Friday, May 26, 2006

Pentax Now Offers In-Body Stabilization System

Pentax just announced a new camera, the K100D, with a built-in CCD shifting mechanism that seems to be very similar to the type of mechanism Konica-Minolta has built into d-slr bodies. Why not? It seems to me that the value of a body-based anti-shake system would be very high. With Canon and Nikon, you get an anti-shake boost only with a select few lenses, where with the K-M and Pentax body-based anti-shake systems, a whole host of wide angle lenses, normals, telephotos, and zoom lenses will ALL gain the ability to be used with anti-shake technology. How does anti-shake technology served up with a manual focusing Pentax K or KA lens sound? How does anti-shake technology with Pentax 645 lenses used with an adapter sound to you? Or anti shake with say a medium format to 35mm adapter using a 165mm leaf shutter lens from the Pentax 6x7 system....howzat sound? I bet if one is a Pentax shooter, it sounds pretty good.

I demo'd the K-M Maxxum 7D autofocus d-slr a couple of times, and made some VERY good low-light shots in the 1/6th and 1/8th second ranges using an inexpensive 28-90mm autofocus zoom lens. I was actually very pleased with the degree of stabilizing effect the K-M 7D could achieve. I was pretty thoroughly convinced that the body-based stabilizing system in the Konica-Minolta 7D was very,very adequate for the 28mm to 90mm focal length range,and I was left with absolutely no reservations about how well the system worked for ME. And while some experts maintain that body-based anti-shake systems are not as good as lens-based stabilizing systems at longer focal lengths, I really think that a practiced shooter gains a HELL of a lot from anti-shake/VR/IS systems.

One of the most difficult things to do is to actually test out anti-shake systems. How much shake must there be, at what frequency and magnitude, etc. One thing I do know from some of the Pop Photo multi-tester experiments is that from within a group, there can be an _ individual_ who can use a VR-equipped system to pull off extraordinarily good results compared with the entire rest of his group. My conclusion from that rather odd finding is that the truly steadiest shooter is the person who achieves results that are, to put it mildly, wayyy better than what the rest of the group can hope to achieve. My personal feeling is that the very-steadiest shooters are the ones who are getting the best gains in hand-holding performance, while the "rest of the pack" get two, two and a half, or, or three stops' worth of benefit,while Mr. Steady Hands or Ms. Supa Solid really cleans up.

I'm all for another body-integral anti-shake D-SLR. I think vibration reduction is a very,very cool thing,no matter how it is achieved. I personally have had very good luck with the VR Nikkor lenses 80-400 and 70-200 and 200,and find that VR is a very,very valuable tool. Pentax has a decent lineup of lenses,and the list of legacy lenses which can be fitted is very broad and fairly deep. I bet the price is reasonable too! I can see a built-in anti-shake body being a VERY GOOD THING for many users of the camera. I am anxious to see how the new camera does.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Fuji S3 versus EOS 5D, an on-line comparison

