Prime Lenses on DX- Finding the Right Match

There are still a lot of DX users out there, perhaps millions, many of whom are looking for a good prime for their camera.

I wrote this post about using prime lenses about 2 years ago and it seems to get searched for more than anything else here. There are still a lot of DX users out there, perhaps millions, many of whom are looking for a good prime for their camera.

I think just about everything on it still rings true, especially the advice to try using prime lenses more. When you take photos, you don’t really need to capture everything. The other approach is to see it more like painting, where you only really need a few representative and deeply intended images.

The only thing to add here is that Sigma has remade their 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM lens, which looks to be a slightly wide normal on DX. If it’s anything like as good as their much loved, recently released 35mm f/1.4 HSM, it may well make the grade. Whilst the poort quality control they used to have put me off in the past, especially in the case of this lens, which had many soft copies, I may well take one for a spin… and if it does make for that (nearly) perfect DX lens, all the better!

Perfect Futures

Why Go Prime?

Like a lot of SLR users, after using zooms for a while I decided to go for better photo quality and try out some primes. Zooms make you lazy, they encourage you to let the camera take the picture by zooming in rather than walking over to take a closer look, as you would do normally. They are great for their convenience and indispensable for travel photography, much pro work and just for not needing to change lenses. Yet they aren’t always the best thing for your walkabout, or for focussing on the perfect composition a great photo can have. What follows below is one man’s odyssey in search of the perfect prime lens on DX. Have I found it? I’ll cut to the chase and say not yet, but in the shape of the 24mm on DX, I have found something close enough for me to make…

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Prime Lenses for DX- Finding the Right Match Part II

A while ago, I made an article about finding the best prime for DX and in the process lamenting the lack of choices here, at least in comparison with FX. I still think it’s true that they are sorely lacking, but decided to take a step back and look at what choices there are and be a bit more positive about them; which means, not so much denying their flaws, so much as appreciating their good points. Even with the progress made in mirrorless formats and the advances in full-frame cameras, I am still on the opinion that a cropped DSLR is the most convenient compromise for picture-taking around now, at least for most people. Full frame and medium format digital both offer far better image quality, yet in a larger, more expensive package. Even people who have such systems may still want a cropped one for travel or convenient back-up.

So here, I’ll take a look at various lenses I’ve used on DX and say what I think of them, though your mileage may vary. I’ll go into them one by one, in order of focal length. Note, this is all on a budget, so there is no mention of the 24mm f/1.4G or 35mm f/1.4G, which are large lenses, essentially designed for working pros.You’ll also notice I opted for the 50mm f/1.8G rather than f/1.4, partly because I already have so many 50mm I can’t justify the cost, but also many reports said the f.1,8 is better. All I know for sure is it’s probably better value. I’ve put a couple of samples after each description, as there’s not much point in a lens that isn’t used, but try to see for yourself not just the subjects, but if you like the way the lens renders them.

Nikon 24mm f/2.8D

Here we have my current fave, giving me a very comfortable 35mm equivalent. Just right. It’s a nice, sharp lens, giving me a pleasingly 3D appearance to the photos. No, I haven’t pixel-peeped, but it seems fine wide open and it’s nice and small, to boot. People see you with this and they think, “here’s a photographer, he loves taking photos, I want to be a part of it”. Well, I hope they think something like that, anyway. This is one lens that could really do with an AF-S update, as it is such a wonderful focal length, it’s a real shame there is no AF on the smaller bodies, though you can use the rangefinder focus-assist, for what it’s worth. I did say this wouldn’t be a complaining post, so I’ll try my best and just add that on a camera with a focusing motor, like the D300/D7000 or soon to emerge D7100, this is no problem at all. Remember, though that as the mega-pixels go up, made-for-film lenses like this will probably look increasingly soft and need more stopping-down to compensate, another reason for an update, methinks.

Ueno Town-8931Ueno Town-8935

Nikon 28mm f/2.8D

The lens above renders this a little redundant right now, but it has produced some very nice images for me. On the lower megapixel bodies, like the D70, to a lesser extent D90/D300, it’s pretty sharp, especially stopped down and has a pleasing bokeh. It also has pretty nice construction, in fact, looking at them side by side I can’t see much difference between this and the 28mm. Only in a crazy world like the one we live in would anyone get both, but that’s how it works with primes- they are collectible. These are my jewels, I don’t really care if there’s some plastic in the construction, as this keeps it light and portable, which is the whole point of a lens you are going to use a lot. A caveman would be much more impressed by our achievements in plastics than metals anyway (probably!)

