Camera & Lenses

 

Palouse Prairie RemnantPalouse Prairie Remnant

 

I've summarized my quick thoughts on a number of lenses below, all of which I've had and used since purchasing my D600.  For those looking for in-depth reviews of the these and other lenses, I recommend checking out PhotographyLife, Photozone, and the DPreview forums.  

Nikkor 18-35/3.5-4.5G
Nikkor 50/1.8G
Micro-Nikkor 105/2.8G
Sigma 150/2.8 OS
Nikkor 200-500/5.6E

Nikkor 18-35mm/3.5-4.5G

It’s taken me awhile to get comfortable with this lens.  But I think I've finally come around to it.

Based on some early images, users at DPReview suggested that the first copy of this lens I received may have been optically defective.  I returned that version, but honestly version #2 doesn’t appear to me to be any better.  More on that below.  The only other F-mount lens I owned at the time was the Nikkor 50/1.8G, my reference for reviewing the 18-35G. 

The 18-35G is relatively compact and surprisingly lightweight at 13.6 oz.  No objectionable issues with flare, even when shooting with the sun in the frame. The build quality is at least as good as Nikon's 1.8G primes, which is to say adequate but not all that inspiring.  On both copies of the 18-35G I’ve held, the zoom ring has been well-dampened, while the focus ring has been moderately-dampened.  The lens hood does a good job but is too deep to easily manipulate a mounted circular polarizer.  Definitely a pain compared to the cutout windows available in the Pentax world (and probably elsewhere), but apparently standard for a Nikon hood.  In terms of build quality and basic specs, then, it’s a great lens for my intended purposes:  dayhiking, backpacking, and travel.

Sharpness is a primary concern of mine, however, and this lens offers a mixed bag.  Nasim Mansurov has provided an excellent review of this lens.  His Imatest results for the 18-35G indicate that both center and mid-field sharpness are relatively even from 18mm all the way through 35mm.  Corner sharpness is lower, as expected, but only really deteriorates at 35mm.  These results surprised quite a few people and compare quite well against some much higher-priced lenses, particularly the Nikon 16-35/4 VR. 

Unfortunately, the sharpness I’ve seen out of my two copies has not been as subjectively rosy as I had hoped.  In the 18-24mm range, sharpness is what I consider good:  not mind-blowing, but crisp on the D600.  Not quite up to the level of the 50/1.8G, which is consistent with Nasim’s Imatest results for the 50/1.8G, but good.  Things start to deteriorate a bit by 28mm... not bad, just not quite as crisp as in the 18-24mm range.  Unfortunately, by 35mm, performance is only barely adequate.  Shots are generally useable, but I've been much more impressed by the sharpness in online examples from Nikon's 35/1.8G, Sigma 35/1.4 ART, etc.  I’d really like to test out some other options at 35mm (particularly Nikon's 35/1.8G) and see what I may (or may not) be missing.  Until then, this lens will do. 

As you can see in the image below, this lens is capable of capturing beautiful images across its focal range.  Just temper your expectations a bit and understand the 18-35G's limitations.  This lens certainly has its place, and currently it's my go-to lens for lightweight backpacking photography.  

Weippe Prairie III (May 2015)Weippe Prairie III (May 2015)

Nikkor 50mm/1.8G

I purchased this lens alongside my D600.  At $196, it seemed the most responsible lens purchase to accompany a new $2K camera 'investment'.  At the time, I was also familiarizing myself with Nikon's lens lineup, and I was worried about sinking too much money into a lens that would see little use as my kit grew over time.

This lens exemplifies many of the features prime lenses are known for:  compact, lightweight, sharp across most of the frame, flare-resistant, pleasing contrast, and just limiting enough to force some artistic considerations of framing. 

The one area where I wished it performed better is close-focus distance.  Nikon reports a minimum focus distance of 17.7" for this lens, resulting in a maximum magnification of 0.15x.  I would LOVE to be able to use this lens for a greater range of floral closeups.  As designed, it's only really functional for this purpose with larger subjects like arrowleaf balsamroot or beargrass.  Smaller subjects may require cropping to an appropriate composition, which robs you of potentially valuable resolution.  I looked into the Nikkor 85mm/1.8G as a potentially better solution for this use, but its minimum focus distance of 31.5" results in a maximum magnification of 0.12x.  Even worse!

Micro-Nikkor 105mm/2.8G VR

After agonizing over the weight and bulk of the Sigma 150mm/2.8 OS for many months, I eventually replaced that beautiful lens with this smaller, lighter, shorter alternative.  All things considered, it was the right choice.  

