The AF-S DX Micro-Nikkor 40mm f/2.8G is the most affordable macro lens for Nikon’s range of DX format DSLRs, and as an AF-S model, it’ll autofocus on any Nikon body. Yes you read this right: it’s even cheaper than any lens capable of 1:1 magnification from Sigma or Tamron. If you think that doesn’t bode well for the performance of this little lens read on: there’s a pleasant surprise waiting for you!
Announced in July 2011, the 40/2.8G is the latest addition to an impressive line-up of six macro-lenses from Nikon. It’s the shortest of the bunch and one of only two macro lenses from Nikon which is specifically designed for DX format bodies. [ad#Google Adsense Text]
Mounted on a DX body, the 40mm delivers an equivalent focal length of 60mm, making it only slightly longer than a so-called ‘normal’ lens, and with a maximum aperture of f2.8 it is brighter than most zooms. So it could double up as a standard-prime, albeit not as bright as Nikon’s 35/1.8G but with the key benefit of going far beyond the meager 1:6 magnification of that lens. This sounds like a compelling option for owners of DX bodies and in this review you’ll find out whether it delivers decent performance despite its low price.
Closest focus distance/max. magnification: 0.16m / 1:1. Magnification of 1:1 is standard with Nikon’s Micro-Nikkors, but other manufacturers call some of their lenses “macro” while only reaching 1:4 magnification. So this is a clear for the Nikkor. But the other important thing with magnification is the working distance from the front lens at 1:1, a figure that is rarely published in the technical data. When I measured the 1:1 working distance on this lens I was quite shocked to find it at only 3cm from the front. This makes proper lighting of the front of your subject a bit of a challenge and is much too close for the comfort of many small critters!
Filter-thread: 52mm = same as the 50/1.8D, DX 35/1.8G, and 85/3.5G. The small size makes filters cheaper.
Image stabilization: No = a pity! With its short focal length it might not be as prone to shake as longer macro lenses, but the closer you focus the stronger the magnification of any shake becomes. So if you want stabilization in a macro lens you have to go for the larger and more expensive Nikon 85/3.5 VR or the Nikon 105/2.8 VR.
Auto focus: AF-S with SWM (silent wave motor), so it works on any Nikon DSLR and you also get manual-focus override by turning the focus ring. The focus scale has a third line that shows magnification in addition to the shooting distances in m and ft.
Comes with a flexible lens pouch, snap-on front lens cap, rear lens cap, and revertible bayonet hood, like any standard Nikon lens.
Price: around 230 EUR new = very reasonable. This is by far the cheapest “real” (meaning 1:1) macro lens you can get for a Nikon body! The next Nikon macro-lenses price-wise cost almost twice as much, even the Sigma AF 50mm 2.8 EX DG Macro is around 20% more expensive.
Distance information is relayed to the camera, so the Nikon body can do all the advanced exposure-related stuff with this lens. But this is true for all the alternatives too.
Aperture ring = no, just like all Nikon G-lenses.
Sealing: yes! There’s a rubber grommet on the lens-mount. Excellent and all lenses should have this.
Focus limiter switch: Yes, 0.2m – infinity. This can be pretty helpful to avoid hunting.
A 40mm macro-lens is for getting close to your subject and showing details other lenses can’t show. And it also doubles up as a standard fixed focal lens. Plus there are expectations that macro-lenses are pretty sharp. But you have to wait just a little bit to see whether the lens fulfills this expectation.
– The AF-S Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G ED. Larger, more expensive, covers FX-sensors.
– The Sigma AF 50mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro. A little larger and a bit more expensive, covers FX-sensors, no silent AF-drive.
The alternatives are said to perform pretty well, so if you want a longer focal length and/or the guaranty that the lens works on your next FX-body, have a look at those contenders.
Testing: Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration
Axial color (longitudinal CA, loCA) is a very common problem with large aperture primes and is not as easy to correct in post processing (or in-camera) as lateral CAs. Longitudinal CAs create some greenish tint with background subjects and a magenta tint on foreground subjects. The 40/2.8G is certainly not a very large aperture prime but as you can see in the following test-shots it is also affected by this problem.
Below left is the result for the 40/2.8G showing a 100% crop at f2.8. The effect is reduced by stopping down and at f5.6 the greenish (background) and reddish (foreground) hues are almost gone. Processing was done in Capture NX 2 with standard settings meaning lateral CA removal was ON, loCA removal = OFF. Below right you see the results from setting loCA removal to 50% in Capture NX.
