What Is an “Art” Lens?

One of my photography students recently bought a Sigma 24-70mm f/4 "Art" lens, which represents Sigma's efforts to improve their image quality and reputation for inconsistent manufacturing. Note the "A" badge on the barrel, denoting their "Art" series. However, just because they call it an Art lens doesn't mean you are automatically creating art just because you are using it.
One of my photography students recently bought a Sigma 24-70mm f/4 “Art” lens, which represents Sigma’s efforts to improve their image quality and reputation for inconsistent manufacturing. Note the “A” badge on the barrel, denoting their “Art” series. However, just because they call it an Art lens doesn’t mean you are automatically creating art just because you are using it.

We all want to make amazing images, and we all see amazing images we admire every day. Often we think, “I saw something just like that the other day and tried to photograph it, but my pictures were nothing like that one. What am I doing wrong?”

Often the answer is a nebulous collection of visionary perspective and technical knowledge, with all imagery consisting but one thing: light.

While it is an excellent tool in the toolbox of photography, it is often very tempting to regard selective focus with large-aperture lenses as a goal unto itself, which it is not.
While it is an excellent tool in the toolbox of photography, it is often very tempting to regard selective focus with large-aperture lenses as a goal unto itself, which it is not.

A few years ago, lensmaker Sigma, faced with combating a reputation for poor quality control that resulted in inconsistent products, reorganized and upped their game by introducing their “Art” series of lenses. Bigger, heavier, more expensive, and better built than anything Sigma ever created before, these lenses are aimed at photographers who want the best image quality from larger-maximum-aperture lenses, and who are willing to deal with physically huge and heavy glass. Examples of this line are their 18-35mm f/1.8 Art, 35mm f/1.4 Art, 50mm f/1.4 Art, 24-105mm f/4 Art, and so on.

Primed for Primes
It’s no secret: I love”prime” lenses, which are defined as non-zoom lenses, usually featuring larger maximum apertures than zoom lenses, and which are usually lighter, smaller, and more affordable than their zooming brethren. Much of the time when I can choose between a zoom or a prime, I choose the prime. Though slightly less versatile than zooms, I spent the first part of my career shooting with nothing but primes (since zooms weren’t all that great then), and I am quite comfortable selecting a lens and then “zooming with my feet.”

I have only seen one “Art” series lens, bought by a student of mine last year.

One lens I keep recommending to photographers just starting out who only have the inexpensive "kit" zoom lens that came with their camera is the 50mm, either the pricier f/1.4 (left), or the smaller, more affordable f/1.8 on the right. Both are a good start down the road to lenses with better "art" credentials.
One lens I keep recommending to photographers just starting out who only have the inexpensive “kit” zoom lens that came with their camera is the 50mm, either the pricier f/1.4 (left), or the smaller, more affordable f/1.8 on the right. Both are a good start down the road to lenses with better “art” credentials.

As the popularity of these lenses rose, so did the idea that “Art” was a class, not a brand, of lens, and that we artists wanted one. But removed from its brand, was an “Art” lens really meant to be “the best,” without context, or is the “Art” something more, something etherial, something even magical?

In a conversation with fellow photograph Robert recently, he asked me, “Aren’t all lenses ‘art’ lenses?”

Our AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 is certainly capable of creating images in the field of "art" in the right hands and the right circumstance.
Our AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 is certainly capable of creating images in the field of “art” in the right hands and the right circumstance.

I speculated that lenses followed an evolution the same way culture did, with a growing interest in technology and capacity, while leaving behind some of the things we loved: older lenses, for example, are generally softer at the edges of the frame (often due to an aberration called spherical aberration, which results in the focus plane of a lens being curved slightly), and most computer-designed lenses have either gotten better at preventing that, or, in the case of cheap ones, hide these sometimes-flattering aberrations beneath other, more garish, problems like distortion and chromatic aberration.

So, I thought, maybe Sigma’s “Art” lenses are designed to bring back some of that old-lens look.

In actuality, Robert is right: all lenses are “Art” lenses because art isn’t a function of equipment or technology, but of the heart and mind.

Sigma’s “Art” series are, in simplest terms, a high-quality product intended to turn around a company struggling with quality-control issues, as well as a big, heavy tool in the toolbox. They are certainly capable of producing art in the hands of an artist.

One thing that "feels" artistic is using large maximum apertures to create powerful selective focus (often wrongly called "bokeh", which is another concept altogether), as I did in this image of Max the Chihuahua I shot yesterday with our AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. Pleasing to the eye, shallow depth of field is not art unto itself.
One thing that “feels” artistic is using large maximum apertures to create powerful selective focus (often wrongly called “bokeh”, which is another concept altogether), as I did in this image of Max the Chihuahua I shot yesterday with our AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. Pleasing to the eye, shallow depth of field is not art unto itself.
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Fact and Myth: “Full Frame” vs “Cropped”

I recently sold some older gear to get ahold of this Nikon D700. With 94,325 frames through it when I bought it, it is about halfway through it's life expectancy. The D700 is larger and heavier than most of my other cameras, and it is a luxury to look through a film-sized viewfinder.
I recently sold some older gear to get ahold of this Nikon D700. With 94,325 frames through it when I bought it, it is about halfway through it’s life expectancy. The D700 is larger and heavier than most of my other cameras, and it is a luxury to look through a film-sized viewfinder.

For a couple of decades now, a cacophony of myth and misinformation has stemmed from digital photography regarding sensor size. This all started because professional and advanced amateur digital photography was rooted, for economic reasons, in 35mm film photography.

Not only does the Nikon D700 have a bigger sensor, it has a bigger, and much heavier body.
Not only does the Nikon D700 have a bigger sensor, it has a bigger, and much heavier body.

Driven mostly by the engines of sales and popularity, not necessity or creativity or technical superiority, the 35mm film frame, at 36x24mm, and originally derived from an industrious camera maker wanting to take advantage of surplus film from the burgeoning 1930s motion picture industry, became the standard bearer for image size by the end of the 20th century.

I recently decided to do a little used-for-used sell-and-buy on Ebay to get my hands on a Nikon D700, one of Nikon’s earliest digital cameras equipped with a sensor the size of a 35mm film frame, 36x24mm, sometimes referred to by the misleading name “full frame” because it is the same size as a full frame of film. Nikon calls it “FX,” in contrast to their smaller 24x15mm sensors, which it calls “DX.” 24x15mm sensors are often mistakenly called “cropped” sensors by laymen who don’t fully understand the origins of image size. If it has to have a name, it is most accurately described by its size in millimeters or by the film size closest to it, APS-C (Advanced Photo System type-C).

