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 Lensrentals.com. 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
  • Doug

    Trying to decide if the convenience of a zoom is worth the tradeoff: 24-120, or 28+50+85+105


  • Roger Cicala


    They’re average numbers for checked copies – meaning they’re from a set of lenses that has been tested to be within acceptable range.

  • Lee

    Cool, thanks. Similar question : I’m sure you’ve tested multiple copies of most of these lenses. Are we seeing “best of the bunch” numbers, a typical (aka middle-of-the-pack) example, or some kind of average?

  • Roger Cicala

    Lee, all zooms were shot at their midpoint.

  • Lee

    Are the single numbers for the zooms an average of various focal lengths? The long end? The short end?

  • Randy

    Thank you very much, Roger. I bought a 24PC-E when they were introduced and found it was extremely good when not shifted. With even a modest amount of shift the corners were dissapointing (and that’s on a D700). Still, people raved about the lens. Tried a second 24PC-E, same result. Ended up getting a 5DII and 24TS. I’m not thrilled to carry two systems but in my business, brick walls aren’t just a test; they’re the subject.

  • Ed

    The 70-300 (I owned one for 3 years) was a great lens but even on the D700 showed its limits; go beyond 200mm and performance declined appreciably and the closer to 300, the worse it got. Also, the max aperture at 200mm was something like f/5.2 with peak performance between f/8-11 at most focal lengths, so there’s little leeway before diffraction on the D800. The D800 will not likely suffer consumer-grade glass well; look at Roger’s test #’s for the 28-300 and bet you a quarter that the 70-300 will perform at roughly the same level.

  • I am surprised that the 70-300mm VR hasn’t been tested yet. The D800E seems like the perfect backpacking camera but lens weight is often a consideration. I have seen a few people say their 70-300 is not acceptable on the D800E. I hope that isn’t true. I didn’t like lugging my 70-200mm VR II several miles back in the woods.

    Roger, thanks for all your hard work here! I know that this is not an easy thing to do.

  • Roger Cicala

    Murray, I will when I can, but we haven’t seen an E except to inspect it and repack it yet. Hopefully soon, though.

  • Murray

    Startling results on the D800E. Its enhanced resolution compared to the D800 might lift some classic lenses like the 24 PC-E and 105 DC into acceptable range.

    Roger–if you can snag some more time on the E, it would be provocative to see if your findings on the ZF.2 100 are borne out on one or two Nikkor lenses, like a proven star,say the 24-70G and one that’s failed, like the 85/1.4D.

  • Roger Cicala

    Hi Werner,

    It was just a tiny bit sharper at f/8 in the corners than at f/5.6, with the center resolution the same at both apertures.

  • Werner Orwat

    Dear Roger, a question to the Nikon 105 f/2.8 VR Micro: In older reviews that I know the lens reached its peak performance between f4 and f5.6. I’m sure you tested that. Please give us your results!

  • GH

    Edward, the thing about diffraction is that you’re still not going to be worse off shooting a 36mp at f16 than you would be a 12mp at f16. You just may not see an advantage with the 36mp sensor, so you could save your money.

  • Dom

    Any chance you can test the Tokina 16-28?

  • Edward

    ” But diffraction softening is clearly present at f/8 so do not stop down past f/8.”

    this sounds a bit scary to me, as a Macro shooter, I often stop down to f/22 or even f/32 I know Macro lenses are typically sharper than other lenses, but they are hardly diffraction limited…


    The f stops , near each lens type , that you are informing that we can get the best sharpest result.

    I am a landscape photographer and i need a good DOF for that type of shooting.

    For 16-35 f4 VR, that the most i use, you advise to use f5.6. But this will bring too narrow DOF for a landscape type shooting.

    I am confused on this. Can anyone make more detailed explanantion on this ?

  • Frozen I

    Based in no small part on your hard work, I’ve chosen the 85 1.4G and the 24-70 G as my first two Nikon lenses (coming over from Canon).

    I wanted a longer lens, but I don’t like the 135 DC, so I have tried the Sigma 150mm Macro (the new OS version). I’d be interested to hear what you think of these two.

    Thank you very much for the work you have put in.

  • Roger Cicala

    Hi David,

    Not yet, but I hear some have shipped so hopefully next week. Tamron’s are generally good sharp lenses. Looking forward to this one.

  • David B

    Roger, have you guys gotten the new Tamron 24-70 F/2.8 VC yet? I see that Canon’s version is available already on B&H site, not Nikon version yet. I am wondering about this new lens, the first reviews on sharpness are encouraging

  • Thanks Roger. If it’s a timing issue, I can certainly wait for your review of the pc-e. I was just making sure it wasn’t already on the “Fail” list!

  • Roger Cicala

    I’m trying to get the wide angles finished, but we haven’t had a D800 I could lay hands on for over a week now. I’m hoping to get to them Thursday or Friday.

    Sorry about the delay, we just can’t get enough D800s (just like the rest of the world)

  • Abhijeeth

    Hi Roger,

    The Zeiss 21mm + D800 appears to be a great combo for landscape enthusiasts. Can you please post the numbers on that ? 🙂

    The 25/2 appears great at mid-distances but seems to lose its charm at infinity. So this is something i am very interested in [Zeiss 25/2 v/s Zeiss 21 2.8]

    No pressure, please do it when you get the time 🙂

  • Roger,
    Along with the 3 other posters above, when you get a moment can you comment on the 24 pc-e? I use it religiously with my D700 for paid architectural work. It would be hugely beneficial to know if it is not up to use with the D800.


  • DB

    Most folks will look only at the numbers and draw quick conclusions. I’ll guess that a majority of your visitors carry away the conclusion that the 16-35 is a better lens on the D800 than the 14-24, and miss your qualifying remark to the contrary in the comments.

    So, a quick suggestion: it may improve the usability considerably if the entries for the zooms had a ‘@ __ mm’ inserted next to the numbers, for now.

  • DB

    Thanks for the effort, Roger.

    Would be nice to see how a Zeiss 18/3.5 compares to the 14-24 (which you’ve tested at 19 mm), when you can spare the time.

  • Barry

    I’ve been looking on this page and in the comments for what the 2 test numbers represent for each lens, but I am not seeing it, nor a description of the test methodology. Can anyone explain? Thanks.

  • AJ

    Hi Roger,
    It’s a pleasure but thanks you for listing the lenses in the first instance. Extremely informative!

  • Roger Cicala

    Hi AJ,

    I see what you mean. We actually shouldn’t have linked the 105 VR Micro, and I’ve corrected that. Thank you!

  • AJ

    Hi Roger,

    i was actually wondering whether the recommended lenses were based on you measurements or some other factor – e.g the 105 mm Micro (not measured at macro distances) is recommended and the 105 mm DC not whereas the 105 DC seems to measure better than the micro.
    Not a ‘complaint’ but just wondering what the parameters are for recommending a lens. Guess there’s more to it than ‘raw’ figures 🙂
    You guessed it (clairvoyant?) I’m looking at the D700 vs D800 for my needs and the required lenses vs. my ‘lens stash’ 🙂

  • Roger Cicala

    Since many people are renting D800s to decide if the improved resolution is worth the upgrade, the ‘recommended’ lenses are ones that I know will allow them to really see the resolution difference. An adequate lens will take find pictures on a D800, but if you were going to compare side-by-side images taken with, say, a D700 and a D800 I’d ‘recommend’ using one of the lenses that will maximize the potential of the D800 so you can assess if an upgrade is worthwhile for your type of photography.

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