I know it seems shallow, but I like my lenses to look big, heavy, powerful, and intimidating. I hate lenses that look like dog noses or pastry funnels. I like lenses that look like NASA took ten years to design them. I like lenses that seem to be capturing light in a gaping maw of glass.
One such lens that came to me recently from an odd angle is the 1970s-era Sigma – XQ 135mm f/1.8.
I got ahold of this lens recently during a visit from a fellow photographer. He said someone gave it to him free while buying another piece of photo equipment.
The “Scalematic” feature of this lens reads out the field of view at the focus spot, so you can use the lens to measure the size of objects.
It says it is multicoated, but the front element doesn’t have the characteristic blue-green reflection of any of my other multicoated lenses.
Because of the way the t-mount attaches to this lens, there is no mechanical connection to the aperture operating pin, so the lens will only work at its largest aperture, f/1.8. This isn’t really a problem, since we own lenses like this so we can use them wide open.
I shot with it a bit. The contrast is very low, but sharpness is there, though the depth of field at f/1.8 is razor-thin, and it is completely unforgiving of any focus errors.
Many photographers tend to think of large-aperture lenses as “bokeh masters” or “bokeh beasts,” but they often get the fundamentals wrong. “Bokeh” isn’t how far out of focus something is, it’s the characteristics of the out of focus area. Thus, every lens has bokeh, from the humblest kit lens to the newest super-telephoto.
The focus throw, the amount you need to turn the focusing ring, is long. This particular lens has a little bit of grab toward the infinity end of the throw like a lot of lenses this old, since the grease in the mechanism tends to stiffen up over time.
The best thing about this lens is the big, gaping front element combined with its steel and brass construction. It feels like it was made to last.
I am teaching another photography class this month at Pontotoc Technology Center.
On the first night of class, we talk about some of the basics of digital photography, and the topic of sensor size is always part of that discussion.
“A friend of mine wants to buy a ‘full-frame’ camera,” one of my group said.
Photography is full of misnomers and myths, and one of these issues is the idea that “full frame” is some kind of holy grail of sensor sizes. I hate to break it to the full-framers, but what, exactly, is this supposed to be a “full frame” of? It turns out, it describes a sensor that is the same size as a frame of 35mm film.
Over the decades of news photography, I used a lot of 35mm film, but whenever I could, I used larger film, as did most studio, magazine and portrait photographers. The bigger, the better. Having a larger negative meant you could make larger prints, since you didn’t have to enlarge the film area as much.
When digital came along, this idea came with it, and in the early years of digital, it made a giant difference, as most early sensors were quite small, and were prone to noise, bad color, and slow operation. The Kodak DCS 315, for example, had a 13.9 mm x 9.2 mm sensor, about the size of button on a shirt.
As time went by, sensors started to get bigger, until now we have some very large ones. The Fujifilm sells the incredible GFX100S, which sports a whopping 100 megapixel 33mm x 44mm sensor, and is currently being touted as “more than full frame” on their website. They are obviously after my heart, and my wallet.
Well, there’s the rub, really. We’d all love to shoot with these giant sensors with crazy huge resolutions, but the reality is that they are expensive. The GFX100S’s street price is about $6000.
So, maybe is does all come down to economics. My way to get around that is to buy yesterday’s treasures – used cameras – and take advantage of what they still offer even though they’re no longer shiny and new. My current “full frame” (although I just call it a 24x36mm) camera is the Nikon D700.
The main reason I have an use the D700 is that it breathes new life into three of my favorite old film-era lenses, a Sigma 15-30mm, a Nikon 18-35mm, and a Nikon 20mm. These lenses just sat on the shelf until the larger sensor came along, and now that are adding to my bag of tricks.
When I was just 18, I found myself interning at my then-hometown newspaper in Lawton, Oklahoma, under the supervision of a veteran photographer named Bill Dixon.
My first assignment on the first morning there was to ride along with Bill and photograph severe thunderstorm damage at Fort Sill. It was typical Oklahoma late spring tree damage, but that’s always news, so I photograph it to this day.
