Click image for 1800 x 827 version


For those interested in testing their own lenses,
I am providing a highly detailed radial graphic:

Triple Moire Target

This is a ZIP file containing a
4800 x 4800 pixel TIF image
set to print at 8” x 8” at 600 dpi.

It can be printed from any application
that can open a TIF image. The file is
4.3 MB (zipped) and 66 MB (unzipped).

Click here or on the image
to download the target file.

This image is useful in testing lens sharpness,
detail retrieval and the camera focusing system.

Prime lenses
Nikkor 28mm f/1.4D
Nikkor 45mm f/2.8P
Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D
Nikkor 135mm f/2DC

Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 AFS/VR
Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 AFS/VR
Nikkor 500mm f/4 AFS-II
TC-14e and TC-17e teleconverters

Zoom lenses
Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8 AFS
Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8D

Macro/Field lenses
Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 AIS Micro
Nikkor 105mm f/2.8D AFS/VR Micro
Nikkor 200mm f/4D AF Micro


In the text below, each lens is linked to the page at B&H Photo,
where specifications can be seen and lenses can be ordered.


As you become more experienced in the  visual arts, you become more capable of seeing the various aspects of an image. You become more discerning when it comes to the elements of composition, the character of the color, the placement of the focused plane and depth of field, the level of detail, sharpness, and other characteristics of the image. Your standards become higher. Things that you used to be willing to accept are less  acceptable as you become more sophisticated in your ability to 'see'. You notice things that you used to overlook. I'm sure you know what I mean, if not in this field, in another field in which you have a lot of experience.

Lenses are  designed to a standard, with a set of design parameters that include  several capabilities that the lens designer has decided are important to the design and a level of performance in these areas that is capable of being achieved at the price point. To achieve some sorts of characteristics, compromises have been made in other areas. Generally, the high-end lenses have a more linear performance across a wider range of apertures than the lower-end lenses, which achieve their highest level of performance in a narrow aperture region and rapidly fall off in performance as you move away from that aperture region. Many lenses also have an optimum distance range where they tend to achieve their highest performance.

To achieve high contrast, critical sharpness of small details, smooth focused-to-defocused transitions, optimal color fidelity, wide tonal range, a beautiful defocused region, etc., requires a high level of optical quality. To do all of this at a wide range of apertures, while offering a wide range of focal lengths at the same time, is extremely difficult. Usually, a series of performance compromises are made when offering focal length flexibility. The zoom lenses that exhibit the most linear performance to the highest standards are typically the narrow-range  zooms, and the really high-performing ones cost quite a bit. Prime lenses are also designed to a standard... to achieve extremely high performance in all areas at a wide range of apertures requires very high optical quality which does not come cheaply. For instance, in some cases, the user's needs may not require extreme performance at the very widest apertures and closer distances, thus certain compromises can be made that allow the lens to achieve excellence at medium-to-small apertures and medium-to-long distance, with progressively lower performance in certain areas at closer distances and wider apertures, and this lens can be sold for a lower price than a lens that was designed with more linear performance to a higher standard of quality across a wider range of apertures, including the large apertures, and also including closer distances.

So. What you must do is decide what level of performance you want to achieve, at  what general distance range, and how much compromise you are willing to make in performance at various apertures (as well as the aperture capabilities which are important to you). For instance, what compromises are you willing to make to achieve focal length flexibility?

My lens kit selections:

    Aperture Flexibility Short Focal-length Kit
    (Lenses that achieve high performance across a wide aperture range)

      28mm f/1.4D (discontinued, still available used — a new 24mm f/1.4 AFS is now available)
      45mm f/2.8P (discontinued, still available used) or 55mm f/2.8 AIS Micro,
      85mm f/1.4D, (with or without 135mm f/2DC)

    Focal-length Flexibility Short Kit
    (Zoom lenses)

      17-35mm f/2.8 AFS,
      35-70mm f/2.8D (discontinued, still available used)

Depending on the situation, I select a mix of lenses, e.g.:

    17-35, 28/1.4, 85/1.4;
    28/1.4, 35-70, 85/1.4;

    17-35, 45P or 55 Micro, 85;
    45P, 85/1.4, 135/2DC;

    17-35, 28/1.4, 35-70, 85/1.4;
    The 135/2DC is added to the mix as necessary (season to taste)

You’ll notice that I have three lenses to choose from in the Normal range. This is a complex area (discussed in detail below). The 35-70 zoom is a minimal compromise focal-length flexibility lens that is optimized for performance in the f/5 to f/11 range. While it has a closeup feature at 35mm that offers interesting possibilities, it’s not a great closeup lens. It is, however, a superb complement to the 17-35. The 45P is an unobtrusive little lens that yields excellent results between f/2.8 and f/11 at medium to long distances (it also does a very good job of closer work if you stop it down a little) The 45P has a similar character to that of the 85/1.4D. The 55 AIS Micro is a fully manual general-purpose lens from 1:2 macro distances out to infinity. It exhibits excellent performance at all apertures from f/2.8 to f/16.

I select the lenses that will offer me the most options for the shoot and flank the primary lens with complementary lenses that extend the options based on likely needs.


The 55mm is selected when a Normal lens must be used for distant work
as well as extreme closeup (1:2 macro), and aperture flexibility is required.
I carry one of my three Normal lenses most of the time and usually opt for the
45P, but select the 55 Micro if I know I’ll be shooting gardens or the 35-70D for
general scenic use. As usual, you select the right lens for each general situation;

The 105mm AFS/VR Micro is a wonderful update to the venerable 105 f/2.8D Micro
that adds AFS high-speed focusing and VR (vibration reduction) image stabilization.
It is a superb closeup lens when stopped down between f/5.6 and f/16, and can double
as a short telephoto and portrait lens (it works best between f/4 and f/11 at distance).
It can be used confidently at f/2.8 with a slight reduction in absolute sharpness;

The 200mm Micro is used as a single field telephoto/macro lens.
It provides both aperture flexibility and flexibility of subject distance.
It offers exceptional performance between f/4 and f/11
(best between f/5.6 and f/16 for closeup work).

These lenses all work very well at the wider apertures. The 85 and 135 are added to the longer lenses in situations where handheld short range wide aperture work is required in shadows or forests, etc.

The 200mm f/2 AFS/VR is generally used as a shorter complement to either the 300mm or 500mm. It offers extreme subject isolation, fast focusing, teleconverter compatibility, and the ability to maintain higher shutter speeds when the light becomes  difficult, at the expense of focal length “reach”.

The 300mm f/2.8 AFS/VR is the most flexible single telephoto, offering high performance from f/2.8 along with high-speed focusing, vibration  reduction, and teleconverter compatibility in a compact size. It gives the best compromise between reach and size, while allowing reasonable shutter speeds when the light drops.

The 500mm f/4 AFS-II extends the reach while maintaining reasonable size  and weight. This lens, along with the TC14e and TC17e teleconverters,  can be carried into the field easily and can  fill the frame with large subjects at great distance, or can be used on smaller subjects at distances that stay outside the fear radius of the subject. Used in conjunction with the 300/2.8 VR or 200/2 VR, you can  shoot moving subjects at any distance and in any reasonable light.


Thoughts regarding the 200-400mm f/4 AFS zoom vs. prime telephoto lenses

There are some situations where having a zoom is infinitely preferable. When shooting sports in good light, or in certain wildlife situations where the subjects are rapidly changing  distances, if your desire is to be able to consistently change your composition at medium apertures the zoom is  unbelievably handy. When you shoot with a prime in situations like that  what you need to do is mount a TC or remove it, or work with the focal  length you have and alter your composition based on your focal length.

Another situation where the zoom is a very good choice: let's say you want only  one lens in this focal range, and you don't often need to shoot in lower light (or if you do, the subjects will be mostly static). Having the flexibility of the zoom may be better than having the prime-lens and TCs for you.

Now, let's look at the overall situation and why I prefer the prime lens options. The 200-400 is a large lens (physically, it's the size of the 500mm), and while it does a pretty nice job at f/4 (esp. at 200mm), it requires stopping down to f/5-f/5.6 depending on focal length to reach what I consider the 'sweet spot'. To maintain ultimate quality at dawn or dusk (or into shadow), you will likely want  to stop down a little, and if the subject is moving that means the shutter speed will be lower so you need to raise the ISO. Also, the lens is pretty large and heavy, and unless you're pretty strong you won't be able to hand-hold long, and the results will be marginal unless the shutter speed is pretty high. It's also a lot of lens to carry into the field — the size is more of a problem than the weight is. It's tough to hike with it (the same problem as hiking with the 500mm), which means that you'll want to work from a pack,  slowing down access to the lens.