The lazy-writing web world often calls full frame “FF” in forum posts.

  • Do full frame sensors have “better depth of field”? No. I was eager to debunk this one because I already knew the answer, and because it is an embarrassment to photography that everyone is so eager to believe this. Depth of field is controlled by two factors: magnification and aperture. The reason this myth seems to be true is that to get the same composition on a 36x24mm as on a smaller sensor, one has to either get closer or use a longer focal length, both of which increase magnification to create shallower depth of field. At identical distances, focal lengths and apertures, depth of field is identical. If you don’t believe me, here is the proof…
To prevent confirmation bias, I won't say which of these images is made with which sensor size. 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Vs...
To prevent confirmation bias, I won’t say which of these images is made with which sensor size. 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Vs…
... 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Can you tell me which one is which?
… 50mm @f/1.4, cropped to show the books in the center of the frame. Can you tell me which one is which?
  • Is an aperture of f/2 on a larger sensor “equivalent” in light gathering capacity to f/1.4 on a smaller sensor? No. I heard this one asserted by Tony and Chelsea Northrup on their YouTube channel, and I couldn’t believe my ears at the time. (They also refer to “ISO” as a name – “Eyesoh,” which it is not). I have no idea how they came to this conclusion, but this and the popularity of their channel has done nothing but muddy the waters on issues like this. Simply put, f number is a fraction describing the ratio between the focal length of a lens and the diameter of the opening. A 50mm f/2, for example, has an opening of 25mm. 50 divided by 2 equals 25. A specific aperture value lets the same amount of light through the lens regardless of what size of film or sensor is on the other side.

    Nikon badges all of its 36x24mm sensor cameras with this "FX" badge.
    Nikon badges all of its 36x24mm sensor cameras with this “FX” badge.
  • Will a larger sensor give life back to my wide angle lenses? Yes, with some caveats. A 20mm lens that was a mediocre lens on a smaller sensor has now been restored to its film-days glory as an ultra wide lens. While this is certainly nice if you have a bunch of old wide angle lenses, today many manufacturers make very wide angle lenses for smaller sensors. I have several myself, and I am able to get as wide as I need, including ultra-ultra-wide using my 10-17mm fisheye and uncurving it in Photoshop.
I shot this today with my 18-35mm at 18mm on the D700.
I shot this today with my 18-35mm at 18mm on the D700.
I shot this today with my 12-24mm at 12mm on the D300S.
I shot this today with my 12-24mm at 12mm on the D300S.
  • Will my telephoto lenses will be less telephoto-y on a larger sensor? Yes. This is the reason sports and wildlife photographers got away from large and medium format film as soon as 35mm was available: just as larger sensors make wide angles wider, they make telephotos wider, since they are projecting their images onto a larger surface. Many top sports and bird photographers very much prefer 24x15mm sensors for just this reason, and this has been a leading marketing tag for Nikon’s flagship 24x15mm camera, the D500.
These are some of the wide angle lenses my office and I own that will see the light of day more now that I have a 36x24mm sensor. From left to right are the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8, the AF Nikkor 20mm, the AF Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5, the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8, and the Sigma AF 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5.
These are some of the wide angle lenses my office and I own that will see the light of day more now that I have a 36x24mm sensor. From left to right are the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8, the AF Nikkor 20mm, the AF Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5, the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8, and the Sigma AF 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5.
  • Are larger sensors better at capturing low-light scenes due to the pixels themselves being larger? Yes. If you compare a 36x24mm sensor against a 24x15mm sensor of the same pixel count, assuming the sensors are of the same era and treated with the same renderings, noise will be lower in the larger sensor. This is true because the pixels themselves, the tiny light-sensing devices inside the integrated circuit in the middle of the camera, are larger, and can gather more light, thus requiring less amplification of the signals they produce. In practice, though, this rule doesn’t hold much water. There are many smaller-sensor cameras that make incredibly low-noise images, and most cameras with larger than “full frame” sensors do not.
Though quite rare, I was able to spot this Nikon D700 "street photographer" on the Plaza in Santa Fe, one place you would expect to see a jillion street photographers. Of note is the not-very-good lens he has mounted on it.
Though quite rare, I was able to spot this Nikon D700 “street photographer” on the Plaza in Santa Fe, one place you would expect to see a jillion street photographers. Of note is the not-very-good lens he has mounted on it.

The craving for lower noise at higher ISOs is a symptom of photographers being too lazy to master what matters most, light. Additionally, there is a lot of pretense on the photo forums (like photo.net, which recently changed formats and is now unviewable) about, “wanting to do more street photography.” The truth is that most of time people who make this claim just want to be able to say, “I have this camera and that lens,” and don’t make very many photos. All you have to do to discover this truth is walk the streets and count the photographers: ≈ 0.

  • Are “multiplier” or “crop factor” numbers useful? No. These numbers are all over the place, and only exist so camera makers can muddy the waters of what you should buy. 1.5x “crop factor” or 2x “multiplier” is only helpful if you go from one format to the other constantly while shooting. A far better way to understand this is to know your camera, and know what does what. For example, suppose your camera is a “four thirds” format (18x13mm). A 14mm is a wide angle lens, and a 200mm is a super-telephoto.
  • Is it worth it to “upgrade” to a larger sensor? No. Anyone who asks this question isn’t ready to take advantage of the subtle differences offered by a larger sensor, and larger sensors are disproportionally more expensive. If you need a larger sensor, you already know it.
You can see from the brassing and smoothing of the working surfaces of my "new" used Nikon D700 that it's been put to work. This is how I prefer to buy cameras, since I am going to wear them out myself in short order.
You can see from the brassing and smoothing of the working surfaces of my “new” used Nikon D700 that it’s been put to work. This is how I prefer to buy cameras, since I am going to wear them out myself in short order.
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Why Isn’t My Fifty Nifty?

What's the difference between this $440 50mm and this $80 kit lens? Nothing at f/11.
What’s the difference between this $440 50mm and this $80 kit lens? Nothing at f/11.

There is a saying among gun owners. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people with guns.”

This slogan is an ideal analog to what I often see when people buy a new lens like the marvelous and under-recognized 50mm f/1.8. “Lenses don’t make pictures. People make pictures with lenses.”

For decades almost every SLR camera you saw at camera stores had a 50mm on it, often the cheap, light, forgiving, sharp 50mm f/1.8. To this day, they remain an excellent addition to anyone's camera bag.
For decades almost every SLR camera you saw at camera stores had a 50mm on it, often the cheap, light, forgiving, sharp 50mm f/1.8. To this day, they remain an excellent addition to anyone’s camera bag.

