Monday, November 06, 2006

Nikon Lens Buying Guidelines and Suggestions

This blog entry is about some thoughts I have on the subject of buying lenses for the Nikon F-mount in late 2006. BUYING BLIND,without having done any research, can be risky. Buying blind can lead to getting overcharged. Buying a new lens costs more than buying a used lens of identical model and vintage. Sometimes buying an older-style lens,like a manually focusing lens, can save hundreds of dollars over the cost of a newer,autofocusing model that has replaced the older lens design. As in most things, there are no universal truths,only good general guidelines. There are a heck of a lot of lenses.Some cost only a little,many cost a modest amount,while some lenses cost thousands of dollars. The answer to the question, "What lens should I buy now?" can be answered in very few words, as in, "Whichever lens you desire," or "the one that costs the most," or "the one the pros like the most", and so on. But it's impossible to fit every lens to every task, and there are many,many lenses. I'm gonna' give my take on some commonly-asked questions I've seen over the last few years.

Question-- Is Sigma or Tamron or Tokina the best aftermarket brand?
ANSWER-- It depends. Sigma's EX line and Tamron's SP-series lens models are the premier offerings those two companies make. Tokina calls its best lenses AT-X Pro. Sigma,Tamron,and Tokina make some DANGED good lenses! The best lenses these companies make are very,very good lenses,sold at fair prices. The 90mm Tamron,100mm Tokina ,and Sigma 105mm macro lenses are ALL fine lenses. So are the 150 and 180mm Sigma EX macro lenses,and the 180mm Tamron macros. IMHO, anybody who wants a 70mm macro (only Sigma makes a 70mm macro), or a 150mm macro (only Sigma makes a 150mm macro), or a 180mm macro lens,well, you simply MUST buy outside the Nikon lens line,and the independents have designed their macro teles for the new digital sensors,and have features that Nikon simply does not offer, like HSM focusing in a tele-macro of 150-180mm for example.Third-party lens makers have targeted the macro segment VERY directly, in an effort to make more-affordable lenses or lenses which the big makers cannot compete on in either price,or value for dollar. In the case of Nikon, there simply ARE no 50,70,90,100,or 150,or 180mm macro lenses made, and until the new 105 VR-G macro lens hit the street, there was NO Nikkor macro lens that had AF-S type focusing,with full-time focus override. Sigma's 150 and 180mm EX macros have hypersonic motor focusing and full-time manual focus override/touchup,making them possible double-duty field telephotos, which is an area where Nikon is kind of flat-footed. Nope, the 3rd party lens makers have made very specific,targeted attacks on Nikon and Canon in the macro lens arena,and deserve very serious consideration. Tamron's 90mm Di Macro, Tokina's 100mm f/2.8 ATX Pro Macro, and the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 EX HSM Macro are all outstanding lens designs,just for starters. If you don't own a telephoto macro lens, you're really missing something valuable for close-range photography.

In the 10-20 and 12-24mm ultra-wide zoom category, both Sigma and Tokina have pretty good reputations with their lenses. Nikon's 12-24 DX is not the best architectural use lens; you'd probably rather have the Tokina's distortion profile if you're an architecture freak who's gonna want to correct distortion in software. Sigma,Tamron,and Tokina all make a FEW really good lenses. Over just the last few years, barrel distortion figures have gone way down over the wide-angle settings, and overall image quality has gone UP in the better zoom lens models from both the camera makers and the 3rd party lens firms,and nowadays even the relatively low-priced $499 17-50mm f/2.8 Tamron delivers VERY low distortion figures, with excellent sharpness and contrast. In late 2006 it does not make much sense to pay $1400 or $999 for a lens in the 17-50 or 18-50mm zoom range,at least for most people. If there's a lens focal length range and aperture value you'd like to own,there's a good chance it's available both from your camera's manufacturer,or from Sigma,Tamron,or Tokina. And, there's a chance that a 3rd party ultra-wide zoom lens, macro lens,or fixed focal length telephoto or big-time zoom lens is a reasonable choice for MOST users.

