Equipment isn’t Everything (It’s the Vision Thing)

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You hang around photographers enough, and you hear the same debates and tropes and ideas pop up over and over again. Probably the most common is a variation of “It’s the photographer, not the equipment.” But of course, it’s the photographers who are saying this. If you asked a camera, they’d probably say something different. A modern version of Aesop’s Lion and the Statue.

Of course, it all comes down to “that vision thing.” A good photographer out to be able to take decent images with just about anything, because the basic technical rules of photography and composition don’t change. I took plenty of photos I like on vacation yesterday with Wendy’s pocket-sized Powershot. But what an experienced photographer does when they pick up a piece of equipment is say “How does this see? What are the range of things I can do with it?” When I pick up a pocket camera, I know that shallow depth-of-field is out and I have to be tricky if I want it to expose the way that I want. When I grab my D3s, I know that pretty much anything my eye can see can be fairly easily photographed, but also that I have to change my attitude if I don’t want to intimidate people with it. In fact, one of the great joys of interchangeable-lens cameras is that changing a lens feels like putting on a new set of eyes. When I put on a fast 85mm, I’m seeing the world in narrow pockets, looking for backgrounds that will look good when out-of-focus. When I throw on a 35mm, I see through those eyes, etc.

I tend to prefer certain sorts of eyes. Light-sensitive, not extremely wide and not extremely telephoto … so I decided to mix it up. The Sigma 12-24mm is wacky wide and, as essentially an f/5.6 lens, extra-slow. But it was a great set of eyes for Esteban and his groomsmen and their socks.

Cleaning House

I’m good at being uncomfortable, so I can’t stop changing all the time…

I like to keep my work evolving, which means I go through a lot of equipment, and I leave a lot more in my wake behind me. This doesn’t work so well when you live in Manhattan, so I’m doing a summer house-cleaning sale on some equipment I have lying around. I want to be done with this and ship everything before I go to California next week, so even though the pieces retail for as much as $2,000, I’m putting them all on eBay starting at 99 cents, no reserve.

This is what’s called faith in the system.

I still have a few things I was on the fence about, but here’s what’s on the chopping block. Everything is described as honestly as I could in the listing:

RK2 2734
Panasonic LX3

RK2 2738
Nikon 35mm f/1.8G

RK2 2747
Nikon 135mm f/2D DC

RK2 2748
Lensbaby Control Freak

and … last but not least…

RK2 2751
my Version 1 Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8
.
Killing my children, but onward and upward….

Review: Nikon 50mm f/1.8G

Specs and pricing info (buy here)

OK, coming off the heels of a review of the $6,000 200mm f/2, I figured it was time to look at something a little more practical, a little lighter, a little cheaper, and so…

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The lens on the right, next to the 200mm behemoth, is Nikon’s new 50mm f/1.8G, the latest iteration to the moderately fast normal lens, perhaps the most popular class of lens of all time because it’s versatile, light, and inexpensive. Even with modern-day coatings and modern-day pricing, this lens stands at just over $200. In other words, you could buy almost 27 of these for the cost of the 200mm.

When Nikon took the screw-drive autofocus motor out of entry-level bodies like the D5100, lots of people rightfully complained about losing AF in their old lenses. But one of the happy effects of this is that Nikon has been forced to update the designs of their cheaper lenses, and make new ones like the popular 35mm f/1.8. And so the old “nifty fifty” gets a makeover with new coatings and a new optical formula including an aspherical lens element to cut down on aberrations (especially at the corners of an image).

Can a new lens this cheap be any good? Happily, the answer is yes.

110619 190529 50mm f1 8

The first thing I noted when I put the lens on is that the autofocus is nice and zippy, faster even than my expensive 35mm and 24mm f/1.4 lenses. This is important because the most popular complaint about the “big brother” 50mm f/1.4G is that the AF is too slow for some uses. With that, and a price tag half that of the f/1.4, it’s a tempting option if you don’t need the widest apertures.

How are the optics?

Very good, with a great price/performance ratio. Wide-open it’s already sharp — not perfectly sharp, but more than sharp enough — as this shot at f/1.8 shows:

110619 190522 50mm f1 8

100 percent crop:

110619 190522 50mm f1 8 crop

In terms of out-of-focus rendering, I tend to give 50mm lenses a low bar, since the old, cheap optical design often lends to very choppy bokeh. The 50mm clears the low bar — it’s still a bit busy, perhaps not as smooth as the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 or as most fast telephoto primes, but it tends to look pleasant and not-distracting in real-world pictures. You can click on the two flower snapshots below for full-resolution samples at f/1.8 and f/8:

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Here’s a shot that shows off the bokeh characteristics well:

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Flare resistance is also really good, likely due to coatings and the tiny front element. Here is a heavily backlit scene as it appears out-of-camera:

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For reference, here’s an out-of-camera photo from the same spot with the older 135mm f/2 D DC

110619 185549 135mm f2

Who should buy this lens?

I think this lens should be in a big percentage of modern photographers’ bags, simply because it’s cheap and incredibly light, and is guaranteed to autofocus with any current or upcoming Nikon camera. If you’re big into old manual film cameras, this isn’t the lens for you, but you can find plenty of manual-focus 50mm lenses that are virtually free on eBay. For amateurs on a budget, this is a great addition to a couple kit-zooms so you can trade off versatility for depth-of-field control and a big boost in low light, and you can stick it in a small camera bag without even knowing it’s there. With a small DX camera you have a decent half-torso portrait lens, and even with expensive pro line-ups it’s great to have a light, cheap normal lens you can toss in the bag as a back-up.

Even though the 200mm f/2 is just about perfect in every way on paper, this is the lens I want to keep around. It just works, it gets out of my way, and for my work I actually like most of the photos I get from it more. Buy it here.

Sample photos:

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110719 195308 50mm f2

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110712 201114 50mm f2 2

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110628 214226 50mm f1 8