8.10.2015

In Praise of good, cheap lenses. Let's start with the Nikon 50mm f1.8G.

I had a little revelation on Friday. I'd been getting comfortable with the new D750 but in the momentary compulsion to aim for perfection (not a trait I usually aspire to in my work...) I had, of course, stuck the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens on the front of this willowy camera. I liked everything I shot with the combo but it sure got heavy quickly and it really felt front heavy. Out of balance. I'm totally okay with that when I'm working because I'm willing to make some compromises to get the clients what they need. That's especially true if the compromise is a little extra weight and a little less balanced of a hand holdable package.

But walking around shooting for fun in the 100+ degree heat and just photographing stuff for my own pleasure is a whole different issue. It's too easy for my hands and shoulders to compare the burden of a bigger camera since they still have pleasant memories of recent forays with Olympus EM5.2s. (And you may be interested to know that much as I like the battery grips on the EM5.2s when the Summer temperatures crest 100, and I am out walking instead of driving an air conditioned car, the grips come off and stay in the equipment drawer).

With all this in mind I looked into the Nikon drawer and spied a lens that was definitely not getting its fair share of love since the arrival of the Sigma 50; it was the Nikon 50mm f1.8G lens that I picked up back when I first re-entered the system. I switched it onto the front of the D750 and instantly rejoiced. The balance is perfect. Just perfect. I put on the hood, tossed the lens cap in a drawer, and went out for a long walk. The camera is just right with this smaller, lighter prime.

While the Sigma is significantly better at the widest apertures the Nikon is not at all bad and by f2.8 it shapes up nicely. When I start shooting stuff in the f4.0 to f8.0 range, handheld, any difference between the two 50's is so effectively masked by my human frailty that there is no reason to choose one over the other except for parameters of handling and weight--- one area where the Nikon 50mm just walks all over the front heavy Sigma.

Whenever I put an inexpensive 50mm lens on the front of a full frame camera it takes me right back to some of my very first film camera experiences and gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling. The combination of the 50mm 1.8G and the D750 reminded me of one of my first good camera and lens combos in that the lens is a chameleon (it can be "wide" or "long" depending on how you use it...) and the body becomes invisible. Everything just works.

We always assume that the lenses made in tiny batches and selling for ruinous sums must be much superior, optically, to the everyday, pedestrian lenses but I think this is not so. I think that producing a lens like the 50mm f1.8, in bulk, flattens out production problems over time and gives the maker a lot more metrics to work with in engineering improvements to both the designs and the manufacturing processes. The more "hand made" lenses are these days the more "leaky gaskets of error" there must be. Humans can be so fallible and I sincerely doubt that many of the lenses we might consider to be "luxury" models in a maker's line are subject to any more testing than the regular product lines.

Of all the different focal lengths I've shot over the years I always find the disappointments or flaws to occur in the lenses that have cost me the most money. The fewest "bad samples" come from the basic and inexpensive prime lenses. There's just a heck of a lot less to go wrong. And since most of them are modified designs of optical classics that have been around for years, you are getting decades, maybe centuries now, of R and D benefit in even the lowliest standard prime. Something to think about when you want to travel lightly and without excess financial frisson.

Just a few thoughts I was having as I was fixing the family's clothes dryer... One hint: It's always the lint traps...








12 comments:

Eric Rose said...

My trusty Nikkor H 50mm f2 non AI lens is stellar. As good if not better than my older 50mm Summicron f2. When doing some navel gazing in Bridge I find that most of my shots are taken between 40mm and 75mm. However most of the best keepers fall outside of that range. So the question is, should I get rid of the mid-range lenses or just get better at using them?

Mr said...

i aim to have a nice high quality, and a small and light option, for each focal length i want to use, if possible!

Patrick Dodds said...

It's 100 degrees and you have a clothes drier?

AlexG said...

I love the 50mm or standard lens I have a load of them as fun manual focus options on an A7 and equivalents for m43 and APS Sony. I must say one of my favourite ones is an old Jupiter 8 an FSU* copy of the pre war Zeiss Sonnar f2 its far from perfect but it creates quite beautiful portraits. I did have an 80's Sonnar in the CY mount that was possibly pre the Sony Zeiss the best lens I used for my taste. the 50mm is great 90% or so of my work has always it seems been done with one, I just see that way. The Nikon 1.8 does work amazingly well given how little it costs on a friends D800 as does the Canon 1.8s on various FF Canons.

*FSU; former Soviet Union.

TMJ said...

I have never come across a bad 50mm lens, from the 1930s to the present day.

Wally said...

i believe these can be had used for under $150.00 US used and there has been much discussion on how good this lens is- for the cost- vs the more expensive 1.4 from Nikon Sigma!

Kirk Tuck said...

Patrick, what better time to fix the clothes dryer than when it is over 100F. ?

Wolfgang Lonien said...

This reminds me of Thom Hogan's words in his test of the D750 camera:

"One final point. I spent some time recently with just the D750 and the f/1.8 prime lenses (20mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm). Well that was pleasant. Very pleasant. Reasonably light lenses on a reasonably light camera body. Both of which perform excellently in almost all regards. The upcoming 24mm f/1.8 should fill that lineup out nicely. I can see why wedding shooters, in particular, have gravitated to the D750 and the primes. A very usable ISO 3200 with fast lenses that are sharp (and most of their few faults corrected in JPEGs) can take you into pretty much any event situation you’re going to encounter and come out with images that shine."

Like you, I love to take portraits. And a D750 with the 85mm/1.8G sounds like a very good combination for me. But for walking around, it would be the 50 (or on my E-M10, a 25mm).

Alan Fairley said...

I must have got a dog, because my 50 1.8G really was bad in the corners and even stopped down to f8 lagged behind the 55 f2.8D Micro (a real steal for what it costs), whereas the Micro's corners were close to optimal at f4 and just stayed there as you stopped down.

Nick Van Zanten said...

Thank you for a very affirming review! So far I haven't regretted buying the 50mm f1.8 but I have always felt a bit second class next to the f1.4 and of course, the Sigma art lens compels envy, its very handsome. For a long period of my life I resisted/avoided the 50mm, so banal as the sixties kit lens compared to 24s and 35mms. But theses days, and relying on evidenced-based practice, I'm beginning to think again.

Kirk Tuck said...

Nick, in reality the Sigma Art and Otus lenses are dilettante lenses. Few people will find shooting fast fifties wide open to be of much use and by the time you hit f5.6 if you aren't locked down on a tripod the differences become invisible. I'm including myself in the dilettante category. I could spend my money more wisely, or just shoot more with what I have.

amolitor said...

One of the things we like about you, Kirk, is that you're a real working photographer, AND you seem to just love the process and the gear.

You're a bridge between the gearhead dilettante, and the working pro. Bringing the dark and light sides of The Force together, or something. Embrace your gearhead and love the toys!