Forget the 28-70mm f/2.8 AF-S Nikkor lens unless you're a big,strong person who likes lugging around a two-pound lens that's not very wide and not very telephoto. The 28-70 focal length range is very limiting on APS-C d-slr's from Nikon and Fuji, and has been supplanted by the Nikkor 17-55 DX for those who shoot a d-slr and want a wide-angle to normal lens. If you're well-off financially and want the best that can be had in 2006,buy the Nikkor 17-55 DX,and get what the 28-70 AF-S USED TO BE on full frame 35mm film. For everybody else, buy the Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 for $499. If you must have a 28-70-something,look at Tamron's 28-75 f/2.8-it's a very good lens for a very fair price, for those who want or need the roughly 28-70mm focal length range.

The next one: I need a lens for wildlife. Okay, define wildlife. Then, get a bank loan or a credit card with a high limit, because by the time you're through, you'll need SERIOUS money if you have to shoot undisturbed,free-roaming wildlife from far away,or under demanding conditions. However, if daylight hours are okay, and you're a Sunday aviary snapper, or a Metropolitan Zoo lion and giraffe snapper, you can buy a $100 500mm f/8 from a Ritz Camera store for use in bright lighting conditions. How about an $85 Nikkor 200mm f/4 Ai that's for sale right now at, hooked up to a used Nikon TC-200 2x telephoto converter? The quality of the 200mm f/4 Ai or AiS lens and a Nikon TC 201 or TC 200 2x teleconverter is every bit as good as the 80-400VR is at 400mm. Seriously. The 200mm f/4 t 2x TC is good in bright lighting only, but it's 400mm's worth of reach.

Need a cheap but dependable and LIGHTWEIGHT telephoto lens? How about a $75 Nikon 135mm f/2.8 Ai, with the same TC 200 or TC 201 converter, for a small,light 270mm f/5.6 with hair-trigger focusing? If you're in a marsh or riverine environment, a 135mm telephoto is actually a nice mid-distance lens,offering a nice selectivity of vision,and yet, with a certain amount of reach.The 135mm f/2.8 Ai or AiS Nikkors are cheap and sharp,and work "okay" with a 2x TC on them. The 200mm f/4 Ai or AiS Nikkor lenses are very compact,use 52mm filters, and are dependable and also very lightweight,and also available very affordably in the Ai mount in particular.

Under the heading of cheap but dependable are the 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkors made since the 1980's to the present year. And the 85mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor models made between the early 1990's and today are very nice lenses. Make no mistake--prime Nikkor lenses of 50,85,105mm,and 135mm are all reasonably good to excellent lenses,no matter if they are manual focus or autofocusing models. Anything made within the last 20 years is adequate,cheap,and actually pretty dependable. Most people are unaware of how good a 50mm f/1.8 or an 85mm f/1.8 Nikkor prime lens can be. The 50 and 85 1.8 autofocusing Nikkor models are VERY good lenses,and would be welcome additions to almost ANY shooter's bag.The 105mm f/2.5 AiS is a super performer,which is easy to focus,easy to carry,small,solidly built, and still fun to use.

For the best 'economy' long lens solution, well it has to be the 300mm f/4 AF-S Nikkor lens,paired with the 1.4x power Nikon TC14E or TC14e-II tele converter. The 300mm f/4 AF-S focuses very close for a 300mm lens, is relatively compact, and very sharp. It works acceptably well with the 1.4x converter added for a 420mm f/5.6, and while that slows down the autofocus and makes the AF somewhat more 'jittery', it does not cut sharpness too much on an F-mount d-slr,and it's hand-holdable and carryable for long distances. The 300 4 AF-S is a VERY good quality 300mm lens with a nice, narrow angle of view,and high-quality optics. AF speed is fairly high, but the lens does tend to hunt for focus under low-light/low-contrast situations,and it is NOT as good on overall autofocus performance as 'some lenses' for rapid-acquisition AF or under really high-pressure situations. Still, it's decent overall in all categories, and it's sharp,and it's CARRYABLE,and it works pretty well on its own,or with the 1.4x as a 420mm when you really NEED extra length. Still, with its converter added it's only effectively f/5.6, so....don't forget that.