The 300mm, on the other hand, while not all that much lighter (about a pound), is significantly smaller. Based on my evaluations of the results of the 300VR with TC14e, it is about equal to the performance of the 400mm end of the zoom at various apertures, so there is no loss there other than the convenience of rapid focal length changes. It is one heck of a lot easier to pack into the field, much faster to access from a lens case, and it can be hiked with exposed (slung on a strap), allowing faster and easier access. You can get top-grade results at f/2.8, thus at 300mm you can gain 1.7 to 2 stops depending on your standards, with more isolation of the subject (if that is what you want to do). You'll have a higher shutter speed, and can stop action better... plus, you can hand-hold the lens much more easily with a higher-grade result. Contrast is higher, as is resolution of detail. I consider the 300mm f/2.8 to be the most flexible telephoto, but of course you can't shoot the field of view at 200mm as you can with the 200-400, and you can't switch focal lengths as fast. You trade ease of carry/use in the field, an extra stop to 2 stops, the ability to hand-hold, and additional isolation and contrast for convenience, speed of focal length changes, and the 200mm field of view when comparing these two lenses.

The 500mm is the same size and weight as the 200-400 (it has a larger hood though),  but it doesn't have VR (unless you have the latest version) and it really isn't a hand-holding lens at all. I've shot hand-held with it a few times, but that really isn't a good way to use this lens. You need a LOT of light to do it successfully. What you're getting there is the ability to shoot at 500mm at f/4  cleanly, with high contrast, keeping your shutter speed and level of isolation high. The 200-400 can shoot at 560mm with the TC14e, but you really need to be at f/8 to get high grade results to my standards. That's two stops. Lots of shutter speed difference there. I can shoot at 700mm wide open at f/5.6 with a small reduction in sharpness and contrast, or stop down to f/8 and achieve excellence. I can shoot the 500mm at 850mm at f/8 and get high-grade results. That's one heck of a lot of reach, and AF speed and accuracy is still  high with either TC.

I don't mind working with two lenses. It's more expensive that way, but I can achieve excellence and good focal length flexibility with the use of TCs, while still keeping the isolation high due to the wider apertures I can use at various focal lengths. I do have to mount/dismount TCs. I can either work with the 300mm on one body handheld along with the 500mm, or the 300mm plus TC on the tripod and  the 200mm handheld with or without TC on the other body, or the 200 along with the 500mm (this is why I got the  200mm, really... to use with the 500mm -- I can gain a lot of low light capability and can still shoot at ~300mm while carrying a short but stubby and heavy lens). I have a 135/2DC, which is a magnificent lightweight medium telephoto for use in a forest or other situations and is a perfect complement to the 300mm, but it can't be used with TCs and does not have AFS focusing. I like that lens a lot, but got the 200mm recently to see how it would be on a wildlife shoot (Alaska), and find that it is an excellent complementary lens for the 300mm (I already knew it would be perfect for use with the 500mm), allowing me to hand-hold with AFS and VR and use TCs for extended reach.


Information to help you select your own kit

Lens Selection

Normal Lenses

Closeup Lenses

Analyze your Shooting Style

Zen and Telephotos

Lens Evaluations

Tripod Heads

My kits are selected for maximum flexibility in low-light, portrait, scenic, macro, tele-closeup and telephoto work. My field lenses were chosen for the ability to shoot at distance as well as extreme closeups — flexibility is of utmost importance to me. I have decided after testing a large number of lenses that for the most part, primes are far more attractive to me than zooms even though zooms are more convenient. I have set up my kits so that I can cover the range with lightweight sets and the capabilities I need for a specific shoot, although that meant that the number of lenses is higher and there is less convenience. The performance achieved is far greater though.

I am pretty critical when it comes to detail retrieval and fine-detail rendition. When you are first moving to the SLR and assuming that you are using decent-quality lenses, until you start examining things carefully it is likely that you will be very pleased. When you look at the edges of the frame, or open the lens aperture up, or go beyond the 'sweet-spot' distance for the lens in question given a certain aperture, if you can start to see loss of fine detail or reductions in sharpness you might not be happy with that lens's performance at some point in the future. Some lenses have a high degree of flare in certain conditions. All lenses have a 'sweet-spot' range of apertures and distance — often the range changes depending on the aperture. Essentially, what I look for is contrast, sharpness, and most especially fine detail retrieval. While you can process for more contrast, and to a certain extent you can sharpen detail that is rendered, if the detail is not there you cannot pull it out of thin air.

Basically, I want a lens to perform it's function properly, to a high quality standard, within a range of apertures and distances that allow me to make proper use of the lens in the situation for which it was designed, and I'm willing to accept some reduction in performance when using the lens outside of that range. If a lens forces me into unacceptable compromises when I attempt to put it to it's intended usage, that annoys me. If I try to use it within an aperture/distance range that makes sense for the purpose I acquired the lens for, and the results are not satisfactory to my admittedly ridiculous standards, that annoys me too. I do expect lesser results if I'm trying to make a lens go outside its sweet spot, but I don't allow a lens that annoys me to stay here long.

What I've tried to do is give my evaluations of various lenses and some suggestions as to what to look for and how to make decisions on glass. You have to decide what sort of compromises you are willing to make. Everything is a compromise of one sort or another, and as long as those compromises fit within your needs, a lens will be a good tool for you.


Lens Selection

The Short Version

A few  important thoughts come to mind when I consider the course I took  through the sea of lenses... or at least I think they are the important  issues that I would wish I had felt in my  gut when building a kit from scratch.

    — don't consider extremely wide-range zooms, as few are even as good as the  decent consumer-grade lenses, and a very few are quite expensive and as good as the better-grade lenses but with some compromise. Results from one of the mid-grade, medium-range zooms is generally far better, the better-grade medium-range zooms produce consistently superior  saturation and detail.

    — consider starting with a 50mm prime and either a very good wide zoom (expensive) or a 24mm prime(inexpensive and generally the best WA focal length). Learning to use the perspective of a 50mm lens teaches composition very fast, plus it is useful in low available light and focuses quite close. The perspective is natural and the 50mm lenses are extremely sharp. Much the same could be said for a 24mm prime lens, but it is quite convenient to be able to compose with a wide angle zoom. All but the very best of the wide angle zooms are lower-performing  lenses than the 24mm prime in almost all respects, and those expensive top-grade lenses only equal that  performance (or are close).

    — don't skimp on a long lens. Instead, carefully consider how you are likely to use a long lens, and remember that heavy lenses are not easy to hold  for long periods of time, requiring  regular workouts or support devices. Average grade lenses will rapidly  disappoint as you find their limits, and tend to not hold their value, so you'll want the best glass you  can afford. If you carefully  consider your needs, you can choose between a lightweight, fast prime set and a convenient, heavy zoom(and other relevant decisions, like  price) with the long view in mind.

Zooms are convenient to be sure, but personally I don't think the best way to work is to cover the focal range with zooms. If zooms are your chosen tools, the way I'd work is with a wide zoom and a long zoom, but use a  normal-range prime. The two that I would consider would be either the above-mentioned 50mm f/1.4 or a normal-range macro lens, depending on your needs (low light or macro).

If you are a macro nut, and want to get the bee's-eye view, remember that the working distance at maximum magnification on a 60mm macro lens puts the element very close to the subject. Working with a ~100mm lens gives more working distance needed for insects, lizards and other small creatures that spook easily, and it is possible to hand-hold... unlike a 200mm macro telephoto that is difficult to control at anything under 1:3 hand-held in marginal light (although it really isn’t much of a problem in good light at somewhat lesser magnifications). Macro zooms rarely go beyond 1:4 or 1:3 due to limits in close-focusing ability and the performance near maximum magnification is generally poor on those zooms near the edges of the frame. One notable exception is the Nikkor 70-180mm Micro zoom lens, which is an incredibly nice tool but rather expensive.

Knowing the limitations of various types of lenses will allow you to select more wisely. Nothing works well in every situation, and trying to make one lens a do-it-all solution generally results in mediocrity. There are some good general-purpose solutions.


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The Long Version

During  the course of deciding on a lens set that would fulfill my needs, I owned and/or tested a fair number of lenses, including third-party lenses, both prime and zoom. Impressions of some of these other lenses might be of use to the person looking for a lens or lenses for use with a similar set of needs. I shoot scenic, animals, flowers, macro, and art primarily when shooting for my own uses, and anything from people to product when commissioned to do so. My choices have been made with these needs and ultimate quality vs. price in mind.

General-purpose lenses

Many people want a lens that can be used as a do-it-all travel or general-use lens. When I started with the D1, the first lens I chose was the 24-120mm  f/3.5-5.6 Nikkor, based upon a recommendation from two people whom I respected (the current, better version is the 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G AFS). This lens has a fairly wide range, from medium-wide to short telephoto, and has a reasonably wide maximum aperture for a fairly bright viewfinder, however, images from this lens are soft unless the lens is stopped down to at least f/8. At f/11, the results are quite good, but  of course the depth of field at that aperture does not offer much subject isolation. In addition, at the 24mm end there is significant barrel  distortion, and I was never satisfied with the images taken at the 120mm end for a number of reasons. Another major detraction of this lens is the poor defocused character (the out-of-focus, blurred region highlights show dark centers and very bright edges, and these highlights are extremely distracting). From around 28mm to about 105mm, the lens does a fairly good job when stopped down to  f/8-f/11 however (the newer version is quite a bit better).

