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Prime Lenses for the Nikon D800

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Once I made the decision to move to a Nikon system and prime lenses, the question became which lenses? From the start, I am a landscape and nature photographer, so my lens choice is dictated by the needs of this type of photography: wide angle lenses to capture the three-dimensional foreground-background style of landscapes I enjoy creating; a close-focussing lens for natural details; plus a telephoto lens for wildlife. For me, that means focal lengths of 20mm, 24mm, 105mm, 200mm and 300 or 400mm.

This is born out by my shooting stats. The beauty of Lightroom is that I can use the Library Filter to see what focal lengths I most common shoot at. One would expect that with using zooms for the last 8 years there wouldn’t necessarily be a strong pattern but, intact there was. By far, the most common focal length for me was 24mm – almost 25% of all images shot! The next biggest spike is in the 100-120mm range, then the 35mm range then the 400mm range.

In creating my “lens road map”, I started by listing the “most desirable” lenses from a technical and image quality perspective. Since much of my photography is done from trails and canoe portage routes, weight is also an issue as I have to carry all this gear, plus a proper tripod. I have always tried to create a system of lenses whereby each lens is 1/2 or double the focal lengths of the lenses on either side of it. This is less true in wide angles as even a few mm difference make s huge difference in angle of view. Traditionally, I’ve worked with 24mm – 50mm – 100mm – 200mm – 400mm.

My “most desirable” list includes in order of importance:

  • Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 – ideal for super-wide with strong foreground elements. I have been shooting with 24mm for years and often found that it wasn’t quite wide enough;
  • Nikkor 24mm – The f/1.4 version is the crème-de-la-crème for image quality, but it is also very expensive, I will have to settle for the f/2.8 version for now;
  • Micro-Nikkor 200mm f/4 – An amazing lens – sharp as a tack and a wonderful working distance. Unfortunately, with it being in the $1500 range, I will have to settle for the 105mm Micro-Nikkor for now.
  • Nikkor 300mm f/4 AF-S – A wonderfully sharp lens that’s not too large and heavy, comparatively speaking. It is the f/2.8 version that you see at sports events along with its 400mm f/2.8 bigger brother – both of which are too big and wieldy for hiking and canoeing, so the f/4 is more appropriate. As well, with today’s improved quality at higher ISOs (400 now-a-days compared to ISO 100 in the film days), f/4 will be fine, even with the 1-stop loss if I should add a 1.4x or 1.7x teleconverter. Furthermore, with the D800 set to DX mode (still with 15MP of real estate), the 300mm becomes a 450mm without a teleconverter.

Whether or not these are AF-D or AF-S was of little importance to me as both versions are technically sound and in many cases optically identical. The 300mm is not available in AF-D (only the earlier AF) so, the AF-S is one for me.

After a couple of weeks of buying and selling on eBay and Kijiji, I’ve ended up with the following – not quite ideal, but a healthy start that will allow for further expansion and changes:

  • Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 AF-D – Perfect and the first lens I purchased;
  • Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 AF-D – A great start for macro work and it’s a lens that keeps its value;
  • Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 AF-D – not ideal, but I bought it along with the 105mm (and 50mm) and it will help “fill the gap”. Anyone want to trade for a 24mm?? (email me! – I’m serious!);
  • Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF-D – again, not ideal, but it fills the gap for now.
  • UPDATE 16 May 2012 – Just added a 300/4 AF-S – a spectacular lens – read more…

This gives me an appreciable range now with the top end – yet. More importantly, these lenses appear to be better built than the zoom I used to carry around and, while a bit heavier overall, each is more agile than the zoom. Yes, I will need to switch lenses more frequently and my system won’t look as “professional” with a big honking zoom out front with the petal lens hod, but I certainly won’t be suffering from any “lens envy” that others might feel with the smaller primes 😉

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