August 12, 2010
An Oldie, but Goodie
For this review I have steered away from the “Brain Meltdown Recovery” program that has been the focus (excuse the pun) of most of the previous reviews on this blog.
From the title it should be obvious the subject of this review. The Nikon 50mm f/1.2 AIS MF lens. Like the 28mm lens of my last review this one again is a manual focus lens of the old design. And just like the 28mm it is a lens that is still in production and thus can be purchased brand new.
As to why I decided to add this lens to my kit, is in some ways a mystery to me. It was not meant to replace anything or really was it something I desperately needed. After all I was already in possession of a 50mm f/1.4 AF-D and a 55mm f/3.5 AIS lens. No I think the reason was because I was so enchanted after the acquisition of the 28mm f/2.8 AIS and it’s superlative quality. Also there was the allure of a lens with f/1.2 maximum aperture. As for any other reasons, just read on and maybe it will become apparent to you and for that matter maybe even to me.
Considering today’s generous use of plastic, these older AIS lenses are just beautiful to behold. First all of the materials used are of metal, glass and with a rubber covered focusing ring. Really jewel like in comparison with most of today’s lenses. Like all AIS lenses it has a full aperture ring with the aperture coupling flange for use on the older Photomic F series cameras. These can be removed if so desired without effecting the lens. It has a colored depth of field scale on the barrel between the focusing and aperture rings. It also has an infrared focus mark (in red). Focus scale is in meters and feet. All of the marking are engraved not just painted on. Being an AIS lens it comes with that beautiful black enamel finish (which I find to be even richer looking then the “crinkle” finish that comes on the AF-D lenses). It feels very solid and yet light in the hand. The size is, how best to say this, “petit”.
Handling and Performance
Of course it is manual focus only. However it will work on all Nikon DSLR’s and SLR’s, though from what I understand the metering will not work on the lower end consumer cameras. The focus is very smooth, you can actually do it with one finger. After using the 50 for sometime I went back to the 28mm and found it a bit stiff in comparison.
Up till now I have only tried the 50mm on the D3. My findings are a bit different then I had expected. Let me explain first what I mean by that. When I first started using Nikon equipment, I quickly came to the conclusion, that not all of their lenses were created equal. At that time they were all manual focus of course. What I did then for judging a lenses, was to see how fast I could focus one. The faster that I was able to focus meant the sharper and brighter the lens was. That is not really a possibility today and not just because my eyes are 40 years older. Back then the focusing screens were made of ground glass or fresnel screens, which better reflected the actual brightness (maximum aperture) of the lens in use. So if you had a fast lens it appeared much brighter then a slower lens would. Most of them also had a split screen or some other guide to help in manual focusing.
Today the focusing screens have been optimized for the slower “consumer” or “kit” zoom lenses f/3.5-5.6 and of course for auto-focusing. They are much brighter overall then the earlier screens, but only up to f/2.8 or so. You can test this by holding down the depth of field preview button (if your camera has one) and see for your self that it gets no brighter, when you go faster then f/2.8. Other then the absence of a manual focusing aide, the biggest disadvantage of the new screens for a lens faster then f/2.8 is that you never see the actual depth of field when the lens is at it’s maximum aperture or faster then f/2.8.
Nikon does not make an alternative screen for the D3 that would aide in manual focusing, i.e. a split screen or any other manual focusing aide. In doing some internet research I came across some discussions about the “split screens” giving the light metering systems some trouble. This company does offer one: www.brightscreen.com. However in the discussion thread it was not highly valued and did indeed impair the metering ( I have not tested, only what I read). KatzEye makes screens for many Nikon cameras, but sadly not for the D3; http://www.katzeyeoptics.com/cat–Nikon-DSLRs–cat_nikon.html
At first in comparing the 50mm f/1.2 to the 28mm f/2.8 AIS lens, it seemed harder to bring into focus, that is at least at first. I really can’t say why that is, it just felt that way, but again only at first. Though it may have felt difficult to focus at first, it is as sharp as you could possibly want from any optic. In fact sometimes I am surprised how sharp the image ends up being. This is due in large part to the new style focusing screens and yes also to my aging eyes. That is why my findings were different then I had expected.
Ken Rockwell has an excellent review of this lens that he did in 2007. In it he states that at f/2 it is the sharpest Nikon lens at that aperture setting. This I cannot verify as I have not tested or shot all of Nikon’s lenses at f/2. It seems definitely as good as my 85mm f1.4, at f/2 though (which I consider as good as they come). I do agree with him on that, in fact after a bit of practice I found that I could hit my mark almost 100% of the time f/2. It really has become easy now. For the most part I have relied on the electronic focusing confirmation dot (the green dot with 2 green arrows) for my focusing and not the screen. Later on he goes on to say, “The f/1.2 performs about the same as the f/1.4 lenses when used at f/1.4, also no big deal”. This at first I might have agreed with, however while shooting a lot of different subjects (mostly up-close) and then viewing them at 100%, I noticed that the lens was back focusing a little bit wide open and to a lesser extent at f/1.4. So I decided to experiment a little. Using the focus confirmation dot – arrow combo, I focused until the right arrow and dot were both flickering and that is when I discovered that one can get very sharp images at f/1.2 & f/1.4. Better even at f/1.2 then my 50mm f/1.4 AF-D at f/1.4. I have not done enough shooting with the new 50mm f/1.4 AF-S G lens to make that judgement call yet. Whether this focus problem at f/ 1.2 is a sample only problem or something with the camera or a combination, it does make it hard to get really great results wide open. If it is inherent in the lens itself, then should be taken into consideration in trying to get the best results. On the few shots that I used “live view” the focus was right on.
At wide open and at f/1.4 there is “veiling” or glow around objects, which is a result of spherical aberration and lowered contrast. This can contribute to an overall “soft” look. However it cleans up nicely at f/2. Other then the back focus issue wide open (which again may only be on my lens or camera or combination) I found the lens not to have any focus shift while stopping down, something unusual for such a fast lens. Chromatic aberrations are present again wide open (purple – magenta fringing in front of focus and green in the rear of focus), but again cleans up nicely by stopping down and is free of by f/2.8.
