Coming Around Again: The 20mm

The AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 is instantly at home on my Nikon D2H.
The AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 is instantly at home on my Nikon D2H.

When I bought my first Nikon in 1982, the Nikon FM fully-manual SLR, in its handsome box was a fold-out wall chart of all the Nikkor lenses available in their system, nearly 90 in all. I framed that wall chart and hung in on my dorm room door. I would think about photography and look at the chart. It was like camera porn.

I photographed Anna in a mirror the day I decided to sell my first 20mm, the f/3.5 of early-1980s vintage.
I photographed Anna in a mirror the day I decided to sell my first 20mm, the f/3.5 of early-1980s vintage.

In April 2011, Robert and I were walking around The Plaza in Santa Fe when we came across a camera store. Unable to resist the siren song of well-treated used cameras, we went in. They had a nice, but overpriced selection that included, among other legendary photographic tools, a manual-focus Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 and an AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8. Both were in great shape. The 20mm particularly caught my imagination because in my early days of shooting, I owned two different versions of 20mm Nikkors.

In 1983, I saw Nikon’s tiny 20mm f/3.5 at the long-defunct Lawrence Photo and Video in Oklahoma City. Although I had a 28mm, the 20mm represented the threshold of ultra-wide photography, and thinking I would never get a crack at the amazing but ludicrously expensive 18mm f/3.5, I bought the 20mm.

Getting good use out of it, however, turned out to be vastly more difficult, since an ultra wide requires a lot of patience, practice and time, sometimes years, to master. My efforts only led me back again and again to my 28mm, and within a couple of years I sold the 20mm.

In 1985, I started working at The Shawnee News-Star in Shawnee, Oklahoma. One of my beats was to cover the Oklahoma State Cowboys football program. At a game at Lewis Field in Stillwater in the fall of 1986, I saw someone with the “new” 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor, which sported a great big, cool-looking lens hood. From the moment I saw it, I wanted my old 20mm back, but instead I bought the new 20mm and put it in service.

I photographed Anna again on the day I came home with my second 20mm, the f/2.8 manual focus version from the mid 1980s.
I photographed Anna again on the day I came home with my second 20mm, the f/2.8 manual focus version from the mid 1980s.

As the years went by, I did begin to hone my skills with ultra wide imaging. The 20mm served well, and with the years, the metal lens hood took a lot of dings. Soon it wasn’t even round any more.

Then came digital. My first personal digital SLR was the Nikon D100, whose meter did not operate with older manual-focus lenses. A photographer I knew who still shot film had long expressed an interest in the 20mm, so I sold it to him. That was in 2004. Since then I always wanted the autofocus version of it. The focal length combined with the 15x24mm sensor size my cameras made the 20mm what we might call a “standard” wide angle instead of the ultra wide it was with film.

I turned down buying the 20mm in Santa Fe in April 2011, and again when Abby and I saw it, still under glass at the same camera store, in October of that year. They wanted $400, which was just too much for a focal length I could achieve with a zoom. It wasn’t until I saw one that was well-used and had a minor flaw, which always works to my advantage, on eBay for less than $200 that I gave in a bought one. The big price break for a very minor flaw is ridiculous, since it has no effect on the operation or image quality of the lens, but most people don’t make pictures as much as they collect gear totemistically.

I put it into service immediately, and it is an excellent lightweight alternative to my 12-24mm zoom, and it’s a full f/stop brighter than the zoom. Image quality with it has been superb.

After nearly an entire basketball season with the 20mm f/2.8 AF Nikkor as my primary wide angle lens, I find the image quality and handling to be everything I hoped.
After nearly an entire basketball season with the 20mm f/2.8 AF Nikkor as my primary wide angle lens, I find the image quality and handling to be everything I hoped.
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