Nikon has been around for 100 years and has been a regular choice for many photographers for more than 60 years. The company is responsible for important innovations in cameras and lenses. That knowledge and experience is reflected in the current Nikon products, from the versatile D3400 to the sublime all-rounder D850 (in our list of scores, the best camera of the moment, Jan 2018).
What makes a brand unique?
Every brand has its own character. Sometimes, that leads to unique products, with a DNA characteristic of that brand. Because the scores of our tests are based on measurement results, non-measurable properties are underexposed in the final scores. That is why we are trying to describe the DNA of a few brands based on our practical experience.
The origins of Nikon as an optical company go back to 1917. The first real Nikon camera, the Nikon 1 viewfinder camera, came on the market in 1948. Nikon gained international fame thanks to the shots taken by David Douglas Duncan with Nikon lenses during the Korea war. The sharpness of the lenses was startling at the time. The big break came in 1959 when Nikon introduced the legendary F. The F was a professional SLR with interchangeable viewfinders and rear walls. The camera was not only versatile, but also incredibly reliable. Versatility and reliability are important properties in the Nikon DNA.
The F-line remained the first choice of professional photographers for decades. The F was so iconic that it figured in almost all films at the time in which a photographer played a role. Simultaneously with the F, Nikon also introduced the well-known Nikon F mount, which is still in use today. Thanks to that mount, lenses that are half a century old can now be used on the newest Nikon D850 without adapters. Sticking to proven technology is one of Nikon’s strengths but sometimes also has an inhibitory effect.
Nikon makes a large number of very unique lenses. A number of these, such as the current AF-S Zoom Nikkor 70-200 mm f/2.8 G VR II, can be directly traced to famous predecessors. Nikon, remember, was originally a manufacturer of optical products. Nikon is one of the pioneers in the field of zoom lenses and fisheyes. Nikon already made the first zooms in 1959: an 8.5 to 25 cm lens. The zoom lens that would change everything was the Nikkor 80-200 mm f/4.5 that Nikon introduced in 1969. The lens was compact and delivered high sharpness over the entire zoom range.
That lens has been improved and refined, and ultimately also provided with image stabilization, and that is how we arrived at the current Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8G VR II, one of the best bright telephoto zooms available today. Nikon also played a major role in the developments of wide-angle and fisheye lenses. The first fisheye from Nikon was the 8mm f/8 Fisheye Nikkor from 1962. The most famous is the amazing 1967 Nikkor 6mm f/2.8, which had an incredible field of view of 220 degrees. It was the first lens with which you could look ‘backwards’.
The 13mm f/5.6 super-wide angle from 1975 was slightly less extreme. With a field of view of 118 degrees, a weight of 1200 grams and a huge convex front lens with a diameter of about 11 centimeters, it was a really impressive lens.
That combination of experience in the field of wide-angle and zooms has also led, for example, to the groundbreaking Zoom Nikkor 12-24 mm IF-ED f/4 for DX cameras and the still unsurpassed AF-S Zoom Nikkor 14-24 mm f/2.8G ED for full frame. Two wide-angle zooms that really offered photographers new opportunities when they were introduced. The fact that Nikon is not even close to being done with innovation is also apparent from a lens like the new AF-S Nikkor 300 mm f/4 PF VR ED with Fresnel technology.
No other brand has a 300mm telephoto lens that only weighs 760 grams and still performs fantastically well.
Nikon is also one of the pioneers in the digital field. The current Nikon D5, one of the best cameras for sports and documentary photographers, comes directly from the Nikon D1, a camera that shook the entire digital landscape in 1999. Nikon already made prototypes of digital cameras in the late 1980s. Ten years later, Nikon produced digital cameras in collaboration with Kodak, who supplied the digital components. Those cameras were not yet really refined and then cost – converted – between 10,000 and 25,000 euros.
The Nikon D1 was the first truly modern digital camera, in which the digital part was fully integrated. The price at introduction was around 5000 euros. Nikon now delivers beautiful digital cameras in every price range, from the entry level D3200 to the top model, the D5. They can all do more than we dared to dream of in 1999. The sensors are bigger than those on the D1, and the cameras all have more pixels and sharpness, more dynamic range and more speed. The latest D850 is a camera that has all that in abundance: 46 megapixels, 153 autofocus points, shooting at 9 frames per second, filming in 4K. And an unprecedentedly large buffer, which, thanks to the super-fast XQD card, can hardly fill up, so that you can make long, continuous series of shots even in RAW.
