Design, handling and autofocus

The Z 35mm F1.8 S is styled in a very similar way to the Z 50mm F1.8 S and the just-announced Z 85mm F1.8 S. Minimalist in design, and nicely-balanced on the Z6 and Z7, the Z 35mm F1.8 S isn't a flashy lens, but it works well.

Key Takeaways:

  • Stylish, minimalist design matches Z 50mm F1.8S and Z 85mm F1.8 S.
  • Focus / control ring can be customized.
  • Autofocus is relatively fast and silent, but not as snappy as the best of its peers
  • Non-linear manual focus 'by wire' may disappoint video shooters
  • Heavy for a 35mm F1.8 (370g) but well-balanced on the Z6 / Z7.

At a casual glance, the lens is a doppelgänger for the Nikkor Z 50mm F1.8 S that was launched at the same time, although placing them side by side shows the 35mm to have less of a bulbous profile. It’s relatively long (physically) for a 35mm F1.8 lens, at least by the standards of those designed for DSLRs.

The only switch on the Z 35mm F1.8 S is the simple A / M focus mode toggle. Image stabilization is handled in-camera and the focus / control ring function can be changed via the menu system.

It's noticeably longer than Canon’s closest equivalent lens, the RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM, although considerably shorter than the combined length of the AF-S Nikkor 35mm F1.8G ED mounted on a Z-series body via Nikon's FTZ adapter.

In terms of physical controls, Nikon has kept things as simple as possible. There’s just a single M/A switch for focusing mode and a customizable control ring, which doubles up as a focus ring when using manual focus. Of course, Nikon could have included a ring for each task, a setup that right now is limited to the Z 24-70mm F2.8 S, but for most people one ring is probably enough. Even if you do tend to rely on manual focus most of the time, it’s not exactly difficult to change things like ISO and exposure compensation through the body.

The focusing ring dominates the barrel, which is great as it means that you’re likely to find adjusting it convenient whether you’ve smaller or larger hands. It’s very well damped and moves slowly. Unlike the current zooms in the series, this is an all-metal ring rather than a rubber one, which makes it less grippable by comparison, although its sheer size goes some way to offset that.

Most of the length of the barrel is taken up with the large, knurled focus ring. If you don't need manual focus, the ring . can be customized (for example to provide direct control over aperture or exposure compensation).

The ring is very fine toothed, so you may find it traps dust and dirt a little easier than other lenses, but this isn’t something a small brush or blower can’t easily fix. Focus is internal, so there’s no danger of dust getting sucked down the side of the barrel as the lens focuses. Any owners of the Z Nikkor 50mm F1.8 S will also be pleased to find that the relatively flat front element and its flushness with the front of the lens makes it considerably easier to clean than on that lens (but we'd still recommend fitting a high-quality protective UV filter).

The mount is metal and a small rubber ring around it seals this against the body’s throat when mounted. This, together with the knowledge that the lens is proofed against dust and moisture more generally, in addition to the simplicity of the lens’s design and lack of moving parts gives the impression of a very solid build quality.

Autofocus

Nikon has equipped the Z 35mm F1.8 S with a stepping motor to handle autofocus. As with other lenses in the line, focusing is also said to benefit from the higher and faster data exchange between camera and lens, made possible by the new mount standard.

There’s a gentle whirring from the lens as it focuses, but this isn’t audible outdoors

In use, AF speed is perfectly good for everyday subjects, although it would be a stretch to say the lens focuses rapidly. It takes just over a second to work from its MFD through to infinity and back in good light, which is perfectly reasonable for an optic of this sort, though not as fast as the best of its peers.

There’s a gentle whirring from the lens as it focuses, but this isn’t audible outdoors and is certainly quiet enough to be used for more discreet types of shooting in conjunction with the silent photography option on compatible bodies.

The combination of in-camera stabilization, very high cross-frame sharpness at wide apertures and silent shooting makes the Z 35mm F1.8 S a highly versatile lens for street and candid shooting in low light, despite its 'slow' maximum aperture relative to more expensive F1.4 alternatives.

ISO 160 | 1/40 sec | F1.8
Photograph by Barnaby Britton

Manual focus works on the focus-by-wire principle, and the degree of focus movement is dependent on the speed with which you rotate the focusing ring, meaning the lens does not offer a linear response like some of its peers (and mechanically coupled DSLR lenses). This will likely disappoint video shooters. There’s no way to adjust the extent to which the focusing ring needs to be turned for the lens to work through its full focusing range through the camera itself, although manual focus is made all the more pleasing by focus peaking and magnifying options, as well as the indicator-dot-between-two-triangles - a feature that will be familiar to Nikon DSLR users.

Video shooters can take comfort in knowing that while there is some focus breathing, it's very minor and unlikely to be an issue in use.