Friday, December 30, 2005

As 2005 feels like 1986 Again

As the year 2005 ends, I've decided to finally order myself the 200mm f/2 VR lens. It's a crying shame that the 200 VR is one of only TWO Nikon prime lenses that have both VR and AF-S focusing with the full-time manual focusing override of AF-S.The other Nikkor prime with AF-S focus and VR is the new 300mm f/2.8 VR model. Also,unfortunately,both of these very costly Nikkors are G-series lenses. What a pity. As a long-time Nikon shooter, I've accumulated many Nikkor prime lenses from 20mm to 300mm in their modern AF dress,and I have to say the button-and-ring Autofocus/Manual Focus switches on a good percentage of Nikon prime lenses really do offer _IMPAIRED_ functionality compared to top-quality lenses which offer concurrent autofocusing capability AND full-time manual focusing override capabilities.

Nikon has some pathetically clunky, 1980's technology holding back an otherwise solid FIVE-lens span stretching from 60mm to 180mm. I own all of these standard lenses, and like them all, but yet I have some degree of concern that FIVE of the premier Nikkor primes in their respective focal lengths suffer from the backward compatibility that Nikon has worked so hard to build into the so-called "Nikon System". Ancient screwdriver focusing technology is one thing in the low-price 50mm 1.8 lens and the economical 85mm 1.8 lens, but in the very high-priced "pro glass" 85,105,and 135 high-speed teles which are the absolute cream of the Nikkor crop? As well as the 180/2.8? And the 105 Micro? And the 200 Micro? How can it be that $1,000-$1400 prime lenses with 1980's technology represent the best that Nikon can muster? Cripes sakes, there are some mechanical engineering options available short of AF-S motors, yet these premier lenses are still relying on the focusing protocols and switching ideas developed in the era of that oh-so-piece-of-shit little N20/20 AF SLR body of the mid-80's. Nikkor lenses of the current AF-D generation work FINE on 1980's bodies, albeit with poor manual focusing. But today's lower-echelon cameras like N80,D70,D100,Fuji S2, Fuji S3 all have fairly gutless focusing motors that do NOT drive screwdriver lenses all that well.

Besides the aforementioned five top-class primes from 60mm to 200mm,other premium Nikkors also lack AF-S focus, like the 28mm f/1.4. The 60,105,and 200mm Micro-Nikkor lenses are all screwdriver focusing models.In point of fact, ALL of Nikon's prime lenses under 300mm are screwdriver focusing except for the $4,000 200mm VR Nikkor. AF-S focusing in Nikon prime lenses begins at $1,100 with the 300mm f/4 and goes up to four grand or more with the 200 f/2 VR and the 300/2.8 VR, and then extends to the 400mm 2.8,500mm f/4 ,and 600mm f.4 AF-S II models. Backward compatibility in the Nikon lens mount is a good thing,but tying 1980's autofocusing protocols to AF Nikkor lenses made in 2006 is hampering the MODERN BODY users. Look at Canon's use of USM focusing in prime lenses, and then look at Nikon's use of AF-S.

Basically, 95% of Nikon's prime lenses of under 300mm are saddled with screwdriver focusing systems,and several lenses use clunky Autofocus/Manual focusing switches or button-and-ring switches which basically turn the lenses into EITHER autofocusing lenses, or manual focusing lenses, in a number of shooting situations. The lenses I speak of are the 60 Micro, 85 1.4, 105 and 135 DC, and 180 models,and 105 and 200 Micro-Nikkors in their AF-D designations. I applaud the way Nikon has steadily updated its autofocusing Nikkor lenses from the original AF designation to the more modern AF-D or Distance-aware designation. AF-D has paved the way for 3-D Color matrix metering, as well as the D-TTL and i-TTL flash metering and control protocols. But the problem is that AF-D lenses do NOT permit manual focusing overrides to be done while the lens is in AF mode. There's a stupid A/M switch involved in the 85,105,and 135mm high-speed Nikkor lenses,lenses which are ideally suited to fast-moving action subjects and/or subjects often photographed under poor prevailing lighting conditions. All in all,that sucks! The 180 also has a switch, but unlike the 85-105-135 trio, the 180 is NOT ideally suited to any subject where fast autofocus is needed.

While I do like Nikkor lenses and their optical performance and mechanical reliability and long lifespans, I do feel that the 60,85,105,135,and 180mm, as well as the 105 Micro and 200 Micro and 28/1.4 AF-D lenses ALL WOULD BE BETTER PERFORMERS, under more conditions, for more people, if those lenses were updated to AF-S focusing. Just simply because a slight to moderate AF error with any of those lenses can take as long as two or three seconds to correct,at best.Under the wrong set of circumstances, the clunky button-and-ring A/M switch arrangement can cause a focusing siituation so slow that entire shot opportunities simply vanish.

