D800 Lens Selection

Published March 26, 2012

The D800 accepts any F-mount lens, and for any decent lens, you’ll get better resolution with the D800 than you could with a lesser camera. So answer #1 to the question “What lens can I use?” is any lens you please and it will resolve better on the D800 than on your previous camera.

The D800’s ultra-high resolution sensor can provide amazing detail. Not every lens (in fact, not most lenses) are going to be able to give you the maximum resolution the camera is capable of.  This list isn’t about great lenses, it’s about what lenses can wring the most resolution out of a D800 when you need every ounce of resolution. Maybe you have a two page magazine spread to shoot, or more likely you just want to post your pics on a Canon forum to rile everyone up.

Even with a great lens, you’ll almost certainly need to shoot that lens with the aperture closed down one or two stops from maximum aperture. Most do better with 2 stops. But diffraction softening is clearly present at f/8 so do not stop down past f/8. But again, that’s for people who want to wring every bit of resolution out of the camera. Very few will need to do that most of the time.

We’re testing lenses on D800s as fast as we can, we’ve got literally dozens of “please test this lens requests”. Now that we have more cameras and more time, we’ve been able to be more thorough. Every lens with resolution numbers below has been tested with more than on copy on more than one camera. If we’ve tested it, it’s on this page. Also on this page are some that we haven’t tested, but that we are comfortable will work well and deliver high resolution images.

I’ve taken down the recommended / not recommended remarks by the various lenses: to be honest I’m pretty sick of people who don’t read the disclaimers and then go waste an hour of time talking about what a great lens I haven’t recommended. So we’ll be more subtle: if I haven’t linked to our web page for the lens in question, I’d really rather you don’t rent that lens for use on the D800. You’ll probably end up unhappy.

Finally, for those who want to know how the 18-55 kit lens, Quantary 70-300, etc. will perform I’m just going to leave my remarks at “Really???”. Check out the Nikon 28-300 or 24-120 lenses below. Those two are really quite good lenses, far better than kit lenses, almost all third party lenses, etc. and they can’t approach maximum resolution with the D800.

This page was last updated May 4th. Today’s editions are the two wide-angle lenses most requested: the Zeiss 21mm and the Nikon 24mm PC-E. The Zeiss lived up to it’s reputation of being nearly as sharp wide open as stopped down, one of the only lenses that has done that on the D800. The PC-E didn’t do as well. Everyone wished it had, it would be a great wide solution, but I can’t say I’m surprised. We’ve never found it quite as sharp as the 45mm and 85mm versions. This will also be the last update, at least for quite a while. I’ve got other things I have to put ahead of this for now.

I also was able to grab a D800E long enough to test it at one focal length: since 100mm was set up, I tested the Zeiss 100 Makro planar.

There was, if anything, a bigger difference than I thought. On the D800 the lens had a maximum center / average resolution of 1091 / 1030. On the 800E it was 1250 / 1120. Now let me state I have no idea how much the AA filter is expected to effect MTF 50 resolution, but the difference surprised me. Let me emphasize this was one quick test with a couple of copies of the lens on one D800E body. Let’s wait until professional reviewers have more time with the D800E to see if there is that big a difference in real-world photography, and with other lenses.

With that said, we’ve tested the following lenses:


Nikon Primes

Nikon Zooms

Nikon Supertelephoto


Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Equipment
  • Ben

    Interesting that the 85 1.4D did so much worse than the newer G model – especially with DxOMark showing inverse results on their testing with the D3x. Maybe a bad copy in one of the tests?

    Regardless, thanks for the super useful round of testing!

  • Albert

    Thanks for this list! I see the Nikon 50mm AF-S 1.4G lens on this list, but what about the 50mm 1.4D?

  • Why are some questioning the Zeiss 21? It’s on the original list.
    I noticed the lens with the highest secondary number is the 85 1.4G. Terrific. I can’t wait to try mine on the D800E, which I have ordered.

  • Roger Cicala

    I have no question how the Zeiss 21 is going to do (fabulous). I’ll get to it eventually, but there were other lenses with real questions, and the chance for positive and negative surprises that I gave higher priority.

  • Willbur

    Roger said these are recommended and he’s not going to test them all. Some things you take on faith, especially when the Zeiss 21 is involved. 😉

  • James

    …the 17-35 is a BIG surprise. Didn’t think I’d see these number.

  • Ed

    The Zeiss 21/2.8 is the lone Zeiss missing! What a tease!!!!

  • JD


    Thank you. As one suggestion, you might consider taking the maximum for the center at focus point 1, the maximum for the upper right corner at focus point 2,…..I find that to be a better predictor of lens performance in the f5.6 to f11 range. Again, invaluable resource, especially for the D800.

  • Roger Cicala


    We do focus bracket taking the best results with each shot. There are some curved-field lenses where the best center focus is clearly not the best corner focus. In those case (for this purpose at least) we went with the higher center focus number, because my interest was ‘best possible resolution’. But there are a few lenses here that had slight better corner / edge numbers when the center was slightly out of focus.

  • JD


    Thank you for the great work. One question: When you run Imatest, do you use just one focus point, or do you run through a series of focus points and then take the maximum resolution for each position measured? The reason I ask is that I have found some lenses with significant field curvature will give poor corner test results, but are quite good in the corners in practice. Running through the various focal points and taking the maximum gives me a better sense of how the lens will perform in practice.

  • Roger Cicala


    It’s possible they are wrong: unlike the testing I’d like to do (10 or 15 copies each on 2 to 3 cameras to reduce sample variation) time and D800 stock prevent me from doing more than a couple of each on one body right now. We’ll repeat them when we can.