We drove a “radio car,” a giant, loping Chevrolet sedan with a two-way radio and a scanner. The two-way was on 173.275 Mhz, and we used the FCC-assigned call sign, KYK323. (Both of these are entirely from memory.) The scanner was a Bearcat III, a popular eight channel crystal-controlled police and fire scanner in the 1970s that was obsolete by 1982, but it still worked, since all police, fire and sheriff communications took up about five of those channels.
Bill pulled the car up to the headquarters on the base, a facility where my wife Abby’s uncle Dutch and his son Al commanded at various times in their careers. He told me to get out and photograph the trees on the ground next to a ceremonial cannon. My camera was a Nikon FM. At that time, I only owned three lenses, a Nikon Series E 28mm f/2.8, a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, and a Nikkor 105mm f/2.5. The 28mm was on the camera, so I used it.
“Get in there! Fill up the frame!” he barked. I thought I was filling up the frame, but, like a lot of beginners, I wasn’t.
There was only so much room on the page at newspapers in the 1980s. Photos competed with news, graphic, ads, coupons, obituaries, and more, so there’s not a huge amount of room to fiddle around with photographs that don’t convey the message quickly and obviously.
Another key reason to fill up the frame is that we almost always shot on Kodak Tri-X 35mm film, which, while forgiving of exposure mistakes (we call that having “good latitude”), was grainy, and enlarging tiny portions of a tiny frame of grainy film resulted in kind of a mess.
It’s still a good idea to fill up the frame in the digital age, for many of the same reasons. We buy phones and cameras that have millions of pixels, yet too many of the images I see coming my way from every angle feature a lot of sky and grass, with the main subjects (mostly people) crowded into the center of the frame.
So try it yourself. Get yourself set to make a picture, then tell yourself to get closer and fill up the frame. You’ll be surprised how much it can improve your images.
As I promised in my last entry, here are quick reviews of the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 and the Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5.
One thing I have heard and sometimes even said is that there are no “bad” large-aperture 50mm lenses, but I can think of two: my original Nikkor 50mm f/1.2, and the lens in this review, the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 “pancake” lens of 1984 vintage.
The 50mm f/1.2 seemed like a dream lens when I bought it. It was magnificently made and finished, and commanded respect on the front of my cameras. The only problem with it: it was absolutely unusable unless you stopped it down to f/2.0. The problem with that is that I didn’t pay $300 (in 1983) for an f/1.2 lens just to shoot it at f/2.0. I already owned a 50mm that was sharp at f/2.0, and it did so weighing less than half, and costing a third as much.
Within a few years, I sold the f/1.2 to a collector, where that lens belonged.
In my days, I have owned nearly a dozen 50mm lenses, from the Nikkor-S Auto 50mm f/1.4 of late 1960s vintage to the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G of today, which I use all the time. A good example of work from this lens can be seen in some night work I did on The Plaza at Santa Fe at the end of our 2019 anniversary vacation, The Winding Road (link).
The 50mm focal length on small sensors like 36x24mm or APS-C is something of a double-edged sword: it can create compelling images with a sense of intimacy, but it can also end up creating boring perspectives. As a news photographer, I have to make a point to get out this focal length, and make a point to push it to the edges to get interesting images.
But back to what I said about this 50mm being one of just two “bad” 50mm lenses. I can’t give this lens high marks on anything, because any of my 50mm lenses, including the other Nikkor lenses, and my Fujinon 50mm f/2.2 of 1978 vintage and my Pentax 50mm f/1.4 lenses easily outperform it; sharper, closer focus, better handling, better build. The only 50mm I own that disappoints as much as the pancake lens is a Canon 50mm f/1.8 from the FD era.
The 35-70mm is really just a 50mm with the convenience of a little bit of zoom. Honestly, I can make a 50mm work better than a 35-70mm for almost everything, and it is lighter and brighter than any zoom. I know there are many photographers, including the super-talented R. E. Stinson, who love the 35-70mm (though Robert loves the f/2.8 version), but when I shoot with them, they are just teasing me with focal lengths just out of their reach, like 24mm or 105mm.