I've found this lens to be bitingly sharp at close focal distances but substantially softer at longer distances, including typical portrait distances.  I know that many people like to use this lens for both macro and portrait purposes, but I think I'd be more happy with something a bit shorter, sharper, and wider for portraits... like an 85/1.8G or similar.  In any case, the 105/2.8's VR, deep hood, nano-coating, and other features all seem to come together to make this a great lens for floral closeups, insects, and similar uses.  It's still a bit heavy for such a purpose-built instrument, though, and I've found that I rarely take truly macro (i.e. 1:1 or close to it) images with this lens.  As a result, I'm eager to try out some other non-macro options with reproduction ratios adequate for close flower shots while also serving double-duty for portraits.  

I still regret selling the Sigma 150/2.8, though.  There was something very special about the rendering from that lens (its apochromatic design likely helped) that this Nikon just doesn't have.  But the Nikon is nearly a full pound lighter, so I'm able to carry and use it in more places where it counts:  out on hikes. 

Camas (Camassia quamash)Camas (Camassia quamash)

Sagebrush Buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus)Sagebrush Buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus)

Sigma 150mm/2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro

The Sigma 150mm/2.8 is a bulky, heavy, beautiful lens.  The finish is smooth.  The lens focuses internally and therefore doesn't change length as focal distance changes.  The lens hood mounts solidly.  The tripod mount rotates smoothly  The optical stabilization works well.  And best of all, the lens utilizes an apochromatic design, which likely contributes to its amazing rendering.  150mm is usually far too short for bird photography, but unlike the Nikon 105/2.8G, I found that the Sigma handles longer subject distances well.  

A few minor gripes:  The tripod collar is very smooth and well-designed, but the adjustment knob comes within 1 or 2 millimeters of the prism overhang on my Nikon D600.  If the knob had been designed any larger, it would bump against the overhand and prevent the collar from rotating 360 degrees around the axis of the lens.  Easily avoided by rotating the lens in the opposite direction, but it's something to be aware of.  Also, the lens occasionally fails to acquire autofocus properly, even when nothing at all in the frame is within focus.  Usually, a few more attempts coaxes it into action without having to restart the camera.  It's not cost me a once-in-a-lifetime shot yet, but it may be an issue for some people.  Again, it's a pretty rare event.

One other issue to keep in mind, if you're stepping up to this lens from a collection of more normal-sized lenses:  the Sigma 150mm/2.8 is a heavy and bulky lens, particularly with the tripod collar attached.  My shoulder bag is a Crumpler Seven Million Dollar Home, and the Sigma 150mm/2.8 takes up fully 1/3 of the bag (one full end) with the collar attached.  With the collar removed, I can typically squeeze something else in next to it, but it's tight.  When mounted on my D600 and placed vertically in a LowePro Inverse 200AW waist pack, I can only barely close the zipper lid.  In short, carrying this lens can be a bit of a hassle.  So much so that I ultimately replaced it with the Nikon 105mm/2.8G VR, a lens that doesn't impress me as much as the Sigma but only weighs 2/3 as much.  Sadly, money was too tight to justify owning both.  

Overall, however, this is an incredibly impressive lens.  I hope one day to get another copy! 

 

Elegant Mariposa Lily (Calochortus elegans)Elegant Mariposa Lily (Calochortus elegans)

 

Sagebrush Checkerspot (Chlosyne acastus)Sagebrush Checkerspot (Chlosyne acastus)

 

Red-footed Booby (Sula sula)Red-footed Booby (Sula sula)

 

Nikkor 200-500/5.6E

Considering my day job (wildlife biologist), I waited a long time to purchase a telephoto lens, mainly due to cost.  Nikon released this lens in August 2015, and I picked up my copy in May 2016.

What a treat!  The lens is certainly much larger than any lens I've used before, but once you get use to the size and weight, it's a very manageable lens.  I've only ever used a pro-level telephoto lens once previously (a Minolta 300/2.8 attached to a film body), so I can't adequately compare the performance of the 200-500 to any of Nikon's super-telephotos (e.g. 300/2.8G, 500/4E, 600/4E, etc.).  But the focus is swift enough for most subjects, the sharpness is more than adequate for my D600, the bokeh is better than I expected (considering its 5.6 max. aperture), and the VR works VERY well.  I've found that I can hand-carry and shoot this lens offhand for several hours at a time without too much effort, a real plus when a tripod isn't available or feasible.

Transporting and using a lens of this size took some learning for me, and I've purchased a few accessories to make things easier.  Many users of telephoto lenses for wildlife and other outdoor subjects use Lenscoats, and mine (in Realtree Max4) fits the lens well.  I also purchased a Sunwayfoto DPG-80DR quick release plate for the lens foot, which provides an Arca-Swiss base (and anti-twist lip) for tripod attachment as well as a bar for attaching a pair of Op/Tech Uni Loop connectors.  I can then use my Op/Tech Utility Strap-Sling over my shoulder and carry the 200-500 inverted (with camera attached) by its foot.  The lens/body combo hangs perfectly at my side, ready to be brought up at a moment's notice.  

 

 

Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena)Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena)