Why I buy lots and lots of older, Nikon Ais lenses, and use them in the business of making photographs and videos.

There are many people who would not even consider a lens that didn't autofocus, and I can understand their position. Some have poor vision and are unable to achieve sharp focus with today's DSLR focusing screens. Others feel as though technology is the salvation and advancement of every field and every pursuit. A pervasive belief that every new generation of lenses is, logically, better than the last. And a fair number of folks just haven't been exposed to the idea that some of the finest lenses are still available in somewhat good supplies on the used market.

Photographers can be an odd breed and seem always ready to choose the "idea" that a super sharp or super fast lens is innately superior to a lens with "character." Or that there are limits to how sharp a lens has to be to make a convincing and attractive photograph. But consider this: Most lens and camera development is not aimed at making stuff better, it's aimed at making stuff cheaper to make and more profitable to sell. 

While it's true that new lens coating technologies can be better, and, as regards cameras bodies, new sensors can offer better performance but, the critical thing about making great lenses is creating a process to enable and maintain tight tolerances, parallel planarity from element to element, and to use materials that ensure both precision and long term reliability.

It seems that most lenses coming from camera makers are
designed to be efficient to manufacture but are largely disposable. In the days of manual focus lenses the best were designed with glass elements situated in metal barrels. The position of almost every element could be fine-tuned for top performance. Now the elements are lodged into plastic "carriers" that are CNC machined (or molded) to match a range of tolerances instead of specific set points. Tape, glues and plastic screws have replaced metal helicoids and metal internal barrels that kept glass elements centered. As a result the new lenses have more potential points of failure (and sloppier tolerances) than the lenses made by hand year ago.

Add finicky and relatively delicate "features" like autofocus (with lightweight mechanical clutches) and in-lens image stabilization and you can understand why lens repairs are much more frequent in this new age of lens making automation.

But beyond the need for wider tolerances in order to make the manufacturing process easier, and all the features that require more, and more delicate, parts, one also needs to consider the feel and usability of lenses in the hands of passionate artists. Modern AF lenses don't always make the grade when it comes to operating characteristics and the way they feel when you hold them and use them for long periods of time.

Your brain is, of course, more disciplined and schooled than mine and you are an amazingly linear thinker who is never put off by the operational flow of your camera equipment, but my weak mind is influenced by the gear I'm using. If a lens has a very short focusing ring throw but is equipped with auto focus I'll end up using the AF instead of wondering if there might be a lens with a long throw focus ring which would make me much happier. The list goes on.

So, I started thinking about this because of two things that happened yesterday. I'd been singing the praises of old, used Nikon lenses (MF, Ais!!!) to my film-maker friend, James, for as long as we've been having coffee together. For a film maker the benefits of using the Nikon manual focus lenses on a camera like the Sony A7S2 are legion. All the MF lenses have longer and much more linear focusing rings than anything in the AF camp. They all have hard stops for the minimum and maximum focusing distances. You can ride the aperture via an external ring. They are more than sharp enough for video, even at 4K and ---- they are available for substantially less money than their modern counterparts. It's a win-win-win for video camera people everywhere.

I'd lent James a number of older Nikons for some projects he was doing for clients and, when shooting a live music project, he absolutely saw the light and came away with tons of wonderful shots made almost entirely with lenses like: The 105mm f2.5, the 50mm f1.4, the 85mm f1.4 and a few others. After reviewing his results he sat down and pieced together a series of orders for six Nikon Ais lenses to use into the foreseeable future. He's hooked.  (Which also means I'm getting my loaners back...).

So, as I was digesting all of this I decided to take a break from writing this blog post to go downtown with one of my favorite older Nikon lens and see just how it stands up to a modern counterpart. I'd shot tests this week with my new Sigma 24-35mm f2.0 Art lens and I wanted to see how those images compared to a copy of the Nikon 25-50mm f4.0 Ais, MF lens which was produced back in the 1980's.

The first thing I noticed was how much I preferred to manually focus my cameras! And how accurate the finder on the Nikon D610 is for manually focusing slower lenses like this one. Secondly I was interested to see that I also preferred to work totally in manual exposure with this lens because I wanted to consciously take advantage of f5.6 and f8.0 for my tests.

What did I find out? Well, in comparing the two lenses one advantage that goes to the Sigma is that Adobe has a profile for that lens's distortion and vignetting in Adobe Camera Raw so it's corrected when I look at the files. But, for the most part the primary advantage of the Sigma lens is the speed and sharpness wide open. By f5.6 and f8.0 the differences smooth out into "either will do well." 

I love the look for these older lenses. They have a different visual character to them that adds something to the images. A roundness, maybe? A different kind of sharpness? More skewed toward resolution but a bit less contrast? Whatever the mix of characteristics I find them to be very comfortable for most work.  Here is a sample of what I shot downtown today with the 25-50mm f4.0 and a D610 body. These were shot as large, fine Jpegs.

The bonus for me? I got in a nice, two hour walk through Austin in the late afternoon. The perfect bookend for my 5,000 yard swim workout this morning. Nap? Please!

Click em. Make em bigger! All shot with natural Austin blue skies.

Take a class: Become more skilled and knowledgable. Have more fun.

One of the original Craftsy Photo Classes and 
still one of the best! 

I met Lance a couple of weeks ago in Denver
and found him to be really fun and knowledgeable 
this class reflects what he teaches in hands-on
workshops in Ireland and Iceland, as well as 
cool places around the U.S.

How to make what we shoot into a cohesive
train of visual thought.