Those of us who are old enough yet still retain a few memory cells will feel a distinct sense of déjà vu when viewing and handling this lens. The SE version of the Z 28mm f/2.8 prime has been given retro styling with quite some attention to detail. The texture of the control ring, additional grip area and silver ring have been faithfully recreated from Nikon’s archive of blueprints, as have the fonts used for the lettering on the front, harking back to the days of 35mm film photography with AI Nikkor lenses.
The 28mm focal length is also somewhat classic, giving a customarily wide-angle view on Nikon’s FX Z-series mirrorless bodies, or an ‘effective’ 42mm focal length on DX cameras, where it neatly bridges the gap between a wide-angle and standard prime. Either way, the lens’s compact, lightweight build makes it ideal for casual shooting and street photography, enhanced by a nippy f/2.8 aperture rating.
Lens construction: 9 elements in 8 groups
Angle of view: 75 degrees (FX), 53 degrees (DX)
Diaphragm blades: 7
Minimum aperture: f/16
Minimum focusing distance: 0.19m
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.2x
Filter size: 52mm
Although it looks old-fashioned (in a good way), the Z 28mm is bang up to date. It’s basically identical to the regular Z 28mm f/2.8, except that its retro styling comes at the expense of a 2mm gain in physical width and an additional 5g in weight. And speaking of expense, both editions carry the same price tag.
The optical layout is based on nine elements in eight groups, including two aspherical elements but no ED (Extra-low Dispersion) glass. With an f/2.8 aperture rating, the lens is significantly faster than most Z-mount zooms, adjustable down to f/16 via a fairly well-rounded 7-blade diaphragm. As with other Z-mount lenses, the diaphragm is electromagnetically controlled. The manual focus ring can be assigned to various alternative functions when in autofocus mode, including stepless aperture control, which is useful when shooting video.
Another video-friendly feature is an absence of focus breathing, so the field of view remains constant during changes in focus distance. Autofocus itself is driven by a stepping motor, delivering a rapid response for stills along with smooth, virtually silent transitions for movie capture. The minimum focus distance of 0.19cm (as measured from the image sensor at the rear of the camera body) gives good close-up potential, with a respectable maximum magnification factor of 0.2x.
One feature that’s notably lacking is optical VR. This isn’t a problem when coupling the lens with a full-frame Z-series camera, all of which feature IBIS, but can give rise to image quality degradation when shooting with an APS-C body like the Nikon Z 50 and Z fc. Indeed, the retro styling makes the lens look so at home on the Z fc that it’s sold as a kit option.
Build and handling
Despite its very lightweight build, the lens feels fairly solid and robust. It has a plastic rather than metal mounting plate but it’s of good quality and should prove sufficiently hard-wearing for most photographers. The mounting plate lacks the rubber gasket often featured in Nikkor lenses but weather-seals around the focus ring and the front end of the lens give some resistance to the ingress of water and dust.
Handling feels very natural and intuitive. The only slight niggle is that there’s no A/M switch for easily swapping between autofocus and manual focus. Instead, you need to make the change via in-camera menus.
Image quality and all-round performance are very good, excellent in fact for such a relatively small and inexpensive Z-mount lens. Unsurprisingly, the performance is very similar to that of the similarly compact and lightweight Nikon Z 40mm f/2.8, another recent newcomer to the Z-mount FX stable. Typical of most Z-mount Nikkors, sharpness is excellent across the whole image frame, even when shooting wide-open.
Color fringing and distortion are fairly unobtrusive although, as with many recent lenses designed for mirrorless cameras, there’s a dependence on automatic corrections for these aberrations, which are applied in-camera or during raw processing. The distortion fix can’t be switched off, unlike the ‘optional’ correction for vignetting, which is quite severe when shooting wide-open at f/2.8 with a full-frame camera. Naturally, it’s much less of an issue when using a DX body.
The f/2.8 aperture enables fairly fast shutter speeds under low lighting, without having to push the camera’s ISO setting too far, which is another image quality bonus. Shooting wide-open at f/2.8 with close focus distances also enables a fairly tight depth of field and pleasantly blurred backgrounds.
The viewing angle is comfortably wide on full-frame bodies and, with the high-resolution Nikon Z 7-series cameras, the DX crop mode effectively gives you the versatility of using the lens as a 42mm prime, while maintaining a respectable 19.5 megapixel image size. Naturally, you get the same viewing angle when mounting the lens on a DX format Z 50 or Z fc body.
Resistance to ghosting and flare is pretty good, especially considering that Nikon doesn’t offer an official hood, either supplied with the lens or available as an optional extra.
We run a range of lab tests under controlled conditions, using the Imatest Master testing suite. Photos of test charts are taken across the range of apertures and zooms (where available), then analyzed for sharpness, distortion and chromatic aberrations.
We use Imatest SFR (spatial frequency response) charts and analysis software to plot lens resolution at the center of the image frame, corners and mid-point distances, across the range of aperture settings and, with zoom lenses, at four different focal lengths. The tests also measure distortion and color fringing (chromatic aberration).
Levels of sharpness are very good, right out to the edges of the frame, even when shooting wide-open at f/2.8 on a full-frame camera. The edges and corners are taken out of the equation when shooting on a DX format body like the Z fc, due to the 1.5x crop factor.
Lateral chromatic aberration is negligible even towards the corners of the frame, enhanced by in-camera correction. Axial chromatic aberration is also negligible, even at f/2.8, with barely any color fringing in the transitions between focused and defocused areas within images.
As with many lenses designed for mirrorless cameras, distortion is well controlled. However, the ‘control’ itself comes from automatic correction that’s applied in-camera or when processing raw files in apps like Nikon NX Studio or Adobe Camera Raw. This helps to drive down the size and cost of the lens but barrel distortion is very noticeable when uncorrected.
Naturally, the Z 28mm works rather differently on alternative formats of Nikon Z-series camera, giving a generously wide-angle view on FX bodies and a more standard perspective on DX models. Image quality and all-round performance are excellent in all respects, while build quality and handling are very good, making the lens excellent value for money. Some might see the lack of optical VR as a problem for use with DX bodies and there’s no official Nikon lens hood but, overall, the Z 28mm f/2.8 SE is a great buy at the price, especially if you’re a fan of retro styling that harks back to the glory days of the 35mm film era.