Lens: 35mm f/1.4
Camera: Nikon D3s
EXIF and GPS data
Tuscany is as gorgeous as you’d think. This is basically straight out-of-camera; that’s just how it looked.
This review was very hard to be objective about. You see, I’ve been waiting impatiently for Nikon to release this lens for more than five years. At first glance, one would think that the increasingly light-sensitive sensors of DSLRs would kill off demand for fast primes, but the reverse has been true — and the reasons are simple. Having the option for limited depth-of-field and as much light sensitivity as possible is great, and now there’s not nearly so much guesswork about “was that shot actually in focus or not?” There are a lot more choices now than “f/8 and be there.”
I was clearly excited about this, since my non-photographer girlfriend asked me “What’s so special about this lens?”
Nothing, in a way. 35mm is a pretty unexciting focal length, on its face. Slightly wide, it doesn’t have the warped-corner look of an ultra-wide. It doesn’t have the instant eye-candy look of an exotic telephoto lens. It’s just a workhorse focal length, that strips everything down and focuses on content, and for general coverage, it is well-paired with moderate telephoto lenses like an 85mm f/1.4 or 70-200mm f/2.8.
Which made it so deeply strange that Nikon hadn’t made a professional lens in this focal length since 1981 (and that one wasn’t regarded as one of their best lenses.
There’s a lot of anticipation here to fill, especially since the new lens, at $1800, isn’t cheap, especially when you can get a full-frame 35mm f/2 for $360, or a DX 35mm f/1.8 for under $200. Can it live up to the hype?
Let me just get this out of the way: For most users, no. If you’re using an entry-level DX camera because that’s where your budget is, buy the 35mm f/1.8 for one-ninth the price. You’ll love it, and if you get into hefty full-frame gear later, you can always sell it for almost the same price.
For me? The lens is not 100 percent perfect, but I am thrilled. And here’s why.
BUILD: Not everyone likes the hard plastic build of modern Nikon professional lenses, but to me it creates an attractive, sturdy package. The lens hood is nice and stiff and easily reversible. And it’s big — almost as big as the 24mm and 85mm f/1.4 lenses in the same family. For lots of people, this will be kind of a shame because a 35mm is a great walk-around focal length, and this is really bulky for a lens to carry on you all day every day. For me, who mostly uses these on professional shoots with giant D3s cameras, it’s not quite big enough — I strongly prefer native 77mm filters on my lenses, instead of the 67mm ring this has. But that’s what step-up rings are for.
IMAGE QUALITY: Extremely good, but likely not an absolute resolution champ like the 100mm f/2 Makro. It really seems like this lens was optimized for wide-open performance, so the difference between wide-open and middle-apertures is not as great as with most lenses — f/1.4 is really sharp, and f/8 is just a bit more sharp, but you can find sharper lenses if you look hard. It’s great for me, because if I paid for an f/1.4 lens I want to use it near-wide-open unless I have a good reason not to, but there are easier choices for landscape and studio shooters.
Here’s a comparison at f/8 and f/1.4, which also shows the good close-focus this lens features:
The bokeh is as good as I have come to expect from recent Nikon lenses. Nice transitions, good highlights:
Example of good foreground bokeh, also a lack of flare despite multiple light sources:
AUTOFOCUS: Users expecting the same lighting speed of the Canon 35mm f/1.4L will be disappointed at first — like the new Nikon 24mm and 85mm f/1.4s, this is not a speed champ, being just a bit faster than the 24. But it’s very accurate, even at wide apertures — noticeably more so in difficult focusing situations than the 24mm f/1.4 (which I also love, despite its trickiness). I could see right away that it was much easier to get in-focus f/1.4 shots on a dark dance floor with this than with the 24, though not quite as easy as the ludicrously fast-and-accurate 24-70mm f/2.8. I came to trust it pretty quickly.
NOTE: My copy needed serious AF micro-adjustment, about -15. This was not true of my 24G or 85G, but has been true of other lenses like the 135mm f/2. Be sure to test your lenses thoroughly. Micro-adjustment is the best feature invented for cameras since digital sensors.
