Lens review: Nikon 35mm F2 FX

Good (afternoon / morning / evening) dear reader !

Today a review of the nikon 35mm F2 FX, and my reasons why to choose this one over the Nikon 35mm F1.8 DX.

This is a $350 prime lens aiming at users who want a very versatile lens, for landscape, life /street scenes and portrait. This is the typical focal length for photojournalism with a prime, along with 50mm.
This is an FX lens, ideal for your D700 or D3 Nikon bodies.

1/ Why not 50mm instead?
50mm is a little less versatile : for streets and landscapes, it is a tad too long. If you are looking at portraits in low light with still some flexibility, the 50mm F1.4 will be a better match. For travel, this 35mm is better, especially on an FX body.
Also remember that on a DX camera (explanations here for DX/ FX formats) a 50mm is actually a 75mm. So not good a general purpose lens at all. Most DSLRs are DX, so once again the 35mm is a better call (it would be a 53mm on a DX).

2/ The lens itself
Long story short, this lens is great value for the money. Built quality is what you'd expect from Nikon. Plastic and metal, smooth focus ring, a tier 1 built quality regarding this reasonable price tag.
Unlike the F1.8 DX version, this one has no built in AF motor : so entry level DSLRs won't have AF with that lens (A D40 for example, or D60). However I would not recommend an entry level DSLR anyway: you're better off buying a used one, mid range. Therefore it should not be a problem.
It takes 52mm filters. It's a rather light and small lens for those willing to travel light.

3/ Performance
Resolution is excellent even wide open (with softer corners at F2 but that's pretty normal). Chromatic aberrations are very moderate. This is one of the only 2 lenses I use with my nikon gear: the second on is the 85mm F1.8, fantastic for portraits. 
It will outperform any zoom lens when it comes to resolution and sharpness (prime lenses are optimized for one focal length). It is perfectly usable at F2 when the cheaper 50mmF1.8 needs to be stopped at 2.8, under which it gets fairly soft. 
Photography is a hobby that costs a lot, but in the middle, you got some products that have an amazing value for the money : multi purpose, small & light, affordable and great image quality. This 35mm is a "can't go wrong" lens, and I'm about to say a must have since nothing else, for that type of photography, will get you any better results on a Nikon, and the few that are close to it cost $1200 and above.

4/ Why not the Nikon 35mm F1.8 DX ???
This is also a good lens, but only made to work on entry level DSLR (i.e it has an AF motor). The F1.8 instead of F2 is a trick, it is just not has good and needs to be stopped at 2.2 at least to stay in the high performance area. 
It is expectable if you consider the price difference : nearly 2 times cheaper with built in motor...optics good be as good but it's unlikely.
Finally, it would not work on an FX. Ok, I know, most of us can't afford an FX camera body, but keep this in mind : buy a good lens and you'll keep it forever. Camera bodies...you will change them, upgrade. The day you can afford an FX (or all cameras become FX), it would be too bad having to also change that 35mm lens.

However, if you're on a budget constraint, the F1.8 DX version it a great choice, and will beat any kit lens (that usually are crap anyway).

5/ Picture samples:
Click on it for full size version, most of them are scanned negatives !!! So you'd have much better resolution on a DSLR.

On a Nikon D80, cropped. Iso 100, F8, 1/160s. 

On a nikon F5 (film), neopan acros, F3.5.

On a nikon F5 (film), Portra VC400, F2.8

On a nikon F5 (film), Tri-X 400, F...damnit can't remember, F2 or F2.8.

On a nikon F5 (film), neopan acros. 

On a nikon F5.

The cost of shooting film.

So you want to shoot film too? Hooray! Good choice but it feels like a lot to buy. You are wondering how much shooting film will cost compared to digital? You are not sure what to take into consideration, the real price of bits and pieces etc ? Well this post's for you.

You can now get this baby for $300.