****I made an error in the above paragraph that I would like to correct. After further testing, with the camera locked down on a tripod and using live view, mirror lock-up and a cable release to achieve the best accuracy. The findings result in that there is indeed focus shift occurring. This is when the lens is focused at f/1.2 and then exposed at smaller f stops. At f/2.0 I see no shift, however at f/2.8 and f/4.0 there is a noticeable shift in the focus. This test was not part of the original review, as I have stated earlier I wanted to shoot all of my samples handheld. Frankly I consider this type of testing as being necessary for accuracy sakes, but on the other hand something of a wank. As I would under field conditions either focus using the focus confirmation dot or if “live view” then focusing at the aperture setting that I was going to expose for. While performing this focus shift and with the camera all set up, I decided to check out the problem I was experiencing at f/1.2 and the focus “dot”. The results were the same as I had encountered before. Then I tried the same with a D2X and again encountered that same problem. It would appear to me at least to be a sample variation or that the DOF is so small that where the “focus bracket” is placed is that critical. And that folks is about as technical as I get.
This as it turns out is not so easy to say. Like Ken Rockwell, I feel that either the 50mm f1.4 AF-D, 50mm AF-D f/1.8 or the 50mm f/1.4 AF-S G lens are the better choices to go for or at least the more practical choices. Possibly on a portrait assignment I might use the 50mm f/1.2 AIS lens, but I seriously doubt that I would on an wedding. Most likely because I do not have the confidence to manually focus fast enough. However if one is willing to take into consideration that some lenses require a “learning curve” and want something a little more special, then this is an excellent choice. Also it’s performance and construction alone could be enough of an inducement.
Recently I went on a trip to the west coast of France and though I took 3 lenses with me, I only shot with this lens. A couple of times I felt compelled to shoot with one of the others, but just never enough. One mistake that I did make was in leaving my polarizing filter sitting on my desk at home. So I was not able to make as many images during the day at wide apertures as I had planned. Given that most DSLR’s have a native iso of 100 or 200, then it is definitely a consideration to carry with you a neutral density or polarizer filter in order to expose at the widest apertures during the day.
For sure it is a little difficult to get sharp results at f/1.2, but when one does well . . . it is just magic. In the end, though it may not have been a lens I needed, I am indeed very happy with it. If not for my professional work then for my enjoyment. For the time being it seems permanently fixed to my camera. As I have said before if one is restricted to just one lens then a good fast 50’ is the way to go.
While making all of these examples, I never once used a tripod (a first for me). As stated earlier for the most part I used the electronic focus confirmation, however I did use “live view” on several occasions with good results. Being off the tripod I just found the electronic focusing confirmation easier to use. With that said there were a few occasions that I focused relying on just the screen itself with mixed results.
The focusing issue at f/1.2 and how I resolved it.
One of the reasons I love the 50mm focal length – the way they can mimic a slightly wide and slightly telephoto lens.
As I have said before, I am not what one would call a technical sort of person. Consequently these reviews are not technical in scope. What I am endeavoring to do is to write a review from more of an emotional and personal use perspective. With any kind of equipment I am not interested in how they work, only in what they can do for me and my personal style of vision. Hopefully these reviews can help you the reader decide on what lenses to get.
July 25, 2010
This time I would like to share with you, the work of some of my students. For the last two years I have been teaching a Basic Photography course at FotoGram in Amsterdam. The students themselves come from all over the world, have different occupations and backgrounds. However they all share one thing in common, an passionate interest in photography.
On the first day of class, I always ask them to introduce themselves and tell the rest of the class something about themselves and what they want or expect from the class. As you can imagine, they all want to become better at taking or rather making photographs. This is where I come in to help them along. On top of teaching them the fundamental disciplines, I also endeavor to infuse the students with my passion and to try to coax out them, their own feelings to be part of their image making. As I said earlier it is a basic photography course, thus their knowledge and experience is limited.
This past spring semester I was fortunate to have some exceptional students, if not in experience then in passion and talent. The work that you are about to look at is from their final assignment in the class. The assignment is a photo essay. The photos should all be connected to a single theme and relate to each other.
***note due to space on this site, I am not able to present all of the students assignments. There are just a few culled images from their assignments for presentation here.
The first student’s work is form Max D’Achille. Max is one of those people, that as the old saying goes, “brings a lot to the party”. He has a wonderful understanding and insight into what contributes to emotional impact. Max goes barefoot and apparently receives some criticism for it. Having been a teenager in the 60’s and growing up near Berkeley, California it really wasn’t anything new to me, but for some people. . . Max chose this part of his life style for his essay. What he does here is put into the images much of the criticisms and comments that he has received. The concept is brilliant and wonderfully executed.
Next is Miranda Roos an attorney and mother. Miranda chose a very simple theme, especially for a place like Amsterdam. The theme, bicycles! Yep bicycles. As if there are not enough in the Netherlands. However she took that and added to it just bicycle accessories and then added to that an emotional aspect to the overall theme, of one of neglect. It was obvious she put a lot of thought into this project to come up with a theme within a theme , within a theme.
Andrea Suponcic, a fellow American living abroad and whose job has her traveling all over the globe. Brought to the class an already developed eye for photography. In fact her photo of “Coney Island” took second place in a photo contest put on by the Foto Academy. Since she took it before the class and not of her assignment, I chose not to show it here. Andrea took two different subjects and spun out two excellent essays. One was of her passport and the other is of a bridge in Cologne, Germany, where people put padlocks with messages and affix them to the bridge’s chain link fence.
Karolina Kozkowsua, just floored me with her first assignment, which is really just an exercise in focus and depth of field. However what she did with it was astonishing. She framed her three subjects in such a way, that it can only be described as “elegant”. For her final assignment, she went to a graveyard in Poland and made some very moving images there of the statuary. Through the use of her elegant sense of design, she was able to breath life into these inanimate objects.
Cathy Jeary, who came to class sporting (if I recall correctly) three different point-and-shoot cameras. Most of the time these same cameras were unable to function because they had all run out of battery life. However she floored her classmates and myself, with the images she made on our field trip (unfortunately I do not have these to show). However believe me when I say they were all beautifully designed. For personal reasons she was unable to complete the final assignments, but did show up with a few images she had recently shot, here is one that we all found compelling.
