About nine months ago I purchased a Nikon D810. It’s a phenomenal camera – far better than I deserve. So I’ve been working to try to deserve it – a life’s project.
But the D810 is just a camera body. It doesn’t come with a lens. You have to supply one. Otherwise you can’t take a single photograph.
And by “one,” I’ve learned, I mean “more than one.”
I’ve been shopping for lenses essentially since I bought the camera. Right now I have two. I need more – though I’m not entirely sure how many more. That’s what this post is to help me find.
So I’m going to work through the problem from the beginning, and see if I can come to some conclusions.
CAMERA LENSES IN GENERAL
Camera lenses have two primary measures: focal length and speed. These are measured in “mm” and “f-stop” respectively.
This is how wide or narrow the image is, from ultrawide lenses that can take in a whole horizon, to telephoto lenses that can see a bird in flight a mile away. You want wide lenses for certain things, teles for other things, and “average” lenses for certain things. So the smaller the number of mm, the wider angle it is; the larger the number of mm, the narrower angle it is.
For example: A “normal” focal length is usually had from a 35mm or 50mm lens – if the human eye were a camera lens, it would be around 43mm. Nikon’s widest lens is 14mm, while its narrowest is 800mm.
This is the maximum amount of light that can get into the lens. It’s kind of a misnomer: the more light can get in, the faster shutter speeds you can use – which means the easier it is to shoot moving things (and the easier it is to shoot from a camera held in unsteady human hands). So the smaller the f-stop, the faster the lens.
For example: The world’s fastest lens was f/0.7 – made by NASA and used by Stanley Kubrick. In terms of lenses for digital cameras, f/1.4 is considered extremely fast for a lens in the ‘normal’ range (24-85mm). Lenses get slower as they get wider (Nikon makes a 20mm f/1.8, and a 14mm f/2.8). Lenses also get slower as they get narrower (Nikon makes a 200mm f/2, a 400mm f/2.8, and its telescope-like 800mm is f/5.6).
PRIMES and ZOOMS:
All the lenses discussed above are PRIME LENSES. This means they have a fixed focal length; they can’t zoom in or out. ZOOM LENSES are lenses which have a range of focal lengths. You twist the lens and the focal length increases or decreases, zooming your field or vision in or out.
The benefit of this is you can own one lens instead of two (or ten), and also that you don’t have to physically swap lenses in order to zoom in or out. The downside is that zoom lenses are slower than prime lenses. Often much slower. And the wider their zoom range, the slower they get.
The biggest zoom range is on the Nikon 28-300 and 80-400, and the biggest tele range is the Tamron or Sigma 150-600.
The 28-300 is f/3.5 when shot at 28mm, and f/5.6 when shot at 300mm. The 80-400 is f/4.5-5.6. In comparison, Nikon makes a 28mm prime lens that stops up to f/1.4, and a 300mm prime lens that stops to f/2.8. The primes are a lot faster.
The Tamron 150-600 is f/5 at 150 – where Nikon makes a 135mm f/2 – and f/6.3 at 600 – where Nikon makes a 600mm f/5.6.
Lenses can be heavy. This doesn’t mean much when you’re shooting from a tripod, in your studio – but even then it can be a consideration. It means a lot when you’re walking around, or hiking, or biking. It means a heck of a lot when, like me, you’re a bike tourist. And when you’ve got more than one lens, the weight adds up fast.
But even then: some lenses are too heavy to hold in your hands. Some are too heavy to hold for very long. And some are heavy enough that it’s going to make your hands less stable – causing vibrations – ruining shots. So weight is always a consideration.
For me, a lens that weighs 1lb is deal. Under 2lb can be successfully handheld or taken on a hike or bike. Anything more than that is impractical.
Nikon’s lightest lens is an old 50mm that weighs 135g – under five ounces. The heaviest is the 800mm weighing 4590g – over ten damned pounds. The 28-300 weighs 800g – just under 2lbs. The 150-600 weighs 1900g – over 4lbs – which makes it impractical.
Lenses can be huge. Generally, a 50mm lens is the smallest. Wider lenses get wider, and telephoto lenses get longer (and also wider, but mostly longer). This is less of a consideration than weight, but still it has to be noted.
Nikon’s 50mm f/1.8G is 2.1″ long and 2.8″ wide. That’s about as small as a lens can get.
The 14mm is 3.5″ long and 3.5″ wide. It’s too big to pocket, but not too big to carry around on a wanderjahr.
The 70-200 f/2.8 is 3.5″ wide and over 8″ long. It is commonly referred to as “The Magic Drainpipe.”
The 800mm is 6.3″ wide (at the far end) and 18.2″ long. It is too big for use as anything but tripod decoration – or a very expensive shillelagh.
Bokeh is the quality of blurred backgrounds. If you focus on something close up, what’s behind it can get blurry. It’s a very cool look. It’s basically de rigeur for portraits.
The two things that effect bokeh are focal length and speed. The longer the focal length, the more bokeh; the faster the lens, the more bokeh. So a 50mm f/1.2 might do as well as an 85mm f/1.8, but not as well as a 200mm f/2. It’s a balancing act.
The fact that primes are faster, then, makes them much more useful for portrait photography.
CLOSE FOCUS DISTANCE
Some lenses can focus on an object that’s a foot away. Some are a little more. As usual, the 800mm lens wins with a minimum focus distance of about 20 feet.
Basically, a lens needs this; I ain’t manual focusing on things. It’s hard enough when they’re stationary. When they’re moving, and quickly, you need computer assistance.
Some lenses have built-in autofocus motors. Nikon calls these AF-S or “silent wave motor” lenses. This is a very nice feature, but not a necessity.
Vibration reduction. This wraps the lens’ inside-bits in a series of gyros that stabilizes the lens, in effect freezing the image so you can photograph it. You depress the shutter trigger halfway, the gyros kick in, and the image freezes – photographing it becomes kind of an afterhought. This negates the little hand tremors that can make a photograph blurry – which is especially important in low light, when you are shooting with slower shutter speeds. The effect is to make a lens faster without reducing its f-stop. In a nutshell: VR turns you into a human tripod.
Older lenses will auto-focus unless you flip a switch on your camera, which is hard to do one-handed. Newer lenses will auto-focus and then stop the moment you touch the focus ring, allowing for you to perform quick corrections on the fly. I’m just starting to appreciate how incredibly useful this feature is.
Only available on two Nikon prime lenses from the early 90s. This is a micro-focus control that lets you give even more blur to the backgrounds in portraits. If Nikon ever releases these lenses with updated optics and components, they will be the emperors of portraiture – as it is, they’re still the Barons of Bokeh.
There is some other shit that can go on inside of a lens, but it’s even less important than the above. A lot of it falls under the category of sausage-making. Some of it falls under the category of marketing-related bullshit.
AND FINALLY: SHARPNESS
It is a great tenet of the photographer that sharpness has much more to do with one’s skill than one’s equipment. This is generally true.
Shooting with the right settings will let you take crisp shots in almost any condition. Or at least, it will let you know how many shots you will have to take to assure that one will be sharp.
The problem, here, is kind of with my camera. I shoot a 36-megapixel full-frame camera, which is kind of the equivalent of putting a dentist’s swing-arm magnifier in front of your bathroom mirror. Shoot my D810 right and you can see more of an eyelash than some old cell phone can see of a whole face.
But that’s only with a sharp lens. With a lens that isn’t so sharp, my camera will still take a great photo. But when you zoom it, it will look soft – even if shot perfectly.
As a result, if I want great photographs, I need great glass.
The good news is, there is a lot of great glass out there. The bad news is, a lot of it is expensive. Some of it is expensive af (and that doesn’t stand for ‘autofocus’).
WHY IS IT SO EXPENSIVE?
Price is correlated to all of the variables above. Want a really wide or a really tele lens? More money. Want VR or AF-S? More money. (Capitalism: one man’s progress, another’s diminishing returns.)
This is great in theory, because I could pay for what I wanted and not pay for what I don’t. The problem is, a lot of the variables are correlated to each other. For example, a lens that’s very sharp is also likely to be very fast, whereas a less fast lens is also likely to be less sharp. The result is that, if you want a sharp lens, you also have to pay for a fast lens. And so, in conclusion, LENSES COST A LOT.
