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.


Nishant said...

Derrel, I'm relatively new to photography. Since OctoberI've been experimenting with a canon S45, which has a range of nifty features. After weeks of research I bought the Nikon D50 last week. Unfortunately I got the kit lens 18-55, and I haven't been overly impressed with the results. Since reading your article, i've decided to return the lens and purchase the 50mm f1.8. I'll let you know how that all progresses! Thanks, Nishant.

Anonymous said...

I have travelled extensively in third world countries and had even difficulty getting batteries for my EOS-5. (LOL, in some areas even "normal" AA batteries were hard to get).

In the end I just gave up on the camera and moved to a Nikon FE. This has now been replaced by the Nikon FM3A. What a delight not to have to rely on where your battery is coming from. I gave up on zoom's long time ago and now travel relatively light: I have just two lenses in my kit: the trusty old 50mm F1.8 AI-s and a 135 F2.8 Series E AI-s. Both tack sharp, both very good. Yes, I make compromises and I miss the occasional shot. But I do not have a sore back after carrying my gear around all day.

The 135 is on the long side for a true "portrait" shot but the short, unobstrusive tele doubles up for good for "sneak" shots across the street. You do not get hassled as much because the locals think "you cannot afford a decent camera, he he". You do not need to carry x dozen of different sized filters, both use the same 52mm size filters so a single set will do. And then talking about the constructions of the "old MF lenses". They put anything modern to shame, they are build like a tank!

And let's not talk about when you are in areas with extreem cold. The batteries or LCD freeze up and the electronic controlled camera's stop working.

I am just glad that the disposable camera's still use 35 mm film, in other words my camera can keep clicking away for a while to come.