PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux


My quest for the Nikon Digital Fifty, the story so far

Including: subjective dual-review of the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 HSM and Carl-Zeiss ZF 2/35 Distagon.

I’ve set out to experience a slower, more purposeful kind of photography. In a way I'm looking to make photography more difficult, requiring more thought to achieve. It's not that I think photography is "too easy" or anything, but that through the greater challenge I believe emerges greater results, a greater connection between the photographer and the photograph. I think of this as my own modernist journey in this post-modernist Point-And-Shoot world.

The most important tool on my photographic ordeal is of course the essential lens of the "modern" age: the Fifty. This whole story would have been over instantly if it weren’t only for the fact that I can’t get a Fifty, not a Five-Oh. Thanks to the Nikon DX crop factor the 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm are now the 42mm, 52.5mm, 75mm, 127.5mm.

Ah-HA I hear – but the Thirty-Five becomes a Fifty, and there! Not quite. In my mind Fifties have certain attributes that come to them naturally from traditionally [near-]symmetrical optical designs: fast, sharp, and well corrected for aberrations. A good Fifty ought to refer to the benchmark of all lenses, Leica’s 50mm Summilux-M.

The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX HSM DC

The most post-modernist of the Fifty-equivalents is the reduced-frame 30mm Sigma. The Sigma is an advanced amateur, super fast, auto-everything, mid-priced lens. It has achieved a great deal of market awareness, though I suspect fewer photographers have truly adopted it than one might assume. It makes an interesting pitch at the D40/D60 adopters as the only normal lens that will fit these cameras and retain all its functions, but it appeals to a serious photography mantra which doesn't quite stick to the D40/D60 audience.

The Sigma’s first raison-d’être is of course the very bright f/1.4 aperture that differentiates it from most 1st-tier 35mm lenses. The Sigma did not call to me instantly but if it had been Nikon-branded it probably would have (all other things being equal). I really wanted to like this lens because it seemed like the exact lens to fit the bill, so one day in February I made up my mind and ordered one from Adorama.

First impressions were excellent. The lens is built to a quality rarely seen in this world of zooms. Yes it’s plastic but it feels like a rubber-skinned rock – even more solid than Sigma’s chunky 10-20mm ultra-wide which I also own. Nothing moves on this lens when it focuses, which contributes to the feeling of solidity, and on the D80 it focuses without hesitation.

The Sigma is hypnotic to stare down, a little pool of glass. (Here pictured with Canon mount I believe.)

In use it performed as I expected based on various reviews I had read on the web. This is to say that its resolution on-axis is excellent directly from the full aperture, but is never really good at the borders even stopped down. Practically this means stopping down doesn’t get you much in the way of improvement so you might as well shoot it wide open. This is clearly what it was designed to do.

My own experience is that this is a very sharp lens, yes, but it is not what I’ll call “relaxed”. The lens tries very hard to be sharp, overreaches somewhat, and as a result draws with nervous brush strokes: objects in near-defocus take on a troubled look, chromatic aberrations are very noticeable at all apertures and astigmatism defines what you see at the borders and corners.

Despite my obsession for optical quality, I found that I enjoyed the Sigma quite a bit and would recommend it to anyone who’s considering it. Shooting at f/1.4 is liberating in a way that image-stabilization isn’t, because it’s the real deal. The price is excellent for the capabilities this lens offers.

Practical samples in real life (not a brick wall) which I chose to keep in my daughter’s collection:

Just know that in the end it wasn’t the right lens for me, so I returned it to Adorama after a week.

The Carl-Zeiss 2/35 ZF Distagon

Ever since Photokina of 2006 I'd been keeping an eye on the Carl Zeiss optics for the F mount. To be fair I mostly ignored them until my attraction to modern photographic ideals started to get stronger. To me the appeal of Zeiss is similar to the appeal of Leica, but diluted with one part affordable.

Among the ZFs I had heard great things about the 35-Distagon, raising it to the top of its peer group and that starting from full aperture. Specifications available here.

Compared to the Sigma, the two lenses couldn't be more different. The Zeiss Distagon is an artist, manual-focus (and manual-exposure on the D80), expensive niche lens. It’s also a stop slower but it promises unimpeachable performance from corner to corner in return.
First impressions were the best yet. The Zeiss is built from two materials only: brass and glass. The focus ring has a long smooth throw that turns in the "right" direction. The aperture ring has clear detents at every half-stop, unlike my Nikon AF-D lenses.
Within days of receiving the Zeiss I learned several important things that will define my photographic progress for the rest of the year. Let these be my description of its quality.
  1. Lenses affect colors. The Zeiss draws from the most brutally honest palette of all my lenses (including the illustrious Nikkor 70-200/2.8 VR). I had heard about this, but never experienced it first hand until I shot with the Distagon.
  2. Current cameras already push lenses to their limits. In the past the D80 had hinted to me that it was capable of extracting much more detail than it does on average, if the conditions were just right. Well the Distagon delivers this on a daily basis – if there’s enough light for 200/125s @ f/4 or better then you’re in The Zone. Some times I feel I've upgraded to a 5D-like camera at lowest ISOs, from the textur
    e of the images.
  3. Manually focusing fast lenses is a difficult but trainable skill. I'm building muscle memory for the throw of the smooth focus ring, and figuring out the speeds and feeds that lock on subjects best. Moving subjects from close-in are still outside my envelope. In the future I may consider purchasing a Katz Eye screen.
  4. Manually exposing is not difficult but I would dispense with it gladly. On more than one occasion, I went to the Bay Area’s top photography store to play with the D300 and Distagon together. It’s comes close to bliss. Not only is the D300 such a superior camera but it leverages the Distagon like any other lens – two masterpieces that combine.
Practical samples in real life (but there is a wall this time ;^):
On D80 digital:
On Fuji P400H film:

The Digital Fifty?

It’s been 2 months since I got the Zeiss Distagon and I’ve shot it almost exclusively since. I can now guess exposures to within 2 stops 90% of the time, and within 1 stop about 50% of the time. I focus correctly in less than 2s about 80% of the time.
In the last month I’ve been shooting film almost exclusively as well. I found an old FE-2 and ordered a batch of Fuji C41 film. In a way the FE-2 simplifies shooting with the Distagon – the split microprism in the viewfinder helps with focus (but sometimes it gets in the way actually) and its AI-coupled meter has no problem picking shutter speeds in what amounts to a center-weighted aperture-priority mode.
The downside to this? Now I need more Zeiss. I’m dreaming about this one now...

Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I love the colors in your D80 shots (on smugmug), are those straight out of the camera or processed RAW?

  2. They are lightly processed RAW, essentially the default Lightroom conversion. Photoshop Element 6 would probably do the same job for 1/3 the price.

    This said, you’d be surprised the impact that the lenses have on colors. If you read MTF charts (and you’ll find lots of them in my posts) you can look to the top curve for color transmission. In my opinion at low ISOs the lens has a much larger impact on image quality than the camera body.



  3. I can see what you mean about the Leica…I have been waiting for the new Nikkor 35 f/1.8 to fill this role but the Leica…wow.
    BTW—I kept my old Nikkor 50 and my Tamron 90 macro, both mf. I learned so very much about exposure and light by shooting with these two lenses.

  4. Thanks for the comment burstmode.

    I visited your blog for a few minutes and I enjoyed it much. You’ve got a good eye.

    From what I’ve read, the new Nikkor is a fantastic lens. It compares directly to the 35mm Distagon over the DX frame. I think if it had existed a few years ago, I probably would have never gone down the path of Zeiss. (Blessing or curse? I’m not sure. ;^)

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