Oct 152009

Sometimes you find strange things. When I went to work today, I saw this pair of shoes, standing neatly on a big plant pot on the sidewalk. They were not new, but they didn’t look particularly damaged either. Sometimes you find strange things.

Talking of strange things, Nikon is a strange company. Sometimes they do things that nobody can really understand. Yesterday’s announcement was such a thing. They’ve coupled the high-end FX format professional photojournalist camera D3s with a DX format consumer macro lens. Reactions were negative across the board, but let’s just look closer: Is this AF-S DX Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/3.5G ED VR really such a stupid lens?

At an announced price of $530, this lens is clearly positioned against the Sigma 70/2.8 Macro and the Tamron 90/2.8. Both of these lenses are highly regarded for their image quality, both cover the full 35mm frame (FX), both are half a stop faster, neither has image stabilization.

Let’s look at maximum aperture first. Neither the Sigma nor the Tamron has f2.8 in the macro range. Both use have a smaller maximum aperture below 10 feet, f4.8 for the Sigma at closest focus distance. This is not uncommon, this is how most macro lenses work, this is how the high-end Nikon 105/2.8 VR lens works, I suppose this is how the new 85/3.5 will work as well. Thus I think there will not be much of a difference in the macro range.

For portrait use it is different. There you normally want to photograph wide open. Half a stop does not make so much of a difference in DOF, but even f2.8 is not as wide as you would ideally want. You’d normally look for f1.8 or f1.4. Obviously this is no portrait lens.

That leaves us with street photography. Some people may consider 85mm (127.5mm eq.) a strange choice for street photography, but I strongly disagree. I’ve made some of my best images with lenses around that focal length, and once you get used to it, this kind of photography allows for nice isolation of interesting details, but without the problems that you have with even longer focal lengths. With the 150/2.8 I often find myself in a situation where I have to actually go back. I see something, want to react, and then I find that I am much too near. The field of view of a 70 or 85mm lens very much conforms to the distance at which interesting scenes and details come to my attention.

Now that we may conclude that 85mm can indeed be a useful focal length for street photography, the question remains, whether this new Nikkor is a good choice or not.

Well, I assume that its optical quality is as good as that of the Sigma 70/2.8 and better than the Nikon 85/1.8. I further assume that it is sharp wide open. Nikon is certainly able to produce such a lens at that price, and I suppose they’ll be willing as well. If not, the lens would be pointless, but the high quality of the extremely competitively priced Nikon AF-S DX 35/1.8 clearly shows where they want their DX offerings to be positioned.

If all this is true, the new 85/3.5 should perform extremely well on the streets. Losing half a stop is not a problem, f2.8 is rather shallow for that use anyway. It won’t be an action lens, but with image stabilization it should be usable down to at least 1/30s, if you’re willing to gamble maybe even 1/15s. In contrast, I use the 70/2.8 always at least at 1/100s. Not all images are sharp at that shutter speed, the majority is. We’re talking 1 1/2 to 2 stops here, that’s the difference between ISO 400-640 and ISO 1600, and that’s a visible difference, no question. Or another example: ISO 6400 is not really usable on my D300, at least not for color. For B&W no problem, for color not really. ISO 1600 or 2000 is no problem though. Thus there are a lot of scenarios where the new Nikkor makes the image and the other lenses don’t. I guess this definitely looks like a market niche, and maybe this lens is not such a silly choice at all.

The Song of the Day is “Last Pair of Shoes Blues” by Memphis Slim. As so often, I have it on disc 53 of “The Ultimate Jazz Archive”. If you look for something cheaper (though it won’t have 168 CDs), I suggest the collection “Grinder Man Blues”. Sorry, no video on YouTube or elsewhere, but Deezer has the song.

  6 Responses to “1097 – Last Pair of Shoes Blues”

  1. I am French-speaking so I might did not understand exactly what you meant. I’m thinking of buying a 50mm lens f: 1.4. Do you think a Sigma lens is as good as a Nikon’s ? I have a Nikon D300.

    If I consider your wonderful pictures, Sigma lenses are great for their sharpeness.

    I am looking forward to hearing from you.
    Micheline de Jordy

  2. Andreas, you make an interesting argument for Nikon’s recent announcement of the D3s and the DX 85mm f/3.5G VR, but I believe the niche you described would be small. I find myself puzzled with Nikon’s overall direction with their cameras, except for a definate focused on sensor sensitivity and ultra-high ISO–as I heard one article state, “The D3s can suck light from a black hole.” Enjoyed your post! 🙂

    • Earl, I believe you are right what regards the common mindset. People tend to want everything in f2.8 or better, and when they see the Sigma 200-500/2.8, they wonder why it is so big, heavy and expensive. Interestingly enough I read today that Thom Hogan has high expectations for the performance of this lens. And then: DOF in the macro range is so shallow, your problem is normally not how much you can open up, it’s how much you can stop down to get any DOF at all. No, I see f3.5 as irrelevant in the macro range, I even expect aperture in the macro range to be comparable to the other players in the market. On the other hand, VR is a big plus, and I suppose it is in the macro range as well.

  3. Excellent image here Andreas. I like the way the focal point is drawn so squarely at the intersection of 3rds, both horizontal and vertical. Add this to the angle, and it lends the image a wonderful depth. And, of course, the toning doesn’t hurt either 🙂 Cheers! -mac

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