In the far distant future, when robots rule the galaxy and &c, the ideal lens will be a 14-1000mm f/1.0. It will fit in the palm of your hand and weigh a song – and cost less than one arm and one leg. Also, fourteen stops of VR.
Until then, what this all adds up to is: comparison shopping like it’s goin’ out of fashion.
Which is a wonderful segue into:
2) WHAT I NEED RIGHT NOW
In short: I need a telephoto lens.
When I bought my camera, I wanted to do primarily landscape work (both urban and natural), with a minor in portrait photography. I bought myself a 20mm ultrawide and a 50mm ‘regular’. They’re both phenomenal lenses – sharp, fast, light and small. I thought they would be all I would need.
I was wrong!
As it turns out, ultrawides are often the precise wrong thing for landscape photography. Shoot the horizon with an ultrawide and the picture will be 5% horizon and 95% extraneous shit. You have to zoom (or crop) forever to see a detail. And then that detail is only a fraction of the detail it could be in, if instead of zooming in after you took the picture, you zoomed in before – with a telephoto lens.
By and large, what you actually want for landscape photography is an extremely narrow focal length, so that you can isolate single landscape elements.
Likewise for portraits, a 50mm lens is not generally what you want. Shooting from a reasonable distance (fifteen feet), a 50mm lens could fit an entire basketball team. A 135mm lens is more appropriate for 3/4-lenth portraits, and a 300mm is more appropriate for faces.
It’s also much easier to blur a background (bokeh) with a telephoto lens. This isolates a person from their backgrounds, which is almost always good portraiture practice. So in both landscapes and portraits, isolation is often the key to composition. And as telephoto lenses are the key to isolating elements… carry the one…
I NEED A TELEPHOTO LENS.
My primary goal is sharpness. Second is maximum focal length. Third is weight. Everything else is deep in the distance.
…except for PRICE. It’s a meta-consideration. It’s not that I’ll pay more for a sharper or lighter lens: it’s that if I can’t get such a lens for a reasonable price, I won’t get one at all.
It used to be that an ultratele – 300mm or more – weighed at least five pounds and cost at least five grand. That would be unattainable, and also, of limited utility. But things have changed. There are new options. Progress has been made.
But how much progress? In short: should I buy a new lens, or eBay up an old one?
A LITTLE BIT OF WANKING ON ABOUT LENSES
It’s interesting to note that – basically – camera lenses got Perfectly Good in the 1970s. Everything we’ve seen since then has been:
a) reduction in weight or size of the lens
b) reduction in price of manufacture
c) bells and whistles
d) tiny incremental progress – AKA, diminishing returns
By and large, you never see (b). Because the camera companies are totally down with charging what people will pay. You see a shitton of (c) and (d) because the companies keep releasing ‘upgraded’ lenses in an attempt to keep their gougy-ass prices constant down through the years.
What you are starting to see, however, is (a).
It’s kind of like bicycles. In fact, it’s basically EXACTLY like bicycles and isn’t that convenient. N.B. there’s a very strong case to be made that bicycles peaked in the 1960s with good steel 10-speeds, and everything after that has been (a)(b)(c)or(d) – and not so much with the (b), neither.
The benefit of this to the cyclist is that you can push less bike around, letting you go faster. The comparable benefit to a photographer is to be able to haul more or better gear around, and shoot sharper images without having to do bicep curls in between.
I’m seeing this trend in a lot of products. In sleeping bags. In head phones. In laptops (absolutely). Planes and trains and automobiles. How do you improve a mature technology? Make it cheaper, or make it marginally better. How do you improve a truly mature technology? Make it do the same thing – but be lighter.
AND THIS BRINGS US TO:
Right now, as I say, I have a 20mm and a 50mm. What I’m missing, then, is the telephoto range. This starts north of 50mm – around 70 or 85 – and continues to oblivion.
This isn’t just a matter of comparing lenses one-to-one. It’s a matter of thinking about how I shoot, how I want to shoot, and what kind of lens kit I want to build for that purpose.
In a nutshell:
-I could get a 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 and be done with it.
-I could get the 70-200 f/4, with an option to add the 300 f/4 PF -OR- an ultratele zoom (the Nikon 200-500, or the Tamron 150-600).
