Sunday, April 27, 2014

Looking for "goodness" wide open in Nikon Nikkor 85mm lenses...

OK.  So I was in the market for a fast old manual focus 85mm lens for the Canon 5D MkII.

I've owned several wonderful 85mm lenses since moving to digital.  I put an old Nikon Nikkor-H 85mm f/1.8 up against an 85mm f/2 Nikkor Ai and an early Takumar 85mm f/1.9 (Pentax).  The Nikon f/2 and Takumar f/1.9 wide open were indistinguishable at 100 percent resolution from a Canon 5D MkII file.  That isn't saying much about resolution as the 5D's sensor can only resolve 75-ish line pair per mm.  The Nikkor-H was a distant second.  It was visibly softer wide open than the other lenses, so I sold it before moving to France.  I also sold the Takumar and sorely regret this equipment pruning.

Fast forward 5 years and I'm thinking that my 85mm f/2 Ai isn't all that great, particularly after reading stuff on the 'net about the original Nikkor-H.  Maybe I had a bad copy?

A comment that really struck me was one made by "RidingWaves" over on APUG who said "...I won't go into KR mental fantasyland but I own all of the MF Nikkor 85's including two of the F2's and I can assure you from testing many times both film and dig that while the F2 is a fine lens the 1.8 is better. Better wide open, better 1 stop down..."

I trust Ken Rockwell.  He used to sell highly technical engineering electronic test and measurement equipment by a company I used to work for.  His tests are objective, so I wondered what RidingWaves had seen in his lenses that he'd have such a strong response to Ken's comments.

My wife and I were in our old home town clearing out a storage unit that contained our "Plan B" items should Paris not have worked out as well as it has.  While posting a ton of stuff on Craigslist, I came across an inexpensive well used Nikkor-H.

Using a 118 line pair per mm resolution Canon 7D APS-C sensor I knew if resolution were an issue that I'd be stressing any lens I put on the body.  118 line pair per mm matches the resolution of Kodak's great B&W TMax100 film when shooting a 6:1 contrast scene and souped in D76.  I wanted to have another "go" at getting at the truth.

For my little "look-see" I compared my recently acquired Nikkor-H against my Nikon Ai, and, just to keep things interesting, against my also recently acquired Canon EOS 70-200 f/4 L non-IS set at 85mm.

My conclusions?  If Ken Rockwell said the f/2 is sharper than the f/1.8-H, well, he is right.  In my experience, at least.  I've now owned and tested two of these 85mm Nikkor-H lenses.  My test results are consistent. My second "H" lens is better than the first I had.  Still, the f/2 Ai Nikon is a better lens wide open than the earlier Nikkor.

Look very carefully at the in focus wavy blue background regions of the cover of a recent New Yorker Magazine.  It's close, but the difference between them can be seen.  If you need absolute resolution wide open the Nikon 85mm f/2 Ai is the resolution winner between the two optics, even at f/2.8.

Where the old Nikkor-H does incredibly well is in rendering the out of focus regions of an image.  It's wide aperture spherical aberrations yield a creamy smoothness that is hard to deny.  So the Nikkor-H will remain in my kit.  It will make for some beautiful portraits of a certain style that I've had in mind for some time now.

Lastly, as I've demonstrated several times here on this blog, by f/4 old vs new lenses are indistinguishable.  I use old manual focus optics for wide aperture work.  The ease of use of the AF EOS lenses allow me to work more quickly and accurately.  So my manual focus lenses are used when I want limited depth of field.

Put a different way, if all you had was $100 to spend on a lens, early manual focus optics can be the match of anything made today.  Certainly by f/4 this is true.  There is no need to spend several K-dollars for fancy L-glass if you can live with manual focus and all that it implies in the world of modern hyper-reactive AF systems.

Be sure to enlarge the attached image to 100 percent resolution.


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