Filiz Yilmaz showed up to class (along with Max) with a 50mm prime lens (a rare sight site these days from those just starting out in photography). The images she made from the weekly assignments (along with Max’s and my urging) provided enough stimulus for three of her classmates to go out and purchase 50mm primes. For her final class project, she had written me, that she was having troubles coming up an idea. With my usual comments, I wrote back and told her not to stress, but to have fun with it. It is apparent that was enough. She decided on”white” to be her theme. Using her eye for composition and excellent use of her 50mm prime, she came up with some very interesting and well made images. Placing white into her compositions with artistic flare.
Now just before I go to publish this blog entry, I have received two more student’s work.
The first of these are from Akansha Sharma. Akansha from India, progressed very well in the course. In truth was a fast learner. Also she was always making herself available as a volunteer model during class demonstrations and assignments. As a model, she was as good at that if not better. She presented two themes, and from those I have chosen another to exhibit here, as I see it. I will let you decide for yourself.
The last of my student’s work is from Beate Fortuna. Beate from the very beginning has exhibited an excellent eye and infuses her images with a great deal of symbolism. She had told me of her final project plans, however she was not able to accomplish those (not her fault) and then decided to go after another with very little time. Throughout the course Beate had worked in B&W, however towards the end, in my lecture on color and subsequent suggestion to visit a few web sites of great color photographers, she thus chose color to work in. Using the work of Pete Turner as her inspiration.
As a teacher, I must confess to being proud of their accomplishments. Not unlike that of a proud parent. This is what teaching is all about. Firing up your students with passion and inspiration along with the fundamental disciplines. Then having them come back with work that is in itself inspiring.
July 16, 2010
Brain Meltdown Recovery Program Part III
From the Other Direction. Nikon Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 A-is
Once again with the weird title, I know. This time it is for two different reasons. In the previous two installments, I have reviewed the lenses that were acquired to replace the 80-200mm f/2.8 tele zoom. A good lens to be sure, but too big and heavy. This time around the lens in question is really more of a addition rather then a replacement. The second difference is that this lens is as the title infers a manual focus A-is model, so kind of like going back in time, a trip down memory lane so to speak.
Why more of an addition rather then replacement? The fact is I am very happy with the 17-35mm f/2.8 AF-S lens. It does everything I need for my work as a wedding photographer. Sharp, fast focusing and an excellent zoom range all in one package. Though it is nowhere near as big or heavy as the 80-200, it stills fills up one’s camera bag significantly. In my present mode of trying to lighten up, I decided to do a little research. This research was not only for myself, but also for some of my students asking for my opinion. Having had and been very happy with a 24mm f/2.8 Ai-s lens, it became my first recommendation to someone looking for an inexpensive and small wide angle lens to fill their kit. It’s a great lens and can be bought on e-bay for a very reasonable price, as Nikon made a lot of them and still do.
During my research however I kept reading about another Nikon wide angle A-is lens. Which of course is the topic of this review. It can also be found for a good price on e-bay and in fact, I did find a used one there. Luck shined on me, as my copy is in perfect shape and working order. They are however still made and can be purchased new from vendors like B&H and Adorama.
The 28mm f/2.8 A-is lens, like the rest of the A-is line, is simply a beautiful mechanical instrument. All metal, glass and rubber. There is a black enamel finish over the metal, which adds so much to the look and feel. All marking are engraved not just painted on. It really reeks of quality and looks like it will last forever or at least my life time. With today’s use of plastic in the construction it is a real joy to just hold one of these A-is lenses. Really I had forgotten how beautifully made these lenses are, and can appreciate them so much more today then before. Compared to today’s lenses it seems smaller (most likely due to the absence of an AF system), but far more solid . The length of the lens 59mm (2.3 inches) and weighs a mere 250 grams (9 ounces).
Since this is after all a manual focus lens, let me mention this first. The focus ring is made of rubber and about 15mm wide (5/8’s inch). The throw is about 2/3’s of a complete rotation and has a really silky smooth feel to it. Though the viewfinders in today’s DSLR’s are not optimized for manual focus lenses, I have not experienced any problems while focusing with the D3. In operating and experimenting the lens / camera combo, I have found that I can use the “green dot” or just focus to where it looks sharp, either way I have gotten good results. One can of course use “live view” for the most critical focusing situations, but thus far I have not found a need for that. The other feature that Nikon added to the A-is version was CRC or “close range correction”. Nikon’s way of saying it has a floating elements that move in conjunction with the other elements to enable much closer focusing. It really works on this lens as the minimum focus distance is 20 cm or 7 inches. This adds a lot to the practical use of this lens, as it gives a reproduction ratio of 1:3.9. It was never indented to be a macro lens, but does make for some rather interesting perspectives in it’s use. This is a non CPU lens, thus it will not work on some consumer level cameras and of course does not allow for most automatic operation. You can however use the aperture preferred mode, but must change the f stops on the lens itself. It has 1/2 stop clicks. Neither the aperture changing nor manual focusing have presented me with any problems on the D3. Then I was of course brought up with manual focus only cameras and lenses. You do have to go into the menu, select the “non-cpu lens” and fill in the focal length and maximum aperture.
“Wait there’s more”!!! Always wanted to use that line, in this case however it is true. The Nikon designers really went to work on this lens. Not only is it super sharp, but seems clear of CA’s and distortion. Maybe close up there is a little distortion, but in general you get very straight lines. Of course depending on one’s style and intent, this could be a blessing or a deficit. Wide open the lens does exhibit some vignetting, but since I have my vignetting control turned off and usually end up adding some in post this not a problem for me. Actually as you may imagine I prefer it. All in all I have to this point encountered no problems and am more then very pleased with the performance. That is as earlier mentioned while using it with the D3, how well it would fare on a camera like the D3X will at least for me remain a mystery (at least until that time one falls into my eager and sweating palms). Though I feel confident in saying it will most likely perform admirably.
Yes I highly recommend this lens. There are others to be sure that are worth looking into. For instance if your budget allows the 28mm f/1.4 AF-D lens would be a winner as would the 28mm f/2 A-is lens and of course the new 24mm f/1.4 G lens. Though I cannot believe that they could be any sharper then this lens, only faster and costlier and . . . . Zeiss also makes an exceptional 28mm f/2 lens, that would be worth a look. Though once again it is much bigger and more money (like four times as much). Notice I keep mentioning size. It is where I am at these days, so you the reader must take that into consideration. However if size and cost, not to mention razor sharpness and close focusing capabilities are important to you, then this lens should be highly considered.