-I could get the 300 f/4 PF, with an option to add the 70-200 f/4 -OR- stay prime with the 85mm f/1.8.
Let’s look at the lenses individually.
THE NIKON 70-300 f/4-5.6
The problem here, alas, is that this is not pro-grade glass. It’s just not. I’ve shot with it, and it’s just not sharp. In addition to being slow, and slow to focus, and inaccurate of focus… it’s just. plain. bad.
Which is what one expects from a $100 price tag. Alas alack.
THE NIKON 85mm f/1.8
Excellent lens. Commonly used for portraits. Very sharp. Very fast. Tiny. And pretty cheap!
But the difference between a 50mm and an 85mm just isn’t that large. With a real telephoto – certainly the 70-200, but possible even the 300 – I doubt I’d use it all that much. However, though that might be a strike against buying it, that’s not a strike against building a kit that incorporates it – that leaves a hole for it, I should say, which I might then fill or not as needs transpire.
THE NIKON 70-200 f/4
Excellent lens. Weighs 30 ounces, which is on the side of the angels (and not the side whereby a photography sessions requires that one carb up). Slower than the 70-200 f/2.8 “magic stovepipe,” but half the weight, half the price, and even a little bit sharper. Also, five repeat five goddam stops of VR.
Really the only thing that stands against it is the fact that it’s not that deep a tele. Would I rather be able to shoot at a range up to 200, or shoot at 50 (or 85) and 300 with nothing in between?
THE NIKON 200-500 f/5.6
Very sharp. Incredible range. A little slow. Huge – impractically so.
This is another consideration. The 300 is portable. The 200-500 is not – but its lack of portability allows two hundred millimeters more. Is the 300 then just a compromise – and is that a bad thing, or the best of all?
THE TAMRON 150-600 f/5-6.3
Even more range. Even slower. A little less sharp. Just as huge. But still, by all accounts, a very nice lens – and comparatively cheap – and SIX HUNDRED MILLIMETERS.
THE NIKON 300mm f/4 E PF VR.
If it wasn’t for this lens, very little of this conversation would be occurring. The question would be, Which do I get first – the 70-200, or one of the ultratele zooms? But I would know that, inevitably, I’d be getting them both. And that would be my lens kit.
Enter the 300.
A few months ago, Nikon released a new telephoto lens. It’s a 300mm, which Nikon has been making since 1971. It has some bells and whistles – AF, VR – but nothing that Nikon hasn’t had on its 300 since 1987. No, the biggest difference here is weight and size.
The older Nikon 300mm autofocus lenses weighed 47 and 51 ounces. This lens weighs 26. They were 9″. This is less than 6″. This lens has all dem bells and whistles, as is now to be expected. It is also preposterously sharp, almost perfectly so – as sharp as the “pro quality” 300mm f/2.8, which is 11″ long, weighs 52oz, and costs $5,500.
It accomplishes this, in part, by using a fresnel lens. Which I mention only because I’ve long had a peculiar interest (read that phrase lasciviously) for fresnel lenses. Also because – yes, I know – but there is something special about using a piece of Very New Technology. About using it in one’s own hands -hanging it around one’s neck.
This is a 300m ultratelephoto lens that can easily be handheld, for hours on end – and then bundled into the pannier and biked away.
IN A PERFECT WORLD
Well, I’d have all of them.
But that isn’t entirely impractical. They do different things. I’d have the 200-500 (say) as basically a budget 500mm zoom. I would take it with me wherever a car could carry. I’d have the 300mm for carrying, hike or bike. And I’d have the 70-200 and/or the 85 depending on what I found I needed. Dratted that experience can only come after purchase!
The problem is that the 70-200 and the 200-500 together cost, via the good graces of eBay, over $2000. Add in the 300 and the 85, and we’re at $4,000. When my ideal expenditure on glass would be, of course, $0 – but I can hardly justify $1600, let alone the more.
IN THIS HUMBLE WORLD OF OURS
I need to choose.
Among the ultrateles, which would I rather have: the range of the 200-500, or the portability of the 300?
And in general, which would I rather have now: the versatility of the 70-200, or the longer range of the ultratele?
Well, that is the question. There it is. And for the moment: “Let it suffice that the malady has been diagnosed—heaven alone knows how to cure it!”