Nikon makes a lens that is in that very range, the 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5. This lens offers significantly better performance at all focal lengths and apertures, is a faster lens at the long end, offers a decent macro mode for those times when you want to focus closer, and overall is the general-purpose zoom that I recommend using to anyone who asks. While it is not up to the performance of the expensive AFS zooms, it has a wider focal-length  range, is very light, and costs in the neighborhood of $200 used making it in my opinion the ultimate choice for a general-purpose lens. This lens is only available used, but there are quite a number of them around.


“Normal” lenses

The “Normal” range is very difficult, as there are so many uses for lenses in this  range and nothing does it all. I have rethought this range far more often than any other, and have tested lenses extensively. I hope the summary below helps you in your decision-making process...

There are a number of options when it comes to ”Normal” lenses (those that approximate the field of view of the human eye). Deciding on a prime or a zoom in this range is difficult -- the prime lenses offer exceptional  performance and faster apertures at a lower price, but have distance or other limitations and of course are limited to a single focal-length. The better-grade zooms are much larger and heavier, slower-aperture, more costly, and for the most part have a different set of limitations.

When I decided that the general-purpose lenses did not satisfy my needs for ultimate quality, I tested the Tokina 28-80mm f/2.8. I compared it to the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 and the Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8D. The Tokina meters a bit underexposed in all but bright daylight, has a slight lack of contrast in comparison to the Nikkor lenses, and is a little undersaturated in color, plus the color balance is slightly off requiring that all images be color-adjusted in post-processing. It is soft at  f/2.8 (more so than the Nikkor 35-70 f/2.8D), and the flare and ghosting when a bright light source is in-frame or just outside of the frame is heavy (this is improved by stopping down the lens). Both samples of the lens illustrated the same characteristics, and were ultimately sent back to the dealer.

The Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8D on the other hand, while not quite as detailed or contrasty as the 50mm prime, was very good in all respects. It is still soft at f/2.8, but not as soft as the Tokina. Contrast is excellent, and as long as the hood is used it is fairly resistant to flare and ghosting. The hood is less useful at the long end than it is at the wide end (a very good option for a hood other than the bayonet model offered for the 35-70 is the HN-24 metal screw-in hood, which does a better job without vignetting). The 35-70/2.8D is well-built, with a metal  barrel, a useful ‘macro’ mode that allows the lens to manually close-focus to under a foot at the 35mm end, and is fairly sharp and detailed when compared to most other zooms and many primes. The major detractions are the relatively narrow range and the push-pull zoom design (which you do rapidly get used to). It should be basically looked at as a very good 35mm f/2.8, a slower 50mm, and a 70mm in a pinch. I tested a new 35-70 during my recent excursion through the  Normal range, and after processing the images remembered why I sold this lens -- in comparison to the top-quality  primes and the very best zooms the lens is soft on finer details, it doesn’t resolve well at the 70mm end, and based on my standards it is just-adequate at distance and less than that for closeups except at the 35mm end. Don’t get me wrong... this is a very good zoom (better than just about anything else out there in its range) but I’m getting really picky these days.

The 45mm f/2.8P manual lens is very intriguing... it offers excellent detail and sharpness as well as extremely smooth defocused areas and good shadow detail-retrieval at f/2.8-f/5.6 at close-to-medium distance, and becomes increasingly mundane as you stop it down more or move beyond about 10-12 feet (best performance at distance is achieved at f/8-f/11). My  brother-in-law bought me one in Japan (thanks Wabo!), and after shooting with the lens I have to say that for a subject that is inside 10 feet, which you want to shoot between f/2.8 and f/5.6, it offers similar character to that you get from the 85mm  f/1.4D. The best performance is achieved with a subject between 3 and 7 feet at f/4 to f/5.6 if you are picky, but overall performance from  f/2.8 to f/8 is really very good. It’s a bit soft at infinity as compared to the very best lenses, but considering the performance for a close subject this is acceptable (it reminds me in this respect of the character of the 28mm f/2.8 AIS, which is tremendously good for close subjects but a little soft at infinity). It is sharper at f/2.8 for close work than  either of the 50mm lenses and way sharper than a zoom at distance. At f/4 to f/5.6 it is pretty darned near perfect. The 45mm f/2.8P makes a fabulous travel, indoor or street shooting lens, and it weighs nearly nothing. The construction quality is exceptionally nice, and it comes  with an NC filter and a neat inverted-bowl hood as well as a special  lens cap that fits with the hood in place. The filter and hood nearly double the depth of the lens... this thing is teeny. A very unobtrusive and flexible normal lens. The smooth character and ease of use is attractive, and the ‘coolness factor’ is quite high.


The 50mm primes (f/1.8D and f/1.4D and the newer f/1.4G AFS) are exceptional performers -- the f/1.8 lens does a fabulous job  from f/4 to f/11 and from 5 feet to  infinity, and is quite good at f/2.8 and f/16. It is one of the best lenses available in the “normal” range for medium-to-good light work, especially for infinity work. The 50mm f/1.4D is noticeably better at f/2.8 to f/4, about equal at f/5.6-f/8, and a lesser performer at f/11. It can be shot at f/2 in a pinch as long as you don’t mind the edges and corners being a little soft. The 50/1.8 has a little less distortion, but the construction quality is annoying in my opinion (considering the quality of the optics, I guess they had to cut corners on the construction quality to sell it for under $90). The only real issue with the 50mm lenses, besides the fact that they don’t do as good a job close-up as they do at medium-to-long distance (and it is a small problem given the cost), is  that they offer a rather mundane field of view and perspective for most people (most folks (including me) would rather shoot either a wider or longer lens most of the time) but for the utmost performance at the least cost (and definitely for a single-lens outing) the 50mm lenses are among the best lenses you can put on the camera (I owned the f/1.4D for two years, finally selling it to gain flexibility).

The 60mm f/2.8D Micro is without a doubt the sharpest and highest contrast AF “normal” lens for close work, and under 7 feet I doubt whether there is a better lens made, but as you go beyond about 10 feet it gets progressively softer... although the results are quite good when shooting small apertures. It is still better than many lenses at distance, but compared to what it will do for close-work (especially very close work) its character at distance is not in the same league. The 60mm Micro lens is sharper and offers higher contrast at macro distances than the 105mm Micro, and compares in character with the 200mm f/4 AF Micro, but the working distance is extremely short. It is best suited for static subjects when really close as the working distance is too short for insects and shy animals — it is a fabulous flower, plant and large subject field lens though, and it is often used as a normal lens. There is a new 60mm AFS Micro available now as well.

If a single lens is desired  for wide aperture work, extreme closeups and infinity as well, you may want to consider the excellent 55mm f/2.8 AIS Micro. You lose Matrix metering, aperture reporting, and AF, depending on your camera (many of the newer cameras can read aperture and meter with AIS lenses after you program the lens in the first time, and they can’t AF with a manual focus lens), but the focusing precision  is tremendous, construction quality is superb, distance focus is every bit as sharp and detailed as close-focus is, quality at f/2.8 is exceptional, and the only reason why this wouldn’t be a perfect single-lens solution is that the focusing precision makes it slow to focus at any range under 2 feet (of course, that’s where you really need the precision), and there is too little focus-ring travel for adjustments between 7 feet and infinity, making medium-range focusing tricky — plus of course it is a fully manual lens.

After going through the entire gamut of lenses that I considered as being up to my standards for quality, I finally ended up trying the 28-70mm f/2.8D AFS zoom. This lens is very good when shooting between 1.5 feet and 10 feet, and is quite good at distance, although it is a little softer. Contrast is very high, although the lens tends to underexpose by 1/3-1/2 stop except in bright light so it is a good idea to compensate for  that. The performance wide open, especially at 28-35mm, is softer than I like for anything detailed — edge-performance and detail-retrieval  doesn’t reach my standards until f/5. From f/5 to f/11 the lens really is the class act zoom lens though, and from 50mm to 70mm it does a fairly good job at f/4 as well. It is heavy (very), fat, intimidating, and very expensive, but the ability to compose from medium-wide to short-tele finally made me spring for the lens. The hood does a good  job (it ought to — it is enormous), but the lens still has a tendency to flare in adverse conditions so you have to be careful shooting into the sun. I thought long and hard about this range, and tried everything else (testing each lens to death and owning both the 50mm f/1.4D and  35-70mm f/2.8D for quite some time before checking everything out  again), but after considerable thought I finally decided that this lens had to be tried. It is a large, bulky, heavy, very expensive lens for its range (did I mention that this is like having a coffee can on the front of your camera?), and its AFS motor and the flexibility of focal-range allow you to get a high shot percentage, but the quality of those shots for the most part is well below the quality achieved with primes. It is without a doubt the fastest AF available in the normal range, and if what you need is rapid acquisition and the ability to frame in the Normal range with minimal movement, and you can shoot in middle apertures most of the time, it is a good choice. Often, I will work with the 17-35 AFS and 85/1.4D for general use in this range, and when I need a single lens I will use either the 45mm f/2.8P for wide aperture work and as a general-purpose normal lens, or the 60mm f/2.8D Micro for field closeup work. More flexibility, less convenience, tremendously better results, except in those situations where the 28-70 AFS really shines.