Ken Rockwell has nothing but bad things to say about the 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5, but in the evening I spent with it, I found nothing to support the idea that it is, “a cheap and crappy lens. This lens simply isn’t very sharp.”
Also from his web site: “Sharpness is the most overrated aspect of lens performance. Lens sharpness seems like it ought to be related to making sharp photos, but it isn’t.” So, meh.
This particular 35-70mm is slightly broken: if you push the zoom or focus ring forward away from the camera, a gap shows up that isn’t supposed to. When I shot with it, I made sure to pull back slightly to keep that from happening.
So I was able to get sharp images with it, and I was able to create compelling compositions, but I ran into the same problem as before; it’s not a fast 50, and it’s not wide enough or long enough.
If someone gives you one of these (someone did give me this one), take it and fool around with it, but don’t pay more than a dollar for it at a garage sale.
I received an unusual gift recently from my friends at People’s Electric Cooperative: a Nikon FG-20 film camera, with three lenses, a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, a Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5, and a Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5.
The camera had been used by PEC during the film era, often by a good friend of mine, Karen Hudson.
This camera was stored in a cool, dry environment, and is in excellent condition. I happened to have the right batteries for it, and all of its functions work perfectly.
It’s very flattering that people in our community think of me in these situations. The person who gave it to me asked if I would like to have it as a teaching tool, which was right on the money.
The FG-20 was introduced in 1984 during the crest of the film era. At the time, it was meant to be a cheap, lightweight alternative to Nikon’s heavier, higher-end cameras, but as photography evolved, cameras in general got cheaper and, especially, more-plasticky as manufacturers discovered they could charge photographers more for less as they accepted plastic into their lives.
Thus, the FG-20 is built to fairly high standards when compared to many of today’s digital cameras targeting the same market.
I don’t have any intention of shooting film, since I don’t have a darkroom any more, but I will be able to bring this camera to my students and talk about the history of photography with a working example of the kind of camera I used in the early years of my career.
Watch this space for reviews of these lenses coming soon!
Here’s an example of spherochromatism, a type of chromatic aberration that is common to large-aperture lenses in the telephoto range, and is more obvious when focusing closely. This aberration is manifested by unwanted color on either side of the focal plane, usually magenta in the region closer to the lens, and green beyond the focus point. It is more obvious in images like this one…
Much of the time, images are colorful enough or complex enough visually to hide this aberration, but this image from yesterday’s pinto bean pot made it glaringly obvious.
Options? I could run the image through Photoshop or Lightroom and try the “Defringe” and/or “Remove Chromatic Aberration” features, but I tired that with this image, and it wasn’t very effective. I could grayscale the image, since color wasn’t a key aspect of this image.
Spherochromatism isn’t a huge problem, but it’s worth knowing about, and this example of it is quite striking.
My readers have long known that I like lenses for more reasons than their use to make photographs. I think lenses are beautiful, interesting objects with an artistic appeal all their own.
I can be forgiven, then, for recently buying a big box of 11 Canon FD lenses, with a few other brands in the FD mount, marked “untested” from an Ebay seller. It cost next to nothing.
Canon’s FD lenses were discontinued in the late 1980s when Canon adopted their new EOS lenses, mainly in pursuit of better, faster autofocus technology. Some Canon shooters were understandably angry about it at the time, but they mostly got over it.
FD lenses were well-made, crafted of steel and brass, which is a level of craftsmanship I often wish would return.
During that era, my photographer friends and I were lens snobs, and thought, not always incorrectly, that Nikon’s Nikkor lenses were the only glass good enough to shoot.
To actually use these lenses, I bought a cheap adaptor that allows then to be mounted on my Fuji mirrorless camera.
As I thought about this large group of lenses, I considered the collective noun nomenclature for large groups of animals; for example, an unkindness of ravens or a sleuth of bears or a rabble of bees. (You can look those up if you don’t believe me.) So what is a large collection of lenses using this naming system? A flare of lenses? A blinding of glass? A shine of focus? It’s fun to ponder.