    BUT I’ll add that I’ve never considered the 24-120 to be more than good, especially at the long end. Photozone’s resolution tests show it to be average, particularly in the corners; SLR Gear’s resolution tests were summarized as “it doesn’t get close to sharp at anything like it’s maximum aperture” (and since diffraction sharpening is setting in at f/8 that probably affects it here a lot); Lenstip found it weak from 70mm to 120mm. And we test zooms at the long end. Compared to the 28-300, Lenstip found the 28-300 sharper, Photozone found them similar in the center the 24-120 sharper in the edges, SLR gear found the 24-120 sharper. Doesn’t seem “every review site” to me. Particular considering it’s a 4x zoom verus a 10x zoom. The 4x SHOULD be much much sharper and in this case it’s probably sharper. Not a great performance.

    While I’ll respectfully disagree with your “all other” review comment., particularly given the 28-300 works under a huge handicap as a 10x zoom, as I say above the results could well be wrong. But even if the 24-120 is better than the 28-300, it’s not going to be close to the 24-70 or 70-200 in terms of resolution, which is all we’re considering here.

  • Roger Cicala


    All I can say is 1) we never tested 14-24 corner resolution on 36 megapixels before now, 2) when the 14-24 came out and that was written the only full frame lens to compare it to was the 14mm f/2.8 – and the 14-24 is much better in the corners than that, and 3) as I’ve said a number of times, we always have to remember with Imatest we’re shooting wide angle lenses rather close up, wide angles especially may behave differently at infinity. But for this kind of testing Imatest (and DxO which is very similar) are the only tools we have.


  • Zen

    Nikon 24-120 VR (864 / 744 @ f/5.6)
    Nikon 28-300 VR (922 / 716 @ f/8)

    This result MUST BE WRONG.

    The 24-120 F4G is better than the 28-300 VR in all other websites’ and users’ reviews. In addition, 24-120 F4G is in NIKON’s D800E lens recommendation list.

  • Paul

    Why was the 105 VR tested at F8?

  • Roland Meier

    Hi Roger and Drew,

    In the recommend list the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 is described as having “rather soft corners”. This contrasts – sharply (no pun indented) – with this statement: “The Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 ED is designed for exceptional edge-to-edge sharpness on the full frame D4, D3x, D800, and D700 bodies…” (source:

    My experience with the lens are very good with regards to corner sharpness except for wide-open. I don’t have have a D800 (yet) but a D3x and the difference shouldn’t be that significant. Could you please explain?



  • Roberto

    Hi Roger,

    Thanks for taking your time and testing the Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8D. You guys are awesome.

  • Brian

    Hi Roger, What a great job! Any chance you will be fitting in the Zeiss 18mm f3.5. I will be looking for a wide wide angle for my D800 when it arrives and I would rather spend on the 18 rather than the 15 when it comes out.

    I have read your take on this lens and know about stopping it down and the darker corners but I usually shoot RAW so can correct for that. Mainly concerned about the resolution and CA at the MP size.



  • For the zooms could you include the focal lengths you tested at?, For example the 24-120 is much better from 35-50 than at 24 and 70-120. It might even outperform the 24-70 in the 35-50 range.

  • Roger Cicala


    It will get you a shot, and the shot will be a bit better than with a D700, but it will waste a lot of the capability of a D800.

  • Very Serious Sam

    Thanks a lot! It would be nice if there are also other 3rd party lenses tested, not just the expensive Zeiss. I’m talking Tokina, Sigma and Tamron here.

    For instance, if one does not need a telezoom regularly, just for the odd shot – would e.g. a Tamron AF 70-300mm 4-5.6 Di SP VC USD (what a name) suffice or is it way to bad?

  • Roberto

    Nice job. I’m impressed with the 85mm f/1.4G numbers. Can you test the Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8D AF-S? Thanks!

  • Roger Cicala


    It’s recommended basically because it’s the only autofocus Macro in that focal range. If the Sigma 150, etc. come in higher when we test we’ll probably change it.


  • Question on the 105vr – it’s got a lower center resolution than the 85F1.4d, yet is still recommended over it. And it’s listed at F8, where I assume diffraction has probably stolen a bit of performance. Any comments on it? I’m wondering a bit on the cut-off you used for what’s recommended or not. I assume it’s partly due to numbers, and partly due to having better alternatives?


  • Roger Cicala


    Absolutely will, but I’ll be out of town most of this week so it may be a week or two.


  • Hi Roger,
    Is it possible for you to test 135 F2 DC?

  • Fred

    Very interested (and seconding (or thirding) the request) in the results for the 300 f/4

  • Roger Cicala


    I’m testing as fast as I can, but with the demand for D800s I can only get one a few hours a day.

  • Daryl

    How about the 24 f/2.8 and 85 f/1.8D? I know that the 24 f/2.8 is not as good as the f/1.4, but it is still a pretty solid performer considering the price.

  • Roger Cicala

    David, I haven’t gotten to the 85 f/1.8 yet, but the 50 f1.8 was better than the f/1.4 in terms of pure resolution.

  • Tony A

    I just UPS’ed a D800 and Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 back to LensRentals today. Kinda sad but I’m next on the list at my local camera store for an ‘800. What a treat to get hands-on experience so soon after release. I’m going to have to have to point all 10 of my thumbs up for the Zeiss (yes I am that dexterous). I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it turns out to be sharper than the D800. Use it wide open and you will still blow away your present camera. Otherwise, “f/5.6 and be there” is the new rule.

    A very pleasant surprise: LightRoom 4 was able to give me a targeted correction for this combination.

    The Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S, even with the 1.4X TC-E, is not afraid of this camera either.

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