Review: Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 and Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5

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.

The Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 sit back-to-back. They are among the smallest lenses in this class. The 50mm is known as a "pancake" lens because it's so flat.
The Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 sit back-to-back. They are among the smallest lenses in this class. The 50mm is known as a “pancake” lens because it’s so flat.

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.

This is Summer the Chihuahua shot with the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 at f/1.8. It is adequately sharp, but contrast is low, and the image is a bit lifeless.
This is Summer the Chihuahua shot with the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 at f/1.8. It is adequately sharp, but contrast is low, and the image is a bit lifeless.

Within a few years, I sold the f/1.2 to a collector, where that lens belonged.

Hawken the Irish Wolfhound had a roll in the grass right before I shot this, so he looks a little rough. The selective focus ability of the 50mm, though, is evident.
Hawken the Irish Wolfhound had a roll in the grass right before I shot this, so he looks a little rough. The selective focus ability of the 50mm, though, is evident.

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).

One nice thing about older 50mm lenses is that shot wide open, they flare and ghost like old movies or dreams, an effect I love having in my kit.
One nice thing about older 50mm lenses is that shot wide open, they flare and ghost like old movies or dreams, an effect I love having in my kit.

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.

I shot this frame of Abby's owl yard ornament expressly to analyze the 50mm's bokeh, which I would call average.
I shot this frame of Abby’s owl yard ornament expressly to analyze the 50mm’s bokeh, which I would call average.

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.

A very tiny spider floats in a sea of flare at sunset on our property recently. Shot with the 50mm f/1.8, images like this might be the one thing that this lens does right.
A very tiny spider floats in a sea of flare at sunset on our property recently. Shot with the 50mm f/1.8, images like this might be the one thing that this lens does right.

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.

It's easy to criticize cheap lenses by saying that they aren't sharp, but honestly, I don't ask as much of these lenses, and when I do, like in this image at 35mm at f/3.3, I am happy enough with the result.
It’s easy to criticize cheap lenses by saying that they aren’t sharp, but honestly, I don’t ask as much of these lenses, and when I do, like in this image at 35mm at f/3.3, I am happy enough with the result.

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.

Shot with the 35-70mm at 35mm, stopped down to f/8, the image is sharp, but the bokeh is predictably ratty and cluttered.
Shot with the 35-70mm at 35mm, stopped down to f/8, the image is sharp, but the bokeh is predictably ratty and cluttered.

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.

The Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 is a good-looking lens, and is well-made.
The Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 is a good-looking lens, and is well-made.

A Look Back: The Nikon FG-20

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 Nikon FG-20 is shown with a Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 "kit lens" mounted on it.
The Nikon FG-20 is shown with a Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 “kit lens” mounted on it.

The camera had been used by PEC during the film era, often by a good friend of mine, Karen Hudson.

The aperture ring of the FG-20 has a green A and a green "beep" symbol, which makes the camera beep if the shutter speed is slower than 1/30th or faster than 1/1000th. The silver button on the upper left is the push-to-unlock button for the A setting.
The aperture ring of the FG-20 has a green A and a green “beep” symbol, which makes the camera beep if the shutter speed is slower than 1/30th or faster than 1/1000th. The silver button on the upper left is the push-to-unlock button for the A setting.
Unlike modern digital cameras that allow you to change the ISO one frame to the next, this ISO dial is set to match the film you put in the camera. Since the FG-20 doesn't have an exposure compensation dial, one way to change automatic exposure is to intentionally mis-set the ISO dial to fool the camera into over- or under- exposing a frame.
Unlike modern digital cameras that allow you to change the ISO one frame to the next, this ISO dial is set to match the film you put in the camera. Since the FG-20 doesn’t have an exposure compensation dial, one way to change automatic exposure is to intentionally mis-set the ISO dial to fool the camera into over- or under- exposing a frame.