This lens gets a bad rep because it isn’t really up to the standard of todays 16mp/24mp sensors and there are apparently better MF versions lying around and especially the earlier ‘s’ version (not AF-S, but before the ‘D’) left out a lot of elements, which made for a cheaper, but much worse lens. Since they were mostly reinstalled in the ‘D’ version, it’s a pretty good lens. A bit like the 24mm, it gives a nicely ‘wide normal’ view on DX. Plus, being an FX lens, you can use it on full-frame, too, though probably the image suffers even more.

Koshikawa Korakoen 11-05 - 070 Local Life

Nikon 35mm f/1.8DX

One of a mere handful of Nikon DX lenses, this one is of very modern construction and feather-light. I actually like this light build, as it makes for such a compact package, and I love the AF-S silent focussing. Impressively, it is sharp wide-open, a testament to the technological advances lenses have made (which you’ll find on a lot of new lenses these days). The colours are vivid and pleasing, it is a great ‘digital’ lens. What’s not to like? The rendering lacks some of the quality of its more expensive f/2 sibling. Bokeh can be rough if you aren’t careful, which impedes it as a portrait lens. Also, as with an 35mm on DX, it is a little long, certainly over normal, so your usage will end up reflecting this. Still, a great companion to the smaller DX models that can AF with this and it suits their diminutive size. It is the first sign of Nikon competing with the rise of m4/3. It will be interesting to see how upcoming DX primes (like the upcoming 40mm macro) shape up. If they can have a better bokeh, a more stylish render, they may well knock this off its perch… for the discerning customer, that is, as most will prefer this for its brightness.

Overall, this is my most-used DX prime, I bring it along on trips and take it out when the light drops, or if I have another camera with a zoom handy. Although I’d like something a bit wider, I do get used to it and just zoom with my feet. It is pretty good for close portraits, child photos, food, details, festivals or markets at night. Combined with the high-ISO capabilities of a modern DSLR you have a great combination. Certainly, it’s very sharp and on the whole the bokeh is pleasing. I’m not crazy about it’s overtly ‘made of digital’ rendering, but it certainly does the job and make for some memorable images.

Suwa Jinja Shibuya-8834

(more…)

The Best of DX?- Nikon’s AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 Lens

Nikon’s Pro DX Zoom

                                                             Summer Colours and Green
                                                           
Nikon’s elaborately named AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 DXG IF-ED DX (phew!) is probably the best zoom lens ever made for an APS-C sensor (where it functions as a 26-83mm lens), designed especially for the demands of professionals using it on older generations of pro bodies. Now that the prices of full-frame sensors have come down and pros are gravitating towards them them, anything but consumer-level designs for APS-C are unlikely, so this lens is probably the last of it’s kind. This fact though makes them much more avaliable second-hand though, with a newly affordable price.

What makes it stand out as a pro-grade lens is the build and fact that it gives a sharp, contrasty picture at any setting or length, with a certain richness to the images that you otherwise need a prime lens or another pro-level zoom to achieve. The high-grade AF-S focusing is also uncannily fast and near-silent.

                                                             Moth by Day

It produces amazing images, images that really ‘pop’ and stand out with a kind of 3D quality only great lenses have. I have some other really great lenses- the Sigma 50mm f1.4 HSM, the older (but amazingly still produced) Nikon AF 35-70mm f/2.8D, the Tamron 90mm Di f2.8 macro, which can all take great photos, but the range and usability makes this the most versatile by far. It’s like it’s part of the camera and just doesn’t want to get off! I’m glad because I know that it’s about as good an image as a lens could give me, with a wedding you kind of feel bad if you know you could have used something better (even if no-one will notice the difference). For me, it means I can shoot the entire wedding without changing lenses. I used it just the other day and it worked out great! It also looks pro, which helps the general impression.

