Nikon Lenses: Sharp and Soft

I love lenses and examining the subtle differences with each one so I am confident in the resulting image.

Nikon Lens

Nikon Lens

Nikon lenses are sharp with a little softer contrast than the Zeiss lenses.  The older A lenses are nice because they have a wider focus barrel which makes it easier to mount your Zacuta zip focus gears or Red Rock Micro focus rings. 32 pitch focus rings for the still lenses are made by both Zacuta and Red Rock Micro and the choice is one of personal preference.

Be wary of the Nikon AI lenses because it is difficult to mount any gear system to the lens which makes it very tricky for your focus puller.

The 28mm is an amazing lens.  It has low distortion and focuses to 18 inches.  The old Nikon glass is exceptional. Great contrast, very sharp.  The Nikon zooms are much sharper than the Canon’s.  Sharpness is your friend with HD because it gives you the 3 dimensional quality of film.  By using the 65mm depth of field that you get with the 5D Mark II camera you are able to pull your subject out of the background.

What have you noticed with the different Nikon lenses? Which one is your favorite and what makes it your number one choice?  I will share your experiences with the other blog readers and the film community, so please leave comments.

  1. Alvaro 6 years ago

    I work with all canon lenses lineup, and it have some tack-sharp ones even wide open:

    24mm L mkII f/1.4
    35mm L f/1.4
    50mm L f/1.2 (only sharp from 1.8)
    85mm L mkII f/1.2
    135mm L f/2
    200mm L IS f/2

    with new 24mm f/1.4 on “real” 35mm like 5D I think its posible to emulate same DOF and ambience of scenes filmed in medium format, like bank robery in “the dark knight”

    personally I never use zooms for video, I don’t like the low microcontrast and the lack of 3D effect at least on canon/nikon ones.

  2. Shane 6 years ago

    The L series is not bad, but when they get on the big screen, they do not resolve well. I found the Nikon and the Ziess to perform the best in the small size lenses and then the Panavision Primo Prime in the larger size lenses. I have found that the sharpest lens is your best approach. In the limited 8 BIT color space of the camera, it gives you more latitude to color correct.

  3. Masden 6 years ago

    I dont know for video, but i just did a test between canon and nikon best lens to compare the sharpness :
    100mm 2.8L VS the 100mm 2.8 VR
    70-200 2,8 IS VS 70-200 2.8 VR
    24-70mm 2.8 VS 24-70mm VR

    and the winner is CANON not NIKON ! (wide open f/2.8) but it is in photography…

    I will provide the result in some week on my blog.

  4. Shane 6 years ago

    Masden, I love the Canon lenses for stills, but for video the Zeiss glass resolves the best. They are so crisp and clean. I would love to read your blog when you post those results. Thanks

  5. Jason Wawro 6 years ago

    I used the “Hat’s” old set of nikons on a job in apri. They were so awesome I went out a put together a set of my own. This is probably in the wrong section but I’m wonder about your experience with Aliasing and morie. I have had some real nightmares with the 5 and even more with the 7. I was doing some tests at Panni Hwood upstairs in the the video engineering room. We came up with some filter combinations that sort of helped but more tests are needed. Got any work arounds yet?

  6. Shane 6 years ago

    Jason, Old Hat’s lenses, those things are sweet. First you need to get out of the High Gamma 5 setting. That quote unquote RAW file is the problem.The 5 in High Gamma is a number 5 sharpening tool, that is what is causing the morie. We experienced the same thing on this Navy SEAL movie and I got off of that Picture Style and moved to Neutral. Once you go there and you should be good to go. I am not doing anything with filters except ND.

  7. Jason Wawro 6 years ago

    Been using neutral with the sharpening at 0, works great in most situations. Did a Honda spot last week with a production company owned camera that I believe had issues. The moire was out of control, not sure if it was the camera or what. I’m gonna try and shoot some more filter tests tomorrow and post it vimeo. Really like what I see here on your blog and web sight. This DSR stuff is making us all re-examine the direction that production will be headed.