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 Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 sit face-to-face. These lenses were regarded as affordable in their day, but are built to mechanical standards almost unheard of in 2021.
The Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 sit face-to-face. These lenses were regarded as affordable in their day, but are built to mechanical standards almost unheard of in 2021.
This Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5 is surprisingly compact, and feels quite heavy for its size. The push-pull zoom is smooth, and the focus throw is very short.
This Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5 is surprisingly compact, and feels quite heavy for its size. The push-pull zoom is smooth, and the focus throw is very short.

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.

I took the Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5 to an assignment recently, and while f/8 at 1/1000 doesn't exactly challenge a lens, it did deliver workable images.
I took the Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5 to an assignment recently, and while f/8 at 1/1000 doesn’t exactly challenge a lens, it did deliver workable images.

Thus, the FG-20 is built to fairly high standards when compared to many of today’s digital cameras targeting the same market.

Since I bought film in bulk through my newspaper, I never saw this: Fuji color print film that specifically mentions returning to Wal-Mart for processing.
Since I bought film in bulk through my newspaper, I never saw this: Fuji color print film that specifically mentions returning to Wal-Mart for processing.

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!

The Nikon FG-20 is shown with the 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor, the 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Nikkor, and the Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5.
The Nikon FG-20 is shown with the 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor, the 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Nikkor, and the Vivitar 70-210mm f/4.5.

Spherochromatism

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…

Spherochromatism, a type of chromatic aberration, showed up rather brilliantly in this image or steam condensation I shot yesterday with my Tokina 100mm f/2.8.
Spherochromatism, a type of chromatic aberration, showed up rather brilliantly in this image or steam condensation I shot yesterday with my Tokina 100mm f/2.8.

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.

As you can see, if a black-and-white rendering still expresses the scene, grayscaling works fine.
As you can see, if a black-and-white rendering still expresses the scene, grayscaling works fine.

Spherochromatism isn’t a huge problem, but it’s worth knowing about, and this example of it is quite striking.

A Passel? A Cluster? A Stockpile?

Sometimes it's just fun to buy cheap stuff on Ebay.
Sometimes it’s just fun to buy cheap stuff on Ebay.

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.

This is a snapshot of photography from a bygone era. Do I miss it? No, not really, but it's still fun to revisit.
This is a snapshot of photography from a bygone era. Do I miss it? No, not really, but it’s still fun to revisit.

The Fujifilm X100V

I recently had the opportunity to make a few photographs with an unusual camera: the Fujifilm X100V.

The Fujifilm X100V is a handsome, capable camera.
The Fujifilm X100V is a handsome, capable camera.

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.

I placed my Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless camera back-to-back with the Fujifilm X100V. As you can see, the camera body of the X-T10 is smaller, but after adding an lens adapter and a lens in the same class as the 23mm on the X100V, the two cameras are laid out quite differently.
I placed my Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless camera back-to-back with the Fujifilm X100V. As you can see, the camera body of the X-T10 is smaller, but after adding an lens adapter and a lens in the same class as the 23mm on the X100V, the two cameras are laid out quite differently.

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.

The lens on the Fujifilm X100V is a fixed (non-interchangeable) 23mm f/2.0.
The lens on the Fujifilm X100V is a fixed (non-interchangeable) 23mm f/2.0.

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.

Mackenzee Crosby scampers like a roadrunner across the street last week at the scene of a crash at Main and Oak. In her hands is her new Fujifilm X100V.
Mackenzee Crosby scampers like a roadrunner across the street last week at the scene of a crash at Main and Oak. In her hands is her new Fujifilm X100V.

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.

I made a few quick images with the Fujifilm X100V last week. As you can see, up close at large aperture, bokeh is quite smooth and pleasant.
I made a few quick images with the Fujifilm X100V last week. As you can see, up close at large aperture, bokeh is quite smooth and pleasant.

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.

Film photographers, especially older, more traditional ones like me, will feel right at home with the X100V's mechanical dials.
Film photographers, especially older, more traditional ones like me, will feel right at home with the X100V’s mechanical dials.