As always, carefully consider your needs.

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Closeup lenses

You want:

    — Control of depth of field at a wide range of focusing distances, yet within a very small area of focus (roughly between 1:1 and 1:3) you want extreme focusing precision, so you can place the depth of field zone where you want it (it is very shallow at these focusing distances);

    — High contrast, fine-detail resolution and edge definition at close focusing distances, with smooth subject/background transitions;

    — Flat field rendition (no or low distortions) across a majority of the frame within the target aperture ranges;

    — Flexibility of aperture with predictable quality of results;

    — Flexibility of distance of focus at a wide range of apertures for use as a standard lens.

Remember that these lenses are primarily designed with optimizations for closeup work. The 200mm reaches 1:1 at 20" from the imaging plane. If you use the hood, that's about 10" in front of the hood. If not, add 2.75", making it about 12.5" from the front of the lens. The 105mm is about 7.5" from the end of the lens at 1:1, and the 60mm is about 5.75". I use an  HN-23 hood on the 60mm and that gives me about 4" at 1:1, but I don't use the 60mm in the field at 1:1 very often — usually I stay between 1:2 and 1:4 when I'm shooting closeups with the 60. You can see the difference in working distance at  maximum magnifications.

The 60mm is a very high-contrast, flat-field lens for use at close distance to 3-5 feet. It excels at close work, and falls off in performance as you exceed 7-10 feet. As you go beyond the 7 foot range, focusing precision  falls off because the lens has the  gearing set so precision is highest at the closer end of the range. You also need to stop down the lens to the f/8 to f/16 region for best results at distance. It is without a doubt one of the sharpest lenses in the under 7 foot range, and the quality under 3 feet is exceptional. The lens does not have an exquisitely beautiful defocused region, so except when focusing really close with the background transition occurring significantly behind the subject it's a good idea to avoid highlighted backgrounds (they can get distracting). Defocused transitions are good. It works best between f/5.6 and f/16 at short-to-medium distances, f/8 to f/16 when really close or beyond 7 feet. As you open up the aperture you lose some sharpness at the edges and the quality of the near-subject defocused region becomes a noticeable part of the subject. It works quite well at  wider apertures but not up to the standards of the lens's quality at middle apertures.

The original 105mm Micro loses a little contrast and sharpness to the 60mm, gains a little more reach  (~80mm at 1:1. The focal length reduces  as you focus closer), and a little more working distance. The 105mm is a better lens if you are planning on shooting small creatures up-close hand-held. The reduction in contrast and sharpness is offset by the flexibility of working distance and a little extra reach in some shooting styles. Again, this lens is at it's best in the same general aperture ranges as the 60mm. The overall image quality is lesser than the 60mm, but flexibility is greater in the field. This may not be an issue in a controlled environment with fixed subjects, and in that case the better short closeup lens is the 60mm.

After a while without a 105mm closeup lens, I acquired the 105mm f/2.8D AFS/VR Micro, which outperforms the original in just about every category I can think of. It offers image stabilization and high-speed autofocus  (although you’d better use the focus limiter if you are planning on using AF). It is still best to use manual focus most of the time when you are shooting extreme closeups, but the AFS along with the focus limiter allows you to track moving subjects at very close distances much better than can normally be done with manual focus when depth of field is shallow.

(I recommend stopping down a bit when trying this to increase the depth of field, though).

The 200mm f/4 AF Micro offers aperture and distance flexibility, exquisitely smooth defocused transitions and backgrounds, high contrast, extremely  fine edge-definition and detail retrieval, and maximum working distance. You can shoot the lens from f/4 to f/11 with confidence, at any distance (stop down a little for edge-of-frame sharpness at distance). The detraction is weight, length, and cost. I chose to use the combination of the 200mm and 60mm Micros to give me maximum flexibility and quality at the widest range of apertures and shooting distances. The costs were high and I have to carry two lenses  in some situations, although the 200  Micro makes an excellent single  field-lens.

Given a need for a closeup lens for product photography, you have a different pair of choices: if you need  control over the plane of focus and perspective, using the tilt-and-shift capabilities of the 45mm f/2.8 PC Micro or 85mm f/2.8 PC Micro will give you this control. The lenses requires stop-down setting and are complex to set up and meter with if you  use the tilt/shift capabilities, so you have to be far more deliberate to work with them, but the results they yield are not achievable without the T/S capabilities. They are expensive, specialized lenses that happens to be designed with this particular usage in mind. In the studio, with inanimate objects that can benefit from perspective control and control of the focusing plane, they are invaluable. The other option for uses like this is the 60 Micro, which excels at close compositions of 3D subjects. You need to decide whether you require control over the focusing plane and perspective, then whether you are willing to give up some conveniences of use to gain that control.

Hopefully you have enough information to decide what your best choice would be in a closeup lens.

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Analyze your shooting style, and select lenses that make sense for you.

There are several situations in which I generally shoot. There are times when I am certain as to which focal lengths I will need, and other times when I may run into anything. Carrying the whole kit with me is simply not an option due to weight alone, so I have set up my kits in ways that allow me to carry a variety of focal lengths in several different combinations depending on the situations in which I might find myself. I attempt to draw on my experience shooting in different situations to allow me to choose the most efficient lens complement while carrying the least amount of weight. Over the course of a 10 mile hike at altitude, or even a 10 mile hike near sea level, keeping the weight down is a very good thing as I’m sure you know. Besides, you do sometimes have to carry food, water, and occasionally spare clothing so unless you enjoy feeling like a pack mule (been there), planning for weight is a necessity. What I try to do is balance low weight (shooting and carrying weights) with quality in the ranges of aperture, distance, and focal length that I foresee needing for the shoot.

What you should try to do is define your shooting needs in terms of absolute quality desired flexibility (aperture, distance, focal range, size, focusing speed, etc.), budget, and other relevant areas. This will help you to define what sorts of lenses might be required. Then, if possible, try to specify a kit that will allow you to do as many things as possible with the least number of lenses. While zooms offer flexibility of focal length, they generally have limits re: focusing distance and aperture that may offset the advantages of focal length variability. Sometimes assembling a kit consisting of primes and zooms gives the most flexibility.

For instance: while I tend towards primes for image quality and aperture flexibility, and will sometimes shoot a single focal length as an exercise, I generally try to select kits with three lenses or less to cover every possible shooting situation I might find myself in on a specific shoot. Occasionally, this requires four lenses, (e.g.  the  17-35, 85, 135 and 300 when I have to be ready for anything), but I try for three or less. When I am looking for focal length flexibility at medium apertures and low-light is not part of the equation, I use the 17-35 AFS zoom and carry the 35-70 f/2.8D along with it. This gives me a two-lens travel kit at the expense of wide-aperture capabilities (by adding the 28/1.4D, 45/2.8P or 85/1.4D I could add the low-light  and wide-aperture capabilities. By adding the 105/2.8 AFS  Micro it adds portrait and closeup options).

Carefully consider your needs... this will make lens selection easier.


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There are several ways to look at the telephoto situation in my opinion.

    — You are shooting primarily at distance, yet require focal length flexibility and aperture flexibility, and are likely to be shooting at  medium apertures primarily (f/5.6 to f/8, with occasional excursions to  f/4 or f/11);

    — You are shooting in lower light conditions fairly often, and will be primarily shooting wider apertures and medium distance, with occasional excursions to closer distances or medium apertures;

    — You are shooting in the field, require extreme flexibility of focusing distance (you might shoot flowers or small animals one minute, and reach out for a bird, larger animal, or distant scenery the next), as well as flexibility of aperture. At very close or long distances you will likely be shooting f/8-f/11, but want the ability to shoot wider apertures over a fairly wide range of  distances and still maintain quality;

    — some combination of the above.