Bernie Ess, former booster and yell king for the FujiFilm FinePix S3 Pro has recently put up a comparison between his new Canon EOS 5D and the FujiFilm FinePix S3 Pro he used to defend so vociferously. Check out his thread on dPreview, and get a few glimpses into the Fanboi culture of Fuji-dom from those who respond to Bernie's simple testing scenarios.
I find it ironic how Bernie spent so much time badmouthing the Nikon D2x (back before the EOS 5D was released),and how he spent so much time berating D2x shooters for their reliance on a "machine gun", as he constantly referred to the D2x. I find it ironic that Bernie used to boast about how having had to slow down his shooting due to the S3's incredibly molasses-like I/O systems helped him improve his photography,and how he felt so,so happy with the S3 Pro and how his experiences with a borrowed D2x showed him that the D2x was an inferior camera to the FujiFilm FinePix S3 Pro. As expected, now that he finally owns a TRUE, 12+ megapixel camera like the EOS 5D, Bernie is now out to show the Fuji world that the S3's output is indeed NOT 12 megapixels. I find it ironic that now that he finally owns a TRUE high-resolution camera, like the EOS 5D, that suddenly his old flame and the love of his life, the S3 Pro, is now relegated to second-tier status.
Even funnier,however, is seeing the way some of the diehard FujiFilm FinePix S3 Pro owners can fail to see the differences between a REAL 12+ MP camera and a Fuji-fied 12 MP camera, even when there is obvious proof right in front of their eyes. One of the BEST comparison tests Bernie did was to shoot the EOS 5D at 6 megapixel resolution,and then he took that Canon 6MP file and up-rezz'd it to 12 MP size, and then he compared the Canon file against the S3 Pro's Fuji-fied "12 megapxel" output. The fact of the matter is, the S3 Pro's images are far,far LESS-detailed than the EOS 5D images are--EVEN when one shoots the 5D at half-quality and then up-rezz's that 6 MP in-camera capture to 12 MP output size. If one is impartial, one can see there is a HIGH degree of artifacting in S3 Pro images. The Phil Askey test comparison shots between the EOS 20D and the S3 Pro show that the unique sensor array FujiFilm uses does NOT, simply does NOT produce clean,artifact-free images to nearly the same degree as more conventional Bayer array d-slr's. I feel bad reading through Bernie's test thread, and seeing the responses that Artichoke writes in defense of the S3 Pro,with his oft-repeated put-downs of Canon's CMOS sensor technology. It's sad to see a man so intensely loyal to his own brand that he has to resort to tearing down Canon's superb CMOS imaging quality in an effort to extoll the virtues of the S3 Pro's imaging quality.
A recent dPreview post explores the Phil Askey comparisons between the FujiFilm FinePix S3 Pro and the Nikon D70 and the EOS 20D. Please check out Phil Askey's S3 Pro review on pages 21,22,and 23. Look at the sample photos,and you can see that the Nikon D70 and S3 are often about neck and neck in terms of detail resolution; look honestly at the EOS 20D resolution sample photos and you can see how heavily artifact-marred the S3 Pro's SuperCCD images are compared to the EOS 20D's 8.2 MP images.
It is finally time to face the facts Nikonistas and simply MUST acknowledge that Canon has a huge lead in sensor technology over the rest of the d-slr field. Nikon,Fuji,Pentax/Samsung ,Konica-Minolta/Sony,and Olympus--ALL of these manufacturers have found it impossible to keep up with Canon in at least a few key areas of d-slr design and production. It does little good to keep hyping the FujiFilm FinePix S3 Pro's resolution abilities as being "comparable to an 8- or 9MP camera" when the Fuji can not even keep pace with a half-quality EOS 5Dcapture shot at "half-quality" or 6MP capture and which has been up-rezz'd in post to a 12 MP file...Canon's EOS 5D full-frame is simply resolving MORE detail, more CLEARLY, and more CLEANLY at 6MP, than the Fuji S3 Pro camera can do at its best-quality setting. The FujiFilm FinePix S3 Pro is,as as Phil Askey called it, a very GOOD but still SIX megapxiel camera.
A few days before Bernie Ess did his Canon versus Fuji test, the FujiFilm SLR Talk forum hosted a thread which explored the differences between 6 and 12 MP,and how the FujiFilm FinePix S3 Pro actually stacks up compared with other cameras. The thread begins here and goes on for a few pages. Please see the rez test charts,and look at pages 21,22,and 23 of the S3 Pro review for some side-by-side comparison images. Also,check out the comments by earthbound_ca in the thread, and see what insights he brings to the discussion.
Of course, resolution is not everything. Canon EOS 5D owners have to put up with superb low-noise files, excellent High-ISO shooting capabilities,and that awful, smooth,high-detail,high-resolution Canon CMOS sensor capture technology,as well as those nasty full-frame problems like the ability to isolate subjects through creative use of lens depth of field with wide-angles,normals,and telephotos. EOS 5D owners also suffer from the awful fate of having to use Canon's broad lineup of EF lenses with angles of view and DOF characteristics that are exactly like those from the days of 35mm film shooting. I pity the Canon 5D shooters who have to rely on their years' worth of 35mm experience because their D-SLR has done away with the FOV factor. The biggest problem I can see is that the EOS 5D uses EF mount lenses....if only Canon could get the "E" out, things would be very happy here in F-mount land.
Those Poor Canon Guys, they have so little on their plate,and now this...the EOS 5D, with full-frame capture at under $3,500. Without Canon driving the d-slr market's development, the world would be a much,much duller place.It's a pity that there are so many buzz-killers out there who are anxious to prove that,somehow, 1.5x crop sensors are somehow best, and that somehow six million photosites can,somehow, create resolution that's the equivalent of 8- or 9-, or even 12 million photosites. Hey, I've got fifty bucks on me; how about considering that it LOOKS like 85,let's say my fifty dollars are the "equivalent" to one hundred dollars. See how the Fujista analogy falls short,once you REALLY start LOOKING at numbers?
I said,publicly,for a long time that I would not even CONSIDER buying a Fuji S3 Pro until it got to $1699. Well, I actually started to consider the camera once it hit that price, and now that S3 is in the $1299 range in the USA,and is around $1099 US dollars equivalent in the UK, S3 sales are HOT! Finally, finally, finally the camera's price has been lowered to the point where people are buying them in good numbers,willingly,without the need for incentives like a Quantum Q-flash or some promo gimmick. I have been proven right; that $1699 was the beginning of the second wave of S3 adoption,and that at the even-lower prices in the $1299-$1249-$1199 range, are where the S3 belongs "naturally". I honestly think that had Fuji priced their camera lower,months and months ago, that they would have had a massive sales hit on their hands,but the combination of premium-level pricing of the S3 Pro combined with mixed reviews from Thom Hogan and Phil Askey, as well as others, hampered both the S3's reputation,and its lifetime sales potential. Again, let's get this straight: until the last few months, S3's have been languishing on dealer shelves world-wide,with VERY,very slow sales. Now that S3 prices are around $1299 to $1249 from large,reputable USA dealers, Fuji has a modest sales success on its hands,and is winning many happy customers. But there is a huge,huge difference between selling a camera for $2499 and for $1249. I cannot help but feel that,given the S3's slow write/read/display speed problems and very bare-bones buffer and software package that the original retail price was,well, almost unfair to customers. And while Fuji is now seeing brisk S3 sales, I feel like these low,low prices are for the first of the very last units in the channel. What I am seeing on-line is a huge influx of new FujiFilm D-SLR owners who feel prety good about their $1299 camera. And that makes me feel good too. I want people to enjoy their cameras!
There's been this persistent idea that for some reason, I do not "like" the S3 Pro. Which is kind of funny.Who cares if I happen to like it or dislike it? It's just not the camera for me. I'm not willing to archive 25 megabyte a pop raws forward through time. I expect compressed RAW files to be of a storage size commensurate with their era of creation, which is around 10.9 to 11.2 megabytes for a compressed, full-bit 12-megapixel D2x NEF file. Not 25 megabytes for a 6 megapixel image. AND, this is the big thing, the camera is so doggone slow that I cannot use it to leverage my photographic abilities. It's got bottom-tier AF, simplified metering, no metering with older lenses or non-coupled devices, the slowest flash synch in the professional camera class,and extremely LONG delay between the release breaking and the shutter moving, AND it has like 1.8 FPS speed shot-to-shot. The camera has a lot of purely mechanical limitations that really do not HELP me, or any other shooter using it to complete his asignments. Hey, I've shot 50,000 plus frames off the SAME BASIC UNDERBODY in the Fuji S2 Pro. The S3 Pro has a lot of body-based quirks that make the S3 a no-go camera FOR ME. Like the tiny viewfinder image projected by the N80 underbody. The S2 and S3 bodies have very POOR viewfinder images compared to what's on the market these days,and frankly, I cannot SEE thru the N80-class cameras as well as I can the 20D or the pro Nikons I own and use. That anybody would actually CARE that I do not or did not worship their favorite camera is kind of an odd thing. I had one otherwise sane photographer accuse me on dPreview that it was "my bleatings" about the S3 Pro that had "prevented him from buying" himself an S3 Pro for a fairly long time! Wow, such influence! Imagine how I felt when JK blamed ME for preventing HIM from buying an S3 Pro! What, didn't he read the initial Thom Hogan review of the camera? The review that called for FujiFilm's engineers to RE-DESIGN the S3 Pro, and if needed, to re-badge it? Uh.....even people who own and use the S3 have a laundry list of problems it suffers from. So, yeah, I think the S3 Pro is an interesting proposition of a camera. It clearly has a niche of followers who really,truly like what it gives them, but what I think about a camera is meaningless to anybody but me, or somebody who wants to shoot things the way I do. Honestly, I spent my camera money on the MUCH less-expensive EOS 20D back when the S3 was hitting the shelves,and frankly, I can see why so many people shoot Canon digital now. In terms of file size and easy,decent HIGH ISO capabilities and light metering, I think the 20D gives the D2x a real run for its money. If Fuji would have had the S3 Pro at $1699 in February of 2005,and not $2,500 at the same time, maybe I would have had a year and a half to fall in love with the S3 Pro. But I bought an 20D and a 4-lens outfit instead.
This past week, I shot EACH and every one of my D-SLR cameras, to get an idea of what they each can offer me. I have to say, the one thing that jumped out at me was the overall degree of artifacting from the S2 Pro images, the easy-breezy light metering and exposure of the 20D, and the tempermental and unforgiving nature of the D2x's imager,as well as the good color ACR in CS-2 now offers for the original D1's NEF files. While I liked the S2's color palettte, I was shocked to see how badly the imager performed on architectural subjects I was shooting,as well as on strong natural diagonal lines on macro subjects. And while I shot the D2x the most, I found time to shoot the 20D as well, and was muchly pleased at the high amount of detail both of those cameras (D2x and 20D) could resolve. I also had got in a bit of practice at autofocusing using several vastly different AF systems.
I think if you take a look,honestly, at the current state of affairs in digtal SLR-dom, the upper-level cameras from Canon have some advantages. Some real advantages,not just some imagined advantages. I'm a longtime Nikon fan,and am pretty committed to their system of lenses, but I must say that I am concerned that Nikon has made a series of really big mistakes and miscalculations over the past four years, which have in many cases, really hurt the company,and its loyal users. Product design and production flaws in the 70-200 VR lens, the D70, the D2h's dead meter problems, the D200 banding issues, and so on are some of the big mistakes Nikon has made in just the last couple of years. Nothing is perfect, but Nikon as a company has had some problems that I as a customer have found very annoying. But on-line there are some very interesting disagreements over what people are seeing with their own eyes. I think it's clear though: Bernie's S3 and EOS 5D comparison photos show what a real 12+ megapixel image looks like,and what an in-name-only 12 megapixel image looks like. He is taking some heat for using the wrong RAW converter,and shooting the S3 in some wrong-headed manner, but honestly, it's pretty clear; Six MP cannot compete with 12+ megapixels,resolution- and detail-wise.
Part II in this saga continued the day after I wrote the above. Bernie put up another post using different raw converters...frankly, the amount of difference between four good raw converter software applications is,well,miniscule at the limits of sensor resolution. Bernie took an urban landscape and examined small sections of some of the MORE-distant landscape, that part where every little bgit of added detail is nixe, and guess what? ACR and Fuji's own HU give about the SAME amount of detail resolved near the upper limits of the sensor's capabilities. I'm NOT buying that Fuji's HU raw software really betters ACR by enough to move the S3 out of the 6 million photosite category and even into the Canon 8.2 million photosite territory. Face it--all Pentax,Minolta,and most Nikon D-SLR's have a 6.1 MP or smaller imager in them, and the same with the S2 and S3 Fuji cameras. Canon has several 8 and 8.2 MP cameras, as well as higher MP models. Nikon has the D200 and the D2x. Canon goes 12.8 MP and up to 16.7 MP, with 1.6x, 1.3x,and 1.0x or Full Frame sensor sizes. The idea that Fuji's SuperCCD in either the S2 or S3 models resolves as much as a real 12 to 13 MP camera's sensor is just not consistent with the facts; in fact, the 8.2 MP 20D can resolve more REAL-world detail than an S3 can, if you really look at the images. The S2 and S3 do well on horizontal and vertical test chart lines; the real problem with the honeycomb sensor arrays is the problem with strong aliasing on diagonals,as well as just scrambled eggs-like detail on fine,high-frequency details in natural world scenes. Of course, the Fuji cameras have always been about COLOR and FEELING, and about the pictures, not about pixel-peeping. There is a certain subset of photographers who love the Fuji cameras,and who are willing to overlook a lot of flaws in order to get at the strength of the Fuji cameras. I see no problem with that. Fuji pictures often have a "look" about them. I see what Fuji-lovers see,picture-wise. But the details is where the Fuji cameras, S2 and S3, come up short. Who cares,though, if the pictures are good. Right?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Edge: Essential Photographic Equipment