I recently had the opportunity to make a few photographs with an unusual camera: the Fujifilm X100V.
In a photographic world dominated by digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras and the ever-growing mirrorless camera genre, Fuji has managed to help fill a void left by the disappearance of film and compact cameras.
Fuji refers to this line of cameras as “Premium Compact,” but the X100V is actually larger than my own Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless camera, and it weighs more.
The photography press is absolutely falling over itself to praise this camera, and I am starting to understand why. Some of the things this camera does really well…
Film simulation modes, including black-and-white filter modes that produce images like we used to get using red, green, or yellow filters with black-and-white film.
Manual everything; you can shoot in full auto mode, or manually control any and all functions, thanks to knobs and dials that remind us of film cameras from years ago. You could use words like “retro” or “vintage,” but honestly, I sometimes miss feeling like a pilot when running a camera.
In stark contrast to the “steam gauge” dials is that you can also control the camera with a touch-screen interface. Touch-screen cameras have been trickling through the hands of my students for some time now, and they tend to make the fun and magic of making pictures into an experience not unlike working with a smartphone.
It is film-camera-like in many ways, and reminds me of my Fuji GS670III medium format camera, a camera I regret selling but would never use if I still had it.
This camera is decidedly less conspicuous than my big DSLRs.
The sensor in this camera has a lot of pixels, 26 million, and it can shoot fast, really fast: 11 frames per second with the mechanical shutter, and 20 frames per second with the electronic shutter. I confess that I might not shoot at full speed if I had one of these, even for sports, since I tend to compose and edit in my head before I push the shutter release, and 20 frames per second can kind of clutter that process.
The hybrid viewfinder is one of the more groundbreaking features of this camera. In addition to the usual monitor on the back of the camera, it has a viewfinder which can be switched from optical, like a rangefinder film camera, or electronic, like we’re used to seeing with mirrorless cameras.
Obviously, the thing that sets this camera apart from the pack is that it sports that fixed 23mm f/2.0 lens, rather than the X-mount interchangeable lenses of their mirrorless cameras.
If you can set aside the internet’s prattle about “crop factor” and see it for what it can do, this lens is a modest wide angle. In my film days, I had a 35mm f/2.0 Nikkor that was on my camera all the time, and Fuji’s 23mm is in this category of lenses.
I only got the chance to shoot a few frames with this camera, but what I got was impressive; smooth handling, great sharpness, and very pleasing bokeh.
That kind of brings us back to the idea of shooting with a camera that is married to one focal length. On paper, this seems like a limitation, but when you get the camera in your hands and start to shoot, it works so well. It encourages working to get the image. It makes you “zoom with your feet,” and the result seems, to me anyway, to be more intimate, more immediate, more genuine.
I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m blowing smoke at you. It really is a great way to shoot. I’ll be watching for more images from this camera. It is an exciting piece of kit.
I possess an increasingly rare skill: being able to focus a manual-focus lens.
In today’s autofocus-saturated world, this skill is particularly hard for younger photographers to appreciate. The truth is that for the first 20 years of my career, I neither had autofocus, nor did I need it. And to this day, I have several extraordinary manual focus lenses that I can manually focus swiftly and precisely. I bring them out once in a while to keep my game and my eye fresh.
I would urge anyone getting into digital SLR or mirrorless photography to learn to manually focus. There are times when you can’t convince a camera’s autofocus system to focus where you want, and there may be times when you use non-autofocus cameras. It’s a valuable skill.
Last summer I bought a Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless camera specifically to breathe new life into all manner of older manual-focus lenses, and that has been very rewarding.
I recently photographed some tiger swallowtail butterflies harvesting my cherry trees. The lens I had with me was my newest acquisition, the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 AIs Nikkor of early 1980s vintage. Manual-focus zoom lenses are harder to focus than prime (non-zoom) lenses, since they tend to have smaller maximum apertures (thus, less-bright appearance in the viewfinder), and the focus throw (the amount you need to turn the focus ring) tends to be longer to accommodate different zoom settings.