The first situation above is perfect for the use of a telephoto zoom. These offer flexibility of focal length in a single lens, with top quality results between f/5.6 and f/11 at medium-to-long distances, and progressively lesser performance as you open the aperture up. The 70-200 AFS/VR offers high-speed focusing and vibration reduction as well as very good performance with or without the TC-14e teleconverter (100-280mm f/4) — in either case the best performance is achieved stopped down a bit. Defocused character at wider  apertures is quite good in the AFS/VR. The earlier versions of the medium-telephoto zoom lens(AFS and AF-D, AF ED push-pull) as well as third-party options, have one of more of the features missing, although the AFS version (with high-speed focusing motor) is quite good. The AF-D is without the focusing motor and vibration reduction, is a lesser performer at f/4 or at closer distances, but still focuses quite fast and works very well at medium-to-long distances between f/5.6 and f/11. The earlier 80-200 AF ED (push-pull version  without tripod collar) that I tested  tended to overexpose and had lower contrast. These zooms offer flexibility of focal length, at the expense of wide aperture and close-up work, a higher shooting weight, lower contrast in some cases and a tendency towards flare. This situation can also be covered with a short telephoto and medium telephoto prime lens set, which lowers shooting weight, improves performance in many situations and especially at wider apertures, and generally improves shorter-range performance at the expense of single-lens  flexibility.

The second situation is perfect for a set of high-grade primes. The 85mm f/1.4D, 105mm f/2DC and 135mm f/2DC all work very well at wider apertures, allowing for shallower depth of field and higher shutter  speeds. The 105mm is an excellent single-lens solution for this situation, and it really does do very well at f/2... better at f/2.8-f/8. The combination I use in this situation is the 85 and 135, as I need the ability to reach out to the subject in some low-light telephoto situations, as well as a short-tele for portrait and similar-range work, and sometimes a tool that can be shot in very low light at f/1.4 and provide top quality results in the center of the frame. There are a number of other choices in lenses in this range, including lenses that handle situation #1 above a little better than the very fast telephoto primes, at the expense of their quality at wider apertures (e.g. the 85mm f/1.8D).

The third situation requires a specialized lens if you hope to do quality work in all situations. There are some zooms that offer closeup capabilities — most are better at distance than up-close but are adequate for limited closeup work. Some primes that are designed for longer-range work also do a very good job for close telephoto. You can also carry a closeup lens (diopter) to add onto your telephoto lens. Any of these options work (some better than others) for closeups, but there are a few specialized lenses that can do well in the field in all situations. The Nikkor 70-180mm Micro zoom was designed specifically for this sort of work, and while it is excellent close-in, I found that it had some compromises when used as a standard telephoto at wider apertures, which made me decide to go a different way. The 200mm AF Micro allows me to have enough  reach for many field situations that require a longer lens, yet still focus extremely close (1:1) while maintaining maximum working distance, and it is capable of yielding a clean image from f/4 to f/11 (and f/16 depending  on focusing distance)... at the expense of focal length flexibility.  When I am working with the 200 Micro I invariably carry the 60 Micro as well,  which also focuses extremely close and allows me to have a shorter focal-length available at need (the 60 Micro is exceptional at close-to-medium range, but the performance falls off at distance). Another option for a field telephoto that is capable of dramatic, lesser-magnification closeups is the 300mm f/4 AFS, which goes nearly 1:3 at its minimum focusing distance of 4.75 feet and does a very good job up-close.


While the 200mm focal length is an excellent mid-telephoto range, the 200mm f/4 AF Micro is a specialized type of 200mm. It is a tool that is highly-corrected for close-work, and while it yields top-grade quality between f/4 and f/11 and at any distance between right-in-your-face (min. focusing distance = 20" from the film plane — about a foot in front of the lens) and infinity — the requirement for precision focusing at close range means that you have a slow adjustment of focus at closer distances due to the gearing, and a very short travel for adjustments at distance. This makes use at distance trickier, and also slows down overall focusing speed to the point where, even with the limiter, the 200mm Micro is no focusing speed-demon. It's a little slower than the 180mm f/2.8D prime, which is in itself no speed demon.

What the 200 Micro will do is yield tremendous closeups out to about 10 feet with extreme focusing accuracy both manually (recommended) or via AF if you give it a little time to focus (and use the focus-range limiter appropriately). On the other hand, while the focusing is slower, it really does do a superb job that cannot be achieved with the zooms in its range or the primes. It is the perfect field telephoto in that it can be used to reach out a bit for birds assuming you're not trying to track flight shots, then a telephoto landscape, then an extreme closeup of a praying mantis or the like. It can be used for wildlife and water droplets, and nearly anything else that doesn't move too fast. For focusing speed, there are other, far better tools.

    — I often add the 135/2DC to a short-kit to give me a lens that will allow  me to shoot detail work or short telephoto with extreme aperture  flexibility in nearly any light, while still keeping the kit lightweight. For instance, I carried it with me to both Japan and Europe, and while it didn’t get used all that often, when it was needed it was invaluable.

The thing  is, with a telephoto you can get lenses that are designed for use at 10 feet to infinity with extreme precision and quality, lenses that are designed for close-to-medium range work with extreme precision and quality, or compromise lenses in some respect. This holds true for a lot of situations and telephoto focal lengths. Define your situation... you may determine that a 70/80-200mm f/2.8 zoom is adequate for your needs assuming that you do a lot of your work at f/5.6 to f/11, and can accept some compromise in detail and sharpness as you open the lens up wider than about f/5 or focus near the minimum focusing distance (in the range of about 5-8 feet). Some lenses are capable of excellence beyond their primary range of design as long as you know how they work best.

For high speed action and flexibility of focal length, a 70/80-200 is tough to beat. The 70-200 f/2.8 AFS/VR medium zoom is a truly spectacular lens — assuming it is within your price range. Personally, I am very spoiled by primes, and looked for a long time (several times) for a medium-telephoto zoom that I could accept. I am willing to carry specialized lenses that have a range of use outside their specialization. I learn the limitations and make decisions on what to carry based on my needs. There are certain situations where the primes are still necessary (see #2 & #3 above), but for situations described in #1 above as well as some field situations, travel, medium-range high-speed action, etc. the 70-200 AFS/VR zoom is a capable tool that fills the need for a fast-focusing (stabilized) medium-telephoto zoom perfectly.

Another superb telephoto zoom is the 200-400mm f/4 AFS/VR. This is a large (about the same size as the 500mm f/4 AFS) expensive zoom that can cover the need for variable focal lengths while shooting wildlife or sports. Earlier on this page  (just above the photo of the Geisha) I discussed my opinions on the selection of the 200-400 AFS/VR vs. prime lenses. There are good reasons for going both ways, but if you want a single lens to cover this range, the 200-400 AFS/VR is really the only option (I either carry two prime lenses plus teleconverters and gain aperture flexibility and isolation, focusing speed, and the ability to hand hold at the cost of higher expense plus the need to switch lenses or add teleconverters, or make do with just the 300mm and teleconverters and give up the shorter focal length).

You need to decide whether being able to change focal lengths by zooming or adding a 1.4x TC-14e teleconverter is a better option for you than having lenses optimized  for a situation. Do you need a field telephoto with a high-speed focusing system, or is close-focusing more important? Do you work at wide apertures often? Do you need rapid focal length changes more often? Are you willing to buy an expensive, high-speed zoom as well as a teleconverter to get reach and flexibility at the expense of wide aperture work and closeup work, or are you willing to work with primes?  If you are going to need wide aperture capabilities and a long lens (300mm or greater), you had better be willing to spend some serious money... the high-speed long telephotos are quite expensive.


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Lens Kit Descriptions:

When  selecting kits, I will first decide whether I am likely to need to shoot wide-aperture or not and then base my selection on the focal-length  needs for the shoot. Sometimes, I will allow myself the option of shooting across the aperture range but at different focal lengths or distances. All lenses have a sweet-spot for aperture and distance — some are quite wide and others are narrower. I try to mix lenses in my kit based either on similarity of character or flexibility within the needs of the shoot.

One way to gain flexibility is with the use of zooms... this generally restricts what you can do at wider apertures as zooms tend to operate best at the middle apertures. Sometimes, I will mix the wide zoom with the high-speed short or mid-telephoto for this reason, or the high-speed wide-angle with the telephoto zoom. At other times I will work with both the wide-angle and telephoto zooms, and plan on shooting middle-aperture work for the most part (the AFS/VR works very well at f/4, but the 17-35 is best from f/5.6 on).

When selecting prime-kits, generally I will select lenses that are similar in character but widely separated in focal length, but sometimes it is useful to mix widely-variant lens designs  (e.g.: sometimes I will carry the 60 Micro with the 135/2DC to get extreme-closeup to medium-range excellence at middle-to-small apertures, along with a wide-aperture telephoto). It is a good idea to plan your lens selection based on the requirements for the shoot, giving yourself as much flexibility as possible.