The Edge is a reference to the "small things" that separate the best photographic equipment from the also-ran stuff.

What things give you an 'edge', photographically speaking? This is a tricky question to answer. Some of the things are surprisingly dull, like a good incident flash meter, a tape measure, a book of photographic calculation equations,some basic mathematics theory and practice,and some theoretical understanding of the principles of light and exposure,as well as some art study and some design and composition study. Other things are exciting products that are for sale at the photographic equipment retailers in the USA and Europe and Japan. You know, stuff like tripods, lenses, flash gear,and so on.

One thing that gives you an edge is a clean lens,front and rear. Today's microfiber cleaning cloths are superb compared to the old-fahioned standbys like Kodak Lens Cleaning Tissue or a freshly-laundered 100 percent cotton T-shirt or an old-fashioned lens chamois. There is nothing that can hold a candle to a good,new microfiber lens cleaning cloth.

A quality prime lens, like a 50mm 1.8,85mm 1.8, a 90- or 100- or 105mm f/2.8 macro lens, and a 300mm f/4 prime lens are four specific lens categories where owning a lens in each of the four categories can at times give you an edge over people who do not posses those specific lenses. You NEED a 50mm normal lens, you need a short macro telephoto,you need a high-speed short 85mm or 100mm f/2 or faster telephoto that focuses WELL and is sharp even wide open,and you need a prime 300mm f/4 lens. You might wonder why you would want a short macro telephoto AND an 85mm or 100mm f/2 or faster lens. Trust me, the short telephoto macro and the 85mm 1.8 or 85mm 1.4 lenses are different animals, and a 100 or 105mm f/2 or faster prime lens will be a real honey, no matter which brand you shoot. The 300mm f/4 prime lens, like Nikon's AF-S model is a very,very sharp,compact telephoto with many,many years' worth of service built right in. It's worth the thousand dollars. It shoots well,carries well,and makes pretty pictures. Nikon's 300mm f/4 AF-S lens is an investment.

A 12mm extension tube gives you an edge. The 12mm length tube is the most-useful length,followed by something around 20 to 24mm in length. The Kenko brand of AF, as in autofocus, extension tubes is available in single lengths,as well as in 3-ring sets. Similar producs have been marketed under other brand names in Europe,such as Soligar AF extension tubes. Pair the 12mm tube with the 300mm f/4 telephoto,and you have a good macro-range combo for skittish subjects or botanical gardens,etc.

A working,workable electronic flash diffuser unit gives you an edge. There are many,many types of devices that diffuse,or bounce, or bounce and diffuse, shoe-mount flash units like the Nikon SB 800 or Canon 550 EX flash. Lumiquest,Sto-Fen,Gary Fong,Photoflex,and other brands sell devices which MODIFY the output of a shoe-mount type flash. Mini-softboxes from Photoflex for example, can be useful; the Lumiquest bouncer devices have adherents, the original Sto-Fen flash diffuser has been SO successful that Nikon has included one of its design with every SB 800 flash sold,and so on. What is needed is some type of device that works for YOUR use of electronic flash. And to go with this, you NEED, you absolutely NEED a TTL remote flash connector cable, like the Nikon SC-29 cable for the new cameras and new flashes. Get the flash out of the shoe,put it in your left hand, or on a bracket,and learn how to point the flash around with the left hand when it's actually useful to do so.

A solid monpod gives you an edge. It really,really does,if you know how and when to use it. it helps keep you framed up when using long,heavy lenses, yet gives you flexibility and mobility. A monopod can also help you make very slow-speed wide-angle pictures in dim,crappy lighting, and it also steadies short telephoto lenses like 85-105-135 very,very well.

One of the big pro-type lenses can give you an edge. The AF speed and surety of the pro-glass lenses from Canon and Nikon,plus their uncompromised optical excellence and quality brings images with rich color saturation,high resolving power,good image contrast,and high quality imaging characteristics. The 200/2 VR and 300/2.8 lenses come to mind, as well as the 400,500,and 600 AF-S Nikkors and the 200-400 VR Nikkor. Smaller, more-modest and much more-afordable 85mm 1.4 or 105 DC lenses and the 70-200 f/2.8 stabilized telephotos also would qualify as lenses which "can" give you an edge when comparing what these lenses can do compared with the kind of results one can get with typical consumer-grade lenses. If you get into photography long enough and seriously enough, you will discover that there ARE a FEW lenses which can give you a real,true edge over those that are shooting wthout benefit of similar, state-of-the-art optics. The modern, 300mm f/2.8 telephoto class is a good example of a specific length and type of lens that has superb color saturation, superior image sharpness and contrast,and really first-rate AF performance,and which simply works BETTER than anything made at this time, for some situations. Nikon's 200mm f/2 VR is another similar lens which brings with it an edge over say, a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.

