Wednesday, November 14, 2007

1984 20/2.8 Nikkor AI: First Impressions

I recently picked up a 20/2.8 Nikkor AI from Adorama for just $255 shipped - an exceptional buy with curiously higher prime lens prices appearing just prior to the Nikon D3 body release. This optic, along with the 35/2 Nikkor AI, is getting pretty scarce. Go try to find either one of 'em - it's pretty hard.

My sample 20/2.8 is a circa-1984 model - the rubber focusing ring slicked over after years of use, and the classic black Japanese laquer still very shiny. Except for a small filter ring ding up front, it's in good shape for a well used lens. The aperture blades look like new, it focuses fine and the mount is clean and unbuggered. An E- grade lens sample to the letter.

With just a smidge of heft due to its complicated glass components, the 20/2.8 adds little weight to my D40 body. The AI construct requires I operate the aperture ring manually - unnecessary with AI-S designs. At 30mm's of actual view, focusing is accomplished with the electronic rangefinder and requires constant chimping to ascertain sharp images. The 62mm filter size is commonplace but I'm fitting dedicated circular polarizers to my primes for greater readiness in the field - they're cheap enough these days to do it.

The 20/2.8 AI rates right up there with the better AI/AI-S designs and offers a pretty view at infinity and up close. I've discovered a tripod is just as necessary with wide angles as a tele when scenics and architecture are the subject. Flash quickens the shooting process but manual focusing begs for attention and deliberation. Hyperfocal calculations are worth working out for shooting in close quarters and taking compulsive image grabs.

All in all, this optic takes me back to yesteryear's methods of shooting - it'll be fun mastering this focal length and seeing how 'wide' I can apply its vision.

PS: I managed to repurchase my 35/2 Nikkor AI from the fellow I sold it to. He never used it, so agreed to let me have it back for what I sold it for - $168 shipped. They start at $200 on eBay and go up from there, folks. And they will only get harder to find...

Friday, November 9, 2007

1973 135/2.8 Nikkor-Q AI'd - A New Standard?

As the facetious title suggests, I purposely selected this optic among my collection of AI Nikkors to prove a point. It has been my rant for several years now that the current crop of consumer Nikkors is woefully inadequate when it comes to their primary purpose in life - image quality. Oh sure, they focus faster than you can pick your nose - they'll even do it while you pick your nose. But eventually, the misgivings of Nikon's whizbang optical technology are staring you in the face. Poor telephoto performance. Serious CA, distortion and other optical issues. Forced shooting at higher ISO's with smaller maximum apertured lenses. Where's the progress? It's not in the AF-S, VR and nanocoatings, friends. It's all about basic lensmaking and the real images your optical tools are recording on the sensor.

Now, every Nikon DSLR body is a work of art. Even the diminuitive D40 is a stellar performer within its amateur-based capabilities. I bought one as a 'gap' body while waiting for the D300 to materialize, and it is surprising how many things it does well. Especially the image quality - better than several of its predecessors. But those consumer kit lenses will drive you nutty if you ever take a close look at what they are giving you.

So where is the solution? That's simple. Give me $1500 - $2000 and I'll hand over a pro quality Nikkor that will (1) put some meat on your mitts and, (2) reward you with pristine images every time you shoot. This is lensmaking - sharp, sharp, everything is sharp. No excuses and ballyhoo about antialias filters and uberzoom ranges wider than the Equator. Nope - just good glass, man.

Our Test Lens
So. Back to the 135/2.8 Nikkor-Q. What's your point, you say? Just this. As a far-from-heralded classic optical design - in fact, a converted pre-AI lens at that - the following images prove that good lenses have been available for decades. Using my modest little D40, I shot this series of test images wide open at f2.8, midway at f8, and stopped down to f16. The subject was chosen to allow detail and contrast to be easily evaluated - bare concrete is as bland as it gets, but when it shoots well you've done something right.

The subject is about 60 feet away (infinity) and you're looking at the 100% cropped section. No postprocessing has been done inside or outside the camera. Let's look at some pictures:

f2.8 @ infinity

f8 @ infinity

f16 @ infinity

As you can see, this early-1970's Nikkor is superb across the entire range of f-stops. It will outshoot every Nikkor zoom under $1000 - nd do it at a cost of $75-$120 bucks.

Icing on the Cake
Just to add another layer of evidence, here's an image using a Kenko Pro 300 DG 1.4X Teleconverter with the 135/2.8 Nikkor-Q. Factoring in the digital 1.5X conversion, the Nikkor-Q grows from a 202/2.8 into a stronger 283/4 telephoto. If these two unlikely partners can shoot well together, you've just upped the ante for superb photography by a whopping $125! Let's see what the camera shows us...

effectively f16 @ infinity (f8 w/ teleconverter)

Just as important as infinity focus is close range shooting. Can an old Nikkor pass that test too?

