Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
The Nikon system of digital single-lens reflex (SLR) bodies and lenses is a popular choice among serious photographers worldwide. This page makes it easy to shop for Nikon digital bodies and Nikkor lenses. Every component manufactured by Nikon is covered, plus a few exceptionally good third-party components. If you are new to photography, you might want to start with our article Factors to Consider when Choosing a Digital SLR Camera.
This article goes through every section of the Nikon system and concludes with some starter system recommendations.
Many Nikon digital SLR bodies incorporate a “small sensor” or “APS-C” sized sensor. This is smaller than the standard 35mm film frame and effectively multiplies the magnification of any lens attached to the body. A small sensor is good for telephoto work, such as wildlife photography, where a 300mm lens that is too short for bird photography on a film camera becomes a 450mm (effective) lens. In November 2007, Nikon added the D3, their first full-frame sensor DSLR professional camera to their arsenal of DSLR bodies. Since that time, the D700, D3X and D3s have been added to the roster in the full-frame category. The full-frame sensor bodies are good for wide angle photography, low light photography, and optimum image quality.
Nikon D5000, (compare prices) (review), (April 2009), 12MP; 11-point AF with 3D focus tracking; ISO range 200-3200 (6400 with boost); vari-angle 2.7-inch LCD 230,000 dots; 4fps continuous capture; SD/SDHC cards
Nikon D90, (compare prices) (review), (Aug. 2008), 12MP; ISO range 200-3200 (6400 with boost); 3-inch LCD 920,000 dots; 4.5fps continuous capture; SD/SDHC cards
Nikon D300s, (compare prices) (review), (July 2009), 12MP; ISO range 200-3200 (100-6400 with boost); 3-inch LCD 920,000 dots; 7fps continuous capture; video 720p HD; CF + SD/SDHC cards
Nikon D7000, (compare prices) (review), (Sept. 2010), 16MP; ISO range 100-6400 (up to 25600 with boost); 3-inch LCD 921,000 dots; 6fps continuous capture; video 1080p HD; SD/SDHC cards (dual slot)
Nikon FM3A (review), Nikon came out with this all-metal manual focus body in 2001. It is a beautifully balanced camera and, with a 50/1.4 lens, will take much better pictures than what 99 percent of digital camera owners capture with their cheap kit zoom lenses.
VR: vibration reduction—a technology lifted from camcorder image stabilizers. The lens electronically compensates for unsteady hands. VR is especially important at long focal lengths, e.g., 200mm and above, because the lens magnifies camera shake at the same time it is magnifying the subject. A VR lens will allow you to use slower shutter speeds without introducing camera shake. The alternative to a VR lens would be mounting the camera on a tripod or using a high ISO setting, which reduces image quality but allows the use of higher shutter speeds.
ED: extra-low dispersion (ED) glass—a more expensive and higher quality glass that reduces chromatic aberration, in which light of different colors takes different paths through the lens, which would result in a dot of white light being fuzzed up by the time it reaches the film or sensor.
IF: internal focus—the lens does not change physical length as you focus on subjects that are closer or farther away.
DX: Nikon’s lenses that only work on its small-sensor digital SLR bodies, i.e., they don’t cast a large enough image circle to be used on a film camera.
FX: refers to the full frame sensor
G: Nikon’s professional line of lenses. The G lenses don’t work on older bodies.
AF-S: silentwave motor. Old-style Nikon autofocus lenses did not have motors in the lens, but relied on a screwdriver blade in the camera body to turn the focus ring. An AF-S lens has a built-in ultrasonic motor, a technology copied from the Canon EOS system. When using an AF-S lens, the photographer can push the shutter release (or a button on the rear of the camera, if a custom function is set) and let the autofocus system do its best, then touch up the focus manually by twisting the lens ring. The AF-S lenses also focus faster and more quietly.
To enhance your search for the perfect lenses for your camera gear bag, check out our guide on Building a Lens Kit.
A normal or standard lens is light in weight and approximates the perspective of the human eye. Normal lenses have large maximum apertures, indicated by small f-numbers such as f/1.4 or f/1.8, and thereby gather much more light than zoom lenses. It may be possible to take a photo with a normal lens in light only 1/8th or 1/16th as bright as would be required for the same photo with a consumer-priced zoom lens. Another advantage of the large maximum aperture is that the viewfinder will be correspondingly brighter and therefore easier to use in dim light. (SLRs keep the lens wide open for viewing and stop down to whatever aperture you have set just before taking the picture; this is why the viewfinder always looks the same even if you switch from f/1.4 to f/8 to f/16.)
Nikon 35mm f/2.0 AF, (compare prices) (review); designed for a film camera and the viewfinder will be only half as bright as the Sigma, but possibly higher optical quality, especially since you’re only using the center portion of the lens, normal angle of view on DX cameras
In terms of flare, contrast, and sharpness, these are the highest quality lenses that you will ever attach to your camera. If you can do the job with a normal lens, as many of the 20th Century’s greatest photographers did, you can save yourself a lot of weight and cost. There are good zoom lenses, but they are very expensive and heavy.
