Best Nikon Lenses for High Resolution Sensors

Nikon Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8

As I write this, in the Spring of 2013, Nikon cameras support the highest resolution SLR sensors available. The Nikon D800 and D800e are renown for their super sharp 36 megapixel sensors, but the 24 megapixel sensors found in their APS-C line have an even higher pixel density (56% higher, in fact). Nikon’s removal of the anti-aliasing filters on the D800e and D7100 makes the potential for ultra-sharp images even greater.

The downside of using such remarkable sensors, however, is that they will reveal the weaknesses of the lenses placed in front of them. In order to get the most out of a high resolution sensor, you must use the best lenses available.

Nikon has recognized this and officially released a list of lenses that are well suited for use on the D800 and D800e. The official list contains the following Nikkor lenses:

  • AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
  • AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
  • AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
  • AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR
  • AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR
  • AF-S NIKKOR 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR
  • AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR
  • AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II
  • AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.4G ED
  • AF-S NIKKOR 28mm f/1.8G
  • AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G
  • AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G
  • AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G
  • AF-S NIKKOR 200mm f/2G ED VR II
  • AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II
  • AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8G ED VR
  • AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4G ED VR
  • AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4G ED VR
  • AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED
  • AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED
  • PC-E NIKKOR 24mm f/3.5D ED
  • PC-E Micro NIKKOR 45mm f/2.8D ED
  • PC-E Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/2.8D

It will come as no surprise that these are also the most expensive lenses that Nikon produces.

In addition to these lenses, several 3rd-party lenses are available that are as sharp or sharper than their Nikon counterparts. These include:

  • Sigma 35mm f/1.4 “ART”
  • Sigma 50mm f/1.4 “ART”
  • All of the other Sigma ART series lenses
  • Sigma 150mm f/2.8 AF APO EX DG OS HSM Macro

I’ll add additional lenses as I think of them.

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Lens A-Class

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12 Comments

  • The Nikkor 105 is the first thing my dad sent to me. It is an awesome lens and all of the issues I have run into are things that you both have mentioned. I always try to use directional lighting but my light sources are not bright enough causing me to bring up my ISO. I will start with getting some new lights and defusing them, using the 105 of course and see what results I get from that. Phtography is the one place where Einstein’s definition of Insanity holds true for me “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Thanks again guys.

    • Excellent, Mark! I think you should expect superb results from the 105 Micro-Nikkor/D5300 combo! I hope to be able to contribute some images once I eventually acquire a macro lens myself. As for Einstein’s quote, if you’re an Einstein fan as I am, please email me at steve@totalqualityphoto.com and I have an interesting Einstein story for you. BTW, I’m sure Matthew and I would like to see your resulting coin images! Thanks again.

  • I have had a Nikon 35mm for years but never got the fever for photography until 2010. Its funny as a kid I remember the smell of developer permeating the air and film bulging out of the butter compartment in the refrigerator. My father had always had a Nikon, Leica or his trusty Hasselblad at the ready for that moment that would never come again. I remember thinking “Does anyone else go to Moab for Summer vacation?” I can also remember getting up at ungodly times in the morning to catch the sunrise at Delicate Arch.  I am a Systems Engineer and have been for 20 yrs I remember around 1999 he started asking me “What is the best Digital Camera?” I always without hesitation said “A SCANNER!” Followed by I will let you know when there is something worth looking into. My father has been published in National Geographic and I never wanted to recommend a sub-par camera till I was comfortable with the technology.

     3 years ago I was looking at taking photos of Coins to sell on ebay so I was in search for a nice digital camera to complete this task. Since a Nikon has been in the family ever since I can remember I started there and eventually settled on a D5000. My first obstacle was lenses, of course I had the kit 18-55mm that came with it but I could never reach the level of detail I needed to get to capture with that lens such as tiny mintmarks in full clarity, so I reached out to my Dad. He sent me a Nikkor AF 105mm Macro. This should have been enough, but I could never reach that level of clarity needed with the D5000. Now, unfortunately photographic talent is NOT inherited or I could have probably achieved that with little effort. Needless to say I never was able to get the flawless pictures I was looking for regardless of what I did. But what I did do was fall in love with Macro Photography. I bought my girlfriend a D3200 for Christmas and WOW I fell in love with it. I took some unreal macro shots on Auto that are better than anything I took with the D5000 at any setting. So I picked up a D5300 battled over the D7100 but I do not consider myself ready for the D7100 yet, now I am ready to shoot some unreal macro and hopefully those Coins… Finally. Question: What was I possibly doing wrong with the D5000 and is there anything that anyone could recommend I try with those coin shots with the D5300 to get the extream details on them?

    Mark L.