Well I've been spending plenty of my money on it so I now have a clear idea of how much shooting film costs (donation gratefully accepted). I will compare it to a digital SLR type of budget. Here it is:
  1. The camera body: 
    • DSLR, from $800 to $30 000 for the best (D7000 is at $1200, Nikon D3X& Leica M9 at $7000 for the best 35mm digital camera, and $30k for medium format digital). 
    • A great film 35mm will go from $100 (Nikon FE) to $300 (Nikon F5 = a film D3X) used, and up to $1000 for a used Leica M6. A top of the range, digital killer medium format film camera like a Pentax 67II, a Mamiya 7 or RZ, will cost you from $500 to $1000 used (you can still spend $5K on those babies brand new if you have too much money)
    • YOU SAVE FROM $700 TO $29 000
  2. The lenses:
    • If you have a DSLR from a brand that used to do cameras, no extra cost, find a good film camera from the same brand. I hope for you it's a Nikon DSLR...lot of cheap and great film cameras out there ! (check Adorama, B&H)
    • If you start from scratch, you will look at normal DSLR prices for 35mm lenses, high prices for rangefinder lenses (Contax G2 and Leica are your 2 best choices, lenses can cost from $500 to $2000), and here comes the great stuff: ridiculously LOW prices for medium format cameras. Ok it sounds too nice to be true but a 110mm 2.8 for a mamiya RZ costs $300 used....I mean this beast outperforms any fancy Nikon, Canon, Leica 35mm lenses. Get it with a medium format camera, and you have the best performing system possible for $1000 all included, minus of course the convenience of digital.
  3. Buying film:
    • From $3 to $8 a roll (depending on color, ISO, format: check this link for details on formats)
  4. Developing film:
    • Negatives only will cost you about the same price as the film, it's a bit cheaper in medium format since you got less pictures (about $5 in average per roll)
    • Getting prints to will be more expensive, 36 5x7' images can cost you $12. But if you shoot film, you want to scan negatives instead, not get it printed, so you need...
  5. ...a film scanner:
    • You have dedicated film scanner (machines meant to scan negatives only, not flatbed scanning, the normal ones). There use to be great ones at prohibitive prices, but with no ones buying them they are not produced anymore, so most actual ones are used or 35mm only. Prices vary a lot, a couple of hundreds is quite a maximum price. 
    • You can use a flatbed scanner built for photography. Most people use the Epson ones, or Canons. I would recommend the Epson V700: it performs great, as good as the V750. It's a bit pricey ($450) but you can compensate with the low cost of the photographic gear.
I'll be totally honest: I don't develop myself, I have no time and room for that. But the equipement to do it all, dev. + paper etc is about just as much as the camera + the scanner... get it done. 
The loss of control from not developing yourself, you can get it back when scanning the negs so to be honest, you can do without it for a start.

So let's summarize: 

A DSLR + lens + memory cards= from $1500 to $3000 

A great film camera + lens + scanner = from $350 to $1500 (from great 35mm to top level medium format)

You save from $1150 to $1500, which allows you to buy and develop... about 150 rolls of film :)

Why less pixels can be better.

Aaaah melted snow freezing during the night...I dedicate this one to everyone who'll break a leg today in Dublin :)

Anyway, today's post is to mention a trick when picking a digital camera: if you care about ISO noise (you want less), avoid sensor with too many megapixels. But why?

In order to shoot in low light, you increase the ISO number on your camera. On film cameras, it used to be the ASA number of the film, i.e. the amount of light sensitive chemicals put on the film. On a digital camera, photons don't hit a film, they hit a pixel sensor. If they deliver the sufficient amount of energy, it triggers that pixel to send a message to the camera "hey, I received a blue photon, I'm a blue pixel!"

In order to make higher ISO, we just tell the pixel to trigger a signal even when receiving very little photons. And there comes the noise: at high ISO, the sensing pixel is asked to be very "trigger happy", and sometimes sends a message even though it did not receive the corresponding photon. Therefore you have digital noise : a blue, red or green pixel where there shouldn't be.

Digital noise at ISO 52000 on a D3S.

Now look at those 2 schematics to understand why less pixels can mean less noise too:

Given that most sensors are the same size, if you have less pixels, the surface per pixel is larger, allowing the pixel to receive more photons and therefore, be less likely to make a mistake.