Honestly, the challenge of focusing like I did in 1988 adds a layer of stress to shooting, but it also feels like the task is awaking and retraining my old skill.
Finally, my young friend Mac borrowed my blooming cherry trees for a photo shoot recently, and she shot digital and film, the film camera being an Olympus of 1980s, pre-autofocus vintage. She expressed a definite liking for the old camera and the technique required to focus it.
My readers know I love lenses for more than just photographic reasons. I think they are beautiful, art unto themselves, and worthy of having just because it’s fun to have them.
The trouble with a philosophy like this is that it can get pretty expensive, so I make a point to wait and wait and wait for bargains, hand-me-downs, and rough-looking but optically workable lenses.
Sometimes I will buy a lens I don’t need or even want all that much if it’s a really great bargain. Lately I am seeing rock bottom prices on 1980s-era Nikon lenses, usually zoom lenses I never saw in the field.
An interesting paradox about these lenses is that my fellow photographers and I regarded these lenses (particularly zoom lenses) as sub-standard back then, but in the nearly 40 years since that era began, there are tons of not very good, plasticky lenses being sold as industry standard.
My most recent purchase was a mostly-unknown lens, the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 of 1983 vintage. The web seems to think it was made from 1982 to 1984. I paid $30 for it.
I was actually shopping for a 135mm from that period. At one time or another I actually owned three 135s, two f/3.5s and one f/2.8. They were all sharp and a pleasure to use, and I missed the focal length, despite being able to make 135mm with several zoom lenses.
This lens doesn’t doesn’t give me the amazing selective focus capability of a very fast prime lens like my 85mm f/1.4, since its maximum aperture is a modest f/3.5, and isn’t really quite sharp unless I stop it down to f/4.
It is a push-pull zoom, meaning you push the zoom/focus ring forward toward 50mm, and back toward 135mm. You turn the same ring to focus.
There is a macro setting; at 50mm, you can focus to two feet using an orange line on the focus scale. Calling it “macro” is stretch, since all the 50mm primes I own focus to 1.47 feet. Real macro lenses like my 60mm focus much, much closer.
It is well-built of brass and steel, common among lenses of that time, but quite rare today unless you are willing to pay for top-end lenses.
This lens was probably meant to be Nikon’s “real” offering to compete with their more consumer-focused 75-150mm f/3.5 Series E lens.
It is sharp, though it exhibits some of the usual pre-computer-designed aberrations like vignetting and color fringing, but those are easy to dial out while editing.
In early shooting, I found myself mostly starting at 135mm, but liking the fact that I could zoom a bit.
While getting this review together, I found other reviews online that, of course, employed the “brick wall, sturdy tripod, live-view focus” test, which, honestly, reveals nothing. When I review a lens, I shoot with it, in the real world, and I get a useful, real-world result.
In conclusion, this $30 lens is fun to use and makes decent images, and I am very glad I bought it.
My wife Abby has been in the hospital for a couple of days. She’s getting better, and we hope she comes home tomorrow, but in the mean time, since I can’t visit her due to the pandemic, I have been fooling around with some Christmas Lights.
Christmas is almost here, and that means photography. I recently grabbed some of my favorite lenses to help create these beautiful backgrounds. In some circles, these artifacts are called “bokeh balls,” after the largely misunderstood and over-emphasized feature of the out-of-focus portions of an image. You are welcome to download them and use them as you like.
These images were made with my Fuji X-T10 mirrorless camera and the Nikon 28mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.8, 85mm f/2.0, 85mm f/1.4, and the 200mm f/2.0.
Photographer Kyle Phillips at one of our sister newspapers, The Norman Transcript, was out of action recently, so he offered to let me borrow their new Nikon D500 digital SLR since I was slated to shoot the college football Big 12 Championship game in Dallas on December 19, and I accepted.