Tokina has a better A/M switch than Nikon does. Tamron has a better focusing switch system than Nikon does.I mean, for crying out loud, the simple focusing ring-as-clutch and shifter has tremendous merit. Plus, there's that damned S-C-M focusing switch on the BODY....some lenses require that BOTH the body's focusing switch AND the lens's focusing switch be set to Auto and Auto or Manual and Manual. As if ONE fricking switch was not enough, Nikon actually has some pairings where two switches need to be in accord in order to do something as simple as touch up a focus point. Positively in pre-flood, as in before Noah's Arc.

Nikon's tendency to bring in the BEST of the best technologies, like VR technology, nano-crystal coating or whatever, ED glass, Internal Focusing, has been annoying to me ever since the 1980's. It's a shame that the 135 and 180 have not been updated for indoor sports shooters,and it's a crying shame that Nikon has NOT MADE a universal sports/action lens for the Dx format sensors they keep pushing. Nikon badly could use a 50-200 or 50-250mm zoom lens with a relatively fast maximum aperture of f/2.8 to f/3.2 or even f/3.5.

I shot an indoor basketball game the other night using my 70-200VR instead of my 85-105-or 135 primes,and while I liked the focal length flexibility of the zoom, I was less than impressed by the focusing performance of the 70-200 zoom when used on the D2x in Continuous AF using the center AF focus point, as well as in dynamic AF mode on shooters who were captured with the flash output of a stand-mounted Vivitar 285HV electronic flash set up remotely on NORM zoom head about 50 feet from the center of the court. The flash was set to half power manual output and powered by a Quantum Battery One and hooked up to a Pocket Wizard receiver unit. At ISO 800 and with a Custom Tone curve that yields an effective ISO 2000, the needed aperture is only f/5.6 at a measured 50 to 55 feet. This helps quite a bit for depth of field. Shutter speed is 1/250 for a slightly darker than expected background.

For one-shot target acquisition,I actually think the 105 DC or 135 DC are both better-focusing lenses for basketball than the 70-200 is,at least in a dimmer gymnasium. Still, the inability to rapidly rack focus or to even minutely adjust my focus with both those screwdriver primes is a bit disconcerting to me. Also, and this just comes with the territory, but when a screwdriver-type lens goes on a focus hunt, recovery is inevitably slower than with the best of the AF-S focusing lenses.
Just as it was in the 1980's,and then the 1990's, Nikon's best technologies are simply NOT BEING PUT INTO the majority of the product line, but are as they have always been,merely being trickled in, to the Nikon System.And frankly, I think Nikon is extremely,extremely remiss in not building some solid advanced amateur/enthusiast/professional prime lenses which cater to the STRENGTHS of the modern DX Nikon system. And that means AF-S focusing. And if possible, VR. And some decent tripod collars. And some lens hoods designed to protect front elements from stray light when being used on Dx angle of view cameras.

I think Nikon is extremely remiss is not having made a Dx-optimized sports/action zoom lens, as well as two or three AF-S short telephoto lenses suitable for low-light work and spots shooting with 100 percent MODERN technology driving the lenses, and not this 1980's Nikon 2020 screwdriver focusing system. If possible, Nikon ought to look at how Minolta has placed the focusing clutch on the camera body, similar to where the AF ON button is on the D1-D2 series. It's like, Christ, Nikon, get with it and bring some of the prime lenses into the modern era,to go with the modern cameras.And don't charge us $3,900 for the priviledge of having AF-S focusing in a prime telephoto Nikkor lens.What blows with Nikon is that they have SO MANY PREMIUM LENSES which still rely on 1980's autofocusing mechanics,1980's ideas about autofocusing,and 1980's engineering concepts for AF lenses. And these are costly lenses are not just the cheapies, but single focal length top-rated lenses in the $700 to $1400 range. Meanwhile, the soccer mom zoom and kit lenses are being built with slowish aperture ranges, and with AF-S focusing! While the killer 85 1.4, the 105 DC and the 135 DC, and the redoubtable 180/2.8 are still saddled with very slow,clunky,dual-mode,switch-reliant A/M focusing systems--built around concepts which originated in the 1980's. All do a passable job as manual focusing lenses too, but the inability to recover from focus hunts while switched into AF mode,and the way these lenses can lock up "tight" when the AF switch is engaged mean that these lenses must be used as either AF or as MF for the most part. That cuts usefulness and utility for me. The Full time manual focus override capability AF-S lensesbring with them is MORE important than the focusing speed advantages the AF-S focus system brings to Nikon D-SLRs.