So this is how you should make your final choice:
  • if you care about max printing size go for more pixels
  • if you care about low light photography, go for less pixels.
This is why Nikon's top range cameras consists of the D3X and the D3S: same cameras, one for low light junkies, the other one for printing junkies :)

Would I recommend a compact /DSLR that his performing well in higher ISO? Yes indeed!
  • Canon's S90 and S95 have a larger sensor than most compact and limit themselves to 10MP (trust me, you will never print something that requires 10MP if you own a compact).
  • On the DSLR side: Nikon rules the high ISO world/ D7000 and D700 perform the best, and then of course the D3S...if you can afford it.
  • Finally in the world of rangefinder yet unaffordable cameras, the Leica M9 is exceptional in the high ISOs.


Today Dublin was covered in snow...pictures soon. I was doing some long exposure night shots when my hand held meter ran out of batteries, damnit. I'll go again tomorrow night if we still have snow.

By then, some old shots, from my digital area, and first nudes of the blog. (yeaah boobies)
All shot with an already vintage Nikon D80 and 50mm lens + SB600 flash.

Don't be fooled by marketing, learn how to pick the right camera system !

- well sir I have this Samsonysonic 7800 EX with triple varilux stabilizator !!!
- oh? and how many mega pixels does it have?

Buuuuuz ! (imagine the buz sound from the X-Factor)

Bob here is about to get pwned. In fact, Bob is a victim of a capitalistic society where product value is mostly perceived value created by marketing efforts. I even suspect that Bob bought an $650 Ipad, i.e. a screen that does nothing, not even reading flash sites, but Bob somehow got convinced it was revolutionary when really, it's a 10 years step back.

What Bob should buy himself his a great lens to start with, and those next lines will explain you why.

One could say that a civilization where the mass market is so brainwashed by misguiding information is on the edge of autodestruction, but there is worse : it is detrimental to the photographic consumer, and to photography in general !!! Bad kitty...baaad kitty.

So why is Bob about to get ripped off? Well in the past 10 years, camera manufacturers are competing for the fast growing, fast product renewing market of digital photography. And as usual, similar to the beta-collagen that make your skin "visibly younger in 3 weeks", those manufacturers use your ignorance to sell you features that are beyond useless.

So back to the megapixel question: in order to make you buy and buy again new cameras, they launch every year a new range that has 1 or 2 mega pixel extra. Now that they reach some sort of a limit, this is about full HD video recording, or super high ISO numbers, or zooms X5, X10, X20. Lately we even have the most retarded thing ever: the hybrid camera.
The hybrid has the price tag of a DSLR or a medium format camera, with the inconvenience of having to change lenses, but with crap lenses and useless features all over.

This is not a camera. Sorry

None of the thing mentioned above are in anyway related to what makes a good camera system. None, really. Explanations:
  • The number of pixels are just the size of the file. No more than that. A 5MP camera allows your to print easily A4 or A3. Who among casual shooters has ever printed even in A4? On a computer screen...well who has a screen with a resolution higher that 1200x1900 (less than 3MP). Image quality, sharpness, has nothing to do with megapixels whatsoever.
  • ISO: when they tell you the camera can go up to 12000 ISO, you should ask the following. "OK sure, show me a 12000 iso picture with that". Normally the vendor will tell you they have no batteries for demos, because he knows image would look soooo bad! Once again, appart from top of the range Nikon, most 2010 cameras start sucking beyond ISO 800 / 1000. You would be better off if they spend the money making the lenses great, but then you wouldn't need to buy an other camera...
  • Full HD video recording: ok, fair enough, for a touristic approach it's kinda cool. I admit.
  • X20 zooms ! Ok once again, what makes the quality of an image is, from an equipment point of view, the lens, the lens, the lens. Now knowing that a quality fix lens cost about $500, and a quality X3 zoom lens costs $1000 and above, what do you think will be the quality of your X20 zoom on a $400 compact camera?
  • Compare an image taken with a compact from 2002 to one from 2010: do you see a difference? no seriously do you? Once again, we knew 30 years ago how to make optics, no real progress made since then.

