I recently completed a small What’s In The Bag magazine feature for Amateur Photographer which is due for release shortly. Ordinarily I wouldn’t usually start the year with a post about hardware but I get so many emailed questions from budding photographers, students, former workshop attendees and via Twitter that I thought I would set out some insight as to what I shoot with and why. The Amateur Photographer piece I’ve illustrated reminds me of the level of interest people have in kit and although the best photography is absolutely made by great composition, use of light and most of all imagination, without having the right kit some of that just isn’t possible.

I’m writing this piece because it’s taken me a long time to get kit together that I’m happy with, in many cases years of trial and error. The struggle to achieve the right balance between zooms and primes, the fight between weight of kit against flexibility, even lenses that work or not (as the case may be) with mediums like infrared. It really is an ‘all creatures great and small’ kind of lineup as you’ll soon see and hopefully that will help a few of you with decisions of your own.

Right off the cuff here I should say that you’re not going to get scientific tests, what you’re getting here is my personal opinion which has been built over years of buying, trying and in many cases selling too. You’ll also either like or despise the fact that I love shooting with Nikon and my marriage with Fuji also ended in a bit of a bitter divorce, but more of that later. I can see from here that there is likely to be very few lens changes for me, and I know some of you will be gafawing at the back reading a line like that, but my decisions have definitely reached a point of plateau. Photography remains for me first and foremost about the art of it all but I can’t help being attached to some of these lenses as will be explained along the way. When you come to fully understand the capabilities, the downfalls and nuances of your lenses as I have then lens selection really does become second nature and that can’t be a bad thing, I definitely don’t clutter my image making process with questions like ‘what lens should I choose here?’  because that decision for me is usually made in a split second leaving me to focus fully on the composition and best angle.

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Left to right – Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S, Zeiss 25mm f/2 ZF.2, Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AI-s

The Wides (& Ultra-Wides)

Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S

Starting at the widest of my wides, the Nikon 14-24mm is quite a piece of glass. Although it was released by Nikon back in 2007, it remains an immaculate and totally fit for purpose lens with the latest higher resolution bodies like my Nikon D800 and D810. It’s absolutely not for everyone however and if there is one lens in my lineup that’s a total double-edged sword it’s this one.

The problems are almost obvious from its physical characteristics; it’s big, it weighs as much as a brick at 1000g, it has a huge exposed front element and requires a completely bespoke filter solution. The thing is it’s a spectacular infrared lens and optically pretty much impossible to pick fault with. Until someone starts bending the laws of physics and builds something that can do what this lens delivers in half the size and weight then it will be staying. Whenever my 720nm infrared converted Nikon D800 comes out to play, the 14-24mm is an automatic inclusion – that in itself is reason alone for me to keep it. The current copy I have is 3 years old and it’s going nowhere although I recently sold my entire Lee SW150 filter system because if I’m shooting what I call ‘conventional’ landscape my first choice is the Zeiss 25mm f/2 ZF.2, which is reviewed next. Those SW150 filters really are massive. Silly massive, and where my kit is concerned turned out to be a step too far.

While I definitely favour longer focal lengths, there is a huge difference between 14mm and 24mm on this lens and owning a bunch of primes in this range seems almost pointless when from a quality point of view it is unmatched anyway. One such lens I previously owned in this range was the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 ZF.2. Some photographers will be a little upset to hear that I just didn’t think it was up to the job at all, it’s wavy moustache style distortion showed itself a little too often for my linking while its corner performance was also a lot less than special. By comparison, my Nikon 14-24mm positively shines at 21mm – when you own a zoom that’s better than any number of primes, and Zeiss makes some of them, it’s a lens you should probably never sell.

There’s no question this lens has delivered some of my all time favourites too, a couple of which are below:

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Red Dawn – The Nikon 14-24mm at 21mm, I used a Lee SW150 0.9 Soft Grad on this one. 

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Refuge – A 720nm D800 infrared image shot at 24mm

Zeiss 25mm f/2 ZF.2

This lens is an obvious companion to my Nikon 14-24mm. Firstly, although it’s not too big in physical size it is still relatively dense at 600g, but that immediately makes it around 40% lighter than the big Nikon. There is a long list of positives with this lens, starting with the incredible sharpness of it – I do not hesitate here, it’s the sharpest lens I own and if you want the best wide angle for your DSLR in my view this is absolutely it. When Zeiss make a £4000 Otus in this region it will be surpassed of course, but if you’re a tad more realistic this is a premium product, make no mistake.

One really great feature amongst many of my lenses is its 67mm front filter ring. As these reviews go down, you’ll see many of the lenses I own have this measurement – it’s very much part of my kit design rather than an accident and keeps peripherals at a much lower cost all round. However there is one massive drawback to this otherwise spectacular product, it absolutely sucks for infrared photography. This is a great shame because in truth if the Zeiss 25mm had not produced a low contrast mush in front of a 720nm infrared filter then I would probably have sold the Nikon 14-24mm by now. Having said that, this particular drawback makes it easy to pick a wide angle when shooting infrared because the Zeiss would stay at home all day. I don’t know what the limitation is entirely but I’m guessing it has something to do with various coatings that Zeiss use because I had an identical experience with the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 ZF.2 too, unfortunately they are both a dead loss here.

People say there is a special colour pop and micro-contrast to Zeiss lenses, and I can categorically say that mantle is well deserved. They are contrasty lenses which deliver beautiful rich colour, their build is also second to none of course, equipment made to last a lifetime.

One of my favourites taken with the Zeiss 25mm is Green View on a trip to the Brecons – this one sits above my fireplace in my lounge at home, taking pole position in the house. It’s printed up on A2 (taken with my Nikon D800E) and I can tell you it makes for spectacular detail:

Green View

Green View – Nikon D800E, Zeiss 25mm f/2 ZF.2 with the Lee Landscape Polariser

Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AI-s

Probably just at the moment everyone thought this list was only going to be stuffed full of premium priced lenses, this inclusion hopefully shows that I can be pretty open minded about what goes into my bag. It’s a very recent addition for me to my lineup but this little all manual 35 year old design full framer is one of the best (worst) kept secrets in the Nikon portfolio. You can pick these beauties up for pennies (it’s all relative when compared to today’s modern AF-S lenses at least) and believe it or not you can actually still obtain a brand new version of this for around £300, much less used of course. That still may not sound like an incredible bargain in itself until you consider this is an all metal design (including metal hood), is manufactured in Japan, weighs a tiny 250g, is only 6cm long and allows you to get right into the face of your subject with its 21cm close focus distance. Read the reviews on the internet, they’re really not lying.

Its optical performance is quite wonderful, even on higher resolution bodies like the 36MP Nikon D810, believe me when I say there is very little to complain about at all. As such, this light-weight companion is an easy one to chuck into the bag when it comes to wide angle ‘just in case’ scenarios, or where I want to carry the minimum. Awesome. It really doesn’t have any negatives from my point of view, of course it lacks things like autofocus and modern coatings – one of the things it can be a little susceptible to is a bit of flare when pointed towards bright light sources. However, if like me you’re interested in what atmosphere that might occasionally bring to your photography then it can add as much in a frame where others might believe it takes away. One example that exhibits what I’m talking about is directly below from my Lunch Club series, the Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AI-s was a fantastic lens proving it’s value in this project.

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Shooting directly into the sun can produce a bit of flare but I think it adds something here

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A spectacularly sharp lens which allows you to get incredibly close to the action too

That’s it for Part One. In Part Two I’ll waffle on some more about my mid focal length lenses…