Wide-to-Telephoto Zoom Lenses
A wide-to-tele zoom is what you get as a standard “kit” lens with a cheaper digital SLR body. The range goes from moderately wide through normal to moderately telephoto. They are good when you are too busy to change lenses, e.g., at a wedding reception. The 24mm perspective (full-frame) will capture a table of guests; the 70mm or 105mm long end is good for a flattering portrait. The main weakness of these lenses is that the inexpensive ones have a very small maximum aperture, e.g., f/4 or f/5.6, and can only be used in bright light, on a tripod, or with a blast of on-camera flash that gives everyone a moon face.
Good for general-purpose dramatic wide angle photography. More distortion than wide-angle prime lenses, which makes them less suitable for photographing architecture (though many kinds of distortion can be fixed by a Photoshop wizard).
These let you get close to your subject while still showing a lot of background information. Wide angle lenses are good for “environmental portraits” in which the subject occupies most of the frame, but nearby objects are in sharp focus. Photojournalism has gone gradually wider and wider over the years. A typical photo in a newspaper these days might be taken at 20-24mm on a full-frame camera, which would be 14-17mm on a small sensor digital camera.
A prime wide angle lens will have much lower distortion of vertical and horizontal lines than a zoom lens and is therefore preferred for architectural photography. All of these lenses are designed for film and full-frame sensor cameras.
A prime or fixed focal length telephoto lens offers maximum image quality, light gathering capability (aperture), and magnification. The good ones are big, heavy, and designed for use on a monopod or tripod. Sports and wildlife photography require these lenses. Nikon does not make any telephoto lenses specifically for their small-sensor digital cameras, which is a shame because it would be possible to cut the cost and weight dramatically without the requirement of casting a 24×36mm image for an old film camera.
Nikon 180mm f/2.8D ED-IF AF, (compare prices), an incredibly sharp and light lens, standard choice for studio fashion photographers with full-frame film bodies in the late 1980s; becomes the equivalent of a 300mm lens on a Nikon digital body and therefore good for animals in the zoo and dramatic telephoto images
The better Nikon telephoto lenses are designed to work optically with the teleconverters. Image quality will be acceptable, even at maximum aperture. As noted above, however, there is no free lunch. A teleconverter provides additional magnification, but the overall amount of light gathered by the lens remains the same. Thus, you lose one f-stop of light with a 1.4X converter and two f-stops with a 2X converter. The viewfinder will be dimmer and the camera will have a tougher time autofocusing. With a 2X converter and a slower lens, therefore, you will lose the ability to autofocus with many bodies.
These are heavy lenses. If you have a tripod quick-release system, get plates for each lens and remember to mount the lens, not the camera body, to the tripod.
Macro lenses let you fill your photograph with a subject that is physically small. The longer the focal length of the macro lens, the farther away you can be from your subject, which is important with live insects, for example. A macro lens that goes down to “1:1” can be used to take a frame-filling photo of something that is 24×36mm (1×1.5 inches) in size, the same dimensions as a frame of 35mm film or the sensor on a full-frame digital body. All Nikon macro lenses can be used for ordinary photographic projects as well, i.e., they will focus out to infinity if desired. Note that a “macro zoom” will focus reasonably close, but is not a substitute for a “macro lens”.
The easiest way to ruin a photograph is to use on-camera flash, which blasts the subject with an unflattering light. The resulting lack of shadows means that it is tough for a viewer to make out the features of the subject. On-camera flash is useful outdoors for filling in harsh shadows. Otherwise, the professional uses flash mostly bouncing up towards the ceiling or held as far away from the camera as possible. This is why the professional camera bodies don’t incorporate the pop-top flashes the way that consumer bodies do.
Nikon makes a great line of products, both wired and wireless, for coordinating and controlling multiple flashes. Covering all of these accessories is beyond the scope of this article, but if you are going to use flash as a primary light you should consider added additional speedlights and mounting them off-camera.
Perspective Correction Lenses
A perspective correction (PC) lens lets you take a picture of a building, from ground level, without the lines converging and making it look as though the building is falling over. It works because you are able to shift the front portion of the lens up, the lens being designed to cast a larger image than the 35mm film frame. To some extent, this is obsolete because these kinds of linear distortions can be fixed post-exposure in a digital editing tool such as Adobe Photoshop. Some of Nikon’s older PC lenses were designed for their film bodies and are manual focus. If you are deeply interested in in-camera perspective adjustments, note that Canon makes a more flexible line of “tilt-shift” lenses that come closer to what is possible with a 4×5 view camera (cloth over head, bellows, sheet film).