Before we get into the examples, some last thoughts. The first shot I took with this lens (the photo of the lens cap below) reminded me of looking at a Kodachrome slide, when I viewed it on the monitor of my D3. Maybe it was the nostalgia that the lens evoked in me, but be your own judge. Most of my first shots were close-ups as you might imagine (you know the new toy syndrome), then later on I went out and shot more conventional wide angle scenes. At first I was missing the wider focal lengths provided by the 17-35mm zoom and my earlier prime WA’s (20mm f/4 & 24mm f/2.8). Over the time that I have spent with this lens I have started to adjust to it’s focal length and really not missing those wider perspectives.
May 8, 2010
That is what the calendar says, but the weather here in the Netherlands or for the matter throughout Europe has been unseasonably COLD. Maybe it is the volcano in Iceland, whatever it is cold. Despite the lowered temperatures I did find sometime to go out and shoot the “Spring” blossoms.
Near where I live there is an Arboretum filled with cherry and crab apple trees. Also a number of Japanese maples (which reminds me of Marin county in California). I thought it would nice to share some of these sites with all of you. So Happy Spring Time” and here is to warmer days.
Then of course there is the rain . . . . .
March 26, 2010
Part II of Brain Meltdown Recovery Program
Yep, this here is another one of those stories, about a lens to help me recover from my post traumatic brain lapse. For those of you, who have no idea what I am talking about, let me explain. Some years ago I did a foolish thing and sold off six primes lenses. By now you may have guessed that I am not too happy about it. And you would be right.
A little over a year ago (for therapeutic reasons) I decided to try and recover from my malady. Again strictly for therapeutic reasons, I began my recovery by obtaining a Nikon AF-D 85mm f/1.4 lens. Boy did it work. I mean it was like magic, one moment in the doldrums and the next on top of the world. It quickly became my go to and favorite lens. However like most medicines it wore off. Time for a new infusion. Damn what is it going to be I thought. The choice came down to three remedies. Had to choose one, but which one?
Having changed over from my daily use of the D2X to the D3, I felt I needed something longer then the 85mm. So the three proposed remedies were, a Zeiss 100mm f/2, a Nikon 135mm f/2, and last a Nikon 180mm f/2.8. From the title you probably know by now which one it was. So let me just skip the whole decision making part and get to the lens itself.
One of the previously mentioned six lenses was a Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 MF IF-ED. It was a beautifully crafted and optically excellent lens. During the course of the time I owned that lens, it saw plenty of use. That was until I added the 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-D lens to my arsenal. The quality of this new zoom lens and not to mention the versatility of a zoom, kept the 180mm in the drawer so to speak. Time marches on for us all and I started to feel the weight of the zoom (coupled with the weight of the D2X / D3). Suddenly I found I was getting a lot less keepers, especially when zoomed out towards the long end then before. In my review of the 300mm f/4, I made the comment that despite the longer length and more weight of the 300mm, it felt better balanced on the camera. The 80-200mm feels much more front end heavy to me, which I think is a big contributing factor in the lack of keepers. Also the higher resolution of the D2X and D3 and even more from a camera like the D3X will allow even less keepers.
Enter the new 180mm. First thing you notice is it’s size. It seems so “small” (especially compared to the 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom, for that matter all of the new f/2.8 zooms). A friend who had just gotten a 24-70mm f/2.8 even remarked how small it felt in comparison to his new lens. Though the 180mm is a bit longer (10mm) it weighs about 200 grams less then the 24-70, and the front of the lens is 72mm as opposed to 77mm, which adds to that smaller looking size. Let me reiterate that the 80-200mm
f/2.8 AF-D is a great lens, but there is a certain commitment to hanging a lens that size (or bigger) onto a “pro” camera body and walking around with it. Lloyd Chambers has written several reviews where he discusses this very issue and how the weight of the lens can actually warp the lens mount on the camera (http://diglloyd.com/diglloyd/index.html).
The build quality is similar to the 85mm f/1.4 AF-D, all metal with that retro crinkle finish. Though the aperture ring is made from plastic and takes a way a little from the overall quality, but then again it does have an aperture ring. Which for an oldie like me is very comforting to see. Like all AF-D lenses it has that troublesome A / M switch that needs to be moved, along with the AF switch on the camera. Such a hassle. During AF operation it does show some hunting in low light and low contrast situations, but can be overcome, after learning how to handle the lens (though in the process there will always be some missed shots unfortunately). Manual focus works fairly well. Thanks to a generous sized rubber focusing ring.
There is a built-in hood, which works well enough (I really don’t like the newer hoods made from plastic, as I have broken far too many) which I find to be an added bonus. However I would like to see the hood when extended,lock in place like the 300mm f/4 does. There is no tripod collar, which doesn’t seem to be a problem (though in my opinion “just”). If using a tele-converter, it would probably be a good idea to find a third party collar. Burzynski makes one which is built very well and highly recommendable. **Note the newer Nikon tele-converters will not work with this lens, which means unfortunately finding a used old one or third party.
As I have said before, I do not do technical testing on my lenses, with charts and so forth. All I can say is that when zoomed to 100% and you can count the individual eyelash and eyebrow hairs, well I find that good enough for what I do. It also means that this lens is indeed very very sharp. Even wide open, and I do not hesitate to use f/2.8 on any job, it still looks good. The caveat being that it has very shallow DOF. Especially when up close for a head shot. Speaking of the DOF, the bokeh (in my opinion) is just beautiful. The out of focus areas are rendered in a very “creamy” fashion. Look at some of the examples and judge for yourself. Really all you could ask for.
The chromatic aberrations at large apertures are a problem with this lens. Most of which occurs in those areas of high contrast which has the effect of a lot “purple fringing”. Also of lowering the contrast and making the image appear less sharp overall. Though so far I have been fairly successful in removing CA in post and do not feel too bothered by this problem. Or by stopping down to f/5.6, which will also clear things up.