Here's another center crop of an image shot at less than three feet...

... and here's the center of that crop. Any questions?

The Nikkors of old had awesome contrast, sharpness and an imaging elegance that today's technology is slowly leaching out of our glass designs. Didjaknow, for example, that internal focusing, aspherical elements and other 'advances' actually increase distortion, CA and other anomolies in modern consumer optics? Combined with sloooow f4 and f5.6 maximum apertures, this explains the poor wide open performance, edge of field softness and slower AF response in today's consumer zooms. Sadly, even modern primes are not the match of their grandparents as plastic and offshore manufacturing take their toll.

Regarding lens speed, there's no such thing as a slow AI. Several of the 1.8 versions shoot very well wide open and represent the best value in AI's - the 1.4 and faster designs offer little more than a brighter viewfinder image with soft images until you're 2 stops down in many cases. What will you have to spend to get that kind of speed in a 'modern' lens? Four figures at least. Before you shell out the big bucks again on a 'better' lens than what you already have, take a look at the manual focus Nikkors for your architectural, scenic and portrait work.

You can still buy Nikkor-Q (and other pre-AI), AI and AI-S lenses as used equipment. In practical terms, any AI will improve your image quality - even the slowest ones. But the introduction of a full frame FX sensor in the D3 is going to exacerbate your opportunities as prices on these optical gems are escalating rapidly. Once the full frame mentality becomes fertile, the run on AI and AI-S Nikkors could be worse than weekend shoppers on the blue light special aisle at Kmart.

Looking for a new standard for your personal expectations in digital photography? It's been here all along...

Thursday, November 8, 2007

AI's on the Rise - MF Nikkors are Appreciating Rapidly!

You may have noticed the upward trend in prices for Nikkor AI and AI-S manual focus optics. There seems to be a reevaluation in the street prices for these stalwarts of Nikon's heritage glass. And the release of Nikon's FX sensor will only intensify the interest in AI/AI-S Nikkors. Hey, it might even drive Nikon to retool and build these lovelies again!

AI/AI-S Price Trends
A 105/2.5 AI-S is averaging $200-$250 on eBay and elsewhere for a pristine lens. That's as much as $100 more than I paid for my excellent sample less than a year ago.

I just bought an E- grade used 20/2.8 AI-S at Adorama for $255 shipped - a fortuitous buy compared to the $350+ samples on eBay and at major retailers. This focal length, along with the 35/2 Nikkor is getting more scarce.

I bagged a clean, late model 24/2.8 AI-S earlier this spring for $169 shipped and that model is also starting at $200 at many retailers.

The 200/4 AI model is uniquely plentiful with average to brand new samples at many retailers and on eBay - but again, the pricing runs upward of $200+ for the better ones.

I'm currently looking for a pristine 50/1.8 AI-S Nikkor as it is more optically useful than the 1.4 model. It shoots better images wide open as well as holding up image quality further down the aperture ring. The 1.4 version only gets good at f4 and poops out at f8 - what good is a 1/2 stop of optical speed if it can only use 3-4 f-stops to get exceptional image quality? Ditto for the even worse f1.2 Nikkor... don't let the label fool you here.

AI Conversions
My 135/2.8 Q Nikkor was properly AI'd and shoots very good images compared to modern lens formulas. Not collectible, but as a quality AI conversion sample, it is well worth owning for the $75 I paid a year ago.

There are plenty of AI'd Nikkors to choose from at very reasonable prices - but do your research! Conversions vary as does the historic quality of pre-AI optics. Some shine and some make pretty paperweights. Bjorn Rorslett has dependable information on AI Nikkors and serial numbers can be tracked to determine year of manufacture, single or multi-coating and other specifications worth knowing. Yet, earlier Nikkors can be superb performers too, as in the case of the pre-AI Nikkor 50/1.8. And AI conversions are not very expensive for a worthy candidate.

AI vs. AF
The simple truth is, you can't buy a Nikkor zoom for under $1000 that will equal the image quality of these veteran optics. A good friend recently submitted unsharpened images taken with his 35/2 AI-S Nikkor and they were rejected by one microstock agency because they were 'too sharp'!

Several Japanese sources have a selection of exquisite samples that they sell at a premium - I enjoy the chase to hunt down top quality values at online retail websites as I keep an eye on eBay for good deals there too. Discriminating photogs who are looking for maximum sensor resolution are using AI's more and more for landscape and other high quality applications where a high-speed AF zoom is just not needed.