This lens has earned it the nickname “Nifty Fifty” over the years because it is affordable and capable of delivering beautiful results. But…

Any lens is a tool, and if you use a tool wrong, it won’t give you the results you want. All lenses are the same at f/11 in midday sun with your knees locked. A 50mm f/1.8 and an 18-55mm kit lens are the same at f/11. You might as well shoot with your phone or a point-and-shoot.

Taking advantage of tools like large-aperture lenses requires aggressive techniques, including moving yourself and using those large apertures. You didn’t buy an f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens to shoot it in Program mode or worse, green box mode, and have the camera choose every mediocre compromise it can.

So if you find yourself with a nifty little 50mm in your hands, take it to the limits – get close, shoot wide open, see the light. Only then can you discover why a lens like this is a great tool.

This image was made with a 50mm lens at f/16. Calling it lackluster is an understatement.
This image was made with a 50mm lens at f/16. Calling it lackluster is an understatement.
This was made with the same 50mm as the previous image, same position, same light, same ISO, same white balance. The only difference is it was shot at f/1.8. Suddenly the image is interesting.
This was made with the same 50mm as the previous image, same position, same light, same ISO, same white balance. The only difference is it was shot at f/1.8. Suddenly the image is interesting.
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Flare and Ghosting

I was shooting last night at a basketball tournament with a lens with a notable tendency to exhibit ghosting, the Sigma 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5. You can see the obvious blue blobs adjacent to the ceiling lights.
I was shooting last night at a basketball tournament with a lens with a notable tendency to exhibit ghosting, the Sigma 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5. You can see the obvious blue blobs adjacent to the ceiling lights.

You see the terms “flare” and “ghosting” bantered around a lot, particularly when reading the photography web about lenses. Put simply, these terms describe reflections that occur inside lens elements within lenses and filters, and reflections between the lens and the imaging sensor.

The Sigma 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5 is prone to ghosting because of its huge, bulging front element. The ghosts are usually blue because of the blue multicoating on the surface of the element.
The Sigma 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5 is prone to ghosting because of its huge, bulging front element. The ghosts are usually blue because of the blue multicoating on the surface of the element.

Flare, sometimes called “veiling glare,” is a tendency for light to fill the frame and obscure the subject, and ghosting is the appearance of objects in the frame often shaped like blobs or like the shape of the lens’ aperture.

Some lenses are resistant to flare, while others will flare with little provocation. Generally, but not always, single focal length (“prime”) lenses flare less than zoom lenses (which have more, often many more, lens elements inside), and generally, top quality lenses flare less than cheap lenses, and “fast” (large aperture) lenses flare more than lenses of more modest maximum apertures.

I hunted down this image today with the expressed purpose of creating flare. It wasn't hard, since I chose a lens, my Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8, notoriously prone to flare, and a subject, the blinding sun, one of the chief causes of flare and ghosting.
I hunted down this image today with the expressed purpose of creating flare. It wasn’t hard, since I chose a lens, my Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8, notoriously prone to flare, and a subject, the blinding sun, one of the chief causes of flare and ghosting.

Flare and ghosting are almost always a consequence of having bright light source in the frame; a window, a street light, the sun, or headlights, for example. Lens hoods, which I always use to protect my lenses, are not very effective at controlling flare because they are often not quite large enough, and you will often see me shading my lens with my hand when shooting into a bright light source.

Flare and ghosting are reduced by using smaller apertures.

Finally, flare and ghosting, while referred to as an aberration in technical talk, can often contribute to the success of an image. Some fine art photographers use older lenses, for example, to convey a sense of “vintage” in their images. I know a wedding photographer whose entire look is based on flare at sunset. In my own work, I often use flare and ghosting to convey a sense of brightness that might not otherwise be expressable.

This wildflower image works in part through my use of flare and ghosting, which you can see running top left to bottom right. This scattering of light helps express the brightness and slight dream-like quality of the moment.
This wildflower image works in part through my use of flare and ghosting, which you can see running top left to bottom right. This scattering of light helps express the brightness and slight dream-like quality of the moment.
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First Look: AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G

Our new AF-S Nikkor 50mm F/1.4G is pictured mounted on my Nikon D7100.
Our new AF-S Nikkor 50mm F/1.4G is pictured mounted on my Nikon D7100.

It seems that every January my wife Abby and I log in to our credit card rewards site to see how many points we have accumulated in the past year. She then picks out a couple of items and gives the rest of the points to me. This year I was able to purchase a new iPad Pro, as well as the topic of this post, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.

I consider this lens to belong to both of us, which is true for everything we own, really.

I let Abby have the first turn with it, and she was delighted. She remarked that it showed fast, decisive autofocus and a nice bright viewfinder image, and it felt about right in her slender hands. She photographed Max the Chihuahua with it first, and as you can see, the results were pleasing…

Max looks up at me from Abby's lap is this image made with our new 50mm f/1.4 lens set at f/1.8 and about 1/125fh of a second at ISO 800. As you can see, it is tack sharp, and the background melts away gracefully.
Max looks up at me from Abby’s lap is this image made with our new 50mm f/1.4 lens set at f/1.8 and about 1/125fh of a second at ISO 800. As you can see, it is tack sharp, and the background melts away gracefully.
The AF Nikkor f/1.8D, left, sits next to its replacement, the larger and more modern AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.
The AF Nikkor f/1.8D, left, sits next to its replacement, the larger and more modern AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G.

I know what you’re going to say: Richard, don’t you always recommend the much cheaper 50mm f/1.8? Yes I do, and the truth is that I would never have paid cash for the f/1.4, but with a large number of accumulated rewards points made it easier to spring for its luxury. And the more I thought about it, the more I decided I wanted to have at least one f/1.4 lens in my bag.

Considerable larger than the f/1.8 it replaces, this lens comes with a large plastic bayonet-mounted hood. Mounted on my D7100, it makes a handsome, well-balanced package.

The 50mm f/1.4 is a smart-looking lens, seen here mounted on my Nikon D7100.
The 50mm f/1.4 is a smart-looking lens, seen here mounted on my Nikon D7100.
From left to right are my next-generation large-aperture lenses, the AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, and the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f1.8G.
From left to right are my next-generation large-aperture lenses, the AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, and the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f1.8G.

Though there was nothing wrong with my old 50mm f/1.8, it is missing a feature common to the new Nikkors, AF-S, which uses motors inside the lens to move the focussing elements. This benefit is twofold, with focus being faster and internal, as well as allowing the photographer to turn the focus ring any time to focus manually.