A Vanishing Skill: Manually Focusing a Lens

A tiger swallowtail butterfly harvests nectar from blossoms on one of my cherry trees recently.
A tiger swallowtail butterfly harvests nectar from blossoms on one of my cherry trees recently.

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.

Mac Crosby makes pictures in my orchard last week, moving freely from an autofocus digital camera to a manual focus film camera.
Mac Crosby makes pictures in my orchard last week, moving freely from an autofocus digital camera to a manual focus film camera.

Another Lens for the Collection

My "new" 30-something Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 sits in my studio. I had never seen one in the field, so I think it's safe to say it was an undiscovered asset. The outward-swooping colored lines are the depth of field scale, which changes with focal length.
My “new” 30-something Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 sits in my studio. I had never seen one in the field, so I think it’s safe to say it was an undiscovered asset. The outward-swooping colored lines are the depth of field scale, which changes with focal length.

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.

You can label me "old school," but I find nothing shameful in appreciating craftsmanship from the past, like this superbly-made aperture ring on the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5.
You can label me “old school,” but I find nothing shameful in appreciating craftsmanship from the past, like this superbly-made aperture ring on the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5.

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.

Our neighbor's goats aren't as friendly as the goats Abby and I owned years ago, but they remain curious, and are very fun to photograph.
Our neighbor’s goats aren’t as friendly as the goats Abby and I owned years ago, but they remain curious, and are very fun to photograph.

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.

The Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 sits next to a 62mm filter and steel screw-in lens hood, both of which I already had as part of a large collection of photo junk.
The Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 sits next to a 62mm filter and steel screw-in lens hood, both of which I already had as part of a large collection of photo junk.
The day the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 arrived I put it to work on my Nikon D700 at a basketball game I was covering for my newspaper, and, as you can see, it delivered what I asked of it: it is decently sharp and easy to use under the stress of working in a low-light environment.
The day the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 arrived I put it to work on my Nikon D700 at a basketball game I was covering for my newspaper, and, as you can see, it delivered what I asked of it: it is decently sharp and easy to use under the stress of working in a low-light environment.

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.

Chickens are fun to photograph, both because they are interesting-looking, but also because they are easy to focus on with manual-focus lenses.
Chickens are fun to photograph, both because they are interesting-looking, but also because they are easy to focus on with manual-focus 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.

I made this image of our neighbor Mike holding a turkey egg and a guinea egg from his birds using the 50-135mm f/3.5 at 50mm in its macro mode.
I made this image of our neighbor Mike holding a turkey egg and a guinea egg from his birds using the 50-135mm f/3.5 at 50mm in its macro mode.

Some highlights…

  • 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.
The orange line on the focusing scale indicates the portion of the focus range only covered at the 50mm setting. The orange M indicates it is a "macro" setting, but it doesn't focus as close as a real macro lens.
The orange line on the focusing scale indicates the portion of the focus range only covered at the 50mm setting. The orange M indicates it is a “macro” setting, but it doesn’t focus as close as a real macro lens.

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.

This large, noisy tom turkey is fun to photograph. This image, made at f/4, shows the unimpressive background selective focus capability of the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5. Additionally, the "bokeh," or the character of the out-of-focus portions of this image, is a bit cluttered.
This large, noisy tom turkey is fun to photograph. This image, made at f/4, shows the unimpressive background selective focus capability of the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5. Additionally, the “bokeh,” or the character of the out-of-focus portions of this image, is a bit cluttered.

In conclusion, this $30 lens is fun to use and makes decent images, and I am very glad I bought it.

With its zoom ring set to 85mm, the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 is pictured with one of its contemporaries, the Nikkor 85mm f/2.0.
With its zoom ring set to 85mm, the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 is pictured with one of its contemporaries, the Nikkor 85mm f/2.0.

Fooling Around with Christmas Lights

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.

