“A more elegant weapon, for a more civilized age. ” – Sir Alec Guinness, as Obi-Wan Kenobi, in Star Wars
Decades ago, when film photography was not only the rage, but the only photographic choice, the “kit” lens that most of the manufacturers supplied with their stock camera body kits was the 50 millimeter lens. These were once called “normal” lenses, because on a 35mm sized focal plane, they approximate the field of view of the human eye. Some makers provided three options, an f/1.4, 1.8, and a f/2.0 maximum aperture, or thereabouts. These little workhorse lenses are usually fast (as in, large maximum aperture), well-built, and simple- just a few optical elements, not a lot that can go wrong.
Then, the zoom lens became popular, particularly in the US. As noted nature and wildlife photographer Scott Bourne, host of the excellent “Photofocus” podcast (www.photofocus.com) is often fond of saying, there are no free lunches in photography. You cannot gain one feature without having to sacrifice a performance reduction somewhere else. The zoom lens is like the “Swiss Army Knife” of photography. Carry one on holiday or in the field for a day trip, you have many focal lengths at your fingertips to use.
OK, so how did zooms catch on, particularly in the States? Lenses of inferior performance and build became the lenses of the masses. And manufacturer marketing trended accordingly. Don’t carry a bag of heavy lenses- take one out for the day, and shoot landscapes and portraits on the same shoot. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
The “fast food” culture we live in wants everything closer, bigger, magnified, now. People no longer wanted to “zoom with their feet”, and move up closer to the subject. Additionally, we are simply not receptive to having people close up to us, with a lens in our face. I went to a photography seminar a couple of years ago, where a street photographer confessed to using a “sniper approach”, using a taped up d-SLR with a zoom lens, to photograph people out on the street. To the photographer, this technique reduced the risk of the dreaded “don’t take my picture” outcry from a suspecting street subject. (Note- ask before taking). A digital photographer once asked me, when showing off my Nikon F with the 50/f/1.4 “but how close can you get??”, as if focal length deemed the quality of the lens. That is what those who market digital photography have created, though, and it really was not his fault. Yes, the lenses are interchangeable. Isn’t that why the SLR format became the de facto standard? That was where the discussion next went. “Oh, now I get it!”
But, what is lost here with a zoom? A lot. Speed, for one. The fastest zoom lenses I own have a constant aperture of f/2.8. The classic Nikkor zooms from the late 70’s, such as my 28-50, and 50-135, while built like tanks, can only open up to f/3.5 maximum aperture. They need lots of good available light. I really won’t go into build quality, contrast, color rendition, sharpness, barrel distortion, chromatic aberration, flare, fringing, ghosting. I simply am not technically proficient enough to delve into those. But suffice to say, a prime of a fixed focal length usually will outperform zooms at the same given focal length. Less truly is more.
Zoom ahead to 2011. The age of digital. Digital SLR bodies, particularly those with the “crop sensor” (Nikon DX bodies at 1.5 crop factor, Canon Rebel’s with 1.6 crop factor), usually come bundled with a rather filmsy, plastic mount, plastic barreled 18-55 zoom. Slow, with maximum apertures of f/3.5 to f/5.6, depending on the chosen focal length, these variable aperture lenses are good enough for a budding photographer to start with, while at the same time, tantalizingly inspiring those who want to take their photography to the next level and to try out some better glass.
Having shot with primes from Canon, Minolta, Nikon, and yes, Argus, these are all amazing pieces of glass. While not as versatile as a zoom, the beauty of SLR’s is the interchangeability of the lenses. One amazing development in digital photography over the last few years came about when photographers started using fixed primes, and while exploiting the once deemed “lower” DX/crop factor. Thus, a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 becomes a 75mm little portrait lens, for about $100 US. The gorgeous “Plastic Fantastic” Canon 50mm f/1.8, available online for less than $100 US, now becomes a world-class 80mm portrait lens on a Rebel. So what are now some of the hardest to find lenses out in the market today? Yes, the 50. Once out of vogue, they are now highly desirable, for market driven (digital) reasons.
Even manufacturers such as Nikon caught on. Usually very slow to change, and rather conservative in their sales and marketing philosophies, Nikon introduced a 35mm f/1.8 DX- format only lens, featuring a silent wave motor (SWM). So, if you are shooting say with a D40, D40X, or D5000, you now have a “normal” lens, in addition to the 50mm to use for portraiture. The 35mm is a DX-only lens, and while it would mount on a film body Nikon, or a D3/D700, it will also vignette accordingly on those bodies. The 50, designed from inception as a full frame lens, will potentially work on 35mm film, cropped digital, and full frame digital bodies, working either as a normal, or a short portrait lens accordingly.
Primes can be pretty pricey. The only real complete prime kit I have used is the Minolta system, consisting of a 28mm (wide), two 50’s (f/1.4 and 1.7), and a 135 (telephoto). The Minolta Rokkor glass is surprisingly affordable, and was really gorgeously coated and manufactured. For Nikkors, I have used three 50’s, the 1.8 Ai (maybe the best), 1.4 Ai, 1.8 AF, the 105 f/2.5 (really need to do a blog entry on that one), and 135 f/2.8. I’d love to try some Nikkor wides, but wow, are they pricey. And for Canon, the aforementioned “Plastic Fantastic” thrifty fifty. Canon primes are, for the most part, extremely expensive, and because Canon really markets their Rebel line to people new to photography, they have lots of zooms in their lineup. Note here- the Canon 50 literally is , well, plastic, barrel, mount, and filter threading. The comparable Nikkor, a few dollars more, is less placticky, and has a metal mount. Subjectively, I do feel the Canon wins out in the optical performance comparison between the two. The Nikkor auto focuses slightly faster. Not the purpose of this blog, though. Yes, the Canon vs. Nikon battle will wage on endlessly elsewhere, for decades to come. I don’t even try to fight that battle, as they both are truly great systems.
Shoot film? Try a prime. Shoot digital? Try a prime. Your zoom may end up in the closet, or on eBay, pretty quickly. Please note, I am not in any way with this blog entry attempting to bash zoom lenses here, but to potentially introduce, or reintroduce, a high performance alternative. Certainly there are some great zooms out there, both new and used.