most definitely use it on Nikon crop sensor cameras. A full frame sensor is larger than the cheaper crop sensor (thus the name ‘crop’). When using an FX lens on a crop sensor, you are only grabbing the inner portion of the image being projected by the lens. Although you are not taking advantage of the full image of the FX lens, you are grabbing the portion of the image that is the sharpest; the center of the image. The 35mm DX lens is designed specifically for crop sensor cameras. While you can use it on a full frame camera, you will get very noticeable vignetting around the outside of the image. You can correct this to some degree in post processing, but to get rid of it all, you will need to crop the image inward a fair bit.
So what’s the difference between a 50mm and a 35mm? In layman’s terms, it’s the amount of the scene in front of you that will appear in your camera. The smaller the mm number, the more of the scene you will get. Therefore, a 35mm will take in a wider scene than a 50mm. In the example above, you can see that the 35mm has more scenery in it. Although Ed (E-very D-ay, my doll for my previous 365 day project) looks smaller and further away in the 35mm image, there is more image generally. These images were taken from the same spot using the same camera.
If we zoom in on both of the images, you can start to see that the 35mm lens is a tad sharper. Also, the image is slightly brighter and a little less saturated. To get Ed to be the same size in both images, I had to move closer to Ed with the 35mm lens. This is why it is a better choice over the 50mm for close-quarter shooting. Conversely, I was further back with the 50mm but it is a tad softer in sharpness. The image is also slightly more saturated and a little darker.
Next, I got as close to Ed as I could to fill the frame with his face. I was not able to get close enough to do that, so I got as close as possible and cropped the image down to fill the frame. I did the same thing with the 35mm and cropped similarly. This close to a subject, and cropping even closer in post, the sharpness difference is very noticeable. The 50mm really looks horrible compared to the 35mm. This really caught me off guard as I anticipated the 50mm being the better of the two for sharpness, especially since my crop sensor is only taking the sweet spot of the image from the 50mm to begin with. However, I still prefer the darker and more saturated image of the 50mm generally. However, for extremely close and zoomed images, the 50mm falls embarrassingly short.
My last consideration was bokeh! Bokeh is the blurred background effect you get behind your subject in an image. The wider your aperture, the more the background will blur, generally speaking. For all of the images used for this comparison, I was wide open at 1.8 for both lenses and shot at ISO 100. In my personal opinion, the bokeh with the 35mm is nowhere near as nice as the bokeh you get with the 50mm. The ‘bokeh balls’ with the 35mm tend to be more football shaped whereas the ‘bokeh balls’ with the 50mm tend to be more round and softer – which I find more pleasing.
So which is the best lens? Well, if sharpness is all you want, especially for close-ups and cropped images, the 35mm is for you (assuming you are using it on a crop sensor camera). However, if you prefer a more saturated image with much better ability to produce amazing bokeh, consider the 50mm. Yes, I realize you can saturate your images in post to your liking, but it’s not quite as easy to create nicer bokeh from the elements in the actual image in post processing. I am really amazed that the cheaper and smaller 35mm produced that much sharper images close up. I am so amazed that I plan to fine-tune focus my 50mm just to see if it might have a back or front focusing issue. After fine-tuning it, I will definitely run this comparison again to see if it is any better. It really is hard for me to recommend one lens over the other. Although sharpness is obviously a huge issue with images, I’ve shot some amazingly sharp images with the 50mm, so much so that sometimes I have to actually soften the image to get the desired effect I am after. However, should I upgrade to a full frame camera in the future (which I most certainly will), the 35mm will become less useful to me as it will not project an image big enough to cover the entire full frame sensor. I really prefer the bokeh, darkness, and saturation I get with the 50mm. However, for close-up images, the 35mm can’t be beat. Anyway, I hope this comparison has helped if you are deciding between the two. As always, get out there with your camera and stay out of your comfort zone!
Keep the interesting parts of life in focus.