The 300mm f/2.8 AFS-II is the current 300mm/2.8 I own. Its lightweight but strong magnesium alloy barrel and carbon fibre lenshood make it the lightest 300/2.8 AF Nikkor ever,and it's an excellent lens to buy on the second-hand market IF you want a 300mm f/2.8 lens that offers superior AF performance in the Nikon mount. The lighter weight and closer focusing of the Mark II AF-S model makes it seem the best buy of all the various AF, AF-i and AF-S models,to me. It's a bugger to carry,but this lens is designed for use on a monopod or tripod,and for that it's good. Its sharpness,contrast,and superb autofocus performance even under demanding conditions make it a great lens that delivers fine images,even at f/2.8. For action work,this lens is vastly preferrable to the 300/4 model because it focuses faster and better and more RELIABLY than the 300/4,which is only a middlin' AF performer. Not everybody needs the closer focusing or lighter weight of the AF-S II (second version AF-S model), and older,earlier model used 300/2.8's in AF are from $1,700 and up in price; the 300/2.8 VR-G is expensive. If you need a 300/2.8, you know you do. If you don't need one, it's absolutely foolish to buy one. Most people do not need a 300 2.8.

The 200mm f/2 VR-G Nikkor is a weighty lens,best used on a monopod. It offers beautiful bokeh--just incredibly beautiful bokeh! It is also a superb autofocus performer,and I've used it on indoor swimming,indoor basketball,indoor volleyball,available light portraiture,and track and field. It is one of the BEST-focusing lenses I've ever used on the D2x,even under the most difficult condition I face several times each year, which is late afternoon open shaded conditions paired with raindrops,and track runners coming mostly straight ahead. The 200/2 focuses very,very well using a group dynamic AF approach with the D2x at the ranges I most often use it at,and it gives exceedingly rich,beautiful saturated color,and it also shoots against the light pretty darned well for a long,fast telephoto.The 200/2 is one of the prettiest portrait imagers I've ever seen--it makes magnificently beautiful images of people. The cost is around $4k in the USA,making it an exotic lens in most ways. It _can_ be used with the TC14e as a pseudo 300/2.8 with pretty acceptable performance, but it's not the same thing as the 300/2.8. If you need aperture speed,and VR,and cutting-edge optics, this lens offers it, but it's so heavy and bulky that,for its focal length,the lens is suitable only for really "serious use". But for serious use situations, it rewards the user with stellar imaging characteristics and a very high degree of "impression" in its images. It makes very,very pretty pictures. That's the adjective that pops to mind; the images actually look 'pretty'. In air quotes!

Lenses which can give an "impression" on the photos they make. Well, this is the area where familiarity and experimentation with many lenses comes into play. Under the heading of subjective image quality is a category I think of as "impression",and it incorporates several things. Image saturation, bokeh, contrast, resolution, focal length in relation to film size, and angle of view,as well as a few oher intangibles make up what I call "impression". Some lenses put a very strong impression on the images they make. Lenses like the Lensbaby, for example. Or the Nikkor 135mm f/2 Defocus Control lens, or the Noct-Nikkor shot wide open at f/1.2, or the Canon 85mm f/1.2 L, or the 105mm f/2 Defocus Control Nikkor, or the 85mm 1.4 AF-D, or the 200/2 VR Nikkor for specific examples. The original model Lensbabywhen shot solo or when used with a 2x tele-converter puts a wonderful "impression" on its images. The Nikkor 45-P does a nice job too, but it's a very mild impression. Here is a short list of standout lenses in terms of "impression". Lensbaby,Lensbaby 2.0, Nikkor 85mm 1.4 AF-D, 105 f/2 D.C., 135 f/2 D.C.,300/4 AF-S, 300/2.8,and 200/VR, in about that order. The easiest lens to see a lot of lens "impression" in action on almost all images is the 135 f/2 D.C or Defocus Control Nikkor,which puts a strong,obvious "impression" on almost every picture it makes when used at appropriate f/stops. If I were to suggest owning just ONE reasonably affordable specialty lens for the effect of "impression" it would be the 135 Defocus Control lens. The 200/VR has an exceedingly high degree of "impression", but is,realistically, a PITA in everyday shooting, and it costs a fortune and even discussing it makes me feel elitist,sort of. The 85mm 1.4 AF-D and 105 f/2 DC Nikkors are also good lenses, but the 135DC lens really,really puts a distinct impression on its images.

