My thanks to Richard Larson for bringing this to my attention.
Tuesday, May 24, 2022
A couple of days ago I wrote about the "Ultimate 3 Lens Kit." It was based on some old thinking and the examples of certain famous photographers who started the Magnum news imaging service. That lens kit consisted of a 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lens.
Some might wonder why I don't just use, oh, let's say, a Sony 16-70mm ZA f/4 OSS on one of the beautifully small and very capable APS-C EVF mirrorless bodies? Why not, indeed. In fact, when traveling and attempting to keep the overall weight of my camera gear to an absolute minimum and to maintain domestic harmony I'll take this lens and put it on a Sony A6000 or NEX7 EVF APS-C and call it "done."
If there ever was one zoom lens to rule them all, it would be this Sony Zeiss. The out of focus rendition is very similar to Nikkor lenses (ie: gloriously smooth behind the point of focus). The Sony Zeiss is very sharp. And there is nearly nothing of that common zoom lens design field curvature that makes the edges go soft when shooting flat 2D subjects. The rendition of this 16-70mm ZA zoom is something to proclaim far and wide. Except...
I love the way fixed focal length lenses render. It's subtle. It's not obvious (I know, I repeat myself, repeatedly). Perhaps it's only me who can claim to pixel-peep "see" any differences, but in general, I love Nikkor optics for the way they capture a scene. They "feel" to me to be a little step above even the Sony Zeiss.
In current times and with the advent of cellphone cameras people have migrated toward using wider angle lenses. I see this even in photographers who shoot their more "serious" works using larger sensored cameras. Wider seems to be "better."
So, in the spirit of keeping up with the times, here is a proposal for a slightly different 3 lens kit. This answers a question of what would happen if we extended the "ends" of the kit just a little bit. What might that look like, while remaining very usable for a wide range(r) of subjects?
On the long end, I propose a slightly longer than 85mm Nikon Nikkor-P 105mm (Xenotar-type) f/2.5 pre-Ai lens. The wide open "character" of the 105mm f/2.5 Nikkors is nothing short of sublime. I'm sure everyone remembers Steve McCurry's famous images made using this focal length lens from Nikon. It seems to have cemented not just his celebrity but the celebrity of the optic, too. Not a bad place to start building this extended range 3 lens kit, then.
In the middle, I put an early Nikon Nikkor-S Auto 50mm f/1.4 lens. This is filled with "character" when shot wide open. Stopped down a stop or two and lens performance looks remarkably similar to current optics. From this standpoint the 50mm Auto might be seen as an interesting "all around" selection. You can have your "character" and modern rendition out of the same focal length lens.
Moving to the wide end of things, 28mm lenses fall nicely between all too often distorting 24mm optics (similar focal length to cellphone "selfie" lenses) and the "Ultimate 3 Lens Kit" 35mm selection. On one hand, 28mm's is definitely wider than 35mm. On the other, 28mm's take a bit more work than 24mm's to make it distort a scene. As a bonus, the 28mm lens I chose has a bit of the wide open aperture "character" that I've come to appreciate from early Nikkor manual focus lenses.
Here it is, a proposal. This lens selection is wider on one end and longer on the other than the "Ultimate 3 Lens Kit" and contains three lenses that I find are filled with "character."
- Nikon Nikkor-N 28mm f/2 pre-Ai (updated with factory Ai aperture ring)
- Nikon Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 pre-Ai
- Nikon Nikkor-P 105mm f/2.5 pre-Ai
Sunday, May 22, 2022
When I was young and dinosaurs still roamed the earth my photographer friends and I would talk a lot about the "Ultimate Camera/Lens Kit."
Following closely from well known practitioners, comme Henri Cartier Bresson, we settled on 35mm, 50mm , 85mm as the perfect kit to carry wherever we went and to any photoshoot we made. We used 50mm most of the time and reached for the 35mm or 85mm lenses when a situation warranted it.
It was simple.
For many years I carried either a Canon F1, a Pentax MX, a Nikon FM, or a Leica M3 with a 50mm in the appropriate lens mount.
The Canon F1 was the original first model series version. It was built like a tank. The camera survived a drop at one of the first Long Beach Grand Prix, it was that strong. Additional lenses for it were a 35mm f/3.5 FD, a 50mm f/1.8 FDn, a 135mm f/2.5 FL, and a 200mm f/3.5 FL. Yet, the vast majority of the photographs I made with it were using the 50mm lens.
The Pentax MX was a beautifully small camera and the 50mm f/1.7 lens I used was perfectly balanced for the way the camera handled. I had a couple other lenses for it, but the 50mm was my "go to" optic. I made some nice images with that camera. That was one of the more "perfect" kits I owned.