Even with rising prices, these lenses are solid values that are being honored in the D200, D2x, D3 and D300 DSLR bodies with full metering capability. Consider adding a critical focal length for your favorite passive shooting enjoyment - you won't believe your camera could shoot that good...

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Popup Flash Light Modifier

This little modifier inverts the popup flash output to the ceiling and spreads the light out. Simple and effective. Find some rigid electronics packaging with enough flat area to create a bounce surface and I'll show you how to make one..

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The plastic piece is about 3X5, has a gentle upward curve, is notched at the bottom, and held in place with common masking tape against the flash head's storage area. Scissors and aluminum ducting tape are all you need to make it with. Trim the shape and notch the bottom so it will fit well into the fe flash's storage cavity.

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Effective flash to subject distance is limited to the40GN flash but does remarkably well in most close quarters.

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Not bad for a piece of scrap plastic packaging material and aluminum duct foil tape... and it slips into my smallish camera bag just fine.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Devibed, Clarified and Saturated

I was playing around with yet another D40 test image in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 1.2 and came up with a neat application of color controls for an all black subject - automotive tires. This cropped, straight shot was definitely ho-hum and also tough to 'preset' into something artistic, so I simply looked at making a more rich image in its own right.

I played with the Vibrance , Saturation and Clarity sliders to do this little trick. And here's the skinny on those controls:

Saturation - affects all colors of an image
Vibrance - affects only primary colors which is effective for enhancing colors without affecting skin tones and other nonprimary color mixes - cool idea, Adobe!
Clarity - performs a subtle Unsharp Mask sharpening routine to selective areas of the image

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The Straight Shot

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Slider Settings: 100 Saturation -100 Vibrance 100 Clarity

No contrast, color temperature or exposure adjustments were made. The oversharpening is apparent, but the color shift does wonders for an otherwise dullish subject.

Lightroom continues to impress me with its seemingly endless control over all aspects of an image. I still feel like I'm scratching the surface...

Thursday, November 1, 2007

D40 Hands-On: Nikon's Infant DSLR

My Baby Nikon had its first outting at a polo match in the fashionable, hurricane-hit community of The Villages in North Florida in late October. Gorgeous weather broke out after a week of drizzle and I was ready with 5 lenses to try out. Standing on an elevated grandstand, it was a cakewalk to shoot from my seat. My Dad and I also went to the playing field level for behind the scenes images too. (images coming...)

Hands On
As a tot among Nikons, the D40 behaved very well but, as expected, is a little infantile in its abilities. Overall, image quality was no issue but mechanically it is clearly a toddler at times. Handling was easy for my smallish hands and button layout is typical Nikon. I covered the unprotected LCD screen (no clear plastic cover is provided for this model!) with a pre-ordered Giottos multicoated glass LCD protector to keep its baby blue preview window clean and unscuffed. A small EN-EL9 batt powers this pup for ~470 images. All in all, a sweet addition to it's more famous siblings.

AF was typical of most amateur DSLRs - fairly quick but unable to keep an adequate tracking on moving objects. I also utilized my 70-300 AF in a manual manner to see if if I could keep up with the polo horses and 7-minute chukker sessions - not too bad, not too good. AF-S really is a necessity. My 24-120 VR worked properly but, again, the D40's amateur level AF was not stellar.

Automated exposure was baffling - even in bright sun, as the D40 tended to overexpose easily. I discovered that the sensor you focus with also becomes the weighted area the meter concentrates on - even in Matrix AF! I'll assume poor parenting on my part and promise to do better next time...

Menu manipulation is really spiffy with a double-tap on the "i" button taking you to a toggle-controlled Information menu of basic settings - ISO, Mode, Flash, etc. I use the Function to set ISO like the D40's bigger brothers can. I'm still trying to get the menu o the rear LCD to stay off while i'm composing, but it doesn't appear to be an option. Aggravating as it is no fun getting its glare in your eye at the viewfinder.

I defaulted to using the internal viewfinder for monitoring the D40 with its Nikon-standard exposure and flash compensation routines. In such a familiar interface, I have barely needed to consult the manual on this camera. Its simplicity is its best feature for rapid AF-S lens changes, easy-to-choose shooting modes and long battery life - I shot 470+ images with a mix of flash and plenty of chimping - just as specified.

My parents offer themselves as typical images we shoot a lot - check these two out as a testimony to the D40's kind rendering. Excellent in-camera sharpness negated the need to add any here beyond a typical tweaking in WB warming.

The D40 is cute and cuddly - a perfect choice for any digital shooter's firstborn camera body. (I mounted the DK-21M viewfinder magnifier from my recently sold D200, so youknow this baby is a real member of the Nikon family.) Don't wait - you can never be too old to beget one of the best little Nikons ever made - the D40!