Two of My Favorite Nikon Z Lenses Are Also the Least Expensive

Two of My Favorite Nikon Z Lenses Are Also the Least Expensive

They may not cost a lot. But these are two lenses that punch well above their weight.

What is it that makes a lens good? There are, of course, entire organizations dedicated to in-depth lab testing to find the most minute differences in sharpness between pieces of glass. One could take out a stopwatch and measure the autofocus speed difference between various versions of lenses with the same aperture to see if the newer version can turn its barrel a few milliseconds faster. You might also be interested in things like flare, how it handles backlight, and micro-contrast. These are all very valid reasons to choose one lens over another. And those tests are all valuable in making the buying decision, especially if you are a professional and doing this for a living.

But which of those things is most important? Or, is there another metric even more important than all of those that we often overlook? I have the good fortune of having multiple lenses to choose from every time I go out to shoot. In the Nikon family, I have everything covered from 16mm to 800mm, so there is very little I can complain about when it comes to options. True, not all of my focal lengths have been updated to newer Z versions yet. That will take more time and, ahem, money. But the point is that, whatever I want to shoot, I often have choices between which lens I want to use.

But, even with all those lenses to choose from, the simple objective truth of the matter is that only three of them make it out of the camera bag regularly. In my case, it’s the Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S, and the Z 28mm f/2.8, and Z 40mm f/2 pancake/not pancake lenses. Are those Nikon’s best Z lenses? Well, you’d have to rely on one of those more technical lab testing sources to answer that question. Given that the 28mm and 40mm are the least expensive lenses they offer, I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to suggest that Nikon doesn’t consider them to be the “best” lenses in their lineup. But value is not always the same thing as price. And, as I’ve learned, “good” is a matter of opinion.

Here’s what I mean. First, let’s state the obvious. There are higher-end lenses one can use than the 28mm and 40mm “muffin” lenses. And, no, these aren’t my primary lenses for professional work. So, I’m not arguing that these lenses are technically superior. 

By the way, as an aside before I go on, I heard them described as “muffin” lenses once, and since they are not technically pancake lenses, I’ll go with “muffin” lenses as I both like eating muffins and enjoy using the word in a sentence. But, back to what I was saying. 

I’ve had the great pleasure of using several varieties of both F mount and Z mount glass throughout my career. As Nikon continues to develop its line of mirrorless cameras, one thing they got correct right out of the gate was their glass. The new Z lenses are amazing. All of them, at least all of the ones I’ve tried so far. There are some amazing workhorses, like the Z 24-70 f/2.8 S, which I mentioned earlier and is responsible for 95% of my professional advertising work. But even the more budget-friendly options are plenty capable of producing the goods in the right hands. And, for me, this is where the 28mm and 40mm come into play.

As I stated previously, most of my professional work is done on the 24-70mm f/2.8. I have other high-end lenses, but a simple poll of my metadata will belie the fact that my 24-70mm is my essential default. Since I am a professional photographer and the majority of my images are created for work, that means that the 24-70mm gets the most use. But, when not shooting for clients, I still love to take photographs. For me, that usually encompasses going for a walk around the neighborhood or going for various day trips around Southern California to enjoy the sunshine, snap a few images, and exercise my photographic eye. These aren’t images meant for my portfolio. I’ve got more than enough of those. And, if I were to be shooting for that purpose, I’d more than likely rely on my trusty 24-70mm again. Rather, the images I take on these photo excursions are just for me. They won’t likely be posted anywhere aside from perhaps an Instagram story or as a behind-the-scenes snapshot. The majority of these shots taken for fun have an audience of one, myself, or perhaps my friends and family if they lack the reaction time to find the words to get out of it. In short, these are images taken for the love of photography and nothing else.

Now, I will admit, I am 100% the type of person who will take a full professional photo kit with me on what is supposed to be a leisurely family vacation. I may or may not have been referred to as “CNN guy” by my tour group when taking in the wonders of Rome by stalking around the historic landmarks with a massive camera and lenses playing very much the part of a National Geographic photographer. I wasn’t a National Geographic photographer at that time. I was just an accounting clerk who liked to take pictures. But, for me, that was an opportunity to be a “real” photographer, and I wasn’t going to let it slide.

Decades later, I am a “real” photographer (whatever that means). And, I get plenty of opportunities to play the role of the professional photographer since my current day job is as, well, a professional photographer. So, nowadays, when I go out shooting for fun, there is far less reason for me to need to flex with my full photo kit or pack more than I need to just to make sure I’m getting full use out of the tools in my arsenal. Far more likely these days is that I just simply want to be traveling light. I want to take pictures because I love taking pictures, but I’d love for the process to be as easy and fun as humanly possible. And, let’s face it, carrying around a small camera and a pancake/muffin lens is a lot more fun than traipsing around the city with a 70-200mm.

