So much new camera gear comes out all the time that my first thought at any new release is “Could this possibly be useful to me?” If not, I tend to not pay it much attention — such as the endless string of seemingly cloned compact cameras. Since all of my DSLR work is done on full-frame cameras, I haven’t paid too much attention to Nikon’s DX lineup for a while. And it’s a shame, since they’re still doing interesting things in that area. I know I wish that in my DX days I’d had access to newer designs like the 10-24mm.
But it got my attention that Nikon had recently released not one, but two DX-specific macro lenses, the 85mm f/3.5 and the 40mm f/2.8. I’d heard enough chatter to know that people were slightly disappointed by the 85mm’s sharpness (important for a macro) and slow maximum aperture, but I thought that if Nikon had done a good job with the 40mm, they might have a hit on their hands. As I mentioned in my review of the Sigma 150mm OS Macro, my close-up work tends to be of things that are not alive and do not move, and a short focal length makes that easier in some ways. I love the heck out of my Nikon 60mm AF-S Micro, and this new lens seems to serve the same niche for DX shooters at less size and weight and half the cost.
The first thing you notice when you open the box is how small the lens is. Like the 50mm f/1.8, you can barely feel the weight in your hand. The 60mm Macro isn’t exactly a monster itself, but given that both of these lenses have the same frame of view on their respective systems, you can see the size advantage that the DX frame gives in a comparison of the two with the hood and without:
I’ve also noticed on both this and the 50mm that Nikon has greatly increased the size of the lens mount marker on their new lenses and cameras. It will be interesting to see if they do this on new professional bodies, because while useful it also has just a bit of a Fisher-Price feel to it:
But the really important thing is “How does it perform?” Can it stand up to the 60mm, which is an amazingly sharp macro with great rendering? To properly test it, B&H also loaned me a great DX camera, the Nikon D7000. I don’t have enough use with that camera to review it properly, but I will say that its video functions run circles around my Nikon D3s‘s, and it was alarmingly fun to use.
DX cameras also have an inherent advantage in macro work. We generally call true macros anything that renders 1:1, which means that they can take a photo of an area the same size as their sensor. The larger the sensor, though, the less tiny that is. For maximum resolution of a tiny scene, it helps to have a small sensor crammed in with pixels. For most uses, the giant pixels on the D3s will give you less noise and greater dynamic range than the smaller ones on the D7000, but the D7000 is overall a much better macro camera.
Here we have the same rings photographed by the 40mm on the D7000 and the 60mm on the D3s, both at f/16. Which is which? The great news is that it’s really hard to tell — if I didn’t have the EXIF I wouldn’t be able to. (The 40mm is on the left).
But almost any lens is limited by diffraction at f/16, not the lens qualities themselves, so let’s look at the 40mm wide-open. The shot below, from the D7000, is a bigger magnification than is possible with the 60mm + D3s combo:
Depth-of-field is extremely shallow here, but a 100 percent crop will show how sharp this lens is wide-open — perhaps TOO sharp for a ring that’s seen better days:
There’s a bit of a false haze that comes from the way I lit this subject, and is similar in both lenses, so let’s look at another, cuter subject. I figure a $280 DX lens is going to see a lot of cat pictures, so I beat you to it:
This close-up of the side of a soda bottle says a lot about the lens’s character, good and bad, because the highlight-filled edges curve out of the focal plane and the high contrast shows a bit of magenta and green making an appearance:
But if you want to pixel-peep boring photos? Because I didn’t use this much on professional shoots, just this one I’m happy to oblige. For the pixel peepers, I took shots of a cereal box at f/8 and wide-open. Clicking those links will download the full-res JPG. But it’s just a cereal box (and not even my favorite cereal), so I’ll give you spoilers: It’s sharp.
This shot shows more of the DoF and contrast rendering, as well as some classy gear:
And there’s a little surprise as well: That is a full-frame capture from my D3s. Yes, at close-up distances the vignetting goes away even on a full-frame camera, disappearing almost completely when you stop down. I wouldn’t recommend this lens for full-frame users, but it means you can be quite sure you aren’t going to see any vignetting at all with a stopped-down image on a DX frame.
Light, small, cheap, sharp, and well-behaved across the frame? If I were a DX shooter I’d snap this up immediately.