The real issue for serious shooters these days is to realize that YES, there ARE pieces of equipment that can and will bring with them a real,decided EDGE over shooters who do not have access to the same equipment; the problem is not in accepting the above fact, but in finding the financing to float all the new gear!

The Gary Mayo Affair, Part II: The Banishment

Well, I did a blog entry a while back on Gary Mayo's dilemma in deciding between a multi-speedlight setup with multiple Nikon SB 800 flash units OR studio electronic flash units and his decision dilemma between the Fuji S3 Pro and the Nikon D200. Well,on the camera part of the deal,it seems that Gary returned the S3, but continued to post on FujiFilm SLR Talk,putting up some poorly-done D200 images, as well as signature or "sig-file" pictures of tattooed buttocks of nubile young females, and things got very heated in the forum,and now some two weeks and two days later apparently Gary has been banned.
FujiFilm SLR Talk stalwart Artichoke began a post today, which deals with the banning of Gary Mayo from the FujiFIlm SLR Talk forum, and currently it has 45 posts total. You can find the threads beginning here
Anywwayyyyyyyyy....yet another bit of unpleasantness on a dPreview forum.Now that it's the year 2006 and D-SLR sales have finally reached well outside the spectrum of enthusiastic amateur and professional shooters, there's rabble mixing with royalty on the various internet photo forums and this "culture clash" of old guard versus newbies has been the source of MUCH controversy and MUCH consternation over the last year or so. I myself have become very disillusioned by the way some people conduct their businesses on the web. It's similar to the way the landed gentry of Europe must have felt when voting rights were given to the unwashed commoners. The level of public discourse has really hit new lows over the past year or so,I must say. I've got to say it, it's shocking to see what has become of FujiFIlm SLR Talk over the last six or so months since I've been gone.
Suffice it to say, each and every dPreview forum post now carries a new this week " [COMPLAINT] " hyperlink....never before has it been SO,so,sooooo easy to complain about a particular post,or poster. Yup, Phil has had to add the all-caps " [COMPLAINT] " link to the posts. That says a LOT about what's happened there. The degree of intolerance, and intolerance for different opinions on the various dPreview forums has grown to simply unacceptable levels. It's commponplace for newbies who have VERY litttle knowledge of digital photography or d-slrs or workflow concepts,to show up on a forum one day, and to immediately step into ongoing discussions and start taking very serious potshots at people who have spent a lot of time,a lot of effort,and who have done a lot of personal testing and research to get something good out of their tools. AND, it's also become very common for brand zealots to troll other forums trying to stir up trouble. Yup, there's now a " [COMPLAINT] " hyperlink with each and every discussion forum post on dPreview. Sad...
On the good side of things however, the FujiFilm FinePix S3 Pro is now selling for as little as $1,099 US dollars in the United Kingdom, and around $1,199-$1,250 US dollars from the largest New York mail-order giants,the last time I checked. I always said that the S3 was overpriced at $2,499,and although I think the S3's image quality potential is worthy of a price premium,given today's mid-2006 date and the state of the D-SLR business, even $1699 is wayyyy too much money to make S3 Pro camera move out of warehouses and onto dealer shelves and then to consumers' hands. Priced fairly, at $1299 US, the FujiFilm S3 pro is now making its way into the hands of MANY new and happy Fuji customers.LOADS of newbies are buying S3 Pro cameras and getting on-line to see what the deal is. Hooray FujiFilm,finally a fair price for the remaining S3 Pro cameras!
Overall, it is a good time to be involved with digital SLR photography. I make mention of FujiFilm's pricing policies simply because there has been a real sea change since the S3 Pro was on the drawing boards--Nikon,Canon,and Olympus are now practically giving away the farm to gain new digital body customers. Prices have never been as low as they are now, with the Nikon D50 and D70s going for very fair,very low prices, and the Olympus E-series models are priced VERY reasonably with 2-lens (two maker zooms!) outfits advertised in the $799 range! Pretty compelling, I think, the prospect of an Olympus D-SLR with TWO Olympus-branded zoom lenses, for $799. That's the price range of the better prosumer digital cameras of the past! Body prices on the Nikon D50 are very low, but the thing that impresses me the most about the D50 is not its low price, but its in-camera JPEG engine and tuning. Wow! Vivid,colorful pictures. In JPEG mode. Kind of un-Nikon-like JPEGs.
Why the hell can't Nikon tune its professional cameras D2x and D200 to output a snappy JPEG that has the vibrancy of the D50's JPEGS or the Fuji S3's JPEGs? Seriously...I've been doing some research, and it seems to me that in the hands of a reasonably competent photographer, the D50 produces the nicest out-of-camera JPEG in the entire Nikon lineup,D200 and D2x included. The Nikon D50 seems to be the camera aimed at mimicking the heavily-processed,very saturated,punchy,vibrant color look that prosumer camera users have grown accustomed to. It's funny ( in a tragic sense ) how just sixteen or seventeen days have seen the rise and fall of a poster on a dPreview forum. It's just been shocking to see how supercharged emotions have become on the various forums. Perhaps the Nikon D50 would have been the best camera choice for Gary Mayo.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Zoom Lens versus Prime Lenses: Some Ramblings

Zoom Lens versus Prime Lenses: Some Ramblings is just a title I came up with for this piece, in which I'll ramble on,writing without an outline, and in which I'll explore some of the differences between using a prime lens and using a zoom lens. The most-used prime lenses for me are 24mm, 35mm,90mm,105mm,135mm,180mm or 200mm,and 300mm. I'll get into which specific lenses as I go over the respective focal lengths as they compare with zoom lenses, such as why one might want to use the 35mm f/2 AF-D Nikkor as opposed to a zoom lens which encompasses the 35mm focal length, or how using a 70-200 zoom differs from using say, a 180mm lens, or a 105mm or a 200mm prime. So, let's get right into some of the various areas for discussion in the zoom lens versus prime lens debate.

Why would anybody want to use a prime lens instead of a zoom lens? Are there still advantages to using prime lenses when today's zooms are so very good? Are zoom lenses really needed as frequently as people think they are? What factors dictate when it is best to use either a zoom lens or a prime lens? Gosh, there are so many areas for exploration in this topic area, but those four areas are probably the most important ones to consider in selecting what lens to use.

Okay, so, let's get this straight right up front: there are "professional grade" zooms and there are "consumer grade" zooms, and there are "crap-grade" zooms. That's the way I see it. Price is not always a factor in determining how well a lens performs optically; Sigma,Tamron, and Tokina are all currently making some zoom lenses which are testing out optically as good as ANYTHING that Canon or Nikon are offering in some categories. Sigma and Tokina have hit the ultra-wide zoom lens market with super performing lenses in the 15-30 and 12-24 and 10-20 categories,and the optical performance of the 3rd party lenses are actually BETTER than the Nikkor 12-24 DX,for say,architecture, where the Nikkor's got some funky complex distortion which cannot be completely eliminated in software,and you're better off with the Tokina 12-24 than the much more costly Nikkor 12-24 lens if your goal is the best performance on software-aided distortion-corrected architectural shots. If you need a certain focal length range covered in a zoom lens, Nikon and Canon also have some gaps which only the 3rd party lens makers have covered right now. Sigma's 120-300mm f/2.8 is an example of a 3rd party lens which fills a unique niche that Canon and Nikon simply have no answer for;Tamron's new lightweight 200-500mm Di zoom is another lens unduplicated by the camera makers;Tamron's 28-75 f/2.8 Di has earned a reputation as a very,very solid performer that does about 90% of what the Nikkor 28-70 AF-S does, at 1/3 the cost; if you want a prime macro lens of 150mm, Sigma makes the only one I know of; if you want a 180mm macro lens with ultrasonic motor focusing and full-time manual focus override while in AF mode, Sigma again has that area covered;and the list goes on.