Even in the near-darkness of ISO 12,800 at f/1.4, it was able to lock on well:
Speaking of ISO 12,800, this next one shows why we have f/1.4 lenses in the first place. The Church of San Frediano in Lucca, Tuscany is absolutely gorgeous, but to protect the art, much of it is too dark to make out with the naked eye. This part of the ceiling, captured at 1/15th, ISO 12,800, f/1.4, was almost black to my eye. I would have needed a tripod to capture it otherwise.
Final verdict: This is going to be an extremely valuable part of my bag, and it was well worth the cost. Now that this is a new year, I will be restarting the Photo of the Day archive, and keep an eye out for lots of photos taken with the 35 there.
More Photos at f/1.4:
Lastly, here’s one for full-res download, with all the bokeh you can handle. Click for full-size:
You can always count on the Adirondacks for a White Christmas. I’m spending Christmas Day the way I spent my year — travelling and processing photos, since there are some fantastic end-of-season weddings left to show you. 2010 was truly a fantastic year, blessed with a wonderful girlfriend, my fantastic friends and family, and sharing so much with so many wonderful clients. Also, I’m more than a little thankful that tomorrow I am headed to spend the New Year in Tuscany and Florence.
And there are good things to come in 2011, such as a big lecture at DWF in San Antonio, something fun I’m throwing together for WPPI in Las Vegas, and finally having time to do some personal work that I storyboarded way back in June.
Have a great rest of the year!
Wendy and I were in Boca Raton for a wedding, and, given how freezing it is in NYC these days, we wanted to take as much advantage of it as possible. So we went for a long, long walk along the beach, watching the sandpipers run along the waves, making up stories about the owners of the other footprints in the sand. It had been raining all morning, but that didn’t stop us. As we finally reached the point where we realized how far we’d walked, and that we’d have to walk all the way back, it started to rain a bit more, even though the sun was out.
“Look!” Wendy said. A rainbow seemingly began to grow out of the ocean. “I’ve never seen one right on the horizon before!” (We are not oceanfaring people).
It grew fast enough that you could follow its progress with your eye, first one band, and then a second. while behind us was a fantastic sunset.
You’d better believe we started shouting “What does this MEAN?”
And that’s why you always bring your camera with you. Regular ol’ panorama, 13 frames with the Nikon 35mm f/1.4.
Sometimes you know that a wedding is going to be amazing but then it exceeds your expectations anyway. I’d talked with Erick extensively, going over all the details, but that can’t describe the obvious love he and Diandra have for each other, or even the fantastic style, beginning the day at the luxurious New York Palace Hotel (where Vera Wang herself peeked in on our shoot) with a ceremony and reception at the swanky Hudson Terrace, highlighting a gorgeous sunset along the river.
It got at the heart of what weddings should be — all about connections between loved ones, the way we all help each other make our lives richer and fuller, with a very wild celebration thrown on top.
I’ve known Maureen from way back in the wild days of Internet, when I maintained a Fordham University message board, so I had been looking forward to her wedding from the moment she got engaged. And she didn’t disappoint one bit, from getting ready at the swanky Hotel Giraffe (though there are sadly no real giraffes there), to a ceremony at the gorgeous St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church, and starting the reception at Giando on the Water just in time for a great sunset over Manhattan.
The wedding featured a gaggle of rambunctious kids who Maureen and Jon kept entertained through the night, and friends and family who made sure the reception, and the photobooth, were hopping.
You know that Zeiss is serious about lenses when they retain the German spelling of “Macro.” And pixel-peeping, lens-lusting photographers are very serious about this lens, telling tales of its optical prowess almost mythological in scope. So while I waited (not so) patiently for my Nikon 35mm f/1.4 (which I will have in my hands in about an hour), I decided it was time to run this bad boy through its paces, with the help of Adorama Rental.
There are two major factors that keep the Zeiss 100mm from being more popular. First, it’s expensive, more than $1800 (although with Nikon lenses skyrocketing in price due to the Yen, that seems a lot more reasonable than it used to.) Second, it’s manual-focus only, thanks in part to some patent issues regarding AF mechanisms. Now, I recommend shooting manual focus almost all the time you do macro anyway, so for close-up work that’s irrelevant. But with the fast aperture and sparkling clarity, this also makes a heck of a portrait lens, and how you feel about that will definitely depend on how much you like focusing manually. Even though I’m a relative whippersnapper, I’ve done a lot of manual focus work. My first camera was my Dad’s Minolta SRT-101b, manual everything, and I’ve done enough work managing to focus the paper-thin DoF of the Nikon 50mm f/1.2 and 58mm f/1.2 that anything else seems easy. But even I think to myself, “I paid $5,200 for a camera with a top of the line focusing array. I’d sure like to use it.”
