There are a lot of reviews of lenses. Most blog writers find that their equipment reviews far outstrip anything else that they write in terms of popularity. I thought I’d try something a little different and point out something that a lot of us might miss from time to time, although I’m sure we all mouth it: your equipment doesn’t matter. Just after noon the sun was shining high in the sky and summer had finally arrived here in Quebec city. I’d seen flowers being planted along the Plains of Abraham a few weeks before while jogging, and surely they’d be in season and ready to bloom. The last time I’d seriously taken plant and flower pictures was almost fifteen years before while I was visiting the Higashiyama gardens in Nagoya, Japan. Armed with an F100, some Fuji Velvia, a tripod, a Nikkor Micro 60mm and a whole lot of chutzpah, the photos actually turned out pretty well, but naturally film is a lot more forgiving. These days I shoot with a D800 and some really tasty lenses. I’m not going to make my point by taking a crappy Tamron lens, smearing vaseline on the front, and producing a masterpiece of modern art. Instead, I’ll just try to make the point with a few of the lenses in my kitbag.
I genuinely believe that when you’ve got a decent piece of glass, you can pretty much do anything you like with it. The pictures you’ll see in this blog were made with a Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro-Planar, and an AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED with some Kenko extension tubes. Just to make life more difficult, it was a really windy day, pretty much rendering auto-focus useless. I decided not to “cheat” with wind blockers or glass boxes or any of that kind of thing, and just take things as easy as a guy with a tripod and a bagful of lenses can.
All files were shot in RAW, and the bare minimum of processing was done (some saturation of specific colours (particularly red) was modified, micro-contrast, and sharpening were added). Basically what you’re seeing here is what comes out of the camera. I am not a believer in spending hours in front of the computer modifying reality into something else. One shot is one photo. Also, no cropping. I get my framing right the first time! Unless I’m deliberating shooting for 16:9, I don’t crop photos. Why pay for all the resolution just to lose a ton of pixels?
First up is the Nikon. It’s not the latest model. I picked it up for about $1000 at Top Camera in Nagoya, Japan when I needed a heavy-hitter to do an indoor shoot. Basically I needed the fast auto-focus and razor sharp imaging characteristic of the lens to get what I needed from a dark environment full of flashing lights, shadows, and people moving around constantly. It performed as advertised. At the same time I introduced a friend to the budget model, the 80-200mm which in my opinion with a little more produces just as good results, for about $700 less. Going in the other direction, you’d need to pay closer to $2000, which was more than I was willing to pay for what was essentially an experiment.
I don’t know how this picture is going to look on your monitor, but on my 30″ Cinema Screen, the colour fidelity is breathtaking. Shot with the 70-200mm and a 36mm Kenko extension tube, it took me a couple of tries to get the hang of full manual, but pretty soon I could tell from the histograms and playback that everything was going well.
Wow. Fantastic bokeh, lovely colours, nothing to complain about at all. The Nikkor will do as a macro in a pinch, giving great flexibility to an already exceptional piece of glass.
Next up is the Carl Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro-Planar, renowned for being sharp even at f2. I’ve never really “tested” it, and am disinclined to do so. For those equipment geeks who really, really, want to know if lens A is better than lens B, there are plenty of excellent sites out there that will tell you what you want to know. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve read sites who demonstrate with brick walls and shooting into grey walls that there is distortion and vignetting on most lenses. Well, I just shot a Nikkor at f/2.8 with an extension tube and gotten nothing like vignetting or distortion. What can I say? It’s about photos, really. OK, on with the show.
The Zeiss is considered by many to be the king of bokeh, and razor-sharpness doesn’t even begin to describe the results. Shooting with a D800 is a challenge (D800E is another step up) and requires very strong technique, generally. But, patience and fine tuning reward you in spades, particularly when you’ve got a fantastic lens like the 100mm Makro-Planar. I think the results speak for themselves. I got my Zeiss second-hand from Adorama for $1600, and it was in tip-top shape, not a scratch on it.
Once again, I’ve shot wide open and the Zeiss shows absolutely no ill effects from having done so. I just don’t think worrying about the technical limitations of your lenses is going to get you anywhere except not taking pictures when you should just go ahead and do it anyway.
Since I know someone will ask, if I have to compare the two lenses (and this is an apples and orange comparison), I will say this: Zeiss colour is better. The Zeiss consistently produced amazing colour fidelity that didn’t need to be retouched or modified post-shooting, particularly when dealing with red colours. The Nikon tended to produce red that was a little too saturated and needed to be dialled down, albeit not by much. Another huge advantage to the Zeiss is for the manual focus, you can’t beat that smooth and ultra-precise focussing ring. The Nikon is very good, especially compared with other Nikons, but Zeiss is a whole new playing field. Having said that, the Nikkor is well worthy of its position as one of the Holy Trinity of Nikkor lenses. Unless you are absolutely desperate for another stop or two of VR capability, I don’t see any reason to unload another $1000, especially with so many used lenses in great shape out on the market. With that said, I’ll leave with these two shots:
And what camera was used for this one? Gotcha! My photo partner in crime for the day, Junko,used an iPhone 4(1/1588, f/2.8, ISO 80) to capture the first shot. And how about this fantastic capture? Gotcha again! Junko took it with a Fuji X100 in macro mode, and it’s as good or better than any of the photos I took with thousands of dollars worth of lenses. Your camera and your lens don’t matter, it’s all about technique and a little bit of imagination. Point made? You can see all of these photos on my Flickr page (they look much better there) at https://www.flickr.com/photos/36354447@N00/with/14256447526