For an all-in-one telephoto zoom lens of f/2.8 aperture, there are four sensible choices. Brand new, there is the 70-200 AF-S VR-G. Available on the used market is the superb but now-discontinued 80-200 f/2.8 AF-S and the two-ring 80-200 f/2.8 AF-D, which is a NON-AFS lens. There is also the Sigma 70-200 f/2.8. Any one of these is a good lens to own. Optical quality is similar between them all. Personally, I'd say that the 70-200VR offers excellent optical quality and bokeh and AF-S focusing and VR, which _REALLY_ does work,and work well too. The 70-200 VR can pinch hit for the 85,105,135,and 180mm prime Nikkors,and it pairs well with the 17-55 DX in a two-lens kit. The 70-200 VR is the best lens most people could own,and on a D2-class body with smart use of the AF system, it does pretty well on portraits and sports and all types of things from moving platforms. In WINDY CONDITIONS, a VR lens is an incredible asset,such as when at the seashore on gusty days, or when walking or hiking and slightly out of breath; Nikon's advanced VR technology takes the shake out of tired photographers, and helps calm you down a bit when the adrenaline's pumping. Its zoom and focusing,with full-time,switchless focus override, AF lock buttons, and slender barrel all make the 70-200VR a pretty sweet,sleek-tubed lens for action work,so if you can afford it, buy it. If not, buy the new Sigma 70-200 2.8 DG. ANY 80-200 f/2.8 zoom lens can be put to good use on a d-slr; I think Tokina's offering is the very weakest performer in the 80-200 2.8 class,and would suggest that the older 80-200 2.8 ONE-ring AF models from Nikon at $500 or so used, are still acceptable peformers for non-critical uses,and are also about a full pound lighter than the two-ring 80-200 Nikkors. If however, you need GOOD focusing, the 70-200 VR and 80-200 AF-S models are the only choices worthy of serious consideration, with the Sigma 70-200 being third place, but still HSM focus capable.

If you want a lens for birds, I'd say buy a 500 f/4 AFS-II if you want the best. Following that, the Sigma 500mm f/4.5 EX HSM would be my next choice,purely on length and aperture speed. Following that would be the 300/2.8 AF-S with TC20e. I'd also think about the 50-500 Sigma, or the 200-500 Tamron Di if shopping for a lens in the $899 range. For "some" bird use, I guess one could say the 80-400 Sigma OS would be a potential choice, but 500mm is MUCH better for most bird uses. Manual focus long Nikkors like the 600mm f/5.6 ED~IF would be sweet too,especially if they'd been CPU fitted. When figuring out exactly WHICH long lens you're gonna get, you absolutley MUST be honest with yourself about what the f/stop will be, at what ISO, at what time of day,and how much weight you can stand to deal with. Don't bullshit need to be using ISO 800 with the slowpoke lenses, and they WILL BE WIDE OPEN early and late in the day, and only in the brightest light will the slowest lenses actually work their best--at high shutter speeds! Like I said, don't bullshit yourself. It costs money to shoot bird or other outdoor/action photos in anything EXCEPT bright,bluebird weather. Take heart that seashore/desert areas have large expanses of highly reflective fill light sources, so slow-aperture lenses are more workable at the seashore/desert than in more conventional landscape/woodland environments, so lenses like the 50-500 Sigma are STILL workable at f/6.3 to f/8 in the better lighting conditions.