Do not be too concerned about the "price" of a lens and what you will be getting in today's market when you plunk down money for a lens that's not made by your camera's manufacturer. Sigma, Tamron,and Tokina are ALL making some damned good lenses which cost about 1/3 of what a comparable AF-S Nikkor or Canon L-glass model will cost. The 3rd party lens manufacturers have recently spent considerable amounts of R&D money on their prime lens designs,while at the same time, Nikon has been very sluggish on prime lens R&D and new product introductions except at the very top end of their lineup. Nikon's newest prime lenses have ALL been designed with Vibration Reduction technology,and are the 200mm f/2, the 300 f/2.8 and the 105mm macro VR lenses.

A short list of third party prime lenses which are very good would include the Tamron 90mm and 180mm macro lenses, the 105,150,and 180mm Sigma EX series macro lenses, and Tokina's new 100mm macro; all of these lenses meet professional requirments,and some of these particular primes have design features which make them pretty nice tools compared with what Nikon is offering right now. As you probably know, in Nikon land,virtually all the prime lenses,except for a handful,are screwdriver-focusing,basically old lens designs,which offer no manual focusing override when the camera is used in autofocus modes. Oh sure, the 105 VR Nikkor and the 300 f/4 AF-S lenses have AF-S focusing, and so do the 200,300,400,500,and 600mm lenses from Nikon; those lenses cost a significant amount of money and except for the 300/4 and 105mm VR,all are clearly out of the price range of most average consumers. In some categories, the 3rd party lenses,both prime and zoom models, seem to me to offer a very,very attractive proposition in one way or another. You want a 30mm f/1.4 autofocusing zoom lens with full-time manual focusing overide? Sigma's 30mm f/1.4 EX has the aspherical optical design, the ultrasonic motor focusing, and the associated full-time manual focusing override.Compare what Sigma's 30mm f/1.4 design offers in comparison with Nikon's 28mm 1.4 AF-D design,which as I understand it,has recently been discontinued. Hmmmm.....for many shooters, the high-speed Sigma 30mm 1.4 makes a lot of sense, and the pictures this lens makes are under the right conditions, are quite interesting. Shallow depth of field at short focal lengths became a HELL of a lot harder to pull off once we started shooting to 1.5x and 1.6x crop-sensored D-SLR's. If your vision calls for the shallowest depth of field at short focal lengths, like 20,24,and 28mm, SIGMA is the company that offers the widest-aperture lenses at these particualr short focal lengths, at least as compared with Nikon. Shorter focal length lenses bring with them, deep depth of field, and short focal lengths combined with the inherently deep DOF of crop-sensor cameras, makes it all the more difficult to employ shallow depth of field tricks or effects when you are stuck using a slow,consumer-grade zoom lens. When you're set to 24mm on a zoom lens at f/4, there is AMPLE depth of field on a crop-sensored camera. If you had the Sigma 24mm f/1.8 lens, you'd have at least a modicum of potential for achieving shallow depth of field effects and the wider angles of view possible with a short lens like a 20,24,or 28mm prime lens with truly "fast aperture".

So, right there, when you wish to isolate a subject through shallow depth of field, but still have the camera take in a wide angle of view, your best bet with a crop-sensored camera is a PRIME wide-angle lens of the fastest aperture speed posssible. And by fast I mean f/2, or better. To get that kind of aperture speed, you need to step away from the consumer-priced zooms, and even away from the f/2.8 "professional grade" zoom lenses, and shoot with a prime lens. No way around it. The physics of small sensor sizes paired with short focal length lenses means that the ultra-speed prime wide angle lenses are about the only tools that can be used to create shallow depth of field with a wide angle lens. There actually _is_ a reason that Leitz,Nikon,and Canon have LONG striven to design and manufacture at least a few high-speed (f/2,or faster, like 1.8 or 1.4) wide angle lenses. Today, the 24mm f/2 and 28mm f/2 focal lengths are NOT made in Nikon AF mount, but they were in the film days, and now that we shoot on small-sensored cameras, the entire sub-class of ultra-speed wide-angle lenses has been completely abandoned by Nikon. There AIN'T no ultra-speed 24mm lens anymore from Nikon; if anything, the ultra-speed wide-angle lens category has beeen eliminated from the Nikon lens lineup,probably because MANY shooters who use the short focal length lenses actually want DEEP depth of field, and thus have no desire for anything other than deep depth of field on almost every shot they make with short focal lengths. In other words, MANY shooters using short focal lengths are trying to maximize depth of field AND get maximum optical quality by shooting at, say f/8. Think "landscape photographers", not photojournalists or social/documentary photographers.

This general lack of true lens speed (f/2 or faster) in the wider-angle focal lengths from 12mm to 35mm in the Nikon lens catalog is not missed by MANY people. But there are those who like the idea of wide angle of view of the lens AND the ability to isolate a subject so that not each and every image is a deep depth of field picture. It's hard to describe what it is like to shoot with the 35mm f/1.4 Nikkor wide-open,and to have a sense of semi-wide angle view AND the ability to throw the backdrop so out of focus that the eye is not allowed to really see too much sharpness in the backdrop. A crop-sensored camera really,really kills shallow depth of field effects with today's pokey-aperture zoom lenses. The combining of 1)capturing to a physically smaller sensor and 2) the loss of lens aperture speed due to zoom lenses is a deadly combination that just RUINS the ability to isolate many subjects from their environment by opening the lens up wide. There is simply NO substitute for true lens speed,like f/1.4 or f/1.8 when the focal length in use is short, such as 20mm,or 24mm,or 28mm,and in these cases, the difference between a cheap f/3.5 or f/4 maximum aperture wide angle zoom lens and and an ultra-speed prime lens is one of the FEW areas where the equipment itself holds tremendous potential for creative effects. In as few words as possible, if you want to try and isolate foreground subjects from backgrounds while using a wide-angle lens length, you simply MUST buy a prime lens. And the wider the aperture, the better. There is a reason the Sigma corporation has decided to produce a handful of ultra-speed prime lenses. The B&H website would be a good place to familiarize yourself with what's out there,and who makes the fastest-aperture wides.

