What makes a favourite dx/aps-c SLR lens?

What makes a favourite dx/aps-c SLR lens?

Photography has many facets with the prime purpose of producing an engaging image fit for sharing with others in which the photographer seeks to visualise the picture he wants to record. It is the design of the equipment that contributes to the image goal but the route also includes ergonomics and ease of use for the practitioner. However, I wonder whether the photographic press sometimes concentrates on MTF/resolution/points scores over those facets that contribute to the photographer’s overall satisfaction.

Lenses are, of course, pieces of glass cemented together to achieve that satisfaction, but that pleasure gained varies according to the photographer’s experience as well as its intrinsic image creating possibilities.

The lens that forms part of the original kit often defines development. Choices may include
• 18-50mm
• 18-105mm
• 18-150/200/300mm
In terms of focal length, the 18-50 offers an initial start for general photography and anticipates further purchases in the short term. The 18-105 offers a wider range that has the potential to be a more satisfying first lens, whilst the 18-200 includes a range that entirely satisfies many users, though at the expense of excellent quality and/or wide aperture. In film days most SLRs were supplied with a ‘standard’ prime lens – the DX equivalent being 35mm – and even in the modern era such a prime does offer (arguably) better picture quality than the typical 18-50 zoom.

When zoomed in, the above basic kit zoom lenses as offered by Nikon have apertures of f 4.5, 5.0 and 5.6.

Older previous analogue shooters adopting digital were initially disappointed by these newer lenses because they are bigger than those they were used to – Nikon front filter threads were all 52mm at one time, whereas 67mm is now more common. Compared to those older fast primes such as the 50mm f 1.8, viewfinder images are also appreciably dimmer.

Going further back (do you remember manual pre-set ring lenses without auto stop-down diaphragm?) the technology has obviously made picture taking easier, but in this case maybe at the expense of the photographer needing to fully appreciate and understand the fundamentals of the aperture/shutter speed/ISO relationship. Visualisation of the final image prior to capture will always be the main focus for committed photographers.

So what makes a lens a favourite?

Does the photographer want
• Greater focal length range
• Quality of image (though maybe at the expense of range and/or weight) perhaps in conjunction with a …
• brighter viewfinder image, usually akin to image quality

Satisfying greater focal length is perhaps easiest to satisfy:
1. to go wide/super wide a lens in the 10-20mm or 12-24mm ranges would seem good. Some may wish a fisheye lens at a later point. It is then a choice of image potential image quality or constant aperture.
2. to go telephoto the choice adding to a 18-50mm may be 50-200mm; or from an 18-70mm or 18-105mm adding a 70-300mm. Some may wish a supertelephoto taking the range towards 500m or even 800mm at a later point. It is then a choice of image potential image quality or constant aperture, but there may be other needs not satisfied by merely increasing the sophistication.

My personal needs are generally focussed on landscapes and medium length informal portraits. Currently I mainly use
• Sigma 10-20mm EX + Sigma 18-50mm f 2.8 EX + Sigma 50-150mm f 2.8 EX (with a Sigma EX teleconverter if extra reach is needed)

The 10-20 extends the available lengths wonderfully and I use this lens the most, the other two are a significant step up from standard kit lenses both in image quality and the fixed wide maximum aperture. The 50-150 is superb when used for informal portraiture at events.

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(The three Sigma EX lenses plus 1.4x and 2x TCs)

In some circumstances I might use the
• Nikon 18-105mm on its own
• Sigma 10-20mm EX + Nikon 18-105mm
as alternatives to the basic kit (with/without TCs)  depending whether saving weight or image quality is paramount.

I don’t use telephoto beyond 150mm a great deal but I do have the Sigma 170-500mm APO available.