The Nikon FM was slightly larger than the Pentax. I had a 50mm f/1.4 Auto Ai that I used. The camera body had a winder, too. It was a fun kit, but I was too young and inexperienced to realize what I had. The Nikkor lenses were considered the class of the world for very good reason and I was completely clueless.
The Leica with an interesting 50mm f/1.5 Leitz came to me after a Samy's Print Lab big "important client" print session that netted enough money to get to decide between the German camera, a Swedish Hasselblad 500C/M, and an Ansel Adams 16x20inch "Moonrise" print. Yes. I'm stupid. I should've purchased the Adams. In fact, I can still see that gorgeous print in my mind's eye hanging in the Best Gallery in Yosemite Valley. Ugh. Oh well. Missed opportunities, and all that.
Fast forward from the Dinosaur Era to the present and I find myself with a nice collection of Nikon Nikkor glass and a Sony A7 full frame mirrorless camera. The Sony camera is actually smaller and lighter than a Canon AE-1 film body. Though, it must be noted that with age the Sony, Nikkor kit is beginning to feel a little heavy.
Anyway, here is what my friends and I used to call the "Ultimate Kit." It's been repurposed for use in the Digital Age and consists of a Nikon Nikkor-O 35mm f/2, a Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AiS, and a Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 K.
Saturday, May 21, 2022
Before I pause this blog, I thought I'd reiterate something that I learned about converting digital color to black and white.
When I used to make prints for other photographers for a living, I always strove to tone richness, creamy whites, and deep/beautiful blacks. If you look at so much of the modern digital black and white work it can be a muddy mess of yuck. Sure, current practitioners might not see things that way. They likely believe their B&W work is just wonderful. Yet to me I have to ask why is so much work missing that tonal richness we used to have back in the day?
It turns out there's a very simple way of getting back to that classic old print richness and I wanted to write about it again, but Mike Johnson beat me to it. And he says what needs to be said more clearly and succinctly that I ever could.
Here is a link to his Online Photographer blog article.
I now know that processing digital files can be more flexible and more accurate in black and white imaging than film ever was. And, with a bit of knowledge, we can achieve that old silver print "richness" that so much of the current digital B&W is lacking.
It comes down to this two things. First, humans see color tones in black and white in a specific way and, second, the material properties of silver halide papers and their effects on printed from negative images are rather different than people might think.
First, the way humans see color converted to black and white is very interesting. Tim Soret does an excellent job of explaining what we "see." What human perception modeling allows is tonal separation. Let me say this again, with emphasis: What human perception modeling allows is tonal separation.
This used to be the Holy Grail of black and white film photography. In digital work to touch that Holy Grail of tonal separation is as simple as understanding which tool to use and why.
As a side note, I was happy to see that Sony's in-camera black and white conversion fits M.Soret's description of human perception. When I set a Sony mirrorless camera up for black and white, I can see the effect in the EVF and on the LCD. Sony has done an outstanding job of eliminating much of the guesswork. A photographer can really "see" in black and white. It's so easy it sometimes feels like cheating.
My second learning about converting digital color to black and white is related to what I used to experience when I was a black and white print technician working on Sunset Blvd in Hollyweird, CA back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Exhibition quality prints we used to make for at the time famous photographers were nearly always creamy smooth/rounded in the high-tones and raised elevated in the mid-tones of a negative.
It's most definitely not sufficient to take a black and white negative, scan it and invert it to generate a positive image and call it done.
The negative was always only part of the process, the starting point. Further, if we stop at the black and white film negative, we're once again stuck in a sea of muddled yucky grays. It's no better than performing a simple de-saturation of a digital file. So how do we get around this and come closer to creating the tonal richness of old film-era prints?
Following Mike Johnson's guide, open the "curves" function in your photo editor, grab the middle of the curve, and lift/raise it. Watch what happens to your image and stop lifting/raising the curve when the effect is correct. Here is what M.Johnson says about using this approach.
"...[It]increases shadow contrast, raises the often radically lowered middle values, and softens the contrast of highlights, all at once. This is just B&W Tonality 101..."
To cement this learning we can look at old prints and study their tonal ranges. We can "calibrate" our eye to the "richness" of tones and expressions that can be achieved. M.Johnson suggests browsing a site called "Shorpy." Indeed, studying photos there can be educational and inspirational.
Once you "see" the difference between a muddle mess of grays image and beautiful tonal expressions you'll know what to do. Just follow these two steps:
1) Use luminance/human perception modeling to perform the initial conversion from color into black and white
2) Raise the mid-tones using the "curves" tool
Thursday, May 19, 2022
The Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AiS I recently picked up quickly developed a problem. I suddenly had a set of oily aperture blades.