What irks me, as a long-time Nikon buyer, is this new G-series lens mount,which precludes the use of exotic,high-dollar Nikkor lenses on Canon bodies via an adapter, AND which ruins these high-dollar exotics for use on classic manual focus film Nikons like the F3 and FE-2 and FM-2.The aperture ring-free Nikkor G-mount lens is one Nikon engineering decision I absolutely,positively loathe.Backward compatibility in screwdriver focusing is one thing I do NOT mind giving up that much....I would rather a lens had AF-S focusing than screwdriver focusing any day,on almost any lens I can imagine. But by gosh, taking away the simple,reliable,mechanical aperture control ring on a lens that costs 4 grand makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
The G-series concept's sole advantage in my experience is if you want to never,ever have a lens slip off of its minimum aperture setting and lock up and cause the camera to fail to shoot at a critical time. This fault can sometimes happen with a lens with an aperture ring--it's happened to me. With a G-series, the aperture ring never moves off minimum and can never lock the trigger when you least expect it.

And so,while the G-series is actually more fail-safe and idiot-proof I guess,it still smacks of cheapness in my opinion and it hurts total usefulness within the entire Nikon System.I find it annoying that Nikon preached for so long about the Nikon System's compatibility due to the F-mount, and has now seen fit to BREAK backward compatibility with these damned G-mount lenses. G-mount lenses which Nikon sells for the highest prices the market will bear. It pisses me off because the very BEST,absolutely top-shelf Nikkor lens designs are now coming out as G-mount models,and meanwhile,the professional-grade prime and macro lens LINES (plural), both offer old-technology,scredriver focusing at premium price points.Ah, it's always been this way--as a Nikon shooter 20 years ago, you always realized that Canon guys could buy more or less comparable lenses, but a lot lot less expensively. That situation has only grown worse,to the point now where Nikon is charging top dollar for older technology,and has allowed some lens designs to span the better part of two decades with NO substantial improvements in design or performance levels. Look at the 35 f/2 AF lens as an example. Look at the 85mm 1.8, the economical lens which really ought to be refreshed and brought up to AF-S. The 85 1.4-105 DC -135 DC trio really is ARE the heart of Nikon's pictorial short telephoto lenses.It's a shame they and the 180/2.8 perform in such 1980's manner with the kinds of Nikon and other F-mount cameras that are on the market today (Fuji S1-S2-S3, Kodak 14n and SLR/n series).

It just sucks that a thousand to thirteen hundred-plus smackeroos buys you an A/M lens in the year 2005. And so, as 2005 ends, it feels like it's 1986 again, with Nikon corporate messing with the mount specification in the WRONG way.It also feels like 1986 in the sense that I wonder if staying the course with Nikon really is the right way to go. Could this be the era of the Canon T90 versus the Nikon F3? The era when Canon left Nikon in the dust, and when Nikon was unable to produce a decent autofocus camera AND a decent AF lens line? Dropping just under 4k for a new sports lens means a lot of lost opportunity cost that could have bought me a substantial chunk of new Canon equipment--like maybe five different Canon prime lenses to flesh out my 20D outfit. Or an EOS 5D full-frame camera and a nice Canon lens or two to accompany it, like the 85/1.8 and a Sigma 30mm 1.4 or something like that.

I'm sitting here thinking that Nikon is still behind the times, but that great glass lasts around two decades,and that there's a body coming that I'll finally be 100 percent satisfied with.I'm also sitting here thinking that Nikon's lens offerings are just not where I want,price-wise for the features offered. I want full-time manual focus overide on my prime lenses,not these shitty old buttons and rings and switches on both the body and the lenses. I want AF-S focusing in prime lenses which cost $800 to $1400, like the 85 1.4,105 and 135 DC, and the 200 Micro. I want VR in more lenses, not in only the 300/2.8,200/2, the 70-200 VR and then the ridiculously expensive, niche-market 200-400mm f/4 zoom. I do not begrudge owners of the $5,000 200-400, but the focal length range,size and weight, and the unsuitability of the focal length range for sports/action with 1.5x cameras really torques me off.I feel that Nikon has been exceedingly remiss in not having developed and marketed a 50-250mm, FAST lens, for sports/action use on DX sensor Nikons. Nikon has sorely neglected the telephoto and tele-zoom lens line since well,well before the Advertisng Department at Nikon coined the term DX for their sensor offerings. Nikon needs to move its VR capability down into the rest of the lens line, to address the missing lenses,and to update almost ALL of its prime lenses from 50mm to 400mm in length. Nikon needs to move VR technology and AF-S focusing down into the workaday,normal lenses, like 50mm lenses, and 85mm lenses, as well as the 105-135-180 trio.

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