In Part 2 of this series, I’m going to cover off what most people would call ‘standard’ focal lengths…
The 35-70mm focal range has probably been the most difficult for me to define and settle on I think. Why? Mainly because I think I probably find it less interesting than either going wider or longer. As a result I’ve bought and sold a trail of lenses in this focal range including the likes of the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G AF-S (twice), the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, the Zeiss 50mm f/2 ZF.2, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D, never really being entirely happy with very much – if you ask me a 24-70mm zoom in this range is both the ultimate in laziness and also felt like it always lacked imagination. I finally have two lenses I’m really happy with but the journey isn’t complete yet so let me cover these off.
The Standard Lenses
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art
There is usually a trade off with every single lens, the more lenses you buy and sell the more you realise this and so finding the formula which matches your personal shooting style and what pleases your eye is essential. Just because someone says it’s amazing doesn’t necessarily make it so for you. One of the key trade offs is usually between the quality of bokeh (out of focus areas) against the absolute sharpness of the lens when wide open at an aperture like f/1.4… The sharper the lens wide open, the less pleasing the bokeh is likely to be affecting how the lens ‘draws’.
The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art is very, very sharp, no doubt. But sharpness is not everything, unless you want to shoot at f/5.6 in which case it’s critical. You could go round in circles all day with these trade offs. This lens is another which is a bit of a quandary to me – it’s bokeh is average to my eye, ‘nervous’ is a good description of it wide open, but then again many will count the 35mm range as more of a wide than a standard lens, so you’re never going to get great out of focus areas – it’s down to how you would best use this beasty. It’s a lump for sure at 665g, not a light partner by any means, but when I’m looking for a wide(ish) autofocus capable companion for a pairing with something like my Nikon 70-200mm f/4 then it’s first choice. It also has the golden 67mm front filter measurement which means it pairs with the 70-200mm f/4 really well. As I’ve owned mine since 2013 I guess that means it must have earned the right to stay but I just wish its physical dimensions and weight were somewhat less bloaty.
There’s something else here too – for me this particular 35mm lens is made for landscape. If you shoot Nikon and want a better 35mm portrait lens, I would not hesitate to refer you to the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G AF-S which while somewhat softer has a beautiful rendering which lends itself to portraiture far more than this Sigma equivalent. Hopefully this explains a bit of the difference between choices like this – I demanded (and in my view needed) more sharpness for my chosen application of landscape and owning both would be a total luxury I can’t afford.
The quality of the Sigma 35mm Art lens is quite staggering especially stopped down and has certainly delivered some successful landscapes for me, including my Outdoor Photographer cover image from 2015, Shine On:
Nikon 45mm f/2.8 PC-e (Tilt Shift)
This is another lens in my kit that is absolutely not going anywhere. There are literally so many things you can do with a lens of this character and quality that it could be the only lens you ever really need, the focal length certainly lends itself to that too. The Shift function is like a magicians trick while the Tilt function opens up all manner of creative possibilities.
When you match these features with an all manual focus tank of a lens, it means you have a partner for life if you want it. As a straight 45mm prime lens, its performance is incredible because it has a huge image circle. I run out of superlatives to describe this lens, it’s certainly the one I’ve owned the longest in my kit at 6 years old and has enabled me to deliver some memorable photographs.
Honestly, I think that’s about all I have to say about it – if you want to shoot landscape you should own one eventually though these days it’s a painful purchase, knocking on the door of £1500. Don’t expect to pick this up cheap on eBay though, there are no bargains to be had – they are like hens teeth in the second hand market because no one lets them go, with good reason. The only thing I can say here is that I also owned the Nikon 24mm f/3.5 PC-e and eventually sold it after 4 years. The 24mm was more fiddly to use and given the superlative quality of the Nikon 14-24mm and subsequent purchase of the Zeiss 25mm f/2 ZF.2, the 24mm PC-e ended up well down the pecking order. The 45mm is going nowhere however, even if updated by Nikon I doubt I will find any reason to let this lens go.
Here’s a couple of recent favourites from it:
Nikon 50mm f/1.2 AI-s
Another vintage lens in my lineup is the Nikon 50mm f/1.2 AI-S. It might have been born in 1981 when I was 11 years old but this incredibly interesting lens is the latest one to enter my service. I think it’s kind of cheeky of Sigma to have stolen the idea that they have an ‘Art’ series of lenses, because incarnations like the Nikon 50mm f/1.2 have far more artistic potential to my mind. Of course, art is all in the application and this all manual chunk of metal and glass is enormous fun to use, producing something quite different to my other lenses. This is a key thing for me actually, each lens much bring something interesting or unique to the table for me and if it doesn’t ultimately it’s at risk of resale. I guess in the past I’ve not been very good at really seeing what something could entirely give me, instead being sold on reviews and other peoples words.
Although I’ve owned it for a couple of months at the time of writing I know already it will be staying because it delivers a unique beauty at f/1.2, not repeated or replicated by anything else I have. I have however owned a few lenses that have come and gone in this particular focal length: I’ve bought and sold the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G and Zeiss 50mm f/2 ZF.2. Have I finally found a 50mm that has earned its keep? Yes, definitely, and I should hope so too on the 5th attempt. What did the others bring? Nothing compelling I think is the answer. Merely having a narrow depth of field isn’t enough for me, it has to deliver something more than that – character. It’s all about character, rendering and draw.
Best of all the dimensions and weight of this lovely piece of glass make it an easy carry and pretty inexpensive too – you can grab one second hand for sub £300 which I think is fantastic value for an all metal lens that has nothing to break on it. Fill your boots.
Next up are the most interesting part of my kit (at least to me) – the telephotos…