A nice walk around the city on Monday, dragging around a comfortable camera and a pre-historic lens.

My always hungry consumer brain would love it if I tossed caution to the wind and rushed out to buy a Nikon D810, or, better yet, a brand new Pentax 645Z MF digital camera in the kit with the sweet 150mm f2.8 lens. In the pre-let's pay for college years I think we'd already be reviewing and trading in one of those two cameras by now----or maybe both. But right now I'm actually into a dirt cheap retro mode that started when I opened up a drawer in the equipment cabinet that had been welded shut by dust and indifference and I saw just how many older Nikon lenses I had collected and kept over the years. 

This probably precipitated my tripping and falling, in a small way, back into the sway of the Nikon system. While it is interesting that I don't quite trust it enough to even consider getting rid of the other camera systems the Nikon system is beguiling because its long history means that there are so many fun toys out there to play with that just don't come close to breaking the bank. I've jumped in to the part of the pool that is shallow and fun. It all really started when I bought a Nikon D7000 as a back up for the D7100 I acquired earlier. I won't go on assignments outside the studio without a second, back up camera that takes the same lenses, batteries and memory cards because I believe too strongly that the fates are just waiting to swiftly punish the unprepared. I bought a second D7000 after I saw evidence of great happiness in the 16 megapixel sensor the cameras sport. That, and the fact that Amazon recently had the camera new in a box for about $484---less than the price of a crappy point and shoot camera. 

The real fun has been using that camera with older Nikon lenses. The kinds of lenses that still seem to be coming out of dusty closets and into camera stores as arcane and undervalued trade-ins. Of course I have loaded up recently on perennial favorites like the 105mm f2.5 and various 55 and 60mm macros but I came across a zoom that I remembered fondly from the film days and decided I'd give it a try as well. Why not? It was far less that $200. About the price of a good polarizing or neutral density filter. 

The lens is the 25-50mm f4. It's a very heavy, very indestructibly built cylinder of metal and glass and its weight is addictive in that my primitive brain seems to conflate the mass and density with optical quality. The lens is special but nothing special. I like the way it renders detail. Lots and lots of resolution but at a lower contrast level than current lens designs seem to have. That means I can carefully add contrast (in discrete areas of the tonal scale) in post to get exactly the balance of high definition and snap I want. 

The colors are also less saturated and, to my eye, a bit more accurate than what I see from the newer zoom/camera combinations which seem designed to deliver more saturation than I really want. The higher saturation effects the interplay of colors. Sometimes for the better but mostly for the worst. Again, I get to add just as much saturation as I'd like. It's interesting because for the last year or so I've been pulling saturation out of my portrait work pretty consistently. Even from images that were spawned using the "neutral" settings on my cameras. While the lens is nicely shape through the very, very limited zoom range (which I'm sure helps the performance) the lens is not without it's faults. It does have different geometric distortion profiles at the different focal length settings. The most obvious being pretty pronounced barrel distortion at the widest setting of 25mm. It's not the wacky mustache distortion that's present in an overwhelming number of modern zooms (which makes them harder to correct in post) but a classic barrel distortion that responds well to a quick control slider slide in PhotoShop.

One of the coolest things about the older lenses and something that became all to apparent when I was trying to fine focus an auto focus 60mm f2.8 micro lens via live view at 100% a few days ago is that the older, manual focus lenses have conveniently long focus throw that promotes careful and accurate fine focusing, especially with the live view image magnified. A long focus throw slows down the focusing process so if you always need to focus quick like a bunny you'll hate it but if you do tripod work with cooperative subjects or you do video with controlled focus pulls you'll absolutely love a long focus throw. 

For me it's the reason to have several of the Nikon macro (micro) lenses on hand. The 60's with AF are both fairly quick to auto focus and are both finicky about fine manual focusing because the band of the focus ring from about one foot to infinity is very, very compressed. Not so in the MF 55's. The band is wide and gracious and encourages one to find that exact focus point. 

On my walk through downtown I either focused by setting the actual estimated distance on the focusing ring and trusted to depth of field or I used a combination of eyeballing it and using the focusing indicators. The direct setting method was the best. 

Having a limited zoom range was fun. Fewer choices and fewer exotic but showy spectacle shots. The images above and below certainly aren't great art but they are a good example of the potential that lies dormant in so many of the masterfully built lenses from a different age. Amply available and cheap as dirt. If you have a vision that fits the focal length I believe you wouldn't see a difference in quality between one of the old lenses and the latest Aspheric, UD, ED, IF, AS, DX wonder lenses. Well, you might see a lower price tag.  

It's good to do some stuff for yourself. Like focusing. And these lenses just beg you to play along.

A note from the manager: We are cleaning the house, shopping and getting the banners and marching bands ready for the arrival today of the boy. Ben should be heading out to the airport in an hour or two and beginning his long journey home. We're all very excited. Studio Dog senses the excitement but doesn't understand the event. I expect her to be overwhelmed when the boy steps across the threshold. I hope to have a camera at the ready.

In the meantime I am still selling the books. Gotta pay for that plane fare, etc, somehow. :-)

A reminder: The Lisbon Portfolio, my action/adventure story of intrepid photographer, Henry White, is currently on sale for the meager and insubstantial sum of $3.99. It will be available at that price as a Kindle book on Amazon until the beginning of 2015. Get your copy before they run out. When you get to the book's page you'll see that you can also get a printed copy (not on sale). It's your choice...

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Corwin Black said...

Lower contrast (but not less detail) is what I love in old Zeiss lens (and others, including Nikkors). Thing is, this actually improves dynamic range of the scene. Sure, raw output looks pretty flat, but thats nothing that wouldnt be easy to fix in post-processing.

Unlike high contrast crushing blacks and wiping highlights, low contrast is fixable.

That 25-50/4 lens surely seems pretty undervalued (very cheap as I checked).

Anonymous said...


I agree with you on the older nikkor lenses. Camera bodies come and go but I am so,so glad I kept my collection of nikon lenses I bought in Japan during the early 70's. A wonderful time in the Japanese camera industry.

The current forums are full of the mantra "those old lenses don't hold a candle to the new lenses". I say they are different, and as you say in some ways far better. Could we keep that a secret?

Mark C said...

Kirk - thanks for the foray into D7000 play. You (and Amazon's insane price -- they also had an additional $50 off in a promotion) pushed me over the edge to order one. I have a drawer full of old Nikkor primes, so that could be fun too.

I only went 24mm wide in those days, so it probably requires a D750 or D810 to really enjoy the wides. Please don't start playing with those until my budget recovers from Christmas and Camera shopping.

Seriously, thanks for the very helpful, realistic evaluations.

Mark C