The D500 is a professional-level 20-megapixel camera. It is a neat camera, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to a news or sports photographer in a minute, but it’s not a game-changer.
The Nikon D500 is an incremental upgrade to the Nikon D300S, two of which I use every day. The main improvement the D500 makes is high ISO noise. Frame rate and pixel count are up, but not enough to really matter.
The ISO dial has traded places with the exposure mode dial, which I really don’t like, and not just because I’m used to buttons where they are. The mode dial belongs on the right next to the shutter and aperture dial and the shutter release. I kind of think Nikon engineers move stuff arbitrarily. Real photographers set their file type once, mostly on the day they get the camera, and leave it there forever. Only dilletants and dabblers change file types regularly, so as far as I’m concerned, this button could disappear into the menu.
I had to shoot JPEGs instead of RAW files, since my laptop at work has an older version of Adobe Lightroom that won’t read the newest RAW files. The D500 makes very decent JPEGs.
The D500 has a swinging/tilting rear display as well as 4K video capability, a feature that makes little difference to me, since I make short videos to go with news and sports, but would make a big difference to videographers.
The D500 is equipped with SnapBridge, but I tried several times and got the message, “Pairing unsuccessful. Make sure D500_XXX is turned on, in range, and is ready to pair.” That’s typical in a world of incompetent coding. My Fujifilm X-T10, a camera of the same era as the D500, did it without a hitch.
The D500 has two card slots, one for SD, and one for XQD, a high-speed replacement for CompactFlash cards, but I don’t have any of these cards and have never used them, and I find that the photography community regards this format as a dead end.
The D500 isn’t a particularly popular camera. I have only seen one other one, in the hands of Coalgate High School yearbook advisor Kathy Ingram.
I found that 10 frames per second and a nearly unlimited buffer resulted in shooting a lot more frames than I usually do, with little impact on the quality of my product. So many files of the same thing just tends to choke my workflow.
At the Big 12 Championship game, I brought my AF Nikkor 300mm f/2.8, betting on needing the f/2.8, but the lights were very bright and even. If I had to do it again, I might use my AF-S 300mm f/4, a much newer and somewhat sharper lens.
I pressed the D500 into service, and found that it does what a digital camera should: make photography easier by getting out of the way of the photographer. I was very glad to use it for a while, and really enjoyed it. Thanks again to Kyle for offering to let me use it. I know he will make many great images with it over the years.
Readers might recall that I recently bought a long-ago favorite lens, the Nikkor 85mm f/2.0, and that I mentioned that this lens has an undeserved reputation as not very sharp, especially when compared to the 85mm that preceded it, the 85mm f/1.8 of 1970s vintage.
I have made a point of shooting with this pearl of a lens, especially since this autumn has been among the most beautiful ever here in Oklahoma, and not only have I enjoyed the excellent build quality and handling characteristics, which come from an era of superb camera craftsmanship, I can say without reservation that this lens is as sharp as I could want, even at wide open at f/2.0.
If you get a chance to pick up this lens and are either a Nikon shooter, or have a Nikkor lens adaptor for a mirrorless camera, by all means get it. It is a pearl.
In my defense, this most recent purchase was delayed for months while I searched and searched for a bargain on eBay.
I know I already have a couple of 85mm lenses, and that I can make 85mm with several zoom lenses. This 85mm, the Nikkor 85mm AI-S f/2.0, is of 1980s vintage. I had one for years in the 1990s and 2000s, and never used it as much as I should have. I sold it during a period of purge when I went digital, and missed this lens more than any other of the bunch, including the 24mm f/2.0, the 35mm f/2.0, and the 105mm f/1.8. The 85mm kept calling me back.
Of note is that this lens, unlike my other 85mm lenses, has the vintage Nikkor seven-straight-bladed aperture, and should create beautiful 14-point sunstars.
This lens has what I think is an undeserved reputation as not very sharp, but today I was able to get very nice sharpness wide open at f/2.0, with just a tiny squinch of sharpening in Lightroom. And at f/2.0, it yields very nice wispy bokeh.