  8. Ben Weinstein 6 years ago

    I’ve been shooting with the D90 and a set of AI-S lenses. They are sharp and have a really nice quality. I’d love to try em on the 1D mark 4 or on a 5D. the following are the standout lenses. These are all the last generation of prime nikkors before the AF series came out.

    20mm f2.8
    28mm f2.0
    50mm f 2.0
    85mm f2.0

    the 24mm f 2.0 and 35mm f 2.0 are less remarkable,feel like inbetween focal lengths, would get you out of a jam rather than provide a nice feeling. The 50mmm f 2.0 seems a bit sweeter than the 1.4 and 1.8s that are very prevalent. I once left the 28mm/f 2.0 on an air france flight and after recovering from sheer devastation and separation anxiety, I replaced it – there is nothing like that lens. I’d love to see what it looks like on a full frame.

    Nikon should of course follow Canon’s lead and release a 1080P full frame camera. Their foot dragging is depressing. I believe its an overheating issue. Shane do you plan on getting a 1D mark 4 next? Maybe the dynamic range will outperform the 7D. Have you seen that some people have uploaded custom “cine-style” gamma for the 7D? It may inch the sensor’s look closer to the 5D. Its probably similar to dialing down the contrast…

    These DSLR’s are such a a joy to shoot with, they are wonderful for comedy, and stealing locations, we hide little countryman lavs on the actors and walk around NYC getting breathtaking locations. People think we’re tourists, and wer’e getting priceless dialogue in front of real backrdrops, with naturally moving, free extras. The sound guy lingers a few steps away with a PDM 660 and headphones, to monitor levels. Its incredible, so much better than using film or even a red one, the DeLorean of cameras.

    Thanks for the blog.

    Ben Weinstein

  9. Author
    Shane 6 years ago

    Ben, thanks for all the info., I am going to look into the “cine-style” gamma. Yes, I will be buying several of the 1D’s. I loved the way it felt in my hands, the ISO possibilities and the 24P function. The sensor size is 1 millimeter off of anamorphic. The depth of field on it was awesome. You could shoot at a 2.8.5 and get the same quality of depth of field that on the 5D required a 5.6.

  10. Ben Weinstein 6 years ago

    Yeah maybe they’ve hit a sweet spot with the 1Ds Mark 4. cant wait to try it. the bog question in my mind remains, how does the D3s stack up to it.

    re: reducing contrast I came across this 7D clip – if you read in the comments it appears the DP dialed down the contrast to the lowest setting and bumped up the saturation which turned out to be dangerous combination for skin tones which get flattened in a strange way …

    its part of a well organized group of “best of” 7D clips

    also read this very informative article, explaining why there is aliasing on high megapixel cameras that record low megapixel video … looks like we (filmmakers) would prefer if the optical low pass filter was “tuned” for 1920×1080 … the one that is at work in the 5D, 7D, it is tuned for 21 MP which has absolutely no effect on 1080 video. And… if it were tuned for 1080 it would ruin high megapixel still photos, and since the camera is primarily marketed for photographers… anyways… geek out.

    my apologies if its old news, or in the wrong blog category:



  11. Author
    Shane 6 years ago

    Ben, thank you so much for all the info. I went to all the sites. I will dig deeper into this aliasing thing. I have not had a problem with it. Chopper blades, no problem, automatic gunfire no problem, maybe it is the Twixtor logarithm that I am using.

  12. Alan Dang 6 years ago

    Shane, I’ve been shooting with Zeiss glass (28/50/85) on the 5D Mark II and I agree that it’s consistently better than L glass for video. For stills, the L glass works better simply for the autofocus capabilities.

    I’ve recently started playing with Leica-R glass on the 5D Mark II (50/90/180APO). The 180 Apo-Telyt-R 3.4 looks great. The Zeiss 50/85 lenses are sharper than my Leica 50/90, but the 180 APO looks great. I suspect the APO-90 will be pretty good though. I’m hoping that the softer contrast of the Leica will make color grading better.

    When you trialed Leica lenses earlier, which lenses did you try?