The problem of the number of “keepers” has also improved dramatically. Now I am far more successful in getting sharp images handheld, down to even 1/40 of a second. Even when I zoom in to 100% and can “count those eyelashes”. Not that I can do this all the time, nor wood I attempt it much while doing a paying job, but still not bad. Much like the 85mm f/1.4 AF-D lens, I find myself wishing I could get a little closer with the minimum focus. Not very knowledgeable about lens design and it’s technical applications, I am not sure whether it is possible. Though using the smaller APS sensor, does crop the image, it is not the same thing.
All in all I am very pleased with this lens, despite it’s few flaws. As you look at my example images, you will see that there are far more then usual. The reason? It was just that much fun to shoot with this lens. I found myself either looking for shots or thinking up anything to photograph with this lens.
Sure there are still some more lenses out there that I would like to add to my kit. Probably something to fill the gap between the 85mm and the 180mm. My “dream” lens would be a focal length somewhere between 85mm and 180mm with a maximum aperture of f/2 or faster, an AF system as fast and accurate as the 24-70mm zoom (which is the fastest I have ever shot) and with the ability to focus close enough to yield a ratio of 1:3.5 or better (yeah I know dream on boy). But I will certainly contend myself with this winner for, well until the next time I need a “fix” or when I can convince my wife of the absolute necessity of . . . well you get the picture .
It may not be the best lens of this focal length out there, but considering the cost and compactness it is truly a hard one to beat. So if you are looking for a fast compact and sharp telephoto lens, then I say go and get this baby. You will not be disappointed.
All of the example images were shot in RAW and processed with Nikon NX2. The still life’s shot with the D3, were in live mode and focused manually. On the D2X, I used AF (incidentally with this lens, I found myself shooting much more with the D2X then I have since getting the D3). With both cameras I used a cable release and mirror lock-up. People and street scenes were shot handheld in AF. While making these examples I endeavored to try out as many different combinations, between the cameras (D2X & D3), crop modes and with a tele-converter (Nikon TC-201 2X) for comparison sakes.
February 25, 2010
The title refers to what some of my students have called me. One could easily assume that it is because of the abundance of gray hair and wrinkles that I find myself in possession of. Not in this case however. The references are for the most part my “old fashion” manners and attitudes. This is especially true to my beliefs and thoughts on photography.
In each class some of my students will come to me for advice about what equipment they should get. Usually I say to them that what they already have (a zoom “kit” lens in most cases) is adequate, and what they really need is inspiration. I mean this, inspiration is absolutely essential. However since we are dependent upon our “gear” to make photos, then to one degree or another we can all be called “gear heads”. So with that, what they really want to know is what blipping piece of equipment they should get next. This is the part that has surprised me. Because I advise them to get a “normal” perspective prime lens, meaning either a 35mm or 50mm (depending on an APS or Full Frame sized sensors).
The reason this has surprised me (at least at first) is because I rarely used one during most of my career. Like many others I was drawn to the “distorted” perspectives of wide angle and telephoto lenses (the more extreme at either end the better). Normal was, well normal. Then why a “normal” prime lens? Why do I advise one now? It is not because I don’t like that “distorted” perspective anymore. No it is because I have through teaching, rediscovered all of the advantages of the “normal” perspective lens.
Before I go into what I feel are the advantages of the normal primes, let’s take a look at today’s popular zoom lenses. Today’s consumer or “kit” lens come is a variety of configurations. They are affordable, light weight and have that all-in-one advantage, which makes them great for holiday lenses. One need only stand in one place and move closer or further away by just a “twist of the wrist” (This is especially useful, when in in places where movement is restricted or when changing lenses is not advisable). This may be a simplified description, but still true. There are different categories of zooms. Aside from the “consumer” or “kit” models there are the “upgrade” models, usually with better optics and build quality. Another is the really wonderful “pro” series zoom lenses. I am referring to the very expensive f/2.8 zooms. They are sharp and relatively fast at f/2.8, have great optics and build quality. Presently Nikon makes a 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm all with a maximum apertures of f/2.8 and a 200-400mm f/4. With just these four lenses, one has all of those focal lengths at their disposal. The downside is besides costing the big bucks are that they are big hefty things and not all that fun to haul around. The pros of course can afford them and have assistants to do the “hauling”. Still most pros will still have in their kit several fast primes (f/2.0 and faster) and this is not just a hold over from the old days.
Okay we can see that the pro line of zooms are expensive, heavy and a lot to haul around. So what is wrong with the other zoom lenses then? First they are slow. By the time one zooms to the 50mm part of their zoom range you find your self with a maximum aperture of f/4.5 or f/5.6. Even 50mm primes that cost $100 usually have a maximum aperture of f/1.8. That’s up to 3 1/2 stops. Yes it is true that for the most part used wide open these primes will exhibit some softness, but they clean up quite nicely by f/2.8, which is still faster. Not only does this mean being able to shoot in lower light without an flash, but also the ability to isolate the subject better because of the lesser depth of field the wider apertures provide. And of course because of their speed, the viewfinder will be brighter, which helps with composing your shots.
Prime lenses are generally smaller, usually faster, have higher resolving powers and cost less (“exotics” not included). Granted the the big pro zooms are far superior to the the “kit” zooms, and in some cases as sharp as the primes. But I have digressed so let get to the purpose and subject of these “musings” .
The 50mm was for a very long time the “kit” or first lens most people had with either Rangefinders or SLR’s. The design and construction has been around for sometime and thus proven itself time and again. The normal perspective part comes from the fact that it is close to the diagonal measurements on a 35mm or APS format cameras, thus giving an approximation of the field of view as seen by the human eye. Like I said “Normal is”!
Aside from the extra speed you get, the 50mm primes are smaller and subsequently weigh less (less to carry and takes up less space in the camera bag). And if that isn’t enough, they are a lot sharper then the consumer zooms. Auto focusing is usually much faster also as there is less glass to move.
Despite the speed and compactness of the 50mm prime, the real reason that I advise my students to get one is that they make you think and then compose better photos. Sure the zooms are handy, but in turn I feel they make us lazy. Once learned a 50mm can be composed in such ways to give a “slightly” wide angle appearance (or perspective) and also perform like a short telephoto lens. This is the “learned” part, and why I think they are more important to at least start off with. For that matter, putting any prime on a camera will make us compose our vision within the parameters of that focal length and thus help “see” and become better photographers
This is supposed to be a review in sorts so lets get to that. Presently I have two “normal” primes. A Nikon AF-D f/1.4 50mm and a very old 55mm f/3.5 micro, and that is what I will be writing about. These are both older lenses and though one of them is still selling as new, they have both been replaced by newer and better ones.