An old point-and-shoot camera sits on a tripod with Christmas lights in the background. 85mm Nikkor f/2.0 at f/2.0.
An old point-and-shoot camera sits on a tripod with Christmas lights in the background. 85mm Nikkor f/2.0 at f/2.0.
Model airplane with Christmas lights in the background and airliner-shaped "bokeh kit" on the front of the lens. 50mm f/1.4 Pentax at f/1.4.
Model airplane with Christmas lights in the background and airliner-shaped “bokeh kit” on the front of the lens. 50mm f/1.4 Pentax at f/1.4.

Steal My Balls and Play with Them

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.

@ richardbarron.net
@ richardbarron.net
@ richardbarron.net
@ richardbarron.net
@ richardbarron.net
@ richardbarron.net
@ richardbarron.net

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.

The Nikon D500

Tulsa World news photographer Ian Maule photographed me in the media area at the Big 12 Championship football game at AT&T Stadium in Dallas Dec. 19.
Tulsa World news photographer Ian Maule photographed me in the media area at the Big 12 Championship football game at AT&T Stadium in Dallas Dec. 19.

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 Nikon D500 stands tall on its large vertical grip. The grip adds a battery, and, more significantly, a better handling experience for me and my long hands.
The Nikon D500 stands tall on its large vertical grip. The grip adds a battery, and, more significantly, a better handling experience for me and my long hands.

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 Ada Cougars took on the Shawnee Wolves Dec. 18, and I used the D500 to photograph it. This image was made at ISO 10,000, and the noise is there, but controllable.
The Ada Cougars took on the Shawnee Wolves Dec. 18, and I used the D500 to photograph it. This image was made at ISO 10,000, and the noise is there, but controllable.
The Vanoss Lady Wolves celebrate an overtime victory again Latta earlier this month. Shot with the Nikon D500 at ISO 10,000, it's a good clean image with minimal noise.
The Vanoss Lady Wolves celebrate an overtime victory again Latta earlier this month. Shot with the Nikon D500 at ISO 10,000, it’s a good clean image with minimal noise.
  • 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.
Engineers love to fix what isn't broken, in this case moving the mode button to the left and the ISO button to the right.
Engineers love to fix what isn’t broken, in this case moving the mode button to the left and the ISO button to the right.

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.

Here is a nice tight crop from Saturday's action at the Big 12 Championship. My 300mm f/2.8 is sharp and capable, but my 300mm f/4 is even sharper, and faster-focusing.
Here is a nice tight crop from Saturday’s action at the Big 12 Championship. My 300mm f/2.8 is sharp and capable, but my 300mm f/4 is even sharper, and faster-focusing.

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.

The Nikon D500 has a flipping rear LCD display, an excellent option if you are making a lot of video, but almost entirely unused by me while I had this camera.
The Nikon D500 has a flipping rear LCD display, an excellent option if you are making a lot of video, but almost entirely unused by me while I had this camera.

More Thoughts About the 85mm f/2.0 Nikkor

Summer is a very special dog for us, since we adopted her right after our previous female Chihuahua, Sierra, died. We photograph her all the time, as I did yesterday afternoon with the excellent 85mm f/2.0 Nikkor.
Summer is a very special dog for us, since we adopted her right after our previous female Chihuahua, Sierra, died. We photograph her all the time, as I did yesterday afternoon with the excellent 85mm f/2.0 Nikkor.

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.

The 85mm f/2.0 Nikkor sits on my Nikon D7100 today. The D7100 has an aperture tab, so it can communicate with older, non-autofocus lenses.
The 85mm f/2.0 Nikkor sits on my Nikon D7100 today. The D7100 has an aperture tab, so it can communicate with older, non-autofocus lenses.

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.