The ability to isolate foreground subjects from the background is typically what most people consider to be the province of telephoto lenses. Many people will gladly shell out many hundreds of dollars for a lens that can create foreground/background isolation effects, or shallow depth of field photographs of pretty women,or nature pictures,or macro subjects, or whatever,and many shooters own costly 85 to 135mm lenses,or 180 or 200,or 300mm lenses which quite easily produce get shallow depth of field effects.What many of these shooters might not know is that they can get almost the same degree of shallow depth of field for under a hundred dollars by using a modern,autofocusing 50mm lens and shooting it at f/2 or f/2.2 or f/2.5 at very close distances,with backgrounds which are at least a dozen feet or more distant behind the main subject. If you've ever tried it, you've seen that a 50mm lens set to f/2 or f/2.2 can give shallow depth of field effects, and can almost totally "blow out the focus" on the background if the background is at least 20 feet (or farther) behind the close-range foreground subject which you've focused on. Of course, there are no consumer-grade OR professional-grade zoom lenses that allow you to use a 50mm focal length and an aperture setting of f/2 or f/2.2. So,once again, there is a reason for the 50mm f/1.4 and 50mm f/1.8 lenses that ALL the major camera makers still have in their lineups. A real,solid,honest-to-goodness example of when a prime lens can be better than any zoom lens! In low light indoors or outdoors, a cheap Nikkor 50mm 1.8 AF lens can get a focus lock in situations where a zoom lens will have difficulty. Why? More light to the AF system! A lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 sucks in a lot of light....a zoom that tops out at f/4.5 does not suck in a lot of light!

The very costly 85mm ultra-speed lenses Canon and Nikon make,with f/1.2 and f/1.4 maximum apertures give the photographer a SIGNIFICANT set of advantages over most f/2.8 maximum aperture zoom lenses, and most of the same advantages are also found in the very affordable 85mm f/1.8 lenses that both Nikon and Canon have in their lens lineups.The actual pictorial differences possible between an f/1.8 prime lens and a slow-aperture zoom lens is pretty real when using a crop-sensored D-SLR. When one compares the pictorial possibilities of an 85mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 lens as compared to say, a 70mm-300mm f/4~5.6 variable maximum aperture zoom lens, it becomes very clear that there are a hell of a lot of pictures that simply cannot be MADE when using a slow-aperture zoom lens. Again, this is sophisticated subject matter I am trying to write about, and it's difficult to describe the interactions between sensor size/focal length/lens maxiumum aperture/subject distances/lens angle of view relationships, but trust me: the sensor size is critical, but the real bottom-line difference is the fact that the prime lens can offer the shooter HUGE advantages in several critical areas,such as 1)allowing the creation of pictures which can direct the viewer's eye through the use of shallow depth of field effects, 2)gathering more light for the focusing system to work with, 3)allowing the creation of pictures using available,ambient light without flash and its distruption and temporary nature and,4)allowing the use of faster shutter speed settings to stop camera or subject motion from spoiling the pictures or 5)allowing more flexibility in ISO settings which are actually "workable" in real-world shooting.

Let's face it: if you want shallow DOF effects, a 50mm prime lens can give you shallow DOF at closer distances and at apertures like f/1.8 to f/2.5, AND a 50mm lens allows you to shoot pictures at say f/1.8 at 1/60 second; many consumer-grade zoom lenses are only f/4.5 at their 50mm setting!!! No matter what the ISO speed you've got your D-SLR set to, when the light level drops to moderately low, a 50mm lens that opens to only f/4.5 is going to impose a number of restrictions on your picture-taking choices. Simply stated, fifty millimeters and a maximum aperture of f/4.5 is a huge pictorial one-way street after the camera-to-subject distance gets past 15 feet...after that, almost everything will be annoyingly in pretty good focus,with deep depth of field, no matter what you do. With a prime lens, you can open the aperture up significantly MORE than with most all zoom lenses. And, while f/1.8 at 1/60 is okay for low-ligght pics, how does f/4.,5 grab you? Uh, can you say perfectly exposed blurry smears? Bring out the electronic flash in order to overcome your slow-aperture zoom lens and its deficiencies...

In a head-to-head comparisons between the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF lens and a slow consumer zoom lens,like say the Sigma DC 18-125mm f/3.5~f/5.6 zoom, it becomes pretty clear that for indoor photography the Sigma is just too damned slow and it becomes a very limiting lens a lot earlier than a 50mm AF prime lens. Limiting not only in terms of pictorial potential,but also limiting in terms of shutter speeds that are possible, and also how much light comes in through the camera to do things like 1) run the autofocus system 2) see the image in the finder and 3)expose the pictures with.

It's probably a line of thinking not considered or not well understood by many people, but I've sold photo equipment to the public for a long time and I've studied photography trends and habits,and one thing I realize is that there comes a time when there is an absolute "need for speed" in one's lens,but that many enthusiastic amateur photographers totally LACK the ability to leverage even ONE prime lens because zoom lenses have become so commonplace. There are many people who have not got a CLUE as to why a fast prime lens is an absolute necessity once in a while, or why even a cheap $99 50mm 1.8 autofocusing lens can actually be better than a $1,000 but only f/4 maximum aperture zoom lens from Nikon or Canon. There now exists an entire class of amateur photography enthusiasts,many of whom do own any prime lenses! What's so sad for these people is that they often have no way to make an exposure with an aperture larger than f/5.6,so they have no way to get "speed",as in fast shutter speeds. Fast is a relative term; in a church sanctuary 1/180 would be a fast shutter speed; on a soccer pitch 1/1250 is a fast shutter speed.Slow-aperture zoom lenses keep their users OUT of the fast speed territory,both indoors in the church sanctuary and outdoors on the sports fields, and that's a shame.

Using the Sigma 18mm-125mm f/3.5~5.6 zoom lens, once zoomed about 65mm, the effective maximum aperture drops to f/5.6. Good cripes!!! That is painfully limiting to one's photograpy,in a number of different ways. Similarly, in the telephoto ranges of the lower-cost zoom lenses, "pokey" maximum apertures mean that there is almost ZERO low-light and almost ZERO action-stopping potential using such zoom lenses.One aspect of the 50mm and 85mm and 105mm Nikkor primes are that they are ALWAYS allowing in f/1.4 to f/2 in terms of light to run the AF system,and to view by.

Compare the low-light focusing and image capture abilities of the 85mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor,which sells for around four hundred dollars, and compare the AF and IC abilities of a similar $400 wide-to-telep zoom that offers its owner an 85mm zoom focal length with the blazing speed of f/5.6. Uck! The maximum aperture values of many zoom lenses are simply _pathetically slow_ compared with prime lenses. In low or poor lighting conditions even the professional Nikon bodies can have difficulty in giving the photographer decisive and accurate AF capability. And, the truth is that f/2.8 is still NOT FAST ENOUGH to deliver really good AF performance under BAD lighting conditions. I've had indoor basketball situations, all too many of them, where the 70-200 VR was not able to focus as fast or as decisively as either the 105 DC or 135 DC Nikkor primes which are both f/2 lenses. One might thin k that in a high school gym, the 70-200 VR would be a really magnificient focusing lens with the D2x. Well, I think the 105 DC is far better for one-shot acquistion. I have also used the 85mm 1.4 AF-D in the same basketball situtations, and frankly, I think the 105 DC misses focus a lot less often than the 85 1.4 misses. There is,at times a real and true "need for speed". When you're stuck at f/4.5 or God forbid, at f/5.6, your shutter speed is in the toilet,there's no background control potential a lot of times, and the low ISO's have long ago flow left town. The sad fact is that f/5.6 has become the new suburbs....f/5.6 used to be the slums, but with the proliferation of zoom lenses, f/5.6 has moved up.These days there are all too many serious amatuers with NO SPEED capability once their zoom lenses get past 70mm focal length. It's sad,and it's limiting.