  13. Author
    Shane 6 years ago

    Alan,I have never tried Leica still lenses. The Panavision Primo Primes are Leica Glass, and you are so true on the contrast, they are so much softer in contrast then the Zeiss. I can tell you that they are so much better for color grading because you gain 1.5 stops more information in the overexposed areas and 1.5 more info. in the underexposed areas.

  14. Alan Dang 6 years ago

    Oh, in the Panavision thread, you mentioned that you had used Leica glass.

    I haven’t though to try to quantify the number of extra stops I gain/lose when comparing different lenses. I’ll test ’em next week and let you know.

  15. Author
    Shane 6 years ago

    Alan, that would be great. I shot two cameras side by side with the different glass. It was awesome to see the difference between the Primo’s and the Zeiss, then I did Primo’s vs Nikon, then I did Zeiss vs. Nikon, and then I did Zeiss vs. Canon. Would love to see how the Leicas perform.

  16. michael 6 years ago

    When using a 5d mark II Which 50mm will blow up the best when trasferred to film?
    Nikon 50mm 1.2 AIS
    or Zeiss 50mm?

  17. Author
    Shane 6 years ago

    Michael, in my test the Zeiss performed the best. The Nikon was a close second.

  18. michael 6 years ago

    thanks Shane…so Zeiss best across the board?
    how do you like the Zeiss 35mm F2? enough shallow dof?
    just wondering as the 5d actually seems to crop the focal length top and bottom to get the 16×9 so a 35mm would get longer?

  19. Alan Dang 6 years ago

    Shane, if you send me an email, I’ll send over some pics comparing Leica/Zeiss/Canon. These are older shots from a 20D (I’ll get to the 5D2 video comparison either Sun or early next week)

  20. Author
    Shane 6 years ago

    Alan, thanks for the pics, I am working right now, I will look at them soon.

  21. Adam Levins 6 years ago

    No mention of the Olympus OM glass yet. Mounts great with a OM to EOS adapter. I have 24mm 2.8 28mm 2.8 and 50mm 1.4

    I like the build quality and compactness of the OM line but not sure how they compare to Leica/Zeiss/Canon.

  22. Author
    Shane 6 years ago

    Adam, I will try the Olympus OM glass, never thought about it.

  23. Adam Levins 6 years ago

    I also got the OM 35mm 2.8 shift lens. I might have to post a video test at some point (after I get my 5D)

  24. Author
    Shane 6 years ago

    Adam, that sounds very interesting. I would love to see what that looks like

  25. Marcelo Trotta 6 years ago

    Ive been using my set of Leica Rs for a while now on the 5D and really like the results. The lenses have a beautiful 3d perspective , beautiful bokeh and it’s construction is far more apropriate for video shooting than the autofocus lenses. I was using the L Canons but it’s really annoying cause some of them have that neverending-focus-ring-spin and I have notice as well that if you’re using a Follow Focus and rack focus fast, sometimes parts move inside the lenses and all your ACs focus marks are gone. Also, to perform fast autofocus, the focus scales are usually short , while on the manual focus lenses you have a more precise, 270 degree scale. My set of Leicas : 28mm Elmarit, 35mm Summicron, 50mm, Summicron, 90mm Elmarit ( really looking forward to buy an APO 90mm wich I think is the best 35mm still lenses around ), 135mm Elmarit, 180mm Elmar. Adaptors from Novoflex, RedRock gears. I recommend it.

    • Author
      Shane 6 years ago

      Marcelo Trotta, wow, that sounds great. Where did you get your Leica to Canon adapter. I just signed on to do a movie for Foxin Croatia, Budapest and Vienna and I would love to test the Leica’s. Yes I hate the L series glass with the endless focus ring. Great for a still photographer not for a cinematographer.

  26. wei 6 years ago

    Dream lenses set for still pros:

    Carl Zeiss Distagon 21 mm f/2.8,Coastal Optics 60 mm f/4 UV-VIS-IR APO Macro,Carl Zeiss Contax Planar T* 85 mm f/1.2,Cosina Voigtlander 125 mm f/2.5 Apo Lanthar Macro,Leica APO-Summicron-R 180 mm f/2,Leica APO-Telyt-R 280 mm f/2.8,Leica APO-Telyt-R 400 mm f/2.8

  27. Micah 6 years ago


    I have a Leica Elmarit lens and I bought this adapter.