Nikon’s unique features
Even after more than 60 years of building cameras, Nikon has not yet finished innovating. Nikon cameras are still leading in a number of areas. The dynamic range of the Nikon D850 can compete with that of medium-format cameras. That is not a coincidence. Since the full-frame Nikon D3X, Nikon has had sensors with an exceptionally good signal-to-noise ratio. The Nikon D850 also has a true 64 ISO setting, so you can give the pixels more than 60 percent more light than with competing system cameras. This contributes to a better dynamic range and an even higher signal-to-noise ratio.
Nikon was also the brand that took the lead with the D800 in terms of resolution. The D800 had a sensor with 36 megapixels. At that time, that was 50% more than what other brands had. The 46-megapixel Nikon D850 is a worthy successor to the D800. It does not have the highest resolution in full frame. That honor goes to the Canon EOS 5DS. But the combination of the best dynamic range and high resolution ensures that Nikon remains the leader in full-frame image quality. It’s great that the D850, with all its modern technology, still works easily with old Nikon lenses from the analogue era. The camera still has a coupling through which the manual aperture of old Ai (Aperture indexing) and Ais lenses from the 1970s is passed on to the body. Special lenses such as the 6mm Fisheye Nikkor mentioned above can therefore be used effortlessly and without an adapter on the D850.
Nikon also continues to play a leading role in autofocus. The Nikon D5 has one of the best autofocus systems with the fastest continuous autofocus. This system is fortunately not exclusively reserved for the professional D5. We also find the same system on cameras such as the Nikon D500 and D850.
Unique Nikon products
A glorious history of origin is wonderful, but when purchasing a new camera or lens, most consumers will mainly look at the quality of the current range. Within the current Nikon program, we still find unique products that distinguish the brand from other camera brands. The Nikon D850 is a camera that is special because you can actually do everything well with it. Thanks to its high resolution and excellent dynamic range, the sensor offers the best image quality and does so at both low and high ISO. Ideal for studio photography and landscapes. In combination with the AF system of the D5, you can also use the camera for dynamic subjects such as sports and wildlife. And the D850 can also film, both in full HD and in 4K.
However, the D850 is not the only special camera from Nikon. The Nikon D500, with a unique, almost image-covering AF, is perhaps the best APS-C camera for sports and nature photographers. The camera has an excellent 20-megapixel sensor and has the same AF system as its big brother, the D5. A big buffer and double card slots make the camera an excellent alternative to the D5.
Nikon also has products that no other brand offers when it comes to lenses. It is one of the two brands that offers an extensive selection of tilt-shift lenses. They were recently very popular for taking “miniature” photos by shooting (urban) landscapes with very little depth of field. The same effect has been used for years to make portraits where only the eyes are sharp. But you will find them even more often with architecture and studio photographers, who use them to display products and buildings sharply from the front to the back and without distortion. The newest tilt-shift lens is the PC Nikkor 19 mm f/4 E ED. This is the only tilt shift in the world with this focal point.
In the wide-angle range, in addition to the pioneering 14-24 mm f/2.8 wide-angle zoom, Nikon also offers an extremely bright AF-Nikkor 28 mm f/1.4. Another special lens is the Nikon AF-S 105 mm f/1.4 E ED. This is the longest focal point with an aperture of f/1.4. This makes the depth of field paper thin and the bokeh beautiful. In addition, the sharpness is also particularly high, even at full aperture. When designing this lens, the Nikon AF-S 58 mm 1.4 G is designed with a unique character of its own, instead of the highest possible sharpness at full aperture in the corners. The Nikon AF-S 105 mm f/1.4 E ED is highly recommended for portrait photographers.
Nikon also offers an unprecedented selection when it comes to long zoom lenses and long telephoto lenses. We tested the Nikon 500 mm f/4 E FL ED VR and were impressed by the sharpness. But Nikon also offers this focal point as a zoom in the form of the AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 200-500 mm f/5.6 E ED VR. For photographers who still don’t find 500 mm enough, there is even an AF-S Nikkor 800 mm f/5.6 E FL ED VR (which we unfortunately have not yet tested).