Quick as a bunny I went over to Richard Haw's website to read-up on how to disassemble the oil-stricken lens. The process didn't look too bad, but decided to take it a step at a time. I didn't want to make a mess of it by stripping screw-heads like I accidentally had on an otherwise nice Auto S.C.
By the way the rear mount came off the AiS I knew someone had been into this lens before. The screws weren't as tight as they are coming from the factory.
Step one, remove the rear mount and assess the situation to see if something had caught in the spring mechanism. After looking around I reassembled it and realized I hadn't solved the problem.
Step two, re-remove the rear mount and drop the element carrier out the front barrel to get at the aperture mechanism. As M.Haw suggests, the 50mm AiS aperture mechanism is just like the Nikon Nikkor 85mm f/2 Ai/AiS. Easy peasy, right?
Looking into the lens from the front I realized there was a larger problem. The person who'd gotten into the lens had used WAY too much grease. Perhaps the focusing mechanism had been stiff? Who knows? All I knew is there was grease in places there it had no business being. It was everywhere!
I had an oil spill to clean up. Call in the Hazmat Crew!! and gallons of ETOH, denatured, of course. The natured stuff is best left for the photographer (me). Yes. I'm being somewhat dramatic. LOL!
After reassembly and working with the lens for awhile it appears I may have solved the problem. Keeping fingers crossed on that, but if I didn't get it all, I know I can easily get back into the optic.
Here's the tale of the oil cleanup and aperture blade de-greasing in photos.
Tuesday, May 17, 2022
Ok. Once more. With feeling.
... and continuing with the series of posts on field flatness and "sharpness" I'd like to take a look, this time, at a Nikon Nikkor-N 28mm f/2 pre-Ai lens.
I picked this lens up off That Auction Site for a bit less money than they typically trade for. Fearing the description might've left something out, I was pleasantly surprised to find the lens to be in very good condition. Optically it appears mint. So, in short, a win for the Home Team. Or something like that.
- Sony A7 - ISO50, 2 second timer, in-camera levels used to square the whole plot up
- Manfrotto tripod - it's capable of securing an 8x10inch view camera, so it's sturdy enough for this
- Lens - Nikon Nikkor-N 28mm f/2 pre-Ai (updated with factory Ai aperture ring)
- Rawtherapee RAW to jpg conversion - Auto-Match function, but nothing further (ie: NO Capture Sharpening) to minimize processing effects
Here is the scene setup. You can see we have new curtains. Life is good, isn't it?
[As always, click on the image and look at it to 100percent file size to see whatever there is to be seen.]
The Nikon Nikkor-N 28mm f/2 pre-Ai behaves similarly to all the Nikkor lenses I've looked at recently. The field is acceptably flat from wide open, even if the extreme-extreme corners go slightly soft. One click down and everything is good, even to the very edges. By f/4 the under-corrected spherical aberration is gone and this lens is as sharp as anything modern.
You'll know what I'm about to say, of course. Nikon designed their lenses to create a certain out of focus rendition behind the point of focus by designing into their lenses under-corrected spherical aberration. With very few exceptions, this rendering is consistant across the line of optics from the start of the SLR era right up to the beginning of the advent of the autofocus days.
This is why I am no longer obsessed with "how sharp" a lens is wide open. In general, wide open is where I get to see what was on the mind(s) of the lens designer(s). That's where I've found lenses with "character" strut their stuff.
As for using this 28mm f/2, it's slightly bigger than its sisters 35mm f/2 Nikkor-O and 24mm f/2.8 Ai. Yet it feels good to use, once I got over the impressive Sony A7 + adapter + lens length. It's not for the faint of heart.
The overall length observation is where I've wandered down many an old rangefinder lens path to see if there might be something good which might help keep the overall kit size to a minimum. Alas, no. I've not come across anything that renders the way these old Nikkors do. Modern AF glass lack the characteristics of these old lenses, so there's little to no help to be found there, either.
Like the three!!! Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 I recently acquired, I'll have to work with the 28mm f/2 for awhile to fully sort out if I like it, or not. At first blush, though, it does seem to be a very nice lens. It fits very nicely between the easily scene distorting 24mm and the pretty but sometimes too tight feeling 35mm.
As I said in the last post, stay tuned. Photos soon.
Sunday, May 15, 2022
Just the other evening I enjoyed catching up on Rob Siegel's latest aventures in finding and haggling over old cars. If we still lived back in the States I'm sure I'd be doing my best to keep up with Rob.
You see, I used to be something of a motor-head. Many cars came to sit in the driveway or take up space in the garage. They all went after years of swearing "I'll start working on it soon" and finally giving up in frustration only to sell something on to some other poor dreamy-eye'd motor-head.
