Nikon 35mm f2.0 MF lens. An optic for the affluently-challenged.
I've always been a 50mm adherent, when it comes to primary lenses for full frame camera, but lately my vision seems to be widening out a bit. I've been wrestling with the idea of an efficient and economical, two lens kit that could do a majority of street shooting and personal work and I finally settled on pairing an 85mm f1.8 and a good 35mm lens. I looked at the Sigma 35mm Art lens and while I would dearly love to shoot with it I would despair of carrying it around. I remembered that I liked the Rokinon 35mm t1.5 cine lens when I had one for the Sony a99 but it's big and not the most comfortable lens as far as holding it in my hands. Too many rough edges and hard rings.
Today I looked at the Tamron 35mm f1.8 VC lens and I was impressed by the general fit and finish of it but if I'm honest with myself I've been craving a more "blue collar" solution. Something small and comfortable and simple. After playing with the Tamron and the Sigma for a bit I wandered by the (danger! danger!) used cases at Precision Camera. There was the lens I was looking for. It's an old, traditional, manual focusing, auto indexing lens from the 1970's or the 1980's. It is the 35mm f2.0 lens. One that used to be in the bag of nearly
every working photographer I ever met.
The reason it was so popular is because the 35mm can be a bit of a chameleon in the right hands. It can take on a wide angle look when used one way, and it can take on a normal, or even short telephoto look when used in another way. The f2.0 aperture is fast enough for everything I can think of to shoot (presuming you'd also want something to be in the field of focus). And compared to the ever growing size of modern 35mm lenses it's almost a pancake lens by comparison. I bought this very clean one for around $200 and came home to put it through its paces on my D810 camera.
At first blush it's quite useable wide open but the real value starts around f4.0 where it becomes very sharp. At 100 percent on a 36 megapixel file, the results at f4.0 and f5.6 were very good. No real linear distortion and very well controlled flare. What else do you really need in a 35mm lens?
You may notice that I'm a sucker for older, Nikon AI and AIs lenses and there are multiple reasons for that. First off, the lenses were very well made back then and seem nearly bullet proof when it comes to general use. Modern lenses have several features that can go bad and render the lens more or less useless. One is image stabilization which, while very useful in some situations, is also the feature that breaks more often than anything else on a lens. Next is the AF which, in cases of lenses that manual focus by wire, that if the AF motor breaks the lens is unfocusable. The third is the electronically driven aperture which sometimes fails when those gold plated camera to lens connectors go south.
But beyond simplicity equalling reliability the real appeal of the MF lenses if in the making of video with DSLR cameras. The lens rings have much longer throws than the AF lenses and this means more precision in manually focusing with image peaking or magnified views. It's also a smoother and more linear throw which means you might have a fighting chance of using MF optics for some primitive focus pulling.
The fully manual aperture mechanism means the lens can easily be used on any camera upon which it can mount. On Nikon's own lower rung cameras (D7100, D7000) it means you can change apertures while shooting video instead of having to stop rolling, exit live view, change the aperture and then reverse the procedure to start shooting again.
While I will love my Sigma 24-35mm Art lens if I ever get around to buying one I am currently really happy with the 35mm AI lens because, for the price, it has lots of great features; beginning with image quality.
I don't advise you to start buying Nikon's older, manual focus, prime lenses any time soon. At least not until I've finished fleshing out my inventory with a few more lenses in various focal lengths...