The 50mm f/1.4 is not exactly going to win any awards for either beauty or construction quality. It is made out of some pretty crummy looking plastic to be quite honest. Though the mount and front are made from metal, which does I must say lend a small but welcome bit of quality. However the look is a bit deceiving, as it actually feels heavier and more solid in the hand. The 55mm on the other hand is old fashion Nikon at it’s best. The lens is more then 35 years old and still performing admirably.
What can I say, the 50mm f/1.4 AF-D is like getting a “paperback” art book only to open it up and be surprised at the quality of the printing inside. The 50 AF-D lens focuses very fast and accurate for a “D” model lens. Though the focusing ring rotates during the AF procedure, which can be a little unnerving at first. Manual focus on the D3 and D2X works very quickly on account of the lens’s brightness (even with my tired old eyes). At the widest apertures setting it does show softness across the frame. By f/2.8 this pretty much gone and by f/4.0 the lens is about as sharp as you could ask for. In the examples below I have included a few shots taken at f/1.4 & f/2.0, so you can see for yourself, whether that “softness” is objectionable or not. Chromatic aberrations (CA’s) are also very visible at the wide apertures, but they also disappear after stopping down two stops or so. On my lens, it would seem that I got a good sample as I have not experienced any “focus shift” problems usually associated with wide aperture lenses.
The 55mm f/3.5 is despite it’s age is a very sharp piece of glass, There have been more then a few photos that I have taken with this lens over the years, that quite honestly surprised me in how sharp they were. Manual focusing despite the slowness (darker in the viewfinder) of the lens is quite quick. Mostly because when you hit the focus point, you “see” it right away. Due to it’s speed or rather lack of I have not encountered any problems with CA’s or “softness” wide open. This not the best micro / macro (Nikon refers to these lenses as micro and the rest of the world refer to them as macro) lens that Nikon has ever built, but it has never let me down, and have included it and some examples as another alternative.
These are not the best 50mm primes out there or for that matter Nikon’s best. The 50mm AF-D f/1.4 goes for about $300- today and the 55mm micro can be found as a second hand for around $100. Definitely in the range of the most economical of the consumer zooms. However you get a much faster lens (in the case of the f/1.4 lens around four stops), sharper (higher resolution) and less weight. Many of the great 20th Century “street / photojournalists” (i.e. Kertesz, Bresson, Gibson) used only the 50mm or 35mm primes for their whole careers. In the last 15 years these “normal” primes, may have fallen out of favor, but to me they still stand out as the single most practical lens to have in your camera bag.
Here are some examples from both lenses. Most of these examples was shot on the D3 in the full 35mm frame format. However I have included a few shots on the D2X or in the DX mode on the D3. This to show the cropping for those using DX / APS sensors. When the 50mm is used on the DX format, you get a fast portrait lens the equal of 75mm. In addition there are a few shots taken with the 55mm f/3.5 micro lens, for comparison and as an alternative lens.
The first three are a still to show the differences between the 55mm micro, the 50mm f/1.4 AF-D in both FX &DX formats.
The next two are with the 55mm micro, being used as a normal perspective lens.
The last five are all shot at f/2.0 with the 50 f/1.4 AF-D lens at night in Amsterdam (handheld).
Link to Nikon: http://www.nikonusa.com/Find-Your-Nikon/Product/Camera-Lenses/1902/AF-NIKKOR-50mm-f%252F1.4D.html
Link to B&H Photo: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/97413-GREY/Nikon_1902_Normal_AF_Nikkor_50mm.html
Links to other articles on the 50mm lens:
February 9, 2010
A GOOD ALTERNATIVE FOR MY LUST?
On any wish list for camera equipment that I could come up with, a Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 lens would be on it. Ever since I saw the first manual focus models in the early 80’s I have lusted after one. With it’s ability to isolate the subject so well, the 300mm is one of those focal lengths that just works. And at f/2.8 it is fast enough to use with tele extenders. Now with the “silent wave” focusing and vibration reduction, the “lust” is if anything even greater.
There are however several “buts” involved with this lens. First of course is the price. Something like a good used car’s worth. They have always been expensive and for most of the time simply out of my reach, even the used versions. Secondly and maybe even more important (to me at least) is the heavy weight. At almost 3 kilos /6 lbs. it is a lot of weight to carry around, and especially now that I have gotten older. . . Both of these little problems bring up the question of how much would I use one, is it enough to justify the cost? Since I don’t shoot sports or wildlife for a living, there isn’t much there. On some wedding assignments, I would use it for some of my shots, but mostly it would sit in the camera bag. Still . . .
In the early 90’s I bought the 300mm f/4.0 AF-D lens for my scouting assignments, and was satisfied enough with it’s performance. Auto focus was rather slow, but back then I rarely used AF, so it was not an issue. Then in 2004, one of my friends was interested in getting a telephoto lens and asked my advice on several makes and models. I convinced him to get the 300mm with a 2X converter (not knowing that Nikon in the mean time had replaced my version with the AF-S 300mm f/4.0 in 2000, yeah I know a little behind the times) . When his new lens came with the the TC-20E II, I tried it out. Later that day and without even waiting to sell my older 300mm (or for that matter even think if I could afford to do so), I ordered the same combo.
You may have assumed that I was impressed. I was! Later on I did have my doubts, which I will come to a little later on. First however let me explain why I have chosen to write this blog entry now, nearly five years after purchasing the lens. In my last blog entry about DOF comparisons in the different sensor sizes, I used the 300mm on several of the test series. Once again I was notably impressed with it’s performance. Not only in sharpness, even wide open, but also how it was rendering the out of focus areas. Also the introduction to an even newer 300mm f/2.8 recently, further spurred me into writing this review. So here now are my impressions of this lens, after having used it off and on for the past five years. This review may be a little late in coming, but at least I have had the time to fully assess this lens.