It cost me about $900 second-hand, but a new one would be more like $1,600. Another other cost is the size and weight, due to all the metal and glass, though for me this makes it steadier to hold or balance. Maybe after many hours of carrying it around it would weigh me down and this alone would put a lot of people off it. It should be added that the full-frame equivalents are much heavier and more expensive, without having quite as much reach, (usually being 24-70mm). This shows the convenience of the cropped format for many users. The fact that the images generated are ‘good enough’ means it will probably live on for many years. Also, the sensor on the D3X is so high resolution it can crop DX at 10MP, ample for most uses and even equal to the D200, which is still in wide use. Whilst the D700 only gives you a tight 5MP, a potential D700X or D800 might give you a lot more, making the use of this on FX cameras quite feasible.

Here’s a review that was just recently published in, of all places, Poland. The fact that reviews are still being professionally made for this lens just goes to sho it’s enduring value. In fact, I would hazard to say that it now has a new lease of life as a much more affordable lens on DX.

Let’s look at some pros and cons, now as who knows, maybe someone will actually think about buying one based on the strength of this review!? These are all based on my real-world usage, no measurebating or any exact accessment claimed, yet it’s quite possible such research would come to the same conclusions through it’s own route. Lens quality really does vary, no matter what anyone says and you usually get what you pay for, or in this case what you would have paid for if newer models hadn’t emerged (in this case the D700 and the siren cry of full-frame).

Pros

-Beautiful rendering of colours, contrast, skin-textures backgrounds
-A very pleasing bokeh considering the relatively short focal length
-Sharp and with little noticable distortion, even at 17mm
-Semi-macros are possible with excellent close-up performance and minimum focusing distance (14.2 inches)
-A good choice for portraits on DX (though I’d say Nikon’s 35-70mm f/2.8D is even better, for a number of reasons)
-The perfect event lens on DX- one lens and you’re done!
-The zoom is very well-damped, making settings at particular lengths (ie 24mm, 35mm) quite convenient
-Makes up for the lack of quality wide-angles on DX and covers significant prime lengths- some of which don’t even exist in -Nikon’s lineup, such as 19mm, which is about 28mm in FX (one of my favourite lengths and a fact not lost on Pentax)
-A pro implementation of AF-S, offering very fast, smooth and near-silent focusing
-Good prices on the second-hand market
-A true pro zoom- in terms of both performance and looks, ensuring people will realise you are, or mistake you for, a pro!

Cons

-Very heavy, like most true pro-zooms
-Still very expensive despite $900 ‘bargains’ being so avaliable
-Performance gains compared to buget alternatives may seem subtle to many users, especially when both are stopped down (though I’d say for me they are very significant)
-Optomised for wide open, close-up usage, making it unsuitable for landscapes in many people’s eyes
-Short reach, even on DX, where around 70mm is needed for the ‘optimum’ portrait length of 105mm (this gives around 83mm being ‘uncomfortably close’ for many)
-Could be redundant if you move to FX and aren’t happy with using it cropped there

Notice that some of the cons aren’t real cons, they just go with the territory. This is for sure an excellent lens (have I already said this?) and one you just will not regret buying!


What Does it all Mean for DX?

Even though full-frame ‘FX’ has finally come to Nikon’s DSLR’s, the options for serious amateurs on DX have never been better. The D200/300 are cheaper than ever and offer fantastic picture quality and ergonomics. Also, along with the price drop of the 17-55 is the emergence of other lenses especially designed with DX bodies and their frequent lack of an in-body motor (in the case of the D40, D60, D5000, all very affordable and even competetive with compact pricing). I speak of the 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX, the 50mm f/1.4 G and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 HSM- two of which I have actually aquired for both wedding and home use (though I’ll leave you to guess exactly which two for now!) In short, excellent lenses are now widely avaliable for DX use, compromises and beer-bottle zooms are less neccessary for the average user. Of course, the whole format is oversized in a sense, leaving the way open for minaturised ‘rangefinderesque’ versions like micro-4/3 and potentially a micro-APS… but that’s another story…

For more samples, please see my 17-55mm Pbase gallery.

Some Samples

Kashiwa Noha

Feeding the Pigeons


Hydrangeas and Snail-Shell

Silent Rush Hour

Straight, No Chaser.

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