    Its the cheapest of the three available, but it seems very solid to me with zero play.

    $80 one:

    and the pricey Novaflex for $270

  28. marcelo trotta 6 years ago

    I use the Novoflex adapters. They are quite expensive but they keep the lenses on collimation. When you check the focus visually it’s the same thing as the scale says. This is a very valuable feature for the ACs ( as they are already sweating to keep things in focus with the enormous sensor of the 5D MarkII…). Just did a pilot for a television series entirely with the 5D. Ive wrote an article ( it’s in brazilian portuguese but you’ll be able to translate it with the internet tools ) for the ABC ( associação brasileira de cinematografia ):

    • Author
      Shane 6 years ago

      marcelo trotta, The Novoflex adapters on the Leica’s were very loose, the image would physically move up and down when focusing.

  29. Bill 6 years ago


    For the life of me I cannot remember what mount the Kowas had. Also is there an adapter for the Mamiya RZ67 lenses? I am lov’n the images from the M645 lenses!


    • Author
      Shane 6 years ago

      Bill, the Kowa’s that I used were a panavision mount, I am not sure what the original mount was. Yes, I think Fotodiox has the Mamiya adapters.

  30. Raham 5 years ago

    Hi Shane,

    Thanks for all the great help. Is there any difference between the non-Ai, ai, and Ai-s in terms of being projected on the big screen. Also do you happen to know which model doesn’t use the thorium glass as I’ve heard concerns about that due to the effects of radioactivity on the lens.


  31. GG 4 years ago

    Has anybody try the Eddie Houston modified lenses?

    What about the Vivitar?

    Thanx all

  32. fast lenses 4 years ago

    i love dslr movie with wide open aperture lens, pull your subject out of the background.

  33. visualMED 4 years ago

    I saw the resulte of the nikkor glasses and was happy with this result I am going to buy them our the leica r glasses thanks shane

    • Author
      Shane 4 years ago

      VisualMED. I love the Leica R glass, thanks for the comment and support.

  34. George 4 years ago

    Hi Shane,
    Love the Blog!!

    I just purchased some Nikon ai lens based on your recommendation, which are great! Now I’m looking at getting some Zeiss. But before I do I thought I’d ask a couple of questions.

    1- Is it a bad idea to mix different brand glass in the one shoot?
    2- What are you thoughts of converting CONTAX Zeiss Lenses to Canon?

    • Author
      Shane 4 years ago

      George, thank you so much for your kind words. Mixing the Nikon and the Zeiss would not be advisable. The Nikon has a very yellow color while the Zeiss tend to be a little cool. The Contax lenses are very cool and worth converting.

      • JChase 3 years ago

        Shane this is my first post, we are starting a small production company, im still taking film courses, weekend boot camp classes, watching dvd tutorials, love “5 c’s of cinamatography and various other readings. I love you info on compostion, well thats enough of that just wanted to say thanks for your contribution to us “REGULAR FOLKS”/FILM MAKERS.

        My question is about adapters Shane, We are about to shoot a few tv pilots and will be purchasing a few black magic cinema cameras (2.5k raw/pro res 10 bit ) or will be getting about 6 panasonic gh3’s 70mbps all-i , shane who makes the best adapters in your opinion for canon various mounts or even micro 4/3s that will accept nikon ai-s old glass or new glass. I keep hearing either novoflex or FOTODOX can you please weigh in ?

        • Author
          Shane 3 years ago

          JChase, thank you so much for your kind words and support. I like the Fotodiox mounts myself. But you cannot get the cheap ones. I spend about a 140.00 on each mount and you want to get one for every piece of glass you have. The mounts weaken the more you take them on and off of the lenses.

  35. JCAHSE 3 years ago

    a mount for each glass, never tought about that, but it definitely is logical, once shane again all of the informative tips and info on the blog

  36. lawrence 3 years ago

    Is there a color/contrast difference between the Nikon AI and Nikon AIS lenses? Thanks.

    • Author
      Shane 3 years ago

      lawrence, a little, mainly a little more yellow tone in the AI series.