    • Hi Mark.
      I enjoyed your comments about your Dad’s history with Nikon and National Geographic! Thank you for sharing that!
      As for your D5300 and Macro question, I use the D5300 as well, and can tell you that its sensor, lack of an AA (OLPF) filter, and the Expeed4 engine, produce some of the finest images I have ever seen in the digital realm! (And I only currently have the excellent Nikkor 16-85 f/3.5-5.6 G Zoom, yet still producing extremely sharp images, as you can see on my website…see the first image of slate rock under “Macro Images for an example.). I can only imagine the sharpness and detail you’ll get with the 105 Micro-Nikkor combined with the D5300, provided, of course, that you use proper technique, i.e., sturdy tripod, Live View, 2 second delay with IR Remote, lowest ISO, and mid-range aperture, which I believe would be f/8-11. (Anything smaller (f/16 and up) would actually decrease sharpness due to diffraction.). IMHO, I believe that the D5300’s image quality is the best of the current APS-C DSLRs in terms of sharpness and detail rendition (again, when using good optics and good shooting technique and post-processing). Actually, I’ve been researching a good macro lens as well, and it’s between the 105 Micro-Nikkor and the 105 f/2.8 EX OS HSM Sigma macro….both have excellent reviews, but the Sigma is quite a bit less costly. Please feel free to contact me via my website if you’d like to discuss this further. I have 35 years in photography, and would enjoy helping you out! Good luck, sir!

      • Thank you for your quick response. I would really appreciate any assistence you could give me. If I could get a link or a URL I would be happy to contact you there.

        Thank You,

        Mark

        • Hi Mark.
          If you click on my Name (stevetqp), it should take you to my website, http://www.totalqualityphoto.com, You can then see sample images taken with the D5300 and 16-85 Zoom-Nikkor, and contact me via my “Contact Us” form. BTW, Matthew’s comments about subject lighting are excellent! I’d also mention that in general, diffuse side-lighting (i.e., from a window) is good to bring out fine texture. When necessary, I use a white board placed on opposite side of subject, and carefully adjust the board-to-subject distance for a soft fill, to open up the shadow side without adversely affecting overall image contrast from the side-lighting. I generally don’t use flash unless it’s the most practical way of lighting, and even then, diffuse it via bounce, softbox or umbrellas, never direct flash. Of course, in a studio, flash may be the only option, but the main advantage of flash is that it stops action, and provides a high level of sharpness due to the extremely short flash duration. Plus, it’s controllable and repeatable. Hope this helps!

    • Hi Mark,

      I can’t speculate about what might have caused the problems with your D5000; it may have been the lens or a problem with the camera, or just an issue of technique… but if you’d like to email me a copy (matthew@ light and matter.org) I’d be happy to take a look and give you my ideas.

      That said, the D3200 has an awesome sensor, but the D5300 and D7100 have the potential to be even sharper with their lack of AA filter on the sensor. All of that ultimately depends on the lens and technique… and Steve has mentioned the important parts already. (Thanks Steve!) For an APS-C camera, optimal resolution with a lens is actually at about f/5.6 (about f/8 with a full frame), but anywhere between f5.6 and about f/11 should be pretty safe.

      I have a Nikkor 105mm micro and love it, but macro lenses in general are extremely sharp… and you’ll probably get equally good resolution with a good Sigma or Tamron lens. (The Tamron 180mm will also give you some extra working space, if you need it).

      But a photo that looks sharp isn’t just about the sensor and optics; to get an image that looks sharp, you’ll also need good, contrasty light that will show highlights on peaks and shadows in the valleys of the objects’ surfaces. In general this means having light that is strongly directional, even if it’s a bit diffuse. Many people suggest a ring-light for macro work, but they provide even light and tend to mask textural details and flatten the object, so an off-camera flash, maybe with a small softbox will give you a more detail and appearance of “sharpness”.

      Good luck!

      Matthew

      • WOW! Thank both of you for the advice, I really appreciate it. I hope that I can speak for all of us who don’t want to just put the camera to Auto I really want to know what I am doing. The great thing is I understand everything that both of you have mentioned and will give it a try. One thing that did rub off from my father is I have an eye for composition and I know the difference between a picture and a snapshot. Actually Matthew, I must admit I believe the only problem with the D5000 is the pilot.  I know there is some good pictures I have taken with it just can’t seem to get the real nice sharp detail I was expecting. I will have to locate some of those pictures, being a computer guy I have terrabytes I will have to search on several removable hard drives but I should be able to locate one or two. I am sure I can figure out how to upload the shots. Thank you Matthew and Steve very much for the tips I will let you both know how it works out. Do either of you have experience with reverse lens adapters and how good is that technique?

        • No problem sir! I have no experience with reverse adapters, but do realize that they are an inexpensive option for macro work, and can offer greater than 1:1 magnification as well. However, downsides are obviously limited use outside of macro work, very short working distances between subject and lens, and no communication between lens and camera body, thus no aperture control, requiring a bit of trial and error in terms of calculating proper exposure. Plus, resulting image quality still depends on the quality of your lens in the first place! Thus, personally, I would prefer a dedicated macro lens, like your 105 Micro-Nikkor, or the Sigma 105 f/2.8 EX OS HSM Macro. Both lenses are MUCH more versatile options for general photography, as well as being optimized for macro work.

        • Mark,
          One more suggestion for getting maximum sharpness in macro work is a technique called “Focus Stacking”. It is basically taking several images of the subject at different focus distances and then merging the images using dedicated software such as Zerene Stacker, Combine ZP or PhotoAcute. (You may not need this technique with your Micro-Nikkor and coin photography, depending on your lighting setup…I just mentioned this as an option.)

  • Greetings!
    I think you may want to add the Nikon D5300 to your list of high resolution sensors.
    Also, what about the 16-85 f/3.5-5.6 G ED Nikkor and the 85 f/3.5 Micro-Nikkor? Are these lenses sharp enough for this sensor? Thank you.

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