The good news is that the newer model does communicate electronically with the camera, so lower-end cameras can get exposure readings with it and you can control the aperture through the camera controls instead of that smooth-as-silk aperture ring.
Your mileage may vary.
A quick note on my lens reviews. I realize that the best thing to do when reviewing a lens is to take a bunch of unprocessed photos of brick walls. And the last thing you should do is do a lot of hard-to-reproduce, crazy things with it like panoramas and freelensing. But I am not a reviewer first, I am a photographer. So I will note anything I’ve done to the images and try to provide a good cross-sample. All of these images are at f/2 unless otherwise noted.
For instance, this is a twenty-five-image Brenizer method panorama. It has a MUCH wider FoV than a 100mm normally would, but you can still see the amazingly creamy bokeh of this lens:
But here’s a normal, single-shot photo. f/2, ISO 6400 1/100th:
Now let’s get down to it.
You get a lot for your money here — everything says that this lens is well put-together. All of the exterior, including the hood, is metal. The hood is reversible for packing, which is good, but the lens is impossible to focus when the hood is reversed, which is not so good, given that the lens is manual-focus. The focusing ring is butter smooth, and since they don’t have to worry about autofocus speed, the lens has a nice long focusing throw which makes it easier to be accurate. The aperture ring is also incredibly smooth — it’s actually a real pleasure to use in a way that I don’t normally talk about aperture rings.
The only downside here is that without an extension ring, the lens is only 1:2, half the macro power of competitors like the Nikon 105mm f/2.8G VR. But their design choices, which makes the lens extend a great deal at close-focus, also means that there is very little “focus breathing” (when the focal length of a lens appears to lessen as you zoom in), so it’s still fairly powerful, as you can see from its clear read of a ring’s inscription here:
Now, most of the time in macro photography, the trick is how to get your depth-of-field as WIDE as possible, so the fast f/2 aperture isn’t really a help. But it does make for some really interesting impressionistic effects:
And it also gives an otherworldly feel to detail photos that aren’t quite at macro level:
This is the Mary Poppins lens, perfect in every way. At medium apertures it is simply ludicrous, clearly outresolving my 12 megapixel D3s sensor at every edge of the frame. You can see a full-res JPEG at f/11 here for pixel peeping. (It’s not very exciting, one part of a panorama, but it sure is sharp).
Wide-open, it’s STILL insanely sharp, especially in the center. There’s a reason this lens is so well-regarded. It will draw every bit of detail out of your photos.
But nothing is perfect.
Now this is a true stress test, with blown out background against thin black lines, and this sort of blooming is more about the relationship between the sensor and the lens than just the lens itself, but still, that green isn’t meant to be there. But I can’t think of a fast lens that wouldn’t have some difficulty with that part of this shot.
But now let’s get a little crazy. You see, in my testing, I found that this was also a GREAT lens for freelensing — shooting with the lens slightly unmounted for varying focal planes. You have to manual focus these anyway, and this lens was made to be a pleasure to do so. I recommend taking the hood off before trying for less vignetting.
or like so:
If you have a bit of money and love manual-focus Zeiss lenses, then this is one of the prime ones to get. But that’s a pretty small sample set. For the rest of us, I would perhaps recommend this most to people with high-resolution cameras like the D3X* who want to get every last one of their many, many pixels nice and sharp, particularly for studio work at smaller apertures where the depth-of-field would make manual-focus fairly painless. For most of us, though, the competing Nikon and Canon lenses may lose a stop, but they are also optically amazing and have autofocus and vibration reduction. If Zeiss ever does manage to bring AF into this segment, these lenses will see a huge surge, but for now it is a niche product that is a pleasure to use. Give it a rent at Adorama!
*(PS, if you’ve been planning on buying a D3X, doing it through that link will buy my mother a really nice Christmas present, Mr. Moneybags.)