Now if you are beginner, not owning a DSLR or 35mm camera, and you are reading this to be informed but remain sceptical, answer a few other questions:

  • have you ever set up the way your camera meters to adapt it to what your shooting?
  • have you ever used a prime lens? ever? (a less with one focal length, no zoom)
  • do you even know what is the maximum aperture on the compact cameras you are looking at? and what that means?
  • have you ever seen an add or a salesman promoting any of those absolutely fundamental elements to you?

I bet not. Well Christmas is coming, you really want to invest in a good camera system, that will last, and you are trying to find your way among all those aggressive messages. Follow these advices:
  • Buy yourself a nice lens, Canon or Nikon, or Leica if you can, but a nice one. Put most of your budget there. If you really want to start proper photography, trust me: you will spend a lot of money in the next few years, improving your gear, trying to sell the first crap gear you got. Don't waste your money, it's hard enough to earn, put a little extra in the lens. This is the one part of the system that makes the image. It will never age, in 20 years the same lens will still work on your Canon on Nikon from 2030. People still buy 35 yo lenses for up to 1500 dollars ! And get over it, photography is an expensive hobby.
  • Then buy a camera body, from the same brand obviously, all do good cameras. If you have spend it all in the lens, don't worry: buy a used camera body, you'll change it in 2 years anyway for one that is way better. But you'll have amazing image quality from the day you got that lens. Better ergonomics, faster bodies will keep coming, but your images will look good from day one :)

Everything else is bullshit.

This is the kind of thing you need to start with.

This is the kind of image it gets you on a 1978 $100 camera that has 1 feature: metering.

35mm, DX & FX, Medium and large formats...

Blogging at night (and watching American Dad...) makes me tired at work, so I'm using a coffee break to write this one :)

Today we discover what those terms means, 35mm, 135, 220 and 220 film, full frame, FX or DX digital cameras, medium & large format, etc.

This is tremendously important since the differences between all these are huge, and each format matches more a less a certain type of photography. Understanding format can be the key to picking the right equipement for you.

Let's simplify things first: imagine there is no digital yet. We would have "small" format, always called 35mm, medium and large format films.

  • 35mm camera use 35mm film also called 135 film. The frames are 24x36mm
  • Medium format camera use film called 120. The frame are about 60mm high, and width goes from 45mm to 90mm. That explain names such as "Pentax 67", or "Bronica 645". Depending on the width, it will us more or less film and you'll be able to take more or less shots on a roll of 120 film (from 8 shots in 6X9 to 15 shot in 6x4.5)
  • Large format is film or plates that are 4x5 inches and up. I won't develop large format since it remains very confidential and is not likely to capture your attention. Also I don't use it, and I'd rather not talk about something I don't know.
So we've seen that those formats correspond to different sizes of film. But what's with digital?
  • The vast majority of digital DSLRs are called DX cameras. Top or the range DSLRs are called FX or full frame (Nikon D700, D3, Canon 5DmkII).
  • A full frame FX has a digital sensor the size of 35mm film, 24x36mm.
  • DX camera has a smaller sensor, usually 30% smaller. It has one main consequence : it does not use all the image that the lens gets on. You end up with only the 70% center part of the image. If your lens is a 50mm, it's like you're zooming on the middle of your image with a 75mm. It's called crop factor.

See that shot? A full frame camera (FX) would give you the green frame, a DX camera body (Nikon D80, D90, D300, D7000 and Canon 550D, 7D, 450D, 50D, etc.) would only see the red frame, even though the all thing is "seen" by the lens.

FYI, medium format digital cameras exists, Hasseblad, Phase One, Mamiya but they cost an arm (15k and up).

Does format changes anything when it comes to image quality?
- Heeeeelll yeaaahhhh !!!!

It changes everything. Let's put is like this: 35mm is a horse, medium format is a car, large format is a plane. The best 35mm can't beat a standart medium format etc.
In other words, the bigger the format, the better. I mostly shoot medium format (MF) during photo shoots, and just acquired a portable MF system for travel because once you've tried it, you can't go back to only 35mm.

Also, lenses mounted on many MF camera destroy even the best Leica lenses...for as low as 250 bucks used on the internet...yes...I know...awesome.

