Fast Lenses

Since I tend to work in and with shadows, especially in the colder months,  I have an array of lenses (to cover 36mm x 24mm) from 20mm to 250mm which are f/2.0 or faster.  They mostly find themselves on a Canon 5DII, but many are Nikon mount lenses.    Why?

  1. I can use them on Nikon and Canon, among others.
  2. It’s an exotic need; many of these lenses have no current equivalents in any system.
  3. I don’t like Canon lenses.  The glass is fine; all modern lenses are.  Electronically controlled lenses, however, die with their systems.  If I am so inclined, I can use 19th century glass with my 2008 5DII.  A early 2000s Contax NX lens? Not so much. (Yes I know of Conurus.  It’s besides the point.)  Every time I buy an EF lens I consider it money burned.  Similarly, though not as futile,  I don’t buy Nikon G lenses.
  4. AF lenses are optimized to facilitate quick focusing – short focus throw and a lightweight focus ring – exactly the opposite of what you want in a precision manual focus lens – long throw threads and a nice damped focus.

Here they are, with quick notes.  Ratings are personal and have nothing to do with “objective” flaws such as coma and chromatic abberation except insofar as they allow or interfere with my ability to make the images I want.  I’ll add more notes as I have a chance. Some of these lenses need to be revisited in use and revised, but my letter grades should be a good indicator.

  • Sigma 20mm 1.8 – (C+)
  • Olympus 24mm 2.0 – (B)  Wide open defects clear up by 2.8 and provides a nice rendition.  For some reason this lens seems like its yellowed, but I’ve never heard (and personally doubt) that this lens is thorated, but it is costing me 2/3rds of a t/stop or so.
  • Nikon 28mm 2.0 AIS – (A)  Perhaps the best general purpose wide around.  I shot this against the classic C/Y mount Zeiss “Hollywood” 28/2.  I’ll take this CRC/floating element  design over that any day.
  • Nikon 35mm 1.4 AIS – (B-)  I haven’t tried the new one, being a G type Nikkor (see #3 above), but this one suffers from bad CA (as does the Canon 35/1.4, for that matter) and SA.  The Samyang is an interesting option and the Cosina “Zeiss” is actually very nice based on some test shots at PDN – the best high speed in this focal length – a welcome change from several disappointments in that line.  Notably, it is optimized for close focus and not infinity like the 35/2.0 offering.  God help those doing landscape on 35mm.
  • Voigtländer Ultron 40mm 2.0 – (A-)  I lent this to a painter friend who described it as romantic.  I find it a vanilla modern lens.  It’s been reviewed well elsewhere, but I will say that there’s nothing wrong with this lens, it just doesn’t do much for me.  That said, it is so useful I’ve owned a copy in Nikon mount since 2007 and bought another copy last year in Canon mount because of its size, utility, and native EF chip and metering.  Also makes a nice 60mm-ish equivalent lens on the hopelessly cropped 1.6xEF-S bodies.
  • (Many 50s, but notably:)
  • Sigma 50mm 1.4 for Canon – (A-)  This oversized front element design is as bright in the overall frame as the Nikon 50/1.2 as judged by metering and histogram because of minimal vignetting.  Useful for AF option.  I don’t like the 47mm length and the AF design values wrecks this for manual focusing – especially the wide open scale shooting I practice.
  • Nikon 50mm 1.2 AIS – (B)  This lens is a pure average of everything, reasonable CA, SA, and distortion control.  It’s a 1.4 with an emergency half stop boost.  Well, there are better 1.4s and better 1.2s.  I’ll use one of those.
  • Nikon 55mm 1.2 S – (A)  Internet experts will assume I flipped the rating of this lens with the shorter replacement model listed above.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I prefer a focal length a bit longer than 50mm, with 58mm being my favorite, but 55mm is just fine by me.  This lens is often described as a “dog” but it has much to recommend it for low light expressive use.  It reminds me a bit of the early Nikkor 5.8cm 1.4, a unique design in Nikon normal lenses.  It’s actually not surprising: this lens is a 7/5 design and the Xenon derived 5.8cm is quite nearly so (and I’ve seen it wrongly described as such – it is a 7/6, it’s just that two elements are very close but not cemented).  Yes dreamy, and perhaps too much so, but improved with later coatings (I prefer the SC versions, especially the later K and final AI versions)  and is quite likely, especially with the later multicoated elements, the most transmissive (i.e. fastest t/stop) lens Nikon ever sold to the public.
  • Nikon 58mm 1.2 Noct-Nikkor AI – (A+)   This one deserves its own page.  In short, it is the perfect lens for me: I have tens of thousands of shots on it in the last year and a half.  It may not be the right lens for you – the hype and anti-hype are both strong with this lens, and both are grounded in fact.  I’ll write more later.
  • Nikon 5.8cm 1.4 S – (A+)
  • Mamiya 80mm 1.9 – (B+)
  • Samyang 85mm 1.4 – (A-)  I wanted an 85mm 1.4 AF-D.  I bought this and while I don’t use it often, I have no immediate need for anything else.  A Canon 85mm/1.2 would be a nice addition.
  • Nikon 105mm 2.0 AF-D DC – (A+)  Formerly my only “favorite lens,” now “merely” tied with the Noct Nikkor.  Widely misunderstood: if someone suggests the 105mm/2.8 Micro as a substitute, you may soundly ignore them.  Only downside is CA which is controlled well enough by f/4.  While CA is the most annoying abberation, it isn’t always relevant.  Not only is this the best manual focusing AF lens I’ve ever encountered – it feels like a manual focus Nikkor AIS super tele, if that helps – but it’s one of the best manual focus lenses around.
  • Nikon 105mm 2.0 AIS – (B-) Only as a poor substitute for the 105mm 2.0 DC; muddy focus, CA, plus SA.
  • (Would like to add a Hasselblad 110mm 2.0 here)
  • Nikon 135mm 2.0 AIS – (B)
  • (Would like to add a Leica 180mm 2.0 APO here.  I have used it, a Leica lens that actually lives up to red dot hype.)
  • Olympus 250mm 2.0 – (A+)  You probably will never see this lens.  Supposedly, production numbers are lower than 300 and even fewer for its 350/2.8 stablemate.  I had the chance to buy both but frankly, 250/2.0 is unique, especially with a handholdable 8.8lbs (compare the Nikon 300/2.0 at 15lbs) and a reasonable close focus.  Works fine with telecoverters.  A very special lens that has always been cheaper than its construction, rarity, and quality should demand.  My copy, unfortunately, needs to have its helical regreased.  I was going to bring it to Olympus at PDN – I do not want to ship it – but they pulled their contingent this year, undoubtedly because of the $1.7B accounting scandal.  I’m terrified of this lens – the front element is one of four flourite(?) ED type elements in this 12/9 design.  NASA put these on STS missions for Earth observation studies.  It kills me that I haven’t had a chance to put this to proper use yet, but I have a nice portrait of Athena with it.

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