Some favorite combinations include:

Favorite single-lens options:

    28mm f/1.4D for a wide-angle that can be shot in nearly any light;
    45mm f/2.8 for a lightweight normal lens that can be shot at any distance and aperture;
    85mm f/1.4D for the optimum portrait lens and wide-aperture telephoto;

    105mm f/2.8D AFS/VR Micro for a single lens for macro, portrait and short telephoto use;
    200mm f/4 AF Micro for a field lens that can be shot at nearly any distance and aperture;

    200mm f/2 AFS/VR with TCs for a flexible, fast-focusing, stabilized lens that can shoot in any light;
    300mm f/2.8 AFS/VR plus TC-14e and TC-17e teleconverters for a stabilized general-use single telephoto lens that can be shot at a wide range of focal lengths, distances and apertures.



Acratech Pro Head


Acratech Ultimate Head

Acratech has created a head based upon the prototype shown above, but with a drop-notch allowing
it to be used in portrait mode. It is far easier to work with than the original Ultimate Head, and I have
acquired two along with one of their leveling bases to use on my 1200-series tripod and monopod.



click here or on image above to open a different 200kb composite of the RRS BH55 head

For those times when a tripod is essential, I use a Gitzo Carbon Fiber tripod as my primary tripod. I use an old aluminum Gitzo Sport Performance Tatalux (current model GT-2331) when I need a very small tripod for travel (sometimes with a short center column for low-angle macro work and low-angle telephoto). I am using a Gitzo 1300-series Carbon Fiber (CF) tripod (current model GT-2531) for the extra stability in windy conditions when using the 500mm lens. I occasionally use the Gitzo 1588 CF monopod (current model GM5541), chosen because the large diameter legs make releasing and tightening the adjustment collars quite easy even in cold conditions with gloves and the large diameter padded handle makes supporting a large heavy telephoto and body combination on your shoulder easy while hiking (plus it makes a great hiking staff when the telephoto is in the pack). I have a 1200-series Gitzo tripod (current model GT-1531) for general use (when not using the 500mm lens... the 1200-series does well with the 200mm f/2 or the 300mm f/2.8 except in a high wind).

My Acratech heads (shown at top, above) ended up finding new homes. The Ultimate Head is a tremendously versatile head for portrait work, scenic work, and any other use where a lightweight head capable of handling most lenses in any situation is needed. It is well-machined and reasonably priced. I replaced them with newly designed heads from Acratech and use them on my 1200-series tripod and monopod.


On my large tripod I use a Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead (see above), with lever clamp. This head is about 1/2 pound heavier than the Acratech, but offers more precise control and the ability to handle more mass. The drop-notches (2) are in somewhat unusual positions, and if you’re not using an L-bracket on the camera body, the lever clamp should be placed to the rear when dropping the head into  the notch. The exquisitely machined head offers highly adjustable and repeatable settings for ball tension when  the main ball-lock is released, is extremely solid with lenses up to  500mm f/4 (all I’ve tested it with to date), the controls have good feel and are placed in very intuitive positions. The head is fairly expensive, but they’ve delivered a really well thought-out product.



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Evaluations of my lens complement
(and a few lenses I’ve owned in the past)


(links are provided to B&H Photo lens pages and to some of my detailed photos of lenses)

17-35mm f/2.8 AFS (click for photo): You may have noticed that I have both this lens, and the combination of the 28mm f/1.4D and 45mm f/2.8P, which cover very similar ranges. The reason for the overlap is that this lens offers flexibility of focal length  and superb results at medium-to-small apertures at any distance. By f/5.6 the lens is very sharp, and it holds that quality to f/11, beyond which diffraction begins to reduce sharpness. There is a mild barrel distortion on straight lines near the edges of the frame at the wide end, mostly noticeable if a horizon is placed near the top of the frame at 17mm, so I avoid doing this. Otherwise, this lens is equal to or better than the primes it is intended to replace within this aperture range. I use the primes when shooting wide apertures (or the 45/P by itself when having a lightweight, general-purpose lens makes sense), but for travel and many other situations where flexibility of focal length is of critical importance, this lens is invaluable.

24mm f/2.8D: A very small, sharp lens with excellent contrast, low distortion, and at 9.5 oz. it is a featherweight that is easy to carry along anywhere. The perfect wide angle complement to the 50mm f/1.4D as it uses the same 52mm filters. The lens is nearly at optimum performance by f/5, and from f/5.6 to f/16 it is hard to find fault with it.

28mm f/2.8 AIS (click for photo): This little manual-focus lens is Nikon’s most highly-corrected wide-angle. With 8 elements in 8 groups (all are separate), the Nikon engineers really went all out in the design, and with close-range correction (CRC is a floating-element design that allows the lens to do well at both close and distance focus), this lens does a great job, especially up close (it focuses closer than the Micro lenses, with the minimum-focus distance being 0.2m). What this lens really is spectacular at is close-range work at all  apertures (it is a little soft at distance, but unbelievably sharp for close-to-medium range work). It is a great low-light wide-angle and also works as a wide-angle closeup lens for a different perspective than you can get with the Micro lenses. If you add the chip and contacts to make it a “P” lens the lens reports aperture and allows control of aperture from the camera as well as the use of Matrix metering (like the 45mm f/2.8P). Several of the more recent camera bodies will work with this lens without modification, as long as the information is programmed into the camera.

28mm f/1.4D (click for photo): The low-light wonder-lens. This very expensive wide angle does a truly superior job at medium to long distances between f/2 and f/8, at close-to-medium distances between f/2.8 and f/8, and when shooting fairly close between f/4 and f/8. It is a little soft at f/1.4, and at f/2 when at close-to-medium  range, but only in comparison to the superb results achievable at smaller apertures. The ability to shoot this lens hand-held at very slow shutter speeds using wide apertures with an extremely high yield offers a freedom to shoot indoors, at dawn, dusk, or at night, that is simply not achievable with other lenses. The HK-7 hood recommended for this lens is too shallow and wide to shade the lens against incident light. While the HK-4 hood (click for photo) is as wide, the “outer wall” is taller and it shades the front element better without introducing vignetting. (This lens has been discontinued, but it is still available used).

A new lens has been released to replace the venerable 28mm f/1.4D: the 24mm f/1.4 AFS.

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28-70mm f/2.8D AFS (click for photo): Built like a tank, heavy, large and very expensive, but the optics in this beast are the best around in a flexible, medium-range zoom — it is the quintessential photojournalism lens, offering fast acquisition and composition. The 28-70 f/2.8 AFS is very good under 10-12 feet, and is good at distance (slightly softer). It has a tendency to flare in adverse conditions, so care must be used if shooting towards the sun. The lens is best from f/5 to f/11, a little soft at f/4, and acceptable at f/2.8 from about 40mm to 70mm (it is too soft at f/2.8 for anything but use in a pinch at the wide end). This lens is the class act if what you are looking for is single-lens flexibility in the medium-wide to short-tele range, and the focusing speed and tracking ability are nothing short of amazing. It is capable of getting the shot in nearly any medium-to-good light situation. The quality of the shot acquired is less than what you get from a prime... but if you have the need for flexibility and high standards for image quality, and you shoot at medium apertures more often than not, there isn’t any other option besides carrying 2 or 3 primes in this range  (this lens has been discontinued, but is still available used).

35-70mm f/2.8D: Before the release of the 28-70 f/2.8D AFS, this was the photojournalism lens. It uses a screw-type focusing system and the older-style push-pull zoom, but it is every bit as sharp as the 28-70, although it focuses more slowly. Contrast is higher with the 35-70 when shooting into the light, as long as you have a hood on it. It also has a ‘macro’ mode at 35mm, where you set it to 35mm and press a button on the lens to unlock the focusing ring, allowing you to manually focus closer than the minimum focusing distance otherwise achievable. While this doesn’t make it a macro lens, it does offer close-focusing abilities with the added difference of the unusual perspective of a wide angle. This is sometimes quite useful. What really made me keep returning to this lens was the fact that it is much smaller and lighter than the 28-70 AFS and far less obtrusive. It is nearly as useful as the 28-70 AFS as long as you don’t need the blisteringly fast focusing capabilities of the ‘beast’, and the reduced weight means you can carry additional lenses. The fact that it is less obtrusive makes it possible to use it for candid portraits... an impossibility with the 28-70 AFS. It is available used, in clean condition, for around $400 or so.


45mm f/2.8P (click for photo, also see photo at top of page): The 45mm is a very simple, yet highly-refined lens design. The lack of numerous air-to-glass interfaces of the modified-Tessar design, combined with the coatings, make the contrast of this lens very high when shooting into adverse lighting conditions — which seems to happen a lot when shooting normal-range outdoor work. (This lens is discontinued, but still available used and is well worth looking for. The typical price is about $300).