Finally, we usually own and shoot with large-aperture lenses at their largest apertures, since we didn’t pay a premium price to shoot them at f/11, which even the cheapest 18-55mm kits lens does with ease. One of my goals with the lens will be to push the limits selective focus at very large apertures. I’ve only shot a few frames with it wide open (f/1.4), but early tests indicate what I expected: depth of field of just a few millimeters, powerful selective focus, and pleasing bokeh.

I am excited to have this tool in my toolbox.

After Christmas I kept these lights out of the decoration boxes in the rafters for just this purpose: experimenting with very large apertures. As you can see, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 exhibits acceptable sharpness in the focus area, and beautiful out-of-focus regions. I look forward to experimenting with it more, then putting this lens into service for things like weddings, night photography, and portraits.
After Christmas I kept these lights out of the decoration boxes in the rafters for just this purpose: experimenting with very large apertures. As you can see, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 exhibits acceptable sharpness in the focus area, and beautiful out-of-focus regions. I look forward to experimenting with it more, then putting this lens into service for things like weddings, night photography, and portraits.
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The Gift of Aperture

Someone asked me the other day which shooting mode I use most, and I told them 90% of the time I shoot in Aperture Priority.
Someone asked me the other day which shooting mode I use most, and I told them 90% of the time I shoot in Aperture Priority.

It’s Christmas time again, and with it we photographers find ourselves photographing something very pure to our imaging instincts: Christmas lights. Beautiful and dazzling to the eyes, we love photographing them for several reasons. They are everywhere, they are fun to shoot, and they summon the children inside us who looked on them with amazement all those years ago.

I think about this as I photograph lights for a living, and last night as I photographed the Christmas tree and lights at home. I did a fun little experiment that illustrates the value of mastering aperture: shooting the same scene at apertures through the entire range. It is powerfully illustrative of the effects of aperture…

Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/1.8.
Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/1.8.
Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/2.8.
Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/2.8.
Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/22.
Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/22.

Made with my 50mm f/1.8 lens, one of the best and most affordable lenses in anyone’s bag, these three images are identical except for aperture, which, as you can see, makes a huge difference. Wide open, the out-of-focus highlights are round, at f/2.8, they take on the heptagonal shape of the aperture blades, and at f/22, each bright point of light takes on the classic “sunstar” look.

All three of these unique looks has a place in our photography, and all are right there at our fingertips.

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More Praise for the “Travel Lens”

This image didn't succeed because of my lens choice. The lens was just a tool in the tool box. The most important factor for this image was being at the right place at the right time, and being willing to get out of my car and shoot it despite traffic and the cold.
This image didn’t succeed because of my lens choice. The lens was just a tool in the tool box. The most important factor for this image was being at the right place at the right time, and being willing to get out of my car and shoot it despite traffic and the cold.

My wife Abby and I just returned from our 12th anniversary vacation. We had a great time, and made a lot of great images. Most of those images were made with a lens that has become indispensable for travel, the so-called “walk around” or “travel” lens.

There are a number of iterations of this lens for the various formats (seniors sizes.) In my case the Nikon D7100 sensor is 24mm x 15mm, so my travel lens of choice is the AF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G II. On other occasions (and for Abby on our most recent vacation), we use the Fuji HS30EXR “crossover” camera with a non-interchangeable 4.2mm-126mm, which performs a very similar role. For Nikon’s 24mm x 36mm sensor, there is a 28-300mm fits the same role.

The more I use the Nikon D7100 paired with the AF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G II for travel photography, the happier I am with them.
The more I use the Nikon D7100 paired with the AF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G II for travel photography, the happier I am with them.

In summary, we ask a lot of this class of lenses: be a good wide angle, be a good telephoto, be lightweight, be convenient. In exchange, there are some things we don’t ask of these lenses and they can’t deliver: no large maximum aperture, not very sharp wide open, not quick-focusing enough for sports, and so-on.

Our friend Scott Andersen adopted a slightly different philosophy for travel and hiking, electing to carry more equipment for more specialized work. He joined me for a long hike on this most recent vacation, and carried a Tokina 11-20mm, a Nikkor 50mm, a Nikkor 18-140mm, and a Nikkor 55-300mm, obviously hoping to take advantage of the different strengths of each lens.

If broad overviews are you thing, the 18mm end of the 18-200mm can deliver. Compare this image to the next one, made from the same spot with the same lens...
If broad overviews are you thing, the 18mm end of the 18-200mm can deliver. Compare this image to the next one, made from the same spot with the same lens…

Only you can decide what you like to shoot and what you need in your bag, but I strongly recommend a lens like the 18-200mm for travel, hiking, casual street photography, and more. If I were going to Europe for a month, for example, I would bring this lens and maybe my AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 for the occasional low-light scenario.

Finally, a lot of internet forum members, and I, urge anyone in a lens-buying mood to consider that if paying for more lenses means going on fewer trips or seeing fewer things, that’s probably a mistake. Sitting at home with eight lenses will never be as satisfying as spending ten days on the road with one lens and your imagination.

This image of Candlestick Tower at Canyonlands National Park in Utah was made at the 200mm end of my 18-200mm "travel" lens.
This image of Candlestick Tower at Canyonlands National Park in Utah was made at the 200mm end of my 18-200mm “travel” lens.
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In Praise of the 300mm

The 300mm has the kind of reach that can make the difference between ordinary sports photos and impressive ones, like this image shot earlier this year at Sulphur, Oklahoma.
The 300mm has the kind of reach that can make the difference between ordinary sports photos and impressive ones, like this image shot earlier this year at Sulphur, Oklahoma.

Earlier this year I “bought” (using credit card thank you points) a new AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. Regarded as a portrait lens both for its natural perspective at face-filling distances and for its ability to throw backgrounds out of focus when shot at apertures close to its maximum, I am delighted with it. I recently shot a wedding with it, and the images were amazing.

But if you are outdoors and want a lens that will take all this to a new level, you might consider a large-aperture super telephoto. For me, few lenses rival the 300mm, both for its amazing reach and for its ability to render backgrounds completely out of focus.

In April 1985, Scott Andersen and I were walking around New York City when we came across a photographer with a 300mm f/2.8 Nikkor on a monopod. At first we couldn’t quite figure out what he was shooting, but a half a block down the street we saw his pouting fashion model. He was using the 300mm to isolate his subject on the street and throw the background well out of focus.

This is the kind of reach you can get with a 300mm lens, in this case my personally-owned AF Nikkor 300mm f/2.8. Notice that the background is beautifully out of focus and flattering. No matter how hard you try, you'll never get gorgeous selective focus like this with a zoom.
This is the kind of reach you can get with a 300mm lens, in this case my personally-owned AF Nikkor 300mm f/2.8. Notice that the background is beautifully out of focus and flattering. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never get gorgeous selective focus like this with a zoom.

