Thursday, September 07, 2006

Got Bokeh?

My camera bag is overflowing again. I'm trying to slowly assemble a usable set of Nikon lenses and accessories, as the wife and the budget allows. Obviously I don't yet have the budget for the latest-and-greatest, top-of-the-line stuff that Nikon is producing for dSLRs today. One of the main reasons I switched to Nikon, however, is that I could spend a lot less money on older manual-focus lenses with optics that still are very, very good. And while Nikon's corporate philosophy of planned non-obselescence may be better described as planned non-extinction, the path I've chosen with my D1H allows me to have reasonable functionality with older lenses (which are abundant and reasonably-priced in the used market).

I wanted to add a short telephoto f/2.8 lens to my arsenal, because I've been invited to co-shoot a wedding, and the fastest lens I have is my 18-70 3.5/4.5. I thought about buying a 50mm, but I've never been much of a fan of the 50mm focal length (pretty unusual for a photographer, I know), and for about half the price of a decent 50mm 1.8, I could get a 100mm 2.8. After debating whether or not to spend the extra $40 or so, I decided that I didn't need the extra 35mm that the 135mm 2.8 would give me. After re-reading Ken Rockwell's review, I decided so keep an eye on the 100mm 2.8 Series E lens auctions on eBay (after having passed up the opportunity to purchase one at the last camera show I went to).

Since all of the other lenses I want are WWWAAAAAAAYYY more expensive than that lens, I decided to spring on a Buy-It-Now lens to get it here before my cousin's wedding this weekend. I figured I could practice up for the other wedding in October. It arrived today, about a day faster than I'd expected. Yay good eBay seller!!!! Yay USPS Priority Mail!!!!

So now, believe it or not, I have my first ever prime lens. I've always used zooms, as (like I mentioned earlier) I'd never been much of a fan of the 5omm focal length, and I generally like the freedom that a zoom lens gives you. Well, I guess you could say that I did cut my teeth a bit in the prime lens world by shooting with a medium-format TLR camera (which I would LOVE to get back into using).

In purchasing a faster lens, I wanted to find a lens that compresses DOF, too, hence the need for a longer focal length (than 50 mm). I'm a huge fan of both extremes of DOF -- from seeing every pine needle in the entire forest through Ansel Adams' F/64 world, to isolating one single pine needle with a macro, shallow-DOF lens. One of the ways to determine lens quality is by looking at the bokeh on the out-of-focus areas in an extreme DOF shot. There's a good read here on bokeh, with links to examples from different lenses, so I won't even try to reinvent the wheel by writing something up on that. While I cannot really validly compare the image below with some of the early shots I made of this same tree around this time last year with my 8008s and 70-210 zoom (since, you know, DOF is pretty different between f/2.8 and even f/4), I can testify to the quality of the 100mm f/2.8 Series E. It's a nice, nice lens, and has great bokeh!

In spite of dogging my 70-210 Series E lens a bit over here, they do produce quality images. They may be ugly and plasticy and a Nikkor's outcast foster brother, but they're still good lenses, and the optics (which, of course, is the MOST important feature of a lens) are definitely Nikkor. As Ken Rockwell points out:

...everyone was afraid of the Series E lenses and few people bought them. Oddly, more people bought the crummier cheap brands that weren't as honest about what they were selling. Too bad, because the Series E were great lenses and far better than the discount ones.
That's an important thing to keep in mind. A lens produced by Nikon for Nikon camera is almost always (there are, of course, exceptions) going to have higher-quality optics than an off-brand, cheaper lens. In this particular case, of course, the price/performance ratio is pretty darn outstanding. It gives me a lens to use for lower-light photography with good bokeh for shallow DOF shots, and for tight candid portraits. My ugly, plasticy Series E 100 f/2.8 still has Nikon optics. I didn't buy a Nikon so I could put a Vivitar lens on it...

Keep an eye out over here. I'm in the thick of redesigning my photography web site. It's one of the better designs I've produced for a web site, and I'm actually a bit excited about it.

If you'd like to use images in this blog post, please e-mail paul(at)


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