    The focus throw is very short, it is a small, well-built lens, and the 45mm is an extremely easy lens to operate and predict. It is my contention that for many shallow-DOF situations, closeups, and wide-aperture work, manual focus is not a hardship. It is more often a necessity to be assured that the focus point is placed properly. Of course, I use AF when it makes sense to do so, but there are several lenses that I find myself focusing manually with quite often. The 135/2DC at f/2-f/2.8 has a depth of field character like that of the 300mm f/2.8  and 85mm f/1.4 lenses — quite shallow yet with good transitions. The shallow DOF requires extreme care in placement of the focusing point, and it can be so shallow that it is not all that rare that AF misses the actual spot by enough to alter the composition. The same can be said for the 85/1.4D at  f/1.4-f/2, and about macro lenses when focusing close. The fact that I do not have the option of AF with the 45mm does not hurt as the lens can be focused as fast and as precisely (sometimes more precisely with greater ease) than an AF lens.

    The shadow-detail retrieval is exceptional.

    The lens is very, very sharp across it's range of operation, and between f/2.8 and f/11. It is extremely versatile, and is definitely the sharpest Normal lens at f/2.8. It also reveals quite a bit of fine detail, although it is eclipsed in some respects by the 60mm f/2.8D Micro at some apertures and distances.

    The  defocused character is important in certain kinds of shots, at various apertures dependent upon distance from the lens-to-subject-to-background. When there are highlighted background or foreground elements, the character of the defocused region can become an important part of the subject itself as well as either enhance the quality of an image, or become distracting to an extreme and thereby detract from the image quality. I feel that this sort of thing is almost as important for certain sorts of Normal-lens uses as it is in telephoto work, and the 45mm has by far the best defocused character of all of the Normal lenses.

    The fact that it is small and lightweight, built like a precision instrument, and extremely cool, has nothing much to do with anything other than user-pleasure and confidence in the lens's construction quality, for what that is worth.

    What I like most about this lens in comparison to others in the Normal Range is that the character is similar to that of other lenses in the top category at a sometimes extremely-useful focal length. Yes, I agree that often a wider or longer lens is a better option, and I regularly make use of a kit consisting of the 17-35 and 85mm (or 28 and 85) and avoid the Normal Range altogether, but it says a lot for this lens that you can put it to many of the same uses as those fine tools without loss of quality, just the change in perspective (and the need for some foot-framing). The fact that it is an exceptional lens for wide-aperture closeup work, wide-aperture scenic, near-far compositions at medium-to-small apertures and long-range scenics at apertures around  f/8-f/11 (all in the same lens) makes this little featherweight a very versatile single-lens option.


Chrysler PT Cruiser shot with the 45mm f/2.8P at f/5.6
click to open the image in a second window or tab (1504 x 960)

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50mm f/1.4D (link to the new 50mm f/1.4G): A very small (9 oz.), extremely sharp normal lens for low-light work and general  photography. The perspective is natural, and detail is exceptional. The lens focuses down to 1.5 feet and is clean at f/2. By f/2.8, it is uniformly sharp across the frame — by f/4 it is exquisitely clean and ideal for low-light situations such as available light close portrait, museums, etc. The lens is fairly resistant to flare, and it is quite inexpensive. It does a better job beyond 5 feet than it does up-close, but it is a very, very good lens and is the lens I recommend that folks start with.

55mm f/2.8 AIS Micro (click for photo): A benchmark lens, this is nearly perfect for any use, any distance or aperture, that a normal focal length lens can be put to. It is sharp at infinity, sharp at f/2.8 to f/16, just a tad soft at f/22 (diffraction) but usable at this aperture at close-focus distances to my standards, and usable in a pinch at f/32 for intergalactic depth of field. The performance up-close is tremendous, the build-quality and focusing precision is unmatched, and the only caveat is that it does not report or allow control of aperture and matrix metering is lost (except with the D200/D2 etc.). This lens might be capable of modification to the ‘P’ version by addition of the chip and contacts, but when I tried to have that done, the part was not available.

60mm f/2.8D Micro (click for photo): While the 60 Micro is not as sharp at f/2.8 to f/4 or at distance as the 55 AIS Micro, it is every bit as good between f/5.6 and f/16 and under 7-8 feet, and offers higher contrast, AF, Matrix metering, the ability to go to 1:1 without the need for extension tubes, and aperture control from and reporting to the camera. This lens at macro distances has very high contrast and sharpness,  and offers similar character to that of the 200 AF Micro (again, at macro distances), but of course the working distance is quite short, so it is best used for static subjects at close distances. The lens is usable at more open apertures as long as you don’t mind a little softness around the edges, and many people use it for a normal lens (although it is less sharp at distance, and loses fine detail beyond about 12 feet in comparison to its tremendous performance at closer range). This lens is designed for flat-field work and many folks also use it for close-range copying of documents and slides. There is a new 60mm AFS Micro available now.

85mm f/1.4D (click for photo): A fairly substantial hunk of glass, the 85mm f/1.4D is uniformly sharp  across the frame from f/2 to nearly f/8, is exquisitely sharp and with high contrast from f/2.8 to f/5.6,  and is extremely resistant to flare and ghosting when shot with the filter off and the hood on. Perfect for portrait and medium-distance work, and with exceptionally smooth  defocused areas, the only negative here is the cost. The lens can be used for landscape work at f/5.6 to f/8. This really is one of the finest tools you can put on your camera — the quality of results from the lens are truly amazing.


105mm f/2.8D Micro (click for photo): The 105 AF Micro is a compromise lens... while not quite as good as the 60 Micro or 200 AF Micro, it offers more working distance than the 60 and is significantly easier to hand-hold than the 200 at near-maximum magnifications. The lens is quite sharp in the sweet spot — optimum sharpness is achieved between f/5.6 and  f/11, although the difference at f/16 is barely perceptible. The lens works best at distances under 15 feet (it is softer beyond that range) and between f/2.8-f/4 it loses edge definition a bit and contrast in the outer frame. The focal length reduces significantly as you focus between 1:2 and 1:1, making the lens roughly 80mm at minimum focusing distance. It is a good portrait lens at wider apertures for work in the 7-15  foot range as well, as long as the subject is kept near the center of the frame. For best contrast, using either an HN-23, HN-24 or preferably an HN-30 hood on the 62mm barrel thread is desirable. Overall, I preferred the results from the 60 and 200 for field work and the 85/1.4D for portrait, so I finally sold this lens, eventually replacing it with the AFS/VR version described below.

105mm f/2.8D AFS/VR Micro: An exceptional upgrade to the original, this lens has the newer coatings, the AFS high-speed focusing motor and instant manual-focusing option, and VR (vibration reduction) lens stabilization. It outperforms the original in every way possible. It is better at distance, and can be used as a high-speed focusing short telephoto (as long as you use the focus-range limiter so it doesn’t scan all the way to 1:1). It is better than the original at portrait ranges too, and also yields better results at wider apertures, so you can use it as a portrait lens (although it does’t beat the 85mm f/1.4D, it is certainly not at all bad). Where it really excels, of course, is at close range and extreme close range. The 105mm has always been easier than the 200mm to hand-hold. With VR, it is even better. The yield from this lens is nearly 100% in my experience, meaning that as long as the shot is possible and you hit your focus plane, you are very likely to yield a usable image every time. I still use manual focus most of the time when up close, because it is easier to place the focused plane where I want it, but the AFS makes it possible to track moving bugs or flowers moving in the breeze, and using it increases the yield. This very special lens is now my default macro lens.

135mm f/2 DC (click for photo): This high-speed telephoto offers beautiful defocused-region blurring similar to the 85/1.4D, extreme sharpness and detail retrieval between f/4 and f/5.6, and excellent performance from f/2.8 to f/8. It is sharp in the center at f/2 (with a loss in contrast at the edges). It is reasonably lightweight and fast-focusing with good AF-accuracy (necessary for wide-aperture work), has smooth manual focusing (with the same type of A/M rotating collar-lock as the 85/1.4 and AF Micro lenses), a built-in, lockable hood, and a trick up its sleeve. This lens offers the ability to control the spherical-aberration correction at wide apertures between under- and  over-correction, allowing you to selectively defocus the foreground or background. I highly recommend the B+W #960 72mm Telephoto hood (click for photo) as the built-in hood is far too short (as is the built-in hood for the 180/2.8D, which also benefits from the B+W hood).

The lens is at its best at close-to-middle distance, or at medium-to-long distance when your subject fills the frame. The results from this lens tend to show reduced contrast at distance into bright light, but at distance in the forest or in another diffused-light or shadowed environment the lens is an exceptional tool. If you can approach your subject, the lens offers tremendous character, shallow depth of field options, and excellent shadow detail and defocused-region control.

The Defocus Control has 11 detented positions, from left (Front) to right (Rear). The F positions adjust correction of spherical aberration to alter the defocused character in front of the subject, and the R positions alter the defocused character behind the subject. The positions to the extreme left and right are unmarked. The other positions are marked from left to right, from f/5.6 to Neutral to f/5.6 (see photo). Below is information regarding the best place to set the lens for subject sharpness and contrast (you can of course in normal shooting use the Neutral position):

      The defocus ring gives a very ethereal effect that is mostly noticeable at f/2.