Flash forward 31 years. For years I’ve used a wonderful AF 300mm f/4 Nikkor that my newspaper got used on eBay. It was a workhorse, and occasionally combined with a Tokina 1.4x teleconverter and the so-called 1.5 “crop sensor” factor of my cameras, I had all the reach I needed.

Worth Repeating...
I know I say this a lot, but I am seeing a distinct uptick in a number of people around me who think they can buy a skill by buying a lens, and that’s just not true. Remember: You can’t buy mastery; you have to earn it.
I photographed the workhorse AF 300mm f/4 at a baseball game last spring, showing much of the paint on the metal surfaces showing brass from years of service. This lens died last week.
I photographed the workhorse AF 300mm f/4 at a baseball game last spring, showing much of the paint on the metal surfaces showing brass from years of service. This lens died last week.

Last week the old 300mm f/4’s focus locked up and wouldn’t budge, just as my outdoor playoffs – baseball, soccer, softball, and daytime football – were starting. I tried to fill the gap with hope and a cheap consumer 70-300mm, but I was really feeling the loss. When the repair estimate came back at nearly $500, about what we paid for it in the first place and certainly more than it was worth, I urged my publisher Amy Johns to buy me a new one, and she agreed without hesitation. Props to her for recognizing the value of photography and the equipment it requires, and the value of respecting her staff and their needs.

I had the lens shipped overnight, and put it right into service at a regional playoff baseball game. That’s the way I roll. No test frames. No “playing with it.” Trial by fire.

Before I shot with this beautiful new lens, I photographed it on my desk at work. I later removed the tripod collar, and will probably never use it again.
Before I shot with this beautiful new lens, I photographed it on my desk at work. I later removed the tripod collar, and will probably never use it again.
A closer look at the AF-S 300mm f/4 shows the simple, straightforward controls, including the focus ring, the auto/manual focus switch, the focus limit switch, and the aperture ring. Aperture rings are on their way out of Nikon lens design to save weight and complexity, but still remain on some older designs.
A closer look at the AF-S 300mm f/4 shows the simple, straightforward controls, including the focus ring, the auto/manual focus switch, the focus limit switch, and the aperture ring. Aperture rings are on their way out of Nikon lens design to save weight and complexity, but still remain on some older designs.

I wasn’t disappointed, though I knew I wouldn’t be. Lenses aren’t magic wands. I have a career of experience with the 300mm, and I knew this new one, the AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4 ED-IF, would do the job, and due to improvements in autofocus and lens coating technology, it would do it better. Focus is quick and on the money, images are tack sharp, backgrounds are super-clean, and although it is not Nikon’s lightest 300mm, it is lighter and feels better in my hands than the old 300mm.

A coworker saw this lens as I was unboxing it and asked, “It’s just a 300mm?” The prevailing view among many photographers is that a fixed focal length lens, a so-called “prime,” isn’t versatile or exciting enough, but my experience is that my use of prime lenses is responsible for most of my really great images. The 300mm is one of those lenses.

Here is the first frame through my new AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4. Thanks to the f/4 maximum aperture, you'd never guess this was shot through the backstop net.
Here is the first frame through my new AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4. Thanks to the f/4 maximum aperture, you’d never guess this was shot through the backstop net.
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A Great Wedding Combination

My young friend and former student Addi Manning Hudson got married two weeks ago and asked me to photograph the ceremonies. It was a beautiful day, with gorgeous light and a lovely ceremony. I made this prenuptial image with my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8.
My young friend and former student Addi Manning Hudson got married two weeks ago and asked me to photograph the ceremonies. It was a beautiful day, with gorgeous light and a lovely ceremony. I made this prenuptial image with my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8.
One key reason for shooting with the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 is its large, bright maximum aperture. If you've ever shot an indoor wedding, you know how valuable it can be.
One key reason for shooting with the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 is its large, bright maximum aperture. If you’ve ever shot an indoor wedding, you know how valuable it can be.

I have been surprised in recent years by the number of professional photographers who have told me that they either hate shooting weddings, haven’t shot a wedding in years, or won’t shoot weddings at all. I will acknowledge that weddings can be crazy and stressful, but when I am asked, I will shoot them. It is also true that in recent years I am asked less and less, probably due to the perception that professional photographers cost too much, and that some uncle or friend with a “nice” camera can do it for $100.

Nevertheless, I am asked to shoot weddings once in a while, mainly by friends and relatives who know me and trust me with creating images of a very significant moment in their lives. Overall I have been glad to do it, and have always had fun. I’ve tried various gear combinations, always centered around the same philosophy that governs my work as a news photographer: two cameras, one with a wide angle and one with a telephoto.

On the left is the Tokina 12-24mm f/4. Next to it is the excellent AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8.
On the left is the Tokina 12-24mm f/4. Next to it is the excellent AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8.

For my sister’s wedding in 2011 I bought a Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8, but have been consistently disappointed by it, so for a wedding of a friend (and former student) two weeks ago I decided to go with one of my all-time favorite wide angle lenses, my Tokina 12-24mm f/4, on one camera, and my new AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 on the other. The combination is now without a doubt my go-to combination for weddings. I felt that I never missed a shot, was ready to both reach out with the 85 and go broad with the 12-24.

I was very happy with the shoot and the hardware, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this combination for anyone who wanted to shoot weddings.

I stood on a chair and held my camera as far over my head as I could to get this overview of the ceremonies at Ada's First United Methodist Church. It was made with my Tokina 12-24mm f/4.
I stood on a chair and held my camera as far over my head as I could to get this overview of the ceremonies at Ada’s First United Methodist Church. It was made with my Tokina 12-24mm f/4.
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Decisions, Decisions

A Stonewall Lady Longhorn base runner dives back into first base at yesterday's Tupelo Invitational Tournament. This image was made with my AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8.
A Stonewall Lady Longhorn base runner dives back into first base at yesterday’s Tupelo Invitational Tournament. This image was made with my AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8.
Trade-offs: I made this image with the 70-300mm f/4-5.6, zoomed to about 120mm. It's solid action, but as you can see, this lens doesn't have the magic selective focus that an f/2.8 lens offers.
Trade-offs: I made this image with the 70-300mm f/4-5.6, zoomed to about 120mm. It’s solid action, but as you can see, this lens doesn’t have the magic selective focus that an f/2.8 lens offers.

Regular readers will recall that much of July is a very slow period for me, followed by a nothing short of frantic period in August when my newspaper and I cover all manner of news and sports at area high schools and the college.

