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.