The absolute best buys in lens speed are the 50mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor lenses. You can spend all the
money in the world and buy a hunbdred zoom lenses, and not one of them will open up to f/1.8, nor will they allow you to shoot at action-stopping shutter speeds in crappy lighting conditions the way either of these two modest Nikkor primes will. And,while the best buys are the 50mm and 85mm 1.8 lenses, there is another equally important point,which is the dividing line between the now-suburban f/5.6 maximum aperture setting of a telephoto zoom lens,and the much more regal f/4 maximum aperture of lenses like the 300mm f/4 Nikkor or Canon lenses and the pokey 70-300 f/5.6 lenses. it's sad, but true, that late in the afternoons or in open shade, a tele-zoom lens that opens up only to f/5.6 is worth much less as a picture-maker than a premium-grade telephoto lens which can pull f/4, or faster. Again, there is a real,significant set of reasons for the existence of 300mm f/4 telephotos and 300mm f/2.8 telephotos from ALL the major manufacturers. Canon might have the edge with its affordable 300mm f/4 telephoto which offers Image Stabilizer and Ultrasonic Motor focusing,compared with Nikon's 300mm f/4 which has only ultrasonic motor focusing, but no image stabilizing system. But still, the Nikkor 300mm f/4 AF-S is a very nice telephoto lens,particularly since it can do a pretty good job as a field telephoto and a sort of macro lens of sorts. For pictures of butterflies or plants, the 300mm is long enough to give high image magnification from fairly long distances,as macro shooting goes. A 300mm lens allows a working distance about six times farther than a 60mm lens gives; this makes it easier, a hell of a lot easier, to get just the right flash exposures or to balance flsh with daylight than when the flash is a foot to eighteen inches from the subject,and the flash power must be set VERY low, thus making a very wide disparity between the flash exposure and the daylight exposure. With a 300mm lens, you can shoot "closeups" from seven feet away, and the electronic flash unit doees not have to be squelches after giving off a mere "peep" of light.

The problem with the Nikkor 300mm f/4 AF-S lens is focusing. Pure and simple. it has some focusing tendencies that make it unreliable for action work,like high school sports. Even when using a pretty danged good camera, like the D1h or the D2x, the 300/4 AF-S has a tendency to hunt for focusing at the most inopportune times. And, in low-contrast or open-shade + low contrast target situations, the 300/4 AF-S can FAIL to get focus on too many occasions to make it worthwhile as a reliable sports telephoto lens. I have been let down by the 300/4 AF-S on too many occasions to really ever consider it reliable for assignment work. For scenic and macro-range work,and some types of portraiture, the lens is sweet indeed. The pictures are generally sharp,contrasty,and possesing shallow DOF. The AF problems are especially problematic on head-on action which comes right at the camera position...crossing shots ar enot neearly so bad, but too many times when action comes right at the camera, this lens gets confused and futzes up the focus so bad that you cannot get the shot in AF mode. I've never owned the Canon 300/f 4 IS lens, but I bet it focuses better under pressure than the 300/4 AF-S. And yet still, this lens has as much, or more f/stop speed than almost any zoom lens that goes out to 300mm offers; in today's market, a 300mm prime telephoto that gathers f/4 worth of light is a DREAM for the fellow who is used to being stuck at f/5.6 or even ff/6.3 at is 300mm setting.

Make no mistake about it...a modern 300mm ultrasonic motor focusing prime lens is a very SWEET prime lens,and worth its weight in sharp,clear,narrow-angle photographs. it keeps the backgrounds softer than a short lens does, and it's good enough to use wide-open at f/4, and it focuses pretty fast,usually. If you like to work from longer distances when doing your photography, and want to make narrow-angle of view compositions or to highlight small details and small sections of landscapes, sports action,etc, there is simply NO substitute for a 300mm f/4 prime lens. Oh, Sigma's 100-300mm f/4 EX HSM comes reasonably close to being a substitute for the Nikkor 300/4 AFS, but the Sigma has lower sharpness,and an entirely different color balance and "look",and at least my sample, a real tendency to BADLY backfocus on the D2x in a very 'flakey' manner. So, really, there's no substitute for the 300mm f/4 autofocus prime lens of the most recent design from Canon or Nikon. However, in terms of autofocusing performance on sports action, the 300 f/2.8 AFS-II Nikkor lens is leagues ahead of its smaller contemporary lens, the 300mm f/4 model. I assume the very-newest 300mm f/2.8 Nikkor, the VR-equipped G-series model also has the same superb AF characteristics of the AF-S II generation that preceded it. If you want really "the best" in terms of AF performance, the 2.8 lenses actually deliver better AF performance,as well as make it possible to stop motion or to shoot in poor light as far into the day as is currently possible.

The biggest diffference between using a prime and a zoom is usually maximum APERTURE and the range of possible shutter speed that aperture will "buy" in tough lighting conditions. When you need to stop subject movement, and keep shutter speeds high to keep from spoiling the pictures due to shake or speed blur, the fast prime lenses from f/1.4 or f/1.8 or f/2 offer real,tangible,important benefits that slower-aperture zooms simply can NOT offer. In crap lighting, a 50mm f/1.8 or 85mm f/1.8 will allow you to focus and to get very good pictures even under kind of marginal lighting conditions.There's a raison d'etre for the 35mm f/2, the 50mm f/1.8, and the 85mm f/1.8 lenses. For not a lot of money, each is a small and reasonably light lens offering very good image quality and a wide range of image-making potential,in a very discreet lens size. Having a camera fitted with a very small lens can actually work to your advantage in many social photography situations. Aiming the 13-inch long 70-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor with its petal-shaped lens hood means does not give off the same "vibe" as shooting pictures with a 35/2 or a 50/1.8 or an 85/1.8. One lens is obnoxious and intimidating to many people, where the 535-50-85 primes are much more "friendly" shall we say.

The second difference between using a prime lens and using a zoom lens is the way the two lens types influence the way one actually conducts the photography. With a prime lens, new compositions rely most on moving the camera position. With a prime,all images shot at a given distance and f/stop look similar to other frames made by the lens. In some ways, you might say that a prime lens can impart a "sameness" or a "repeatability" or a "predicatability" to its photographs. I learned photography with prime lenses of 24,28,35,50,85,105,135,and 200mm and 300mm. I've never been much of a zoom lover,really, not at least until fairly modern times.

When you're actively working with a prime lens "kit", which can be two lenses, or three, or four, or whatever, you quickly learn to anticipate which lens you'll need,and you also can predict, and I mean really PREDICT, where you need to stand to get what kinda' picture you envision. A prime lens has a constant angle of view throughout its entire lifetime as a usable lens. Once a lens and its angle of view characteristics are learned well, you have a set of mental images of how that lens views the world,and you also learn what that lens's strengths and weaknesses are. The "sameness,repeatability,and predictability" of a prime lens are not necessarily disadvantages,but can be viewed as real advantages. Learning to mentally pre-visualize a lens/aperture effect is part of learning the tools of the trade. I can mentally picture what a flower at seven feet looks like when shot at f/5.6 with a 300mm lens and a backdrop that is 30 feet behind the main subject. I can mentally imagine what the Tamron 90mm macro lens and its close-range pictures look will look like with that lens stopped down to f/9.5 and shot from eight inches away with a softbox-fitted speedlight hooked up to a TTL remote cord. You can start to appreciate the shallow DOF efect of the 50mm lens set to f/2 and shot to make a portait of a person at about seven feet away standing outdoors in front of a backdrop some 20-40 feet distant. A prime lens is simpler than a zoom. It never varies its angle of view. Practice makes perfect. When you shoot the same focal length lens frame after frame, you refine your compositions by moving the camera's position or the subject's position, or both.