Among other challenges, I ask myself at every turn about which lenses will work in which circumstance. Although I am in possession of industry-standard lenses, I ask myself this for a very important reason: my body. I am not 26 any more – in fact, I am twice that age, and though I am in great health, it is now a very legitimate consideration to try to carry lighter gear when I can. It’s hard for young photographer to appreciate this idea, since their bones and joints recover faster and hurt less than someone my age when we carry 15 pounds of hardware vs when we carry 1.5 pounds.

Paityn Corcoran and Colby Anderson take turns making faces with each other at National Night Out at Crabtree Plaza on the ECU campus Tuesday night, Aug. 2, 2016. I made this image with my AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 of 1987 vintage, which I bought for just $74 from an eBay seller in 2011, who warned me that "something is definitely up with this lens." In the five years since then, I have made thousands of great images with it.
Paityn Corcoran and Colby Anderson take turns making faces with each other at National Night Out at Crabtree Plaza on the ECU campus Tuesday night, Aug. 2, 2016. I made this image with my AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 of 1987 vintage, which I bought for just $74 from an eBay seller in 2011, who warned me that “something is definitely up with this lens.” In the five years since then, I have made thousands of great images with it.

But Richard, what about image quality? Don’t you want the very best? That’s the rub, really: knowing when a lighter, smaller lens can deliver a top-quality image, and when it can’t.

I have four lenses of various focal lengths that I use for shooting fall sports…

I shot this last night at the Tupelo Invitational baseball tournament, with my 300mm f/4, from the third base dugout. Since it is not a zoom lens, it forces you to be in the right place when the action happens.
I shot this last night at the Tupelo Invitational baseball tournament, with my 300mm f/4, from the third base dugout. Since it is not a zoom lens, it forces you to be in the right place when the action happens.
  • The AF-S Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8. This lens is big and heavy, versatile, focuses instantly and accurately, and is sharp at f/2.8 at all focal lengths. It is indispensable in low-light situations where I am at the margins of every element, like high school football at night.
  • The AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8. This lens is the dark horse winner for its lighter weight, sharpness wide open, and superb selective focus. Its main drawback is lack of versatility: no zoom means I need to be in the right place or get there in a hurry.
  • The AF Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6. This lens is even lighter than the 180mm, and the bigger zoom range than the 80-200mm makes it an apparent winner for sports action. But the fact that so much is crammed into such a small package, and the fact that it’s so inexpensive, means that everything is a compromise. This lens isn’t very sharp at the longer focal lengths unless it is stopped down to f/6.3, meaning that it is really only useful in bright daylight. It also doesn’t create particularly appealing selective focus.
  • The AF Nikkor 300mm f/4. I love this lens for the long reach it gives me for far-away sports like baseball, tennis and soccer, but my back and neck hate it because it is heavier than other options, and it is front-heavy. For some, a monopod might seem to be in order, but I find that monopods are too restrictive of camera movement, and add to the weight of the entire package, which is noticeable when moving, which is all the time.

So what’s the answer? Smart selection. Bright daylight softball? The 70-300mm. 6 pm-start football? The 300mm. Friday night lights? The 80-200mm. Feature photos when I need f/2.8 but not the weight? The 180mm.

All in the family: my fall sports lens selection. From left to right are my 70-300mm f/4-5.6, my 80-200mm f/2.8, my 300mm f/4, and my 180mm f/2.8. At the botton of the frame is a Tamron 1.4x teleconverter, which I sometimes add to my 300mm to make it a 450mm f/5.6.
All in the family: my fall sports lens selection. From left to right are my 70-300mm f/4-5.6, my 80-200mm f/2.8, my 300mm f/4, and my 180mm f/2.8. At the botton of the frame is a Tamron 1.4x teleconverter, which I sometimes add to my 300mm to make it a 450mm f/5.6.
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Cities of the Interior

Readers will recall I recently posted about the power of a good macro lens. Just a few days ago, a coworker expressed an interest in macro photography, particularly in taking it to an extreme. He says he is interested in extreme close-ups of spiders and insects.

Dedicated macro lenses (which Nikon calls “micro”) are indispensable for this purpose. Such lenses are also the only lenses optically fit to take advantage of extension rings, which sit between the camera and the lens, allowing even closer focusing.

I attached my 32-year-old Nikon 27.5mm extension tube to my Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, allowing me to make super-macro images.
I attached my 32-year-old Nikon 27.5mm extension tube to my Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, allowing me to make super-macro images.

It was with this in mind that I got out my Tokina 100mm f/2.8 Macro and attached it to my 32-year-old Nikon 27.5mm PK-13 extension ring. Originally sold to go with the manual focus 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikko (a great lens I sold about 12 years ago), this accessory doesn’t have any electrical contacts, so it won’t talk to modern cameras, but it will operate in manual exposure mode. In most situations at the magnifications this combination provide, manual focusing is definitely recommended.

For comparison, here is an image of one of the stainless steel rings I wear on the opposite hand from my wedding ring, shot at the closest focus distance with a regular non-macro lens.
For comparison, here is an image of one of the stainless steel rings I wear on the opposite hand from my wedding ring, shot at the closest focus distance with a regular non-macro lens.

I also mentioned reversing rings a couple of years ago, and while you can certainly get super-close-up with a reversing ring, it would be difficult photographing living creatures with one because it requires the slow process of focusing with the lens wide open, then setting the aperture before shooting.

Extension rings are available in various sizes, and can be stacked to add even more extension.

My coworker who wants to explore this option is also an accomplished bird watcher and photographer. I will be interested to see what he can do with this setup, particularly with spiders, and what lens and/or extension tube combination he ends up buying.

I made this image of one of my stainless steel rings at the maximum magnification I can make, combining the excellent Tokina 100mm f/2.8 with an old Nikon 27.5mm extension ring. This image rivals the abilities of the naked eye.
I made this image of one of my stainless steel rings at the maximum magnification I can make, combining the excellent Tokina 100mm f/2.8 with an old Nikon 27.5mm extension ring. This image rivals the abilities of the naked eye.
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A Tale of Two Twenty-Eights

I was digging though my lesser-used gear the other day, looking for a filter. I didn’t find it, but I did pull out a couple lenses that I seldom use: the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8,  and the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8D.

The AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 is small, lightweight, decently sharp, and cost just $74 on Ebay.
The AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 is small, lightweight, decently sharp, and cost just $74 on Ebay.

The 28mm, a fixed focal length lens, known in the game as a “prime” lens, is made mostly of plastic, and weighs just seven ounces. The 28-70mm, which is constructed of steel and brass to professional standards, is huge, and weighs 33 ounces, which is just shy of two pounds. The weight is a huge factor if, like me, you carry two or three camera for long periods, like when I am covering events.

