Thursday, 10 December 2009

Thoughts on Nikon lenses

As the end of my last post would suggest, now that I have the D300 I'm thinking lenses. My primary use for anything I consider buying will, of course, be for weddings. Having concentrated most of my money on buying the D300 body and vertical grip, I've now got a basic starting kit comprising of the 'best' that I could afford. This includes the Nikkor 50mm f1.8 (cheap, but fast and sharp - a must for any camera bag IMHO) and the 18-70mm f3.5-4.5 Nikon zoom - probably Nikon's best ever 'kit' lens - reasonably fast, reasonably sharp - and great coverage for a DX sensor camera like the D300 (equivalent of 28-105mm in traditional 35mm film terms).

I am also 'borrowing' the consumer-grade 75-240mm f4.5-5.6D from my wife's D70 kit (together with the D70 itself as a backup body), and while it can produce some nice images, and gets deservedly good reviews for a plastic lens, it's not really where I want to be for my longer portrait shots of the bride and groom. Ideally I want to shoot these 'wide open' at around f2.8 - so this is probably where I need to start looking.

Next question, then, is what to look at? And with Nikon, this is where it gets tricky - especially if you're looking for the best bang for your buck.

I have already suggested that a strong contender for my next 'portrait' lens is the Nikkor 85mm f1.8. At $750NZ new, this lens meets the bang-for-the-buck criteria, as well as the large aperture for nice out-of-focus backgrounds shooting at f2.8 or below. It's solidly built, is sharp, contrasty, lightweight, and renders very neutral skin tones. It's definitely top of my list at the moment - since I'm not even considering its even faster sibling, the 85mm f1.4, at almost three times the price (about $1900NZ)!

Although I really enjoy the light weight and portability of a prime, what about a zoom for more flexible composition when working in the confines of a church? Good question - but slightly problematic as a Nikon shooter on a tight budget. The lens every wedding/portrait photographer who shoots Nikon pulls out for this scenario is the 70-200mm f2.8 VR - and I have no doubt on a cropped DX body like the D300 it's a beautiful lens. But it's also $3500NZ (and there's a newer version that's even more expensive at $4200NZ.) I just won't have that kind of money anytime soon.

And I think this is where Nikon lets the 'semi-pro' shooters down, and where Canon is ahead of them in the game. And no, this is not a 'I hate Canon/Nikon' rant, it's merely an observation because I'm needing to think about these issues at the moment. If I were still shooting Canon, I would have no less than four different 70-200mm pro grade lenses to choose from, depending on my budget. The entry level (but still amazing) 70-200mm f4L at $1350NZ, the 70-200 f4L IS at $2150NZ, the 70-200 f2.8L at $2250, or the 70-200mm f2.8L IS at $3250NZ. This is a fantastic selection that allows you to pick and choose the features you need, matched to your budget - and ALL under the asking price of the only one Nikon offers. Quite simply, in terms of Nikon's poor showing, I don't think that's good enough.

There is another Nikon alternative, and fortunately it is well worth considering in the 'newer' version - and that's the Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 (the older version was a push-pull type zoom, whereas the newer version has a rotating zoom). It's around $2400NZ, which makes it a better prospect (and comparable with the Canon 70-200mm f2.8), and is a solid pro-series lens, although its design is a little on the tired side. It isn't silent focusing (using Nikon's older camera-based screw-driven focus system), isn't internal focusing, and doesn't use as many ED elements as the 70-200 VR lens - but it is considerably cheaper - and more importantly is probably just in my ballpark budget-wise (after I've shot a few more weddings).

When the time comes for me to upgrade the 18-70mm Nikkor zoom, the prospects with Nikon are just as grim. Yes, there is the superb 17-55mm f2.8 - BUT (wait for it) it's priced at $2800NZ! Canon also has a 17-55mm f2.8 for their cropped sensor format cameras, and at $1900NZ it's almost a full $1k cheaper. I have no doubt the Nikkor is better built (it's an absolute tank), but it had better be for almost $1000NZ more. I've owned and used the Canon 17-55mm f2.8, and it's a beautiful lens that produces stunning images. Again, for the end user, I think Canon has got it right.

It doesn't get any better when you compare apples with apples in a 24-70mm f2.8 showdown. In this instance, both are built to last under professional abuse. The Nikon is $3500NZ, and the Canon retails for $2250NZ. That's right, the Nikkor is $1250NZ MORE than the equivalent Canon. The same is true with almost every other Canon/Nikon pro-series lens comparison. Are the Nikon's in many cases actually worth twice more than Canon lenses. I think not. Are Nikon taking advantage of working pros? Maybe.

The simple fact of the matter, as a Nikon user who wants to shoot Nikkor glass, is that the prices are what they are - like it or not. The 85mm f1.8 and 80-200mm f2.8 are mighty fine lenses, comparable in price with Canon's offerings, so I guess that's where I'm heading. Replacing the 18-70mm zoom later on will be a tougher assignment... but that's a decision for another day.

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