THE TRIPOD COLLAR
First and foremost of the problems with this lens was the tripod collar. Yes you read that right, “was”. The original was replaced a short time after I received the lens, with an improved model designed and made by the nature photographer Rainer Burzynski. There are several other “third party” manufacturers that make them and I feel pretty confident in saying that they all work better. In the past there have been quite a bit of internet discussions about the short comings of some of Nikon’s tripod collars. So I won’t go into it too deep here (Bjorn Rorslett’s article was one of the better ones: www.naturfotograf.com/index2.html & www.naturfotograf.com/lens_tripod_collars.html#top_page). Suffice to say that I had a hard time getting any tripod mounted shot that I did really sharp, I don’t even want to go on about using it with the TC-20E II. This was at almost any speed. Having bought the lens in 2004, meant that I even had the supposedly improved model. Fortunately it was very easy to replace and once I did, “problem solved”.
IS IT REALLY AN F/4 LENS?
At it’s maximum aperture, I find this lens to be about 1/3 of a stop slow, compared to the rest of the aperture range. Though I don’t really find it that much of a problem.
THE GOOD STUFF
With the tripod mount issue rectified and the other problems not enough to worry me, then all I can say is that this is one hell of a lens.
It is very solidly built and yet at the same time a fairly compact telephoto lens. Nothing to complain about there. The finish is real top line Nikon pro, with that slight stippling metal body with the gold engraving. The large focusing ring has a ribbed rubber surface and has just enough resistance. There is a “convenient” built in hood, that locks into place and seems deep enough. The one surprise is the absence of a limiting switch. When it first arrived I was a little disappointed as was my friend over the case. It isn’t one of those classic round hard leather ones. It is made from ballistic nylon, but in the end seems far more practical to me.
The AF works much better on this version then the old AF-D. Not nearly as much hunting and for the most part very very accurate. The exception being with the TC-20E II, where the AF has a really hard time of it. Thus far I have not tried it out with the TC-14E II, but hear that it works far better (with hardly any loss in resolution). It balances quite well on a pro body. In fact even though it out weighs the 80-200 by 140 grams (5 ounces) and is 35 mm longer (1.4 inches) it feels lighter somehow and easier to hold.
For the most part I shoot this lens wide open and have not found it to be a problem from a resolution standpoint (maybe I am less critical about those sort of things, if it is sharp enough to show the individual eyelashes for example, then I am happy). It may not compare well to the f/2.8 300, but it is certainly superior to the 80-200 f/2.8. Another feature added to the AFS version is the ability to focus at less then 1 1/2 meters (5 feet), giving a reproduction ratio of 1:3.7. This is accomplished by the shortening of the focal length, which when at it’s minimum focusing, the lens is at 240mm. Maybe not macro, but still it can make for some interesting close-up shots, thus adding substantially to it’s versatility. This is one feature that I have used a lot. When you add a tele converter to it, then you really do get macro performance with the added benefit of that “telephoto compression” look.
Here is a variety of shots that I have made, which I believe shows it’s optical qualities and versatility. Only the photo of the shovel has been cropped (a very little to correct perspective). On most of the D3 examples, what you are seeing is the 5:4 crop option.
These next three series with the TC-20E II employed. Are not typical of the results I normally get, unfortunately. In fact I would say that my success rate is usually 20-30% when I do utilize the TC-20E II. Possibly the new version (TC-20E III) will perform better. Also I understand that the TC-14E II works far better in combination with Nikon’s telephoto lenses. All three series were shot with the D3 in “live mode”. I could not get the AF to work on the shots with the TC-20E II. Thus I do not think it would have been possible to get such good results with the D2X.
The question does this lens solve my lust. Yes and no. With it’s optical quality, compactness, that special ability to focus close up and at a quarter of the price, it is hard to find any fault. In fact it is a little hard to believe that the 300mm f/2.8 is so much sharper as it has been reported. Then again there is always that underlying desire for any lens that carries with it the mystical reputation that the 300mm f/2.8 does, regardless of it’s impracticality for me.
At the end of the day, I have to say that yes it is a worthy alternative.
Nikon Link: http://www.nikonusa.com/Find-Your-Nikon/Product/Camera-Lenses/1909/AF-S-NIKKOR-300mm-f%252F4D-IF-ED.html
Link for the where I got the Burzynski tripod mount: https://www.isarfoto.com/cms.php/_p:1,st:burzynski/de/0/search.html
B&H Photo link: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/207356-GREY/Nikon_1909_Telephoto_AF_S_Nikkor_300mm.html
*Note: For those of you that have not read my blog previously. These reviews are not “technical”, they are merely my personal experiences and emotional responses to the equipment that I am reviewing. They are done with the intent to help those of you who may be interested in purchasing a particular piece of equipment and to provide an alternative review form.
For those of you interested in more technical reports, try visiting one of these sites:
**Note: Please excuse the varying changes in font size and photo frame. I am still trying to figure out which looks good and get adjusted to this whole blog thing.
February 1, 2010
A month or so ago I stumbled onto a internet thread over the introduction of the then new Nikon D2X. Yeah I know, the article was a bit out of date, but . . . How I got to this thread is a bit of a mystery to me (riding an internet wave too far I guess). In the thread one of the main contributors (a very self convinced person) and what he had to say is the reason that I chose to write this blog entry. So here I go, let’s just hope this doesn’t turn into my rant.
Throughout the thread there were the usual pros and cons being discussed about the D2X and it’s merits or lack of. As I said above, one of the lines in the thread, really got my interest. This line involved the thoughts of a person who worked for a company (undisclosed) doing some kind of photographic work for them (again undisclosed). The company had recently (most likely within the previous two years) invested twenty three thousand dollars in photographic equipment (Nikon and digital). The person to whom I am referring to, convinced the company to sell off this fairly new equipment at a loss of sixteen thousand dollars and buy the Canon EOS 1Ds Mk II and associated lenses and accessories. This new investment (and the substantial loss) was predicated on the fact that the “full 35mm frame” of the Canon would yield better control over the DOF (depth of field) from the APS size sensor in the NIkon. This person really came across as being very self convinced and had put up some pretty good sounding arguments when questioned by the others. The main argument that he was trying to get across, was that sensor size of the D2X (and all other APS size sensors or smaller) dictate that there is too much DOF and consequently, nearly uncontrollable.
