It’s that time of the year again – time to invest in my photography collection. This year I’m filling out my lens collection now that I’ve switched to the Nikon system and will be selling off my Canon equipment. I’ve added quite a few items this season including a set of classic primes, a Macro, a mega-zoom I wasn’t even looking for, and my first teleconverter.
The Classic Primes
I really like prime lenses. They are generally small and lightweight and come in extremely fast f/2.0, f/1.8, and f/1.4 variants that provide stunning subject-background separation. Sure, they don’t zoom, but that’s what your feet are for. I already own two primes – an 85mm f/1.8G and a 50mm f/1.8G, both from Nikon. They focus fast and produce great photos, but I’d been reading a bit about micro-contrast lately and decided to add a few more primes as an experiment. The story is that newer lenses, while sharper than their predecessors, produce less micro-contrast because they have more lens elements which impact the quality of the image. Micro-contrast refers to the small tonal shifts a lens can produce that provide depth and a three dimensional look to photos. I decided to invest in a few older lenses to see if I could tell the difference.
I purchased three Nikon primes from the AF and AF-D generation. These do not include internal focusing motors, autofocus override, image stabilization, or fancy nano-coatings to reduce aberrations.
- Nikon 20mm f/2.8 AF ($295, used)
- I purchased this from Adorama’s used section. It’s two generations behind the latest AF-S 1.8G model. It uses screw-type autofocus like other Nikon AF lenses, but does not provide distance information like an AF-D lens. That doesn’t affect image quality and saved me $50 – $80 over an AF-D model. It is not nearly as sharp as the newer 1.8G but it also doesn’t cost $800. Not only will it help me with my micro-contrast experiment, it’s also wider than any other lens I own (bumping my 24 – 120 f/4G). Add its additional stop of light sensitivity and I should be able to find opportunities for interesting photos. It focuses close at under 1 foot.
- Nikon 35mm f/2.0 AF-D ($200, used)
- The 35mm focal length is considered perfect for street photography. If I searched my images I probably wouldn’t find many taken between 30 and 40mm. I usually zoom all the way out to 24 or 28mm or zoom in past 50mm. This will give me an opportunity to test out this focal length during my micro-contrast experiment. It’s a stop faster than the 20mm which will provide better background separation. I purchased this off of eBay for less than half of what the (again sharper) AF-S 1.8 costs ($527), but didn’t realize it shipped from Albania. It took nearly a month to arrive, but luckily showed up in fine condition. Also focuses at under 1 foot.
- Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-D ($185, used)
- I already own a wonderful 50mm f/1.8G, so why would I buy an older 50mm that is only two-thirds of a stop faster and costs nearly the same? For an exact comparison, of course! This is a nearly perfect way to compare the micro-contrast between the two. I say almost because I’m comparing it with my 1.8G ($217, new), not the 1.4G ($447, new), but it’s close enough. Focuses down to 1.5 feet.
The Mega Zoom (Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM C, $700, used)
I researched the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D VR lens last year but never purchase it due to cost ($1,600 new, $800 used). I also researched a Nikon 300mm AF-D ($600 used) but it didn’t have image stabilization, didn’t zoom, and is very heavy. I wanted a lens with more reach, but I knew it would be limited use – for bird, squirrels, and the occasional deer that show up in the yard. I wouldn’t use it that often but I’d be happy to have it when I needed it. I couldn’t justify the price of either so I put the mega-zoom on the back burner.
I was perusing Adorama’s used section and came across the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM C for $700 and started researching it. Sigma sells two versions – Sports and Contemporary. The Sports model is rugged (and heavy) with a metal barrel, a built-in lens hood, and costs about $2000. The Contemporary model is made out of plastic so it’s about two pounds lighter and costs $900. Both have image stabilization and similar image quality and score well in reviews. A used model for $700 seemed like a steal, so I snapped it up.
While the Contemporary model is lighter than the Sports model, it still weighs over four pounds, making it the heaviest lens I own. It includes a tripod mount to balance the camera but that doesn’t help with hand-holding. It’s also over a foot long when zoomed to 600mm so I’ve had to adjust my hand positioning to ensure I don’t get blurry photos. Even with image stabilization, my first set of photos were full of camera shake because I couldn’t balance the lens.
I’m very satisfied with the quality and performance so far. I’ve taken photos of birds, branches, flags, deer, and some kiddos from our Easter Egg hunt. Image quality is great for a lens that zooms in that much; it doesn’t match my $1,400 Nikon 70-200mm but it cost half as much. I’ve been steadily improving my ability to hold it steady and adjust the camera to capture enough light for its narrow f/6.3 aperture. I’m glad I purchased it and may end up using it more often than I originally thought.
The Macro (Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD Macro, $650, new)
I’ve had a macro lens on my list since I bought my D750. I had a 60mm macro for my Canon and it was one of the best lenses I’ve owned. I’ve been looking at two lenses – the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 Micro VR and the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Di VC USD Macro. The Nikon is more expensive ($900 new, $550 used); the Tamron is cheaper at $650 new and was just updated this year with improvements to its materials and optical quality. Both lenses have image stabilization, a similar field of view, the same constant aperture, and great reviews. I was looking at used Nikon 105’s on eBay but decided that I’d rather pay an extra hundred for a lens with a full warranty on it and went with the Tamron.
I was very excited to receive the Tamron but have been unimpressed with its image quality and focusing abilities. I’ve read numerous reviews and it performs very well so I think my copy is just not a good one. I’ve sent it back for a replacement that will hopefully be more consistent.
The Teleconverter (Nikon TC-14E, $120, used)
A teleconverter is a small attachment that magnifies the zoom of a lens. They consist of a few fixed glass elements and multiply focal length by a factor of 1.4x – 2.0x. Teleconverters are controversial because the extra glass can reduce image quality and the magnification comes at a cost of a 1 – 2 stop reduction in light. That requires lower shutter speeds and higher ISO’s to get the same images. Even so, the idea of a 1.4x teleconverter intrigued me and I was lucky enough to find one on eBay for $120. It was the original Nikon AF TC-14E from the early 90’s. The current TC-14E III cost $500 new and the only major difference is the label on it.
I took some shots with my 70-200mm f/4 (which acts as a 98 – 280mm f/5.6 with the teleconverter) and the photos were pretty impressive. I get almost 300mm magnification with extremely minimal sharpness and contrast loss in my photos. It’s a lighter, shorter alternative to slapping on the 150 – 600mm lens.
I bought a lot of lenses this season, but I bought most of them used and expanded my lens collection into focal length and speeds that I didn’t have before. That should translate to some pretty cool Spring/Summer/Fall photo opportunities.