      Another interesting thing is that the DC control, when started from max detent F and moving to max detent R moves the subject with each detent closer to the camera. At most settings it moves to the left a bit. At a few it just moves closer. I had my lens adjusted to correct for a slight misalignment, and after running a test the DC Control settings have been changed for optimum subject sharpness:

      At f/2, the best subject sharpness occurs at the Neutral setting (pre-adjustment this was at f/2R).

      At f/2.8, the best subject sharpness occurs at the Neutral setting (pre-adjustment this was at f/2.8R).

      At f/4, the best subject sharpness occurs at the f/2.8R setting (pre-adjustment this was at Neutral).

      At f/5.6, the best subject sharpness occurs at the f/2R or f/2.8R setting (pre-adjustment this was at Neutral).

      The Spherical Aberration causes a diffuse halo effect around edges, that is most prominent at the wider apertures. As I said, it's a rather ethereal look that I can see a lot of uses for with some sorts of flower and portrait shots.

An  interesting and very useful lens, the 135/2 gives unbelievably good results at f/4 to f/5.6 and exceeds the performance of any  short-to-medium tele except the 85/1.4 and 105mm f/2 DC when set to f/2.8. It can be used at f/2 in a pinch if you can accept a little softening in the center and softer results (with lowered contrast) at the edges, making it indispensable when you need extra reach in lower-light conditions.


180mm f/2.8D EDIF: Quite possibly the perfect medium telephoto lens. Very sharp from medium-range to infinity, smooth defocused areas, excellent isolation of the subject at f/2.8 (where it is soft in comparison to the performance at f/4 or smaller apertures), small and with reasonable focusing speed for a non-AFS telephoto, but with a tendency to hunt in lower-contrast situations. From f/5.6 to f/16 there is literally nothing to fault about the quality. From f/4 to f/5.6, you can detect a trace of softness when compared to the performance from f/5.6 on, but I have no qualms about using the lens at f/4. Shadow detail is very good, and corner-to-corner sharpness at infinity focus is amazing. The 180 is the perfect medium-distance portrait lens for tight shots. It's also perfect for long scenic and medium-to-long distance shots of large subjects. It does a very good job with close-portrait of small subjects too — an all-around winner of a lens as long as the focal length is right. It is light, so it makes the perfect complement to the 105mm and 50mm. When you're carrying either or both, it gives you a telephoto option with no compromises that weighs little enough that you can carry it even if you don't think you'll need it... just in case. A great lens, but due to the 5 foot minimum focusing distance and the slow AF (making it poor for tracking fast-moving subjects) after two years I sold it, tested some medium-focal-length zooms, and finally ended up with the 200mm f/4 Micro EDIF-AF. The 200 Micro focuses about as fast as the 180/2.8 AF when you use the limiter, but it offers a 19” minimum focusing distance for 1:1 macros, higher contrast and better fine detail at the expense of length and weight.

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200mm f/4 Micro EDIF-AF (click for photo): The premiere tele-macro lens, this lens is long when you mount the HN-30 hood, but it is extremely well-balanced on the pro-series body. The focusing ring is somewhat stiff (which allows precision movements for fine adjustment, at the expense of a little extra effort). For AF, use the limiter — it is a bit slower than the 180mm, and allows focusing to under 2.5 feet. Manual is of course best when you are focusing much under 3 feet, or into trees, etc. Resolution of detail at all focal distances from extreme close-focus to infinity is superb — up close, the lens is amazing. It has exceptional contrast, resolves a tremendous amount of detail, and is quite controllable, but when you get inside about 1:3 or so (roughly 3 feet), it requires enough light to keep the shutter speed well up at the desired aperture, or a support device must be used. On a tripod, the 200 Micro yields truly superior macro shots. It costs an arm and at least half a leg... but it is worth it for the tremendous results. The lens is very good at all apertures between f/4 and f/11, but it is best used at wider apertures only at longer range or with a subject that requires maximum isolation at shorter range... f/8 to f/11 provides the best results at very close range. I use it as both a field lens and macro lens. The fly macro above and the closeup of the Red Slider below  were both from the 200 Micro.


200mm f/2 AFS/VR: This short stubby beast of a lens is the fastest focusing telephoto around. It has the ability to shoot in nearly any light (due to the maximum aperture of f/2). It shoots cleanly at any aperture from f/2 to f/8, and can track the fastest moving subjects with ease. It exhibits an exquisite defocused character (similar to the 85mm f/1.4D) at wider apertures, allowing for an exceptional degree of subject isolation. The only downsides to this lens are the cost (fairly high) and the weight, although it is balanced so well that you can shoot it hand-held fairly easily. I once shot it hand-held for hours at a time, shooting puffins in flight, but my arms were very tired afterwards. The enormous smile on my face made up for it though... this is a great lens. It also works  exceptionally well with the TC-14e and TC-17e teleconverters for 280mm and 340mm.

The shot below was from the 200/2 with 1.7x TC (340mm at f/8):


The image below, cropped 1:1 from a portrait of a Wattled Crane, was taken with the 200mm AFS/VR
at f/2 from a distance of about 7 feet. I locked focus on the forehead. Notice the shallow depth of field.


300mm f/4 AFS (click for photo): With its AFS motor, this lens locks on the subject quickly and tracks  with  precision. At 3lbs., it is not light, but it is capable of being used hand-held (I nearly always did) and is a superb lens for action and other situations where rapid acquisition and tracking is necessary (e.g. catching a hummingbird in flight). It is a little soft at f/4, but stopping down to f/5.6 offers excellent performance (and the loss of detail at f/4 is so slight that I had no qualms about shooting the lens wide open). Excellent contrast, smooth defocused areas (9-bladed aperture), and it focuses down to 4.75 feet for some truly amazing closeups. In combination with the TC-14e teleconverter, you have a 420mm f/5.6 lens with the AFS motor intact, and it is usable at f/5.6, although stopping down to f/8 gets the best performance out of the combination. The 300/4 has the A/M-M focusing switch, so you can do manual override with AF enabled for the best of both techniques. A fantastic lens... the only thing wrong with it is the tripod collar (which flexes), but by wedging minicell foam or another brace between the lens body and the top of the tripod mount (or acquiring the Kirk Photo aftermarket tripod collar) that problem can be gotten around.

300mm f/2.8 AFS-II (see photo below): The 300mm f/2.8 AFS-II is a magnesium-shelled version of Nikon’s venerable design. This version has a reduced minimum focusing distance (down to 7.5ft. from 10ft., and 7.2ft.  when using MF) and a reduction in weight from 6.8 lbs. to 5.6 lbs. The AF system is extremely fast and sure, acquiring a lock very rapidly and silently ,and tracking with precision even when the subject is moving quickly towards the camera. The defocused character is exquisite, esp. with water in the background, and transistions to the blurred region are very smooth. It operates extremely well with the TC-14e teleconverter to yield a fast-focusing 420mm f/4 with exceptionally beautiful character. The lens can be shot wide open with top grade results, and exhibits very high contrast and finely-detailed line definition. This lens, while difficult to shoot hand-held, is an absolute dream to use when mounted on a Wimberly Sidekick. It is an expensive and large lens, but the results it returns are well worth the effort required to carry it into the field. Very highly recommended, but only available used (replaced by the AFS/VR described below the photo of the 300mm AFS-II).


click image above for 1800 x 1200 version

300mm f/2.8 AFS/VR: An upgrade to the AFS-II, with VR and the newer coatings. The difference is that this lens can be hand held much more easily with less impact on the yield, and the contrast is higher when shooting into the sun. I’d say that it is well worth the extra cost because the VR is also very useful when shooting at dusk or early in the morning when shutter speeds are low, but if you already have the superb AFS-II and these benefits are not required for your shooting style, I’d say that you may want to stay with the AFS-II as the performance is otherwise similar. Personally, I never regretted the switch as my yield went up.


500mm f/4 AFS-II (click for large photo): One of Nikon’s three super-telephoto lenses, this beast of a lens is about the same size as the 300mm f/2.8 AFS-II with the hood in shooting position — before you put the 500mm lens hood on. It is big, but it is smaller and lighter than its more expensive two brothers: the 400mm f/2.8 and 600mm f/4 AFS-II lenses. It is far easier to handle in the field as it weighs only two pounds more than the 300mm f/2.8 AFS-II. It focuses quite fast, between 16 feet and infinity, resolves detail extremely well even wide open, and has beautiful defocused character. Like the 300mm, it works very well with the TC-14e and Sidekick, and is a fabulous lens (discontinued (available used) and replaced with the 500mm f/4 AFS/VR)

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