This is one of the main reasons why many of us still shoot film: it kills the best DSLR in tones, details, file size (once scanned), color information in the file, etc.

However there are downsides to it:
  • MF camera are bulky, large format cameras are enormous. The bigger the better, but also the least convenient. I only know of one fully automated MF rangefinder: Fujica GA645. If you know of one, drop me a message !
  • MF camera often don't have AF or metering, so you have to measure light with a handheld meter or an other camera. No need to say it is only for those of you who organize photo shoots, or spend time shooting landscapes. If it's to point and shoot, forget it. However it will be greatly rewarding.
  • In order to expose manually, you need to know the zone system. I can only recommend this explanation from Luminous Landscape. It sounds like a pain, but if you read this blog you'll be into it :)
  • You can only shoot up to 15 images per roll, and film cost a bit, about $3 for a roll of BW, plus $3-5 for negative development only. Then you need to pay for scanning or get yourself a good negative scanner. I use an Epson V700 (review coming soon).

A 3 kilos Mamiya RZ67, a classic studio MF camera

So if you aim at getting few great pictures, weather it is portrait, and even more landscapes, get a MF camera. I'll right a post with recommendation and a complete overview of the market, since it's kinda hard to find exhaustive information on MF products.

What about digital? DX & FX? Well it does not really have an impact on picture quality. Both won't be as good as medium format film anyway, for a cost of gear far higher (disregarding the cost of film). The biggest difference is the crop factor : all your lenses will zoom x1.5 in DX, which can be annoying if you shoot wide angles.

Well now you know it all:
  • Casual shooters, stick to digital, DX or FX.
  • Landscape photographers, if you shoot digital shoot FX, but otherwise get an MF camera (Mamiya 7II, Pentax 67II or Fuji 680 are my choices for lanscapes, they all have exceptional lenses and built in metering)
  • Photographers aiming at subtile tones, large print, great color range, image definition, amazing bokeh, go MF film. And don't tell me it's expensive to buy film, because a mamiya RZ cost $ 800 used with a lens that is heaven sent (sharp as hell at f2.8 and amazing bokeh) ; so you can buy a lot of film with the price difference between this and a digital full frame.
  • You love film tones and BW but can't stand the hassle of MF, go 35mm film with a Contax G2 rangefinder (it's a leica 3 times cheaper, no kidding) or a Nikon F100, or FE. I'd go for the Contax, Zeiss lenses for the G series are amazing, but if you're tight on budget go Nikon.

Contax G2, a must have.

Product review, the Nikon FE.

The Nikon FE you said? Is it a new compact? How many mega pixels ? (One day I'll write an article to explain how stupid that question is).

Well no, the Nikon FE is a superb machine, extremely reliable, trustworthy, with amazing ergonomics, and it looks like that:

Isn't it beautiful? It also exists in black, one of my friend has one in black...I must say I nearly bought a second one for the look of it. Oh yeah it cost $ 100 on any famous photo gear site's used section.

-"Wow thanks Ronan, we really needed a 1978 camera review"
Well maybe you do actually, because unlike hundreds of compact digitals that cost 500 euros for features that are just as useful as a spare tire on a horse, this my friends is a camera.

It is a manual focus SLR with built in metering and aperture priority mode. It means you can set the aperture and it will shoot at the right speed automatically. And that's pretty much it. It's fantastic, because you can shoot without even thinking: point, focus, shoot. No need to go thru a 7 layers menu to find the right presets.
The meter appears to be center weighted (gotta check but it behaves like it, the Nikon FA has matrix metering) and you can lock the exposure with a button conveniently center on the side of the lens, falling under your right fingers. If you know the zone system well, you can expose perfectly with this little monster, it is a brilliant meter.

What else, the battery lasts forever (years...), it's built out of metal, and nicely, you won't have the battery clip duck taped after it fell from a chair, oh no.

Lenses? Well it takes everything Nikon has ever produce as far as I know, even the most recent. I use it with the 35f2 full frame and the 85f1.8.