I’ve already waxed nostalgic over the amazing sunset that graced Lauren and John’s wedding, but I haven’t yet said how fantastic the day itself was. The day was lively throughout, with streamers and bubbles marking their exit from a ceremony across the street at The Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to the march to Battery Gardens to a dance floor that just kept getting wilder and more hilarious.
After John’s best man pulled out a series of enlargements he’d made of pictures from John’s youth, they quickly became impromptu masks for the rest of the party. Even by closing time there was no sign of the energy slowing down, and I didn’t want it to. Congratulations, Lauren and John!
I’ve put in my time at the Ivy Leagues, so when I say a couple is frighteningly educated I mean it. I think Ting and Weiji have 57 degrees between them, at rough count. Their wedding at the New York Botanical Gardens was perfectly tailored to their personality and the sunny, warm daytime feeling. Instead of a simple DJ or band, there were dance lessons in Argentinian tango, a cross-table trivia game, and board games aplenty. I can safely say these are the best Jenga photos of my career.
At every stage their wedding was helped along by friends, from the dance instructors to the musicians and officiant, showing the connections they’ve formed together in their travels and considerable charity work, giving the day a blessedly stress-free, low-key feeling. Congratulations!
A little news for the photographers among you: I was recently honored to be a beta tester for the new Nikon-compatible line of PocketWizards. As someone who loves to use off-camera flash, but also loves high-speed-sync (Nikon calls this Auto FP), I was really excited.
While it was fun having secret special status, I’m even happier to say that the latest beta period didn’t last long. The engineers were happy with latest developments, and they’re shipping out now, primarily to Europe. I haven’t tested the latest iteration yet, but I should get a chance soon.
Leila and Sam’s wedding at the New Leaf Cafe in Fort Tryon Park was marked by incredible taste, simple but elegant, and a welcoming, low-key attitude that permeated the entire day. I don’t usually go nuts over details, as the true beating heart of weddings for me are people and the way they connect to each other, but her individualized centerpieces went straight into my “take note for future wedding” brain compartment.
It was a gorgeous day, with twilight coming in over the Hudson river. One thing I love about word-of-mouth referrals is seeing some of the same crazy, awesome guests from previous weddings, and there were hams aplenty in the crowd.
Something that deeply informs the way I shoot weddings is to always think about the kinds of photos that really matter to me. I know what kinds of photos I love to take as a photographer, and what sorts of photos I like to look at when the frames are filled with strangers, but it can be a very different thing when it’s me in the photo, or my friends and family. When I’m shooting the sorts of photos I like to look at as a photographer, I’m trying to be clever, to see angles other people might not see, to do things that I and other people haven’t done a thousand times before. But as a normal person with my own feelings and connections and history, the photos I hold most dear, the ones that I would cry and scream over if I ever lost, aren’t very tricky at all. And I know I’m not alone, since I’ve asked this of many other photographers — exactly the sorts of people who would be into deeply artistic shots — and I hear the same thing.
My Aunt Lita took one of my favorite photos of the past couple years as my mother surprised me with birthday cake after Thanksgiving dinner:
Not the most flattering angle of me, and I was unshaven, full of turkey, etc., and of course taken with a point-and-shoot. But I love everything about it, because of how real the moment was to me. I didn’t even know the photo was being taken, or care. My family is very musical, while I am sort of a Bizarro anti-musician who destroys every note I come near. But they love me, so when my cousin and uncle started banging out the last few songs of the Beatles “Abbey Road” on the piano, no one ran off screaming as I joined in. It was fantastic. I don’t get to see my family very much because I live away and work such grueling and strange hours, and here was a moment of intense connection and joy. And then, right after the last bars of “Hery Majesty,” my cousin Jay seamlessly transitioned into Happy Birthday.
And I started singing it. For my uncle Jim, whose birthday was later that week. Quite honestly, I’ve been so busy that I kept forgetting that my birthday was coming up. But when my mother brought out German chocolate cake (my late father’s favorite and thus, of course, my favorite too), I realized that it was all planned for me. And I was overwhelmed. And FLASH went the camera.
Thank you Mom, and my family. And thank you, Aunt Lita, for being there, for the memory, and for another reminder why I do what I do.