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(The Sigma 170-500mm APO complete with yellow ‘lensband’ preventing lens creep, shown alongside the 50-150mm EX and TCs, both in full extension)

I also use on occasion a manual Sigma Super Wide II 24mm f 2.8, and manual Nikon 50mm f 1.8 lenses – the latter often with an extension tube when photographing closeups of insects, butterflies and flowers, and a Samyang 8mm fisheye, extension tubes, lensbaby composer, misc. adapters, etc

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But which is my ‘favourite’ lens? The answer is none of these!

Digital photography encourages the practitioner to be reliant on ‘auto’ settings whether aperture priority, shutter priority or program modes, when an acceptable result can usually be obtained. This appears to negate the need to understand the aperture/shutter/ISO relationship, but it is the understanding of this relationship that the best realisation and visualisation, and thus here is where the best quality of image resides.

These are three lenses outside the 10-20/18-50/50-150 ‘standards’, all of which add something special to a photograph:

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Samyang 8mm fisheye, micro-Nikkor 60mm, PC-Nikkor 28mm

Quality of image is paramount, but so also is the satisfaction of the practitioner who visualises the result and enjoys the use of the technology he/she is controlling.
The accolade of ‘favourite’ must thus be a lens that is controllable encouraging his perception of shutter/aperture/ISO (has manual mode) and going beyond the usual focal length/speed issues as well as producing sharp results without compromising poor distortion or perspective.

_DSC3816        _DSC0046_DxO

I really enjoy using wide angles, whether the Sigma 10-20mm or Samyang 8mm (above) but the idea of controlling perspective effects makes me think, consider and assess my pre-visualisation. It is thus no disadvantage if I am forced to slow down and shoot in manual mode.

Indeed, it is the latter term that is the clue to my favourite:
PC-Nikkor 28mm f 3.5

 

d7100 with pc nikkor
(PC-Nikkor 28mm f 3.5 when mounted on D7100)

Its focal length is marginally wider than ‘normal’ on DX and is a little faster than typical first purchase kit lenses. This is a totally manual lens both in terms of exposure and focussing to the extent that it has a preset ring similar to those early lenses from analogue days.

In order to take a photograph exposure needs to be metered and assessed, the aperture set to the appropriate f stop, focussed carefully, and then the pre-set ring to be turned and reset so that the lens diaphragm is stopped down before tripping the shutter. This lens is excellently made and produces great results, but does more.

The ‘PC’ in its name refers to Perspective Control and is able to replicate the ‘rise and fall’ that large format view cameras can undertake. Control of the lens is enhanced by the extra control possible by being able to vary the position of the lens in relation to the throat of the SLR camera. By this means, the converging verticals resulting from leaning the camera are corrected – you may wish to see the result in this shot of Ely Cathedral. (This shot was taken hand held in relatively dark conditions – it was raining outside. The lens can be challenging to ensure focus precision).

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Of course, this effect can be solved by appropriate software, but at the expense of loss of resolution but more importantly in restricting the photographer in his/her visualisation of the image. Perhaps it is this element of ‘visualisation’ that Ken Rockwell (http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/28mm-pc.htm) does not recognise in his otherwise excellent resume and review of the possibilities of this lens.

Correcting vertical lines is the major function of this lens, but when a subject is shot at an angle to avoid a foreground object the lens can correct the resulting lateral distortion. Using the fall/rise control horizontally also allows the camera to shoot two side by side shots as a panorama that can be stitched with great precision – the usual lens distortions are corrected by the perspective control.

It is true that these software functions have rendered the lens obsolete since 2005 except that for the ability of the photographer in visualising the results.
This lens does not tilt (as the more recent PC-E Nikkors that cost a great deal of money), but is tilt really required with the increased depth of field that modern day DX format cameras are capable?

Used PC-Nikkor lenses are available at reasonable prices nowadays, but do refer to online reviews to make sure your camera is compatible. There are also some early versions of these lenses that can damage the camera. (My D7100 has no issues).

This lens thus satisfies yearning to control all aspects of the image making process including a full visualisation of the end product – which is what we all aim towards.

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Contact Phil at philtheclick@gmail.com

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