Focal length is kept constant with a prime, unlike with a zoom lens. The prime,since it forces you to move the camera position so much, forces you to THINK about where the best camera position actually is, WHILE you are out there making the photographs.Proper positioning of the camera is a true cornerstones of good photography; without good positioning,you've got a laundry list of issues you'll need to overcome. If you can get a really good camera position, a prime lens can usually be found that'll deliver good pictures from that position. Without the ability to zoom in or to zoom back, a prime lens changes the way you can,or can NOT, cover fast-paced action like sports or nature shots. With a prime lens, at times you will find your lens is too long or too short,and it's best to have a second camera fitted with another lens if you need to overcome focal length problems really quickly. At times, the sheer AF capability and superb optical quality of a prime lens means the prime lens is _the_ best choice for a given shot or series of shots,or for an entire event or session. However, many times the most-valuable asset one's lens can provide is focal length flexibility. Instead of needing separate 24,35,50,and 85mm lenses, I can rely on the Nikkor 24-85 AF-S G lens,provided I do not need lens aperture speed for available light shooting,or if I a can rely on flash for my lighting,and with that one modest zoom,I can cover the angles of view of four primes with one zoom lens.

Focal length flexibility is one sterling quality that zoom lenses bring to photography The sheer picture-making convenience and ease of use of the most modern zoom lens designs is simply amazing. Today's zoom lens offerings reads like a wish list. 12-24mm, ,17-35mm,17-55mm,18-50mm,18-200mm,24-120mm, 24-85mm,28-70mm,28-200mm, 28-300mm,35-70mm,50-500mm,70-200mm,80-400mm,100-300mm, 200-400mm,geeze,the mind boggles with the range of focal lengths one can get in today's 2006 zoom lens market. Prices range from a few hundred dollas, to around five thousand dollars for the 200-400mm f/4 Nikkor zoom. Today, there are zoom lenses with 11x focal length ranges. People like wide-ranging lenses like 28-200 or 18-125mm as walkabout or travel or vacation lenses. I own both an 18-125 consumer zoom,and a 28-300mm consumer zoom lens,and a 28-200 consumer zoom lens. I have places where all three of those lenses are kinda' nice to own. Nikon is having HUGE sales success with the new 18-200mm AF-S VR G lens which premiered along with the D200. The 18-200 VR is a runaway sales success,and as an all-in-one or so-called 'superzoom lenses' , it seems almost the consensus that the 18-200 VR is the best superzoom yet designed performance-wise. People using crop-sensored D-SLR's,which all Nikons are, understand the beauty of the 18mm low end. And of course, there are many who drool over the 10-20 and 12-24mm ultra-wide zooms now on the market and selling so well. If you have a need, there is probably a zoom lens which can fulfill that need. The problem is that some of the best-performing zoom lenses are very expensive,and also very heavy,and also rather large and obnoxious-looking in many situations.

I am NOT a fan of the coffee can zoom lenses on crop-sensored D-SLRs. Other people are. In my opinion, Nikon's huge, coffeecan 28-70 f/2.8 AF-S and 17-55 f/2.8 DX-G lenses, both of which sport modest f/2.8 maximum apertures, are excessively larger and heavier than COMPARABLE and almost EQUAL lenses from Sigma and Tamron. It's possible to make a huge, 48-ounce lens, or a much,much lighter lens, while maintaining the same 17- or 18-mm wide end, and 50 mm top end and f/2.8 aperture. My personal feeling is that excessively large,and heavy lenses are a hindrance in most social photography situations, where the sheer size and ostentatiousness of the lens design actually work AGAINST the photographer. Shutterbugs and their friends and families may be used to Uncle Frank or Uncle Bill pointing a 28-70 AFS at them, but regular people on the street often respond in a flat-out negative way when a huge,fat lens is pointed in their direction. The same people do NOT respond in the same way when a modest, small-profile lens is fitted to a camera. I have seen this behavior for over 20 years; the big,fat,huge "professional" lenses draw an entirely different reaction than small,discrete lenses like a 50mm or a 35 f/2,or a very small zoom like the little 35-70 f/3.3~4.5,which looks like a slightly fat 50mm prime lens. I remember being one of the first adopters of the 28-85 f/2.8 Variable Focal Length Vivitar Series 1 lens in the early 1980's. WOW! Was that ever a big,fat lens in its day! It drew stares then,and other similarly-sized lenses still do today.

As I see it,the introduction in 2006 of the 105mm Micro-Nikkor with AF-S focusing and VR is a sign that Nikon is now addressing one of its last significant design and marketing challenges, which is the lack of AF-S focusing in well over 90 percent of its prime lenses. Nikon's loss of the PJ/sports shooter markets to Canon is in many ways, a lens-driven thing. Most Nikkor primes available today do not offer full time manual focusing override, unless it is a "true sports lens" like the 200mm f/2VR, 300/2.8,or 400/2.8. The 300/4 AF-S is a poor sports lens, since it has such a crappy AF system. Canon's simply got full time manual focusing and ultrasonic motor autofocusing in more primes than Nikon does, plus stabilization. So, to me, Nikon making the 105 VR Micro-Nikkor is a very good sign that Nikon is commited to addressing one of it's system's real,not imagined, weaknesses. Canon has more stabilized zoom lenses, and more stabilized prime lenses than Nikon does,
but finally Nikon is responding with some new VR primes now,which is a psotive sign for us Nikon shooters.

Today, I think that Nikon expects most serious amatueur and even professional users to be happy with three professional-grade zoom lenses, and one or two or perhaps as many as three prime lenses,for a "Full Kit" lens-wise. 12-24 Dx, 17-55 Dx, 70-200 VR, 105 Micro VR, 300/2.8 VR,and one other lens of one's choosing. There ya' go. Five lenses,perhaps six lenses total,each lens as good as Nikon can engineer and build. A Full Kit. Focal length flexibility in ultra-wide zoom, a wide-to-normal zoom lens, and a telephoto zoom lens with AF-S focusing and VR and sweet optics, a quality macro lens with AF-S and VR, and a quality big glass telephoto with AF-S and VR. Canon offers very similar lens choices these days,with additional choices as well.

The most important thing to realize is that,while today's zoom lenses are very wonderful,useful optics, there is almost ALWAYS a prime lens which can offer better performance,or lighter weight,or both,for almost any focal length. And some of the absolute BEST-performing lenses are the purpose-built prime lenses, like the macro lenses and the big-glass telephoto lenses. If I had to pick ONE prime lens that gives me my money's worth all the time, it is the 105mm AF-D D.C. Nikkor. The 105 DC is a superior lens, with a wonderful list of qualities. Indoors in low-light basketball, the 105 DC is one of the best-focusing Nikkor lenses you can own. While I love the 70-200 VR, at times it simply can NOT get a focus lock in time to make a good picture, and at such times, even the lowly 50mm 1.8 AF is a better lens choice than the big pro zoom. For good focus on even the Fuji S2, my go-to lens has been the 105 D.C. Nikkor. Well, that's enough rambling.