My driveways and garages have seen Renault R5 (two non-runners), Fiat X1/9 (a fragile but nimble crazy fun car to drive), Fiat 124 Sport Coupe (an absolute favorite), a Jaguar E-Type FHC 1964 (drove me to the poorhouse, that one did), a Jaguar E-Type OTS 1963 (I missed a bend front engine support from a prior wreck and it handled like a pig, even after I replaced the support), a Triumph GT6 (non-runner), a Jaguar XK150 FHC (disassembled non-runner), and a laundry list of motorcycles (some runners, many non-runners) too long and irrelevant to the point to list here.
My point being, if I'd just saved my monies and bought a properly cared for vehicle, I'd likely still have it. No, instead I Bottom Fed knowing that I was squeaking by and feeling somehow justified that I was "saving money." It was a false sense of economy. I know this.
What does this have to do with lenses? Well, it might help explain why I do what I continue to do with camera gear.
Now that we live in France I'm fortunate to not have a garage nor tools to make buying/selling old cars an option. Yet somehow this isn't really very comforting. When the itch hits it's nearly torture. Only now, to stop the torture, I buy/sell cameras and lenses.
Lenses can be small, light, and take up only a shelf or two of closet space. They are nearly ideal for scratching That Itch. Except there's a somewhat constant flow of incoming/outgoing gear that I have to manage. Fortunately I don't need titles and insurance papers to make a transaction like I would if they were automobiles or motorcycles.
Sometimes after working with modern auto-focus lenses and coming home from an event with over 6,000 images to choose from I get it into my head that I should downsize and replace all my old Nikkor glass with just a few select AF lenses for the Sony A7. The ease and "directness" of using current AF tools frees me up to "see" rather than manage old camera gear and lenses while struggling to get the focus right.
Relatedly, I recently sold three lenses that I felt I could easily live without. Two of them were Nikkor 50mm lenses of the classic 6 element 4 group double Gauss design. I'd purchased them for a song, looked at them, felt that I'd figured out how they worked, and decided I needed to have a look at the 7 element 5 group Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 versions, of which I now have three.
This is a variation on That Itch of Buying/Selling. I feel it perfectly illustrates the level of Insanity my thrashing about creates.
I'd avoided buying a 50mm Sony f/1.8 FE for little money thinking that Nikkor 50mm lenses were cheaper. Individually, they can be. But with three of them (a single coated Auto, a multi-coated Auto, and a pretty AiS) I'm into f/1.4 Nikkors for just a tick less than twice what I would've paid for the Sony 50mm f/1.8. I've just spent more trying to find something I like than I would've buying something new and perfectly serviceable.
Which leads me to an old Nikon Nikkor-N 28mm f/2 pre-Ai that's been Ai'd with a factory aperture ring that I spotted on That Auction Site.
I'd recently passed on a very pretty Sony 28mm f/2 FE autofocus lens thinking that it was too much money to spend just then. Yet, at 3/8th's the price of the Sony, along comes a f/2 Nikkor-N and I'm suddenly all giddy and happy at snagging it for much less than the usual going rate.
Ah, the joys of Hunting and Gathering. It's something deep in my DNA. There's no other way of explaining it to myself. That habit is, by this point in my life, well baked into Who I Am. Bizarre, isn't it?
After quickly confirming the lens resolution and field flatness I headed out to photograph a few automobiles as they checked in for the Rallye des Princesses 2022. Photos soon, I promise. There were more than a few pretty little cars that showed up and from the looks of things this 28mm f/2 is yet another wonderful Nikon optic.
I'm beginning to see a pattern, a design concept, if you will, for how manual focus Nikkor lenses are created. There is a strong imaging family ressemblance shared between many of the pre-AF Nikon lenses.
The more I look at pre-AF Nikkors the more I feel they behave wide open very much like old Voigtlander Heliar 5 element 3 group large format lenses. The Heliars are famed for their Soft Over Sharp rendition. It can be a subtle and beautiful effect. I'm more than a little surprised to find similar behaviors in lenses designed for 35mm film cameras. The Nikon Nikkor-N 28mm f/2 pre-Ai is Soft Over Sharp wide open and renders very similarly to those old Heliars.
In general, when stopped down one click from wide open most of the Nikkors I've looked at become quite sharp and don't look any different to my eyes than current modern computer-designed AF optics. I'll perhaps share some proof/confirmation of this in the future.
Even recognizing the folly and false economy of buying old unloved lenses, it's far too early to tell if I will chuck it all and go with full-AF lenses on my Sony full frame cameras.