Since I teach my basic photography class that the two most important things to remember about controlling the DOF is in the aperture opening and more importantly in subject magnification, I had to look into this. Also I happen to be someone who mostly shoots at wide apertures and had by this time shot with the D2X for enough time to know the camera and assess this problem. The same D2X (DX/APS) is still in my possession as is a D3 (FX or full 35mm frame), thus I could put the two cameras to the test and find out for myself. Despite having a pretty good idea what the results would be, I still tried to enter into the test with an open mind. Again I feel that it is subject magnification that limited DOF most comes into play. Whether it be by being close to the subject or using longer focal lengths to achieve “closeness” to the subject. And of course the aperture opening.
Before I go any further, let me I say that I am not trying to champion the cause for Nikon here. Quite the contrary I love the idea of competition between manufactures, regardless of what they make. In the case of Canon vs. Nikon (and now Sony) they keep improving upon their products and we as end users and consumers benefit form it. What I am trying to do, is to say that the question of the DOF difference between sensors sizes is not that black and white.
Admittedly my testing has it’s flaws from a technical testing standpoint. You will not see MTF charts or focusing charts, etc. That sort of testing I leave to others who are better qualified. However I feel that a few flaws and an absence of charts in the testing is more like “real life” and gives us a better idea how different equipment functions in the “field”. One evident fault in my testing that could be pointed out, is that the focusing was done fairly close up to the subjects. This was due on account of the limitations of this blog and to make viewing easier. Also for the most part (with the exception of the 300mm test) the cropping would be similar to a tight head shot. Though being this close, shortens the DOF considerably, it still shows the comparative depths of field of both sensor sizes.
With the exception of the last series of tests, the cameras were both mounted on a tripod and left in the exact same position. Mirror lock-up and a cable release were utilized for accuracy. Both cameras were shot at their native ISO’s (100 iso on the D2X and 200 iso on the D3). Some cropping was done in post (where noted) for better viewing, again as my blog site is not set-up for larger images to be shown. Anyway have a look at these tests with an open mind and see for yourself.
For the first part of the test, I chose a 80-200mm AF-D f/2.8 Nikkor lens. With the aspect ratio difference of 1.5 between the D2X and the D3, I decided to make life easier for myself, by using an easy number to start the test. First thing was to shoot both cameras at 150mm and then change the lens to 100mm and shoot the test scene again with only the D2X. This was done so as to give the same angle of view for both cameras (sensor sizes). To me the angle of view is not the same as subject magnification. The APS size sensor will be referred to as DX in the test shots and FX will be used to denote the “full 35mm frame” test shots.
In the second round of tests I employed the use of the 80-200mm, set at 200mm, on the D2X and on the D3, a 300mm f/4.0 AF-S (simple arithmetic again). Just another attempt at getting the same angle of view. The second round also includes both cameras with the 300mm lens from the same camera position. With a cropped FX version for easier viewing and an uncropped FX version.
For the last test I decided to go with two different lenses that both have a maximum aperture of f/1.4. The 85mm and 50mm Nikkor lenses. On this test I did move the D2X with the 50mm on it to within a distance to replicate the same angle of view as the 85mm on the full frame D3. With this set-up I went form f/4, to f/1.4 in increments of one stop. The last shot on this series is the 85mm now mounted on the D2x (DX camera). Which was moved to attain the same angle of view as it appears on the D3 (FX camera).
Does the larger sensor size offer less DOF / more back ground blur? What we have found here, is that the issue is not really all that clear cut. Using a shorter lens on the APS / DX size sensor (giving the same angle of view), will indeed produce “more in focus” or deeper DOF (around 1 to 1 1/2 stops worth). This is of course attributable to the shorter focal length required to overcome the aspect ratio difference and achieve the same angle of view. The same could be said, if a shorter focal length lens is used on the same camera (whatever the sensor or image plane size is). Of course this applies equally to the reverse situation, needing a longer focal length. Using the exact same focal length on both sensor formats, results in either the same DOF or possibly a little less or more, but certainly not enough to warrant selling off a camera system.
The quality of the lens and how it renders the out-of-focus areas also plays a big part in the perceived DOF. I think this can be seen and compared best, in the case of the 300mm vs. the 200mm and again with the 85mm vs. the 50mm. Some lenses render the out-of-focus area with an edge around high contrast areas, making it appear that they are less out-of -focus. The better lenses will provide good contrast in the “focused area” and lowering of contrast in the “out-of-focus areas” making for a smoother transition and a “creamy” look, which creates good “bokeh”. Stronger contrast always appears “sharper” then lower contrast.
So either using a longer focal length or moving closer to the subject or employing wider apertures can be used with a great deal of effectiveness in both formats. Even in regards to the very small sensor formats found in the point and shoot cameras (though the problem of overcoming the aspect ratio differences there is somewhat harder). On the other hand and something the “thread contributor” did not mention, was when there is a need for more depth of field. Knowing how to achieve both limited and deeper DOF are both important disciplines to learn in photography, as different situations require.
The last thing that can be learned is simply to know your equipment and how to use it for the effect you want. Though I guess that can be said about most things in life.
Coming up next: After performing the above test, I was once again impressed with the Nikkor 300mm f/4.0. So I will be writing up my impressions with a number of examples, from both formats.
January 22, 2010
August 5, 2009
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This entry is going to be a bit more personal. As I would like to thank my wife for making my birthday the other day, one of if not the best birthday’s that I have had.
It started off with a cup of coffee (see below). The night before I had had several glasses of not so expensive red wine, so I was experiencing something some of you might be familiar with, a lovely headache. The first sip from the cup and I felt I was drinking the best cup of joe ever. Which of course prompted me to make this hurried still life.
That was only the beginning. She and our two year old daughter sang “Happy Birthday” to me (in English). Still more to come though, as our daughter then said “I love you Papa”. What can I say. The first time to hear that and on my birthday. Who could ask for a better present then that. For those of you that have had a similar experience, then you know what I am talking about. For those of you who haven’t, then I hope some day you will or at least some comparable feeling.
So many thanks to you Kea my darling for the wonderful day you made of it.
The first photo is of that cup of joe (minus one delicious sip). The second is of our daughter and her new friend Bernie. Bernie incidentally is one of the finest actors that I have ever met. His rendition of a homeless, jobless, hungry person was nothing short of brilliance. A real bravo standing ovation performance. Maybe it was even for my benefit?