Of the two, the 40mm gets the most use. I’ve written about this before, but 40mm is quickly becoming my favorite focal length. It used to be 50mm, but 40mm provides just that little bit of extra room which can come in handy in unpredictable situations. Yet it’s not so wide that you have to get super close to your subjects at all times to fill the frame. I use the 28mm mainly when I’m in especially tight locations when even the 40mm is too long to fit the subject. At f/2 for the 40mm and f/2.8 for the 28mm, both lenses are more than fast enough to satisfy the majority of shooting situations I’ll ever find me in. That is especially true given that I tend to want to be home long before the sun goes down, so I rarely will need to go past f/2.8 or f/4 for my aperture. There are occasions when I wish I had something longer than 40mm on my walkabouts. If I suspect that might be the case, I may also travel with a longer option. But, more often than not, when I bring a longer option, I end up never taking it out of the bag. So, I usually prefer to leave the long lens at home. I may miss a shot or two, but I also get to skip the pleasure of lugging around extra weight.  

In fact, with my 28mm and 40mm combo set, I can leave the entire bag at home. If you mount either of these lenses to a small camera like, for example, the Nikon Z 6II or Zfc, it will make for a very compact package. And while I wouldn’t strictly say that either of the muffin lenses is pocketable for those of you who wear skinny jeans, if you are more of a comfortable hoodie kind of person like myself, you will find it very easy to slide your second small lens into your pouch or the oversized pockets of a winter coat.

You may notice that very little of my praise for the 28mm and 40mm has been centered around technical specs or optical quality. Don’t take that to mean that these two lenses cannot produce excellent images. Not once have I been upset by the sharpness of my images once I get home and look at them on the computer. No doubt, if you pixel-peep, you will probably be able to find one or two imperfections. We are talking about low-cost lenses here. But pixel-peeping is something photographers do, not something audiences do. So, spending too much time worrying about that might not be the best use of your time. There’s more to a lens' usefulness than sharpness in the corners. And, for me, the form factor and focal lengths of these lenses mean that they allow me to shoot the type of images I like to shoot while carrying the minimum amount of weight. For the type of shots I'm using them for, this is far more important than any lab tests.

Convenience isn’t the type of thing that can be measured with a lab result, but it is the type of thing that will ultimately determine how often a product gets used. And with the 28mm/40mm combo easily being my second most used lens setup (and my primary setup for fun personal work), it’s hard to argue, even at their smaller price tags, that these two lenses aren’t two of the most valuable lenses in my kit. At a bare minimum, they are two of my favorites.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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I loved reading this, especially the part about taking a long lens for "just in case" only to find it doesn't leave the bag, thats happened on so many occasions.
Im no professional but i find i find shooting with the 40mm a breath of fresh air, im not thinking about any of the technicalities, just the photo. I find now the more i go out shooting the less i want/need to bring, ive gone from a full D850 kit on a holiday to bali in 2015 to present day, a small backpack with a drone, z7 with 1-2 lenses and my X100f which will usually cover me for 90% of of shooting now.

a 1300 Z5 and either of these lenses will crank out better image files than most users will ever need

Yeah thats a great camera, and being honest the only budget full frame that actually competes against Fuji's APS-C line, all the others (A7C, RP etc) are just too compromised.

I totally agreed.
28mm and 40mm are little gems to bring with you everywhere.
I remember my first long trip (6 months) by carrying 12Kg of gear (Nikon D300s + DX/FX lenses + SB-600 and trigger). I decided to keep a good camera system, always with me, but far more lighter.
It's a matter of gear... more of choice (so knowing your gear). And these pancakes lenses are great for that.

I couldn't be satisfy with my iphone (or my old Canon S120, or Ricoh GR).
I need to be immersed in what I am photographying.

Neither of these lenses work for me, they are either just not wide enough, or long enough. But, I'm glad to hear that they work for some.

This was such a comfort for me to read. I bought a Richo GRIII for street and travel, unfortunately, for many reasons I found it frustrating to use, but really liked the 28mm fixed lens. I now have all the joys of the Z6 and the fun and pleasure of the 28mm focal length and it was nice to have a high flyer like your good self (grovel grovel) underpin my purchase

Everyone is different and has their preferences. Long ago, I picked up a Canon 40mm pancake lens thinking that it would be the perfect lens a compact kit. However, I rarely used it, or the 24mm pancake I picked up later. I found that I'm more of a zoom user. As such I have found the 24-70 f/4 a surprisingly useful compact solution for my preferences. No, it's not a 2.8 lens, but I'm mostly using it outdoors, so the extra stop isn't critical, and the flexibility is definitely welcome. Thus, for me, primes are for special purposes like shooting in museums without flash where a 1.4 lens--stopped down to 2.0--is key, or for shooting portraits where I want to blur the background with nice bokeh, or for shooting BIFs with an exotic prime. But I do understand the appeal of these "muffin" primes, but I do understand the appeal. They're just not for me.

I just picked up the 28mm for my Z fc. So far it hasn't come off the camera.

I own 40mm f2, 40mm is great field of view, but optical quality could be better, especially if compared with 50mm Sigma Art. But hey if small size matters, then yes, its a lens to love.