If you're interested in a stabilized 80-400mm zoom lens,you have two choices: the Nikkor 80-400 VR and the Sigma 80-400 OS. I've shot and handled the Sigma on large birds in flight on the D2x. Honestly, I can see absolutely NO REASON to opt for the Nikkor 80-400 when the Sigma is,well, so much better a performer,focus-wise. The Nikon might zoom more easily and more smoothly, but the Sigma is clearly a better focuser on birds in flight. I would suggest that the 80-400 VR is an outdated lens by comparison with the newer Sigma 80-400 OS.

If you want the BEST, buy it once,learn to use it, and then use it for many years. If you can't afford a lens you want, look for a used one,or consider a prior model variation, or a third-party lens that's close in specifications and design parameters, in that order. Keep your mind open to 3rd party lenses which might actually be as good as or BETTER than older,legacy lenses you might currently be using,such as the Sigma 80-400 OS for example. When buying expensive lenses now, consider that full frame Nikon digital is probably slated for late 2007 availability,so DX lenses are,well, not going to migrate forward as well as you'd like! (grin) There are no DX telephoto lenses,only wide-angle zooms,but some of the DX-series Nikkors are pretty costly,so be advised if you plan to go full frame digital or plan to shoot 35mm film.

As for researching lenses, the world wide web is a vast resource. On-line forums are the place to ask actual owners about _specific_ lenses, but beware of Brand Fanboi types and gushing,overly enthusiastic new owners who have had a lens a month or less. Some lenses are designed to operate in a fairly specific niche,while others are more generalist tools. All lenses are usable. Some are really well-suited to some tasks,and others are not well-suited to the same tasks. A bug lens is not the same as a sports lens. Ask around if there's a lens you're interested in owning. Realize that there are some pretty large pricing differences between the BIG online used lens retailers like KEH and B&H Photo than there are between much smaller camera dealers in places like Minneapolis,Sarasota,Seattle,Columbus,Charlotte,etc,etc. On high-ticket items like 300/2.8's smaller dealers will often sell such lenses on consignment for SIGNIFICANTLY less money than you'll find them selling for in the mega-retailers' stores or on their mega-web sites. Please remember when you finally want to buy that used 300/2.8 or that used 500/4 AF-S-that the best deals are ALWAYS to be found off the beaten path. And keep in mind--in actual WALK-IN retail camera shops, used lenses are starting to pile up a little bit,and I consider 2006 very much a buyer's market. Never offer full asking price on any used equipment--start low. Always. Don't be a sap...used equipment has very little sales appeal,so don't offer to pay what they're asking. Never. You are doing THEM a favor by buying used gear. Seriously. The sale of consigned used lenses will be followed by the sale of brand new,high-markup equipment for the dealer doing the consigning. Selling off a 300/2.8 can easily finance a new mid-priced d-slr body and a lens or two. You do the math.

1 comment:

Tesseract said...

Excellent and in depth post. Personally I find if you buying used lenses it is important to check out the current selling price (like on ebay or your local camera store) as many lenses can change in price based on supply and demand.

For me I have taken an interest in f/1.2 lenses and have found prices to be generally reasonable. I'm a Nikkor guy so in the F/1.2 range there are 50, 55, and 58mm lenses. I'm using a 58mm now, but the 50 & 55 are really good and a little less pricey.

Quick look - there are some nice f/1.2 Nikkors on ebay right now (I'm not selling or buying right now). But I heard of people getting it for $140 off local craiglist etc, that is pretty sweet deal!

Again I look at more pre-digital and pre-cpu lenses because you can generally pick those up for 10 cents on the dollar when they were new and they are generally in really good condition.

Happy Hunting!