  37. Olivier Zibret 3 years ago

    Hi Shane !
    Thank you for the time to do what you do with your blog!! I really love it!
    You are the kind of guy who makes me realize how it’s awesome to do my job!
    My question for you is this one :
    I already own a little set of old Nikon ai/ai-s lenses (35 f1,4/50 f1,4/85 f1,8), I’m hesitating between completing my set or buying a set of zeiss contax lenses… What should I do?
    And also, what do you think about Gl optics Cinemod? Will you go for it?
    Thank you very much Shane.

    • Author
      Shane 3 years ago

      Olivier Zibret, you are very welcome and I thank you for your kind words. Build that AI and AI-s set, it is kick ass.

  38. Enrique 2 years ago

    Hello Shane. I love your blog. There is so much useful information!

    I own a Nikon 50mm F1.2 AIS. I love the drag of the focus ring and the “dreamy” effect of the lens wide open. I’m thinking about building a set of fast still prime lenses for video and trying to decide between Nikon AI/AIS and Zeiss ZF.2 lenses.

    I’ve read Nikon’s 24mm f2 AI and 35mm f1.4 AI are soft wide open for stills and with CA issues. Does this softness translate into video as well? Which ones would you recommend, the Nikons AI/AIS or the Zeiss ZF.2 25mm 1.4 and 35mm 1.4?

    Thank you in advance.


    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Enrique, You are very welcome and thank you for your kind words. I love the Nikon lenses but shooting any lens wide open on a 5D MK III, full frame sensor is really difficult to keep your subjects in focus with video. On stills it is that moment, but with video they are moving all over the place and you need some DOF to carry to give yourself a fighting chance to get things sharp. The Zeiss ZF’s are colder and have more contrast then the Nikon AI and AIS.

      • Enrique 2 years ago

        Thank you Shane for your kind and quick reply.

  39. ADC 1 year ago

    Dear Shane, been trawling through your posts about Nikkor lenses, thanks for kindly daring your knowledge and experience.
    I’m contemplating a set of AI lenses and wondered if, in 2014, you still consider them to be more capable than the Rokinon cine primes?

  40. Larry Miller 1 year ago

    My favorite Nikkor lens is still the 28mm/F2 AIS, Incredible piece of glass. Also like the Nikkor 85mm/F1.8 AF-D. Another winner.

  41. Sonny 1 year ago

    I have 24mm f2.8, 35 f1.4, 50 f1.4, 85 f1.4, 105 f2.8 macro, 135 f2.

    I seem to use the 24 a lot for action when I’m moving around. I don’t really like the way the lens looks distortion wise (or lack of it). Whatever they did to correct distortion as it’s a wider lens seems to make people look thin or long. I can’t tell, I’m just not in love with it. The 35 is very personal, but man is it soft wide open. And there’s sever CA in contrasty situation with ND on. Like a sever halo effect on whites. I love the way it looks stopped down to 2.8-5.6 up close to people it gives a nice look. I think it’s my favorite of my set but it’s got the most issues ironically. The 85 is just beautiful but I don’t really know when to use it except locked down isolating the subject. 105 is handy for macros and creeper shots as it’s super small and can cary with me easily. 135 is just a nice looking lens and I get some nice shots of scenery compressed for those nice opening shots to a piece. I’m sure I could find better use for it, but I like being hand held more than anything so it gets little love.

    I think I love the 35 stopped down the most, then my 24 for its usability. My 50 should probably get more love but it’s not as friendly hand held. Looks nice in general though. 85 is gorgeous!

    I’m shooting with a bmpcc with a metabones speed booster so I’m closer to APS-C or Super 35 than what you’re used to with the 5d’s full frame, so take my opinion on focal length with a grain.

    These lenses by the way are SUPER portable and have 52mm threads (24, 35, 50, 105) so I can literally run around with a set in my pockets. I was filming something in Beverly Hills where you need a permit and the cops actually pulled up to me and just move on as it looked like I had an iPhone with some weird mechanical gizmos on it. Very fun things to have and obviously they look amazing and sharp.

    I just realized this post is 5 years old haha

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