Hawken is a gorgeous dog, but can be hard to photograph sometimes because he is so friendly and curious, he comes over to you. For this image, he and I had been for a walk, so he was resting.
Hawken is a gorgeous dog, but can be hard to photograph sometimes because he is so friendly and curious, he comes over to you. For this image, he and I had been for a walk, so he was resting.
The neighbors kids brought their Chihuahua, Chi Chi, to visit their chickens.
The neighbors kids brought their Chihuahua, Chi Chi, to visit their chickens.

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.

This maple leaf came from our tree in the front yard, which I planted 15 years ago, when it was just a leafless stick. Now it is three stories tall.
This maple leaf came from our tree in the front yard, which I planted 15 years ago, when it was just a leafless stick. Now it is three stories tall.

Another 85mm???

Autumn leaves take on subtle color on this rainy afternoon.
Autumn leaves take on subtle color on this rainy afternoon.

I admit I might have a lens addiction problem.

In my defense, this most recent purchase was delayed for months while I searched and searched for a bargain on eBay.

My new/used Nikkor 85mm f/2.0 sits mounted on my Fuji mirrorless moments after I got it from eBay. In practice, I have a matching screw-in steel hood for it.
My new/used Nikkor 85mm f/2.0 sits mounted on my Fuji mirrorless moments after I got it from eBay. In practice, I have a matching screw-in steel hood for it.

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.

At my wife Abby's urging, the first frame with this classic lens was of our Chihuahua, Summer.
At my wife Abby’s urging, the first frame with this classic lens was of our Chihuahua, Summer.

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.

It's fall in Oklahoma, and a beautiful one. This image was made this afternoon, though when the sun comes out, I'll be at it again.
It’s fall in Oklahoma, and a beautiful one. This image was made this afternoon, though when the sun comes out, I’ll be at it again.

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.

Welcome back, old friend.

Rain clings to berries on a fence near my garden, shot with my new classic 85mm f/2.0 Nikkor at f/2.0. It sharpened up nicely without adding much noise in Lightroom. The feathery bokeh is outstanding.
Rain clings to berries on a fence near my garden, shot with my new classic 85mm f/2.0 Nikkor at f/2.0. It sharpened up nicely without adding much noise in Lightroom. The feathery bokeh is outstanding.

Autumn Walk for Inspiration

Virginia creeper vines turn red in the fall, and have tiny green berries on them.
Virginia creeper vines turn red in the fall, and have tiny green berries on them.

A hard cold front roared through Oklahoma last night, leaving today the kind of day that inspired me to write awkward poetry in my youth. It was grey all day, and it eventually lured me outside several times to walk the dogs and, of course, make pictures.

I grabbed my Fuji mirrorless and my $50 Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5. Unlike the cameras and lenses I use professionally, this combination is challenging: the camera is smaller, and the lens is manual focus, super slow to focus, focuses in the opposite direction of my Nikkors, and will only run at one aperture, in this case wide open at f/3.5.

After the session, I walked our Irish wolfhound Hawken again, and he found a discarded work glove in the pasture and made it his new toy. He loves this weather.

Hawken keeps an eye on me as I walk around photographing autumn.
Hawken keeps an eye on me as I walk around photographing autumn.
Tiny blue berries cling to the fence near my garden.
Tiny blue berries cling to the fence near my garden.
Thistle sways in the cold wing.
Thistle sways in the cold wing.
A roll of fence catches a leaf or two in the breeze.
A roll of fence catches a leaf or two in the breeze.
Guinea fowl keep watch in the neighbor's chicken pen.
Guinea fowl keep watch in the neighbor’s chicken pen.
A rooster struts his stuff.
A rooster struts his stuff.
I am gradually learning the strengths and weaknesses of this pearl of a lens from the 1970s.
I am gradually learning the strengths and weaknesses of this pearl of a lens from the 1970s.

More from the Mamiya Sekor

The Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 sits in my dressing room today.
The Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 sits in my dressing room today.

Here are a few more images from the Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 I recently bought on eBay for just a few dollars, shot on my Fujifilm X-T10 with an M42 screw-mount adaptor.

