It’s taken me awhile to get comfortable with the Nikon 18-35mm/3.5-4.5G (’18-35G’).
Based on some early images, users at DPReview suggested that the first copy of this lens I received may have been optically defective. I returned that version, but honestly version #2 doesn’t appear to me to be any better. More on that below. The only other F-mount lens I own is the Nikkor 50/1.8G, my reference for reviewing the 18-35G.
The 18-35G is relatively compact and surprisingly lightweight at 13.6 oz. No objectionable issues with flare, even when shooting with the sun in the frame. The build quality is at least as good as Nikon's 1.8G primes, which is to say adequate but not all that inspiring. On both copies of the 18-35G I’ve held, the zoom ring has been well-dampened, while the focus ring has been moderately-dampened. The lens hood does a good job but is too deep to easily manipulate a mounted circular polarizer. Definitely a pain compared to the cutout windows available in the Pentax world (and probably elsewhere), but apparently standard for a Nikon hood. In terms of build quality and basic specs, then, it’s a great lens for my intended purposes: dayhiking, backpacking, and travel.
Sharpness is a primary concern of mine, however, and this lens offers a mixed bag. Nasim Mansurov has provided an excellent review of this lens. His Imatest results for the 18-35G indicate that both center and mid-field sharpness are relatively even from 18mm all the way through 35mm. Corner sharpness is lower, as expected, but only really deteriorates at 35mm. These results surprised quite a few people and compare quite well against some much higher-priced lenses, particularly the Nikon 16-35/4 VR.
Unfortunately, the sharpness I’ve seen out of my two copies has not been as subjectively rosy as I had hoped. For reference, all sharpness evaluations I’ve conducted have been based on tripod-mounted images taken using CDAF. In short:
Much of this is an expectations game, and as a newcomer to the world of FX Nikon, I may be asking too much. The D600 and 18-35G represent a giant leap forward from my old Pentax K10D and 16-45/4, but they’re no match for my even older Cambo 45N and drum-scanned 4x5 reversal film. Such a comparison isn’t even fair, but it’s still my reference for detailed landscape photography. I’d really like to test out some other options at 35mm (particularly Nikon's 35/1.8G) and see what I may (or may not) be missing. Until then, this lens will do.
As you can see in the image below, nice-looking images can still be had in the 28-35mm focal range. Just temper your expectations a bit and understand the 18-35G's limitations. This lens certainly has its place, and currently it's my go-to lens for lightweight backpacking photography.