Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Cheapest Possible FX Lens Lineup

I recently got a message from a Nikon user who is not rich. In fact, he barely makes it through each month, being a student working part-time. And yet, he does not complain. He uses his "obsolete" camera and lens to learn about photography and take great photos. If you haven't done so yet, you can read his story here

Inspired by his story, I decided to do a little experiment. I wanted to see what is the absolute cheapest - and I mean absolute cheapest - FX lens lineup one could possibly put together. I placed these three rules for myself:
1) I had to buy the lens(es), any way I can (ebay, flea market, etc.). That is, I could not just try to find a free lens from some friend or something.
2) The lens(es) should cover wide-, normal-, and tele range (at least modestly). Although I do not have much need for tele lenses (or even wide for that matter), other might. I wanted to find a solution suitable for anyone
3) I would have to use the lens(es) for a week, in the assignments and photography I usually would. I placed this rule so that I would have to rely on my lineup (the point is to find a cheap but competent lineup; otherwise I could just get an ancient 28-200 MF Sigma worth $20 and be done with it).
After these rules, I realized one thing: I already had the lenses
No, that's not true; I knew it even before I set the rules. In fact, the whole idea came to me by seeing these lenses lying in the back of my closet. I asked myself: Could I make it with them, for a whole week?
The lenses in question are:

Wide: Nikkor AF-S 18-55mm
Normal: Nikon E-Series 50mm f/1.8
Tele: Porst 135mm f/2.8

"Hey, hang on AmateurNikon", I hear you saying, "isn't the 18-55 a DX lens?".
It is, yes. But you can use it as a 24-55mm lens on FX, too - click on the link above and read my experiments with it on the D700

Nikkor AF-S 18-55 shot @24mm with the Nikon D700 (in full-frame area). Barely any vignetting, this is definitely usable

These lenses costed me, in total, $77 ($17 for the 18-55 - broken autofocus -, $25 for the 50mm, and $35 for the Porst - including an M42>Nikon adapter).

If you wanna read more about each lens, click on its individual link above. I will summarize the findings, in terms of lineup

The focal lengths covered with this lineup are 24-55 & 135. Wide-angle and normal are covered very nicely. There is a sort of a gap between normal and tele (perhaps a 105mm lens would be better), but the extra reach of 135mm is nice to have.

Low-light capability is very good, thanks to the 50mm f/1.8 and the 135mm f/2.8.

Ergonomics/Functions is, obviously enough, the weak point. No autofocus, the Porst 135mm f/2.8 loses infinity focus, and the MF ring of the 50mm f/1.8 isn't superb either. Money has to be cut from somewhere, and this is the main area.

Image Quality is probably what you've all been wondering about. Do you get what you pay? No, you get way more! The Nikon 50mm f/1.8 might be E-series, but it's a spectacular little lens, that can produce excellent results; I don't need to say more about it. The Porst 135mm f/2.8 isn't a diamond exactly, but it can hold its own - great resolution in the center, very good in the corners. Good contrast and bokeh. It does have plenty of Chromatic Aberration, but thankfully modern cameras correct that. As for the (DX) 18-55? Well, you can think what you want, but it makes a heck of a decent 24-55 FX lens with macro capabilities to boot! It does have its flaws, of course, (which would be visible on a DX body too), such as some aberration (again, automatically corrected in most cases), plus weak corners (weaker on FX). But for $17, you cannot go wrong.

So, what has that little experiment proved? What was the purpose of all this? Obvious: to show you (with an extreme example) that photography can be a hobby that doesn't require thousands of $$$. Less than $80 for a three-lens lineup, now that's pretty decent. Fair enough, this is only an emergency solution - none of these lenses are the kind you'd plan to keep for a long time. But it will get the job done for a while, and it will get it right.

Taken with the Porst 135mm f/2.8 in 'battle conditions' - during my usual dark club assignments. It performed flawlessly. Surely, it required more concentration and it was more demanding than a modern autofocus lens, but the point remains: I did obtain the results I was after

In conclusion, if money matters - and it should whether you personally have or not - consider your options wisely. I'm not asking you to get an outdated $80 lineup that is an emergency solution (but if that's your budget, feel no shame in it; go for it!). I'm asking you to get what you need and nothing in excess. The other day I was talking to a rich guy at a children's party. He was bragging about his camera bag (he had a whole bag with a children's party). He showed me the contents (emphasizing more than once that he had more lenses at home). I saw a D4s, a D800 ("if you don't have at least two bodies, you're not serious about photography" were his words), the AF-S 85mm f/1.4, the AF-S 24-70, and the AF-S 70-200. I can guarantee you, this guy went to a store and said he has money, what's the best thing he could get? The sellers must have been smiling for days. Did all this help him get any good photos? I have to be honest with you, I did not see the final result. But I have enough experience to recognize whether someone knows what they're doing or not, simply by the way they operate the camera and position themselves. This guy would've been far, far better off with a Nikon J1 and a 10-30mm lens.

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