At larger magnifications the center of this lens is also pretty good straight from the largest apertures, which was f3.3 at 1:2.6. But the corner is quite mushy and not up to the standard that you’re used to see at normal shooting distances. So stopping down is required to achieve better image-quality at close-up shots. This normally is not so bad as you might expect: at a magnification of 1:2.6 depth-of-field is razor-thin at f2.8 and normally no natural subject is flat enough to be in focus, coupled with field-curvature of the lens also adding to the challenge of corner to corner sharpness. My own experience says that for getting a pleasing distribution of sharpness across the frame of a shot of 1:2-1:3 magnification you need at least f5.6 or f8.0 for depth-of-field alone. And if you look at the corner-performance of this lens at f8 you see a much improved image-quality which certainly does not stand in the way of producing very sharp macro-shots.
Focus and build quality
Focus accuracy and repeatability is critical for people relying on AF. Repeatability (=accuracy of focus on the same subject after repeated focus-acquisition) is excellent with no outliers over a series of 14 shots. There are only very slight focus-variations that correlate with the direction the focus was coming from (infinity or minimum focus distance). The 40/2.8G focuses reasonably fast: around 1 sec from minimum focus distance (MFD) to infinity. Sometimes it hunts in the wrong direction (typically when close-up) first but the focus limiter switch prevents this.
The focus ring of the 2.8G turns about 170 degrees from infinity to MFD. This throw should be good enough for manual focusing (in live-view), but unfortunately there is a slight hysteresis/slack/play between the focus-ring and the focus-action, which makes accurate focus under critical conditions pretty hard. The movement of the focus-ring is also quite tight and there is some humming noise when the AF is operating. The AF-S DX Micro-Nikkor 85mm f/3.5G ED VR is clearly better in this respect. This is supporting the general impression of budget build quality that this lens conveys: plastic construction (but with a metal lens-mount), only seven rounded aperture blades, and a lens-shade that does not fit tightly. If you shake the lens there is quite some noise to be heard, which is astonishing for a non-stabilized lens.
Three things happen when you focus towards MFD: the front-end of the lens extends around 18mm (while the lens-hood doesn’t move), the effective maximum aperture shrinks to f4.2 (f3.5 at a magnification of 1:2), and the smallest aperture goes from f22 to f32. The shrinking of the effective aperture is nothing to lament about, with a non-IF design those values would be f5.6 resp. f44 at 1:1 magnification.
Nikon’s Micro-Nikkor 40mm f2.8 is a very compelling package: it’s the cheapest macro-lens with 1:1 magnification you can buy and it delivers excellent performance with very contrasty and sharp images center to corner at every aperture at normal shooting distances.
When it comes to shooting close-ups the performance degrades a bit in the corners, but you should not worry too much about that: with larger magnifications you normally have to stop down to get a decent depth of field. And from f8 on the lens-performance in the corners is good again.
Only one thing is really annoying: you have to get very, very close to your subject if you want to reach larger magnifications: 3cm (only a little more than 1 inch) for 1:1! This can really be a nuisance with regard to properly lighting your subject – if your subject is bold enough to stay put under the looming lens. And at only 40mm focal length the lens has a clear disadvantage compared to longer models with subject isolation from the background.
The Nikon 85mm Micro-Nikkor has a clear benefit over the 40mm that comes from its longer focal length: working distance is 14cm at 1:1 and the background-isolation is clearly better. You can also use it as a light telephoto-lens on your DX-body. It also has Nikon’s VR image-stabilization that proves to be effective even at close-up shots so that you can hold the 85/3.5G stable at longer shutter-speeds than the 40/2.8G. But that may not matter if you’re normally working from a tripod.
Comparing image quality between both lenses is a mixed bag: At normal shooting distances the 40/2.8G delivers better quality than the 85/3.5G but at closer working-distances the 85mm lens pulls ahead. So this one is hard to decide.
And then there is price, size and weight. And the 40/2.8G is very good in all three categories while also giving you 2/3 of a stop larger aperture. So this is a very tough comparison to weigh-up and you really need to ask yourself what is more important for you.
The price-performance ratio of the AF-S DX Micro-Nikkor 40mm f/2.8G is excellent and had it not been for the incredibly short working distance at 1:1, this lens would have easily earned a Highly Recommended award. But this weakness puts a serious dent in the otherwise shining performance – and thus it’s awarded with a Recommended. So long as you understand the possible limitations of this lens ( the short 1:1 distance ), it represents great value for owners of DX format DSLRs who want to start exploring the joys of macro photography.
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