The reason I don’t use them much is that my camera sensors are the so-called APS-C size, approximately 24x15mm, making these focal lengths fairly uninteresting. In fact, in some cases I find that the featherweight 50mm f/1.8 is a good stand-in for either of these, particularly given its nice, big maximum aperture. Additionally, even with 36x24mm sensors, 28mm is only just at the edge of wide angle territory, and 70mm is only just at the edge of telephoto.

The point of this entry is a concept known as diminishing returns. This concept is the bane of other endeavors, such as space travel: putting a man in space took a 66,000-pound rocket, while putting a man on the moon took a 6,540,000-pound rocket. This concept speaks to the value of economy of scale. You can accomplish 90% of your photographic goals with the bottom 10% of your gear.

So the next time you find yourself drooling over a $2400 zoom lens, take a moment to think about what you already have in your bag that could do the job, and instead of spending money, go make pictures.

David and Goliath? No, it's the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 vs the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8.
David and Goliath? No, it’s the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 vs the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8.
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Yes, It’s Bokeh

I made this image of necklaces for sale at the Pontotoc County Free Fair a couple of years ago with my AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 at f/2.8. I consider this image to exhibit "good" bokeh.
I made this image of necklaces for sale at the Pontotoc County Free Fair a couple of years ago with my AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 at f/2.8. I consider this image to exhibit “good” bokeh.

It’s not every day that I get to experience really terrible bokeh in the viewfinder.

Bokeh, as I have discussed before, and with which the internet is obsessed, is originally a Japanese word meaning “blur” or “haze,” is used to describe the quality (not the amount) of the out-of-focus portions of an image. About a grazillion factors influence bokeh, but the most significant is optical design of a lens.

I shot this image of a Bradford pear tree in bloom with my 1993-era AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. As you can see, the bokeh is a bit disappointing.
I shot this image of a Bradford pear tree in bloom with my 1993-era AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. As you can see, the bokeh is a bit disappointing.
I made this image in Santa Fe, New Mexico in October 2014, with my iPhone 5. Many photographers are under the misapprehension that cameras in cell phones don't produce images with bokeh, but in fact all images that have out-of-focus elements have bokeh, just not necessarily appealing.
I made this image in Santa Fe, New Mexico in October 2014, with my iPhone 5. Many photographers are under the misapprehension that cameras in cell phones don’t produce images with bokeh, but in fact all images that have out-of-focus elements have bokeh, just not necessarily appealing.

Bokeh, like anything that falls into the hands of the soulless nitpickers and techno-fanboys of the internet, can become a pointless goal unto itself. The rest of us, who have a reason for taking pictures other than showing off our knowledge of specifications and resolution charts, keep bokeh in the toolbox of photography, and bring it out when we need it to help us express ourselves.

But back to the topic at hand: seeing bad bokeh right there in the viewfinder. I was shooting the final home game of the year for the softball team at the college last month with my broken Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3. I carry this lens as a lightweight second to my AF Nikkor 300mm f/4, with which I shoot the bulk of my action photos. At one point, I anticipated a play at first base, which was quite close to me, so I switched to the camera with the Tamron on it and focused on the first baseman…

This is what I saw: a bluntly obvious example of terrible, crosseyed bokeh. Don't believe me? Look at the word "soft" in the next image...
This is what I saw: a bluntly obvious example of terrible, crosseyed bokeh. Don’t believe me? Look at the word “soft” in the next image…
As you can see, this is the real appearance of the word "softball" at the college field; when it's out of focus, it is a bokeh nightmare.
As you can see, this is the real appearance of the word “softball” at the college field; when it’s out of focus, it is a bokeh nightmare.
I broke this 18-200mm Tamron lens while shooting my grandson's Christening in Baltimore in 2011. Abby and I both use newer lenses in this class for travel and event photography, so this one got relegated to a bang-around lens for me at work.
I broke this 18-200mm Tamron lens while shooting my grandson’s Christening in Baltimore in 2011. Abby and I both use newer lenses in this class for travel and event photography, so this one got relegated to a bang-around lens for me at work.

The reason lenses like this tend to have the photography world’s worst bokeh is that they are designed to do it all: be light, small, easy to use, wide-angle , telephoto, and finally, and maybe most importantly, cheap. Lenses with better bokeh tend to be best at just that. Lenses like my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, is not light or small or a versatile zoom or cheap, but lays down beautiful bokeh when used at close range with large apertures.

I have a buddy at work who sometimes uses the word “bokeh-y” to talk about some of my work. The term isn’t exactly correct; what he’s seeing is the use of selective focus with large-aperture lenses.

He’s toying with the idea of buying a AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, which wouldn’t be my first choice, but is cheap, and can deliver nice bokeh when using selective focus.

This is the setup for the image below.
This is the setup for the image below.

I have a another buddy, Scott Andersen, who just bought an AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, and he seems to love it, though I am seeing a slightly ratty bokeh in some of the images he posts. I would love to take a close look at his files one of these days and divine if I am seeing it correctly.

The downside to the 50mm f/1.8 (at least the two examples I use) is that it’s not very sharp at f/1.8, which is why I think the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 is a better choice.

I made this image this morning to show the powerful selective focus capability and the pleasing bokeh exhibited by the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8. To make the in-focus details of this image look sharp, though, required quite a bit of unsharp mask.
I made this image this morning to show the powerful selective focus capability and the pleasing bokeh exhibited by the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8. To make the in-focus details of this image look sharp, though, required quite a bit of unsharp mask.
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Tested and Failed: the Sigma DC 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM

I bought the Sigma DC 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM hoping it would be the answer to my need for a mid-range, fast zoom lens.
I bought the Sigma DC 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM hoping it would be the answer to my need for a mid-range, fast zoom lens.
One of my photography students recently bought a Sigma 24-70mm f/4 "Art" lens, which represents Sigma's efforts to improve their image quality and reputation for inconsistent manufacturing. 24-70mm on a 24x36mm sensor is both versatile and potentially boring.
One of my photography students recently bought a Sigma 24-70mm f/4 “Art” lens, which represents Sigma’s efforts to improve their image quality and reputation for inconsistent manufacturing. 24-70mm on a 24x36mm sensor is both versatile and potentially boring.