I already explained why I shoot film, so I'll explain why I shoot the FE:
  • It is small, doesn't rely on batteries and if it gets stolen I can get an other one for 100 bucks. That makes it a great travel friend.
  • It meters brilliantly.
  • With the $100 50mm f1.8, it is the cheapest package for someone to start film photography (or simply photography with a taste for grain and black & white)
  • Wear it with a leather jacket and beige kakis, and I swear you'll feel like Indiana Jones.
  • It takes great pictures even if, has always, that highly depends on the lens.
  • Vintage look of color 35mm film
  • Beats digital B&W easy.
Weather you want to give film a serious but cheap try, or if you like to collect vintage but still great cameras, or...well just get one. Those are low rez scans, ask me if you want a large file to make up your mind.

Neopan 400, Budapest, 35mmF2.

Hilford HP5, Barcelona, 35mmF2.

Portra VC, NYC, 35mmF2.

Portrait "how-to" part 2: advanced composition, use of depth of field

Welcome back ! Last time we saw how to set up your camera in order to expose correctly for portrait, and introduced some basic rules for composition.
Today we'll simply see some example pictures, and explain why those are interesting. This is in no way exhaustive, or properly academic; my point is to trigger your creativity, by having you noticing different techniques and ideas that have been used by other photographers. Then you're on your own, just go out and shoot to find your way.
We'll conclude by a little "how to" on depth of field", really basic.

  • Different types of composition & framing.

Photo by Maree

If your model is looking straight ahead, you can center the subject, but make sure the eyes are high up in the first third of the picture. Don't hesitate to cut the top of the head, it gets the viewer closer to the face, the eyes, and creates proximity. Having the eyes in the middle and empty space on top of it, unless the subject looks up, can look cheap.

Photo by Tanel Varek.

If you shoot a full body portrait, and even if it feel like your shooting it centered, the rule of thirds apply. Look at how the horizon on the top third line, and how, overal, space around the subject is split in thirds. For a very academic portrait like this one, it guarantees the adequate balance. Also notice, in line with part 1, that exposure was done on the model, not the entire image. If the sky was correctly exposed, i.e we could see the details, clouds etc, the model would be too dark.

Photo by Dave Tata.

Here the photographer cares mostly about the scene, rather than the face, hence taking a little distance but yet cropping the legs. Once again the rule of thirds, and free space where needed, face is top right, looking down left.
Finally an important part of that picture: the light. It was necessary here to capture it in order to restore the mood of the actual scene. By using techniques explained in part 1, i.e. spot metering, the photographer was able to maintain a correct exposure on the face, and get that halo of light, even though shooting against the sun. So yes you can shoot against the sun, just meter on the subject.

It's important, when you see a scene you want to capture, to think about what part of the scene makes it interesting. If it's someone's reaction to a situation, you might want that situation to somehow appear too, it it's an intense facial trait, you'll want to be has close has possible to remove any disturbing element. Try to remove everything that is not necessary to tell your story, all useless subject will be distracting. If your framing does not seem to work, move, turn around the subject, don't be lazy :)

Photo by me.

Look at this on as an illustration. On that photo the baby's eyes are top right corner (rule of...ok ok I said it enough), leaving room from his mum on the foreground. We can see her back and she's blurry, which allows the viewer to understand enough yet have room to imagine. The rest is blur since it is not relevant. Keep reading for the blur part.
Position yourself in line with the 2 subjects, don't think "I have to step back to get the entire scene". Again, baby's head is cropped, because we don't need it all on the image.

  • Using depth of field.
I explained in my lens guide what DOF is about. It is of the highest interest for portraits as it allows you to extract your subject from it's environment. See for yourselves (also consider the baby above):

Photo by me, 85mmF1.8.

Photo by me 110mmf2.8 (medium format)

How to minimize DOF (i.e. subject sharp, everything else very blurry)? It's fairly simple:
- maximizer the aperture (low "f" numbers, below f2.8 and down to f1.4 to get such results)
- Increase the distance from your subject
- Use a long enough focal length (from 85mm and up it gets really good)

Long story short, set your camera to aperture mode, fix the aperture under f2.8 if your lens allows it (once again, the importance of buying the right