Hawken Rifle Trail, our Irish wolfhound, enjoys an evening walk.
Hawken Rifle Trail, our Irish wolfhound, enjoys an evening walk.
Marigold color is muted in hazy evening air.
Marigold color is muted in hazy evening air.
Flare creates a dream-like effect on this morning glory vine.
Flare creates a dream-like effect on this morning glory vine.
Wheat grass gently sways in the evening air.
Wheat grass gently sways in the evening air.

The Way They Made Them

Our Rose-of-Sharon bush in the back yard is always a good place to start taking pictures, like this one shot with the Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 on my Fuji mirrorless.
Our Rose-of-Sharon bush in the back yard is always a good place to start taking pictures, like this one shot with the Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 on my Fuji mirrorless.

Sometimes when we see an old tractor, a restored antique firearm, or even a beautiful old house, an aphorism that sometimes comes to mind is, “They don’t make them like they used to.”

Such a phrase came to my mind when I opened box from eBay recently to find the Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 I ordered. As soon as I pulled it out of the bubble wrap, I was amazed by its smooth, slow, well-oiled focus mechanism, it’s heavy-checkered focus ring, and the fact that it didn’t make any sound when I shook it.

As soon as I pulled the Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 out of the box from eBay, my wife commented, "It looks brand new." In a way, that's a little sad, because it means this lens was probably stored, not taking pictures, for most of its life.
As soon as I pulled the Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 out of the box from eBay, my wife commented, “It looks brand new.” In a way, that’s a little sad, because it means this lens was probably stored, not taking pictures, for most of its life.

I bought this lens as part of an ongoing effort to open a new avenue of photographic creativity and mastery that started with the purchase of a Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless camera in July, for the expressed purpose of bringing old lenses back to life using various adaptors.

If you are trying to find a lens that that makes pictures with a retro look, this one does the trick. It’s just a teensy bit soft wide open, and has that slightly-ratty bokeh of a lens designed an built by humans, in this case in Japan.

The mechanics and optics in this lens are good, especially considering I paid so little for it.
The mechanics and optics in this lens are good, especially considering I paid so little for it.

Most of the lenses of this era were mechanically sturdy, heavy, all-metal tools that weren’t as good optically as today’s hardware, which, since the early 2000s, have been getting optically better but mechanically more and more plasticky. This helps hold down cost and weight.

We are, however, seeing a reverse in this trend in the latest lenses coming from Sigma, Sony, Nikon, and Fuji, who have discovered a new market for craftsmanship.

The Mamiya Sekor 200mm f/3.5 is an M42 screw-mount lens, and I use it with a cheap pass-through adaptor to mount it on my Fuji. Focus and exposure are entirely manual. Because the M42 mount isn’t very precise, when the Sekor is mounted, the focus scale and the aperture ring face down, and the aperture pin strikes a rim on the adaptor, locking it to the f/stop you pick before mounting it. This is fine with me, since I don’t use the focus scale much, and I got this lens intending to mostly shoot with it wide open, at f/3.5.

This frame is cropped to show about the maximum amount of sharpness I could coax out of this lens, with the help of our Chihuahua, Summer.
This frame is cropped to show about the maximum amount of sharpness I could coax out of this lens, with the help of our Chihuahua, Summer.

F/3.5 seemed to be a tipping point for lenses made in the 1970s, presumably due to manufacturing limits that resulted in diminishing results with larger apertures, as well as a photographic community that is far less obsessed with selective focus and bokeh as it is today.

Being able to focus a lens is a rarer commodity than it was 25 years ago, but it seems to be making a little bit of a comeback with the retro film scene. I look forward to grabbing this lens for all kinds of creative endeavors.

Testing a manual-focus lens on the neighbor's chickens seems like cheating: they are contrasty and spotted and interesting-looking, all of which makes focusing on them easy.
Testing a manual-focus lens on the neighbor’s chickens seems like cheating: they are contrasty and spotted and interesting-looking, all of which makes focusing on them easy.