Like most professional photographers, I like equipment that is transparent. No, I don’t mean I want my cameras to be made out of clear plastic, though that might be really interesting. I mean that I want my equipment to get out of the way, do it’s job, and allow me to concentrate on the real meat of photography, the moment. I don’t want to worry about or struggle with my gear while the action and the intimacy and the light come and go. One lens I bought in 2011 in hopes of working within this paradigm is the Sigma DC 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM for use on my Nikon DSLR cameras with their 15x24mm-sized sensors. I originally picked up this lens just prior to my sister’s wedding (link.) Since my wife and I were traveling to New Orleans for just the weekend, and since the wedding was entirely at night indoors, I wanted a lens that would fill my needs for that event: it would have to be fast-focusing, sharp wide open (f/2.8), have optical image stabilization, and be reasonably well-constructed.

Another view of the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8; despite its optical shortcomings, it is a well-built, good-looking lens.
Another view of the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8; despite its optical shortcomings, it is a well-built, good-looking lens.
This is Michael's 24-70mm f/2.8 Sigma I borrowed to shoot my step-daughter's wedding in 2009.
This is Michael’s 24-70mm f/2.8 Sigma I borrowed to shoot my step-daughter’s wedding in 2009.

Part of the reason I thought this Sigma might be a good choice was my success with a Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 EX-DG I borrowed from Michael to shoot my step-daughter’s wedding in 2009 (link). I liked everything about the lens except that it wasn’t quite wide enough, and it wasn’t mine. It was sharp wide open, handled well, and made gorgeous 14-point sunstars when stopped down.

My very first field testing of the 17-50mm seemed to go well, but every lens is sharp at f/8. I didn’t spend $600 for this lens to shoot at f/8. I spent this money so I could take low light to its limits, and that would come just a couple of weeks later at the wedding.

Hosted by the New Orleans Athletic Club, the venue was gorgeous, but lit by just four incandescent chandeliers. I shot it all at ISO 3200, at f/2.8, which put me in the 1/60th to 1/125th of a second shutter speed range. This is the low-light margin that tests everything: sensor noise, optical stabilization, lens sharpness, and photographer’s skills. If any one of these factors falls short, image quality suffers, and this lens was the weak link. It just wasn’t sharp wide open, at f/2.8.

Michael and Abby were my second shooters, with the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 and the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 lenses respectively, and they stuff was very sharp at apertures like f/2.5 and f/2.0.

This was the lighting for the first test of the Sigma 17-55mm, the New Orleans Athletic Club's ballroom, lit my four incandescent chandeliers.
This was the lighting for the first test of the Sigma 24-70mm, the New Orleans Athletic Club’s ballroom, lit my four incandescent chandeliers.
Of Note...
One item I hit hard in my Intro to Digital Photographer class is white balance. This might seem like an obvious teaching point, but readers might be surprised by how many images submitted to my newspaper have ugly colors casts, particularly yellow and red. The wedding in New Orleans was lit entirely with incandescent lights, and using the appropriate white balance setting saved us a lot of headaches in post-processing.

In the end, my images from New Orleans were great, and my sister and new brother-in-law were very happy with them, but I wasn’t pleased with the Sigma, which stood out as the weak link. I have since shot a couple more weddings with the 17-50mm, and while the images were acceptable, I want more from a big, heavy, expensive lens.

Another possible replacement for the Sigma might be the Nikkor AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8.
Another possible replacement for the Sigma might be the Nikkor AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8.

I will look at options. My instinct is to shoot with my 12-24mm f/4 Tokina on one camera, and my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 on the other, but that still doesn’t give me a one-camera travel wedding solution. It will need to be a zoom, and it will need to be wide-to-portrait length. One possibility is picking up a 24x36mm sensor-sized camera on Ebay like the Nikon D700, and using something like my Nikkor AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8, which is heavy but absolutely dazzlingly sharp. The 24-70mm, 28-70mm, 24-105mm focal lengths on a 24x36mm sensor are approximately equivalent to the 17-50mm, 18-55mm lenses on a 15x24mm sensor. While this is a versatile field of view range, it also has the potential to be bland and boring, and requires us to push hard at the short and long ends to make our images really interesting.

This is the most common lens in photography today, the so-called "kit lens." This is Nikon's Nikkor AF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, but every camera maker has one. If I have to shoot at f/4 or f/5.6 to get sharp results with my Sigma 17-50mm, why don't I just use a kit lens at a quarter of the price and half the weight?
This is the most common lens in photography today, the so-called “kit lens.” This is Nikon’s Nikkor AF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, but every camera maker has one. If I have to shoot at f/4 or f/5.6 to get sharp results with my Sigma 17-50mm, why don’t I just use a kit lens at a quarter of the price and half the weight?
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Up Close and Personal

This is the screw thread gauge I photographed this afternoon.
This is the screw thread gauge I photographed this afternoon.
These are my macro lenses, the AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8, and the Tokina 100mm f/2.8. Both are excellent, sharp, fun-to-use lenses.
These are my macro lenses, the AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8, and the Tokina 100mm f/2.8. Both are excellent, sharp, fun-to-use lenses.

Recently my wife Abby and I were working on a multi-stage garage clean-out project. One result of this is that she finds things that belonged to her father, whose life as a machinist led to him collecting thousands of tools and other items for his craft.

This is the screw gauge in my hand to provide a sense of scale.
This is the screw gauge in my hand to provide a sense of scale.

In our dusty unboxings during the past weeks, we came across a very cool little item I didn’t even know existed: a screw thread gauge. The device has dozens of little steel fins that are marked with widths in fractions of millimeters, and those fins are stacked together on a spindle so you can fan them out and measure the pitch of the threads in a screw.

You can see a notable amount of color aliasing in this 100% view of one of my frames today, created by ultra-sharp rendering of minute details.
You can see a notable amount of color aliasing in this 100% view of one of my frames today, created by ultra-sharp rendering of minute details.

Not only did I think this was a neat tool that I would probably never use, I also thought I should photograph it. I got out my two macro lenses, the AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8, and the Tokina 100mm f/2.8. Both are wonderful lenses, and both could do the job. I chose the 60mm for no other reason than I hadn’t used it recently.

I set the thread gauge on the glass surface of my iPad, and cranked up three flash units plus the one of the camera hot shoe. I pointed one flash into a reflector to my left, one into a reflector over my right shoulder, and one in front of me to the right.

The result was pretty satisfying. Not only is the repeating pattern on the gauge intriguing, but the image ended up being dazzlingly sharp. It is so sharp, in fact, that despite my efforts to clean the gauge with compressed air before the shoot, you can see a fair amount of grime in the tiny spaces between the fins. It’s also sufficiently sharp that it created aliasing, the mixing of minute frequencies to create colors in areas of complex detail, right at the focal point.

It was fun doing this, and a nice departure from the kinds of things I shoot every day in my work.

This is another view of the screw thread gauge I photographed this afternoon.
This is another view of the screw thread gauge I photographed this afternoon.
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