I thought some of you might be curious about what I consider to be my staples. There are some lenses that I consider best-in-class, or best for a special purpose, but I don’t own because it’s impractical, expensive or I simply wouldn’t use often enough; there are others that are workhorses for me and happen to be excellent. Some I like simply because they have interesting quirks that make for unusual or unique image rendition.
Rule #1: Don’t compromise on glass. I can’t remember who told me this, or where I read it, but it’s true: the lens makes the image, and it makes the most obvious difference, too. If you know that lens X is the best for what you shoot, but you decide to save a few hundred dollars and buy lens Y which will do the job but isn’t as good, you’ll probably land up regretting it and buying lens X anyway. Best case – you manage to sell lens Y without too much of a loss, and land up paying more than had you just bought X in the first place; worst case, you land up having to pay for both.
With that in mind, let’s start at the wide end and move on from there.
This is not really a class of lens I use often, but if I did, my money would go to the Nikon AFS 14-24/2.8 G. It’s an incredibly impressive piece of glass that’s sharp in the corners wide open and almost entirely free of CA. It’s an achievement for a prime, let alone a fast aperture zoom. I did actually own one when I had a Nikon D3.
Wide and fast is an important combination for photojournalism, especially available light work; I like the Nikon AFS 24/1.4 G, Leica 21/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH, Zeiss ZM 2.8/21 Biogon and curiously, the 28/1.9 equivalent on the Ricoh GR-Digital III, but my all time favorite lens in this category is the Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon. This lens shares the same optical formula as the much vaunted ‘Hollywood’ in Contax mount; except it has a chip to meter on Nikon bodies. Bokeh is exceptional, it focuses very close, has biting sharpness at all apertures, and above all, a very unique rendition that emphasizes the subject because the plane of focus is curved in a spherical section, with the camera at the center. That means edge subjects are rendered oddly, but if you stick to the border zones you’ll be fine. And the micro contrast structure is beautifully detailed, which works well with the lens’ high native color transmission to deliver a very 3D image. Note: I haven’t included the Olympus 12/2 in this list, because whilst it’s technically pretty good, it’s frankly also characterless. Kinda like ordinary vanilla ice cream.
This range has usually been no-mans’ land for me; I tend to prefer a wider or longer perspective. However, I’m rediscovering the joys of a conventional view with the Leica M9-P; in my mind there is only one lens in this range – the Leica 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE (Floating Lens Element – though technically it’s a group of elements). It’s about as close to a technically perfect lens as you can get; sure, we could ask for a closer minimum focus distance, but that isn’t really possible with a rangefinder due to parallax issues on framing. It even works incredibly well for super macro work with a bellows on the M9-P, or extension tubes and an adaptor on the D700. Who’d have thought? A distant second in this category would be the Panasonic 20/1.7 for Micro Four Thirds.
Again, another desert for me. I’ve owned a lot of lenses in this range – from Nikon alone, the 45/2.8 P, AF 50/1.8 D, AF 50/1.4 D, AFS 50/1.4 G (two of them, embarrassingly), pre-AI 55/1.2 SC, AF 60/2.8 D Micro and AF 60/2.8 G Micro. Except the macro lenses, somehow none of the standard lens offerings for SLRs have inspired me at all. They’re either characterless or surprisingly bad, considering the low demands; the only exception is the brief impression I got of the new Nikon AFS 50/1.8 G, which contains aspherical surfaces and has a bite to it that’s sorely lacking in the faster or older versions. However, I’d give the gong to the Leica 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH, which if you get a good copy, is absolutely incredible. It’s sharper wide open than most lenses ever get stopped down; the subject separation is amazing, and your frame is literally dissected into planes. I think it has to do with the transition from in-focus to out-of-focus being very abrupt; it shoots much more like a telephoto than a normal lens. Special mention should be given to the Leica 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH, which is special because it delivers performance very close to the Summilux ASPH, but over one stop faster. It isn’t a practical lens though, due to size, weight, long focus throw, criticality of rangefinder alignment, minimum 1m focus distance, cost…I could go on. And the swirly bokeh (caused by uncorrected residual spherical aberration) of the old Noctilux is gone – I don’t miss it, to be honest. But I’ve been amazed by it every time I’ve used it, which is thankfully frequent due to my relationship with Leica. A commended award go to the Zeiss ZM 2/50 Planar; it doesn’t really have any character of its own, but it is a very competent, transparent lens.
Tough call, actually. There are two contenders for this prize: the Nikon AFS 85/1.4 G, and the Zeiss ZF.2 85/1.4 Planar. If I could have both, I would; their rendering styles are quite different. The Nikon performs like modern aspherical glass – sharp, saturated, contrasty, creamy smooth bokeh, fast transition between in-and-out of focus, but a little clinical. The Zeiss is more lyrical and definitely less perfect; it does suffer from CA at high contrast edges, and edge sharpness isn’t as good as the Nikon (which somehow manages to maintain pin sharp corners even at f1.4). It’s bokeh can present as odd cats-eye shapes from light sources that aren’t centered. But oh boy, the tones! Especially for black and white work. It’s unbeatable. And the way it renders micro contrast is slightly more refined and textural than the Nikon. Since I have to choose, I’ll give it to the Nikon, by a hair; I can consistently get useable images with that, but the Zeiss isn’t so easy to nail focus with because it’s manual – even with my modified D700 (F6 micro prism screen, precise mirror alignment and screen shimming, DK-17M).
The difference in micro contrast rendition betweens the two lenses is pretty obvious even at this size – the Zeiss is just more refined, somehow. But there’s no question that the Nikon is punchier. Same camera, too – so it’s like to like.
I used to shoot telephoto a lot during my birding days – relying primarily on the Nikon AI 500/4 P (because it was cheap, light and optically excellent) and later on, the Nikon AFS 300/2.8 VR – which I still think is one of the best lenses ever made, if a little short. Tough to give an award here because I haven’t tried many of the available options, but from what I’ve seen, I’d still probably give it to the 300/2.8 VR.
This category includes macro, tilt-shift, pinholes, toy lenses, and other weird and wonderful optics. I love the Nikon PC 85/2.8 tilt-shift macro; it offers both incredible sharpness and great control over your depth of field thanks to its built in movements. But sadly it only reaches 1:2, and doesn’t do so well with extension tubes – which makes it significantly less useful for my purposes, so I sold it. If they made a 1:1 version, I’d be all over it in a heartbeat. My current mainstay in this range is the Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro; it’s excellent but again, a little characterless and suffers from longitudinal chromatic aberration (‘bokeh fringing’) which can be quite annoying on specular highlights, i.e. most watch cases. It does require special processing to remove, which can be tricky if you want to maintain the underlying color of the original object. I’d love to try the Coastal Optics 60/4 APO-UVIR Macro; except it’s in the same price range as a Noctilux. The output from that lens looks incredible – between the completely apochromatic behavior and high transmission throughout the spectral range, color accuracy should be superb.
There is one upcoming lens I’m looking forward to, also; chief of these is the new Olympus 75/1.8 for Micro Four Thirds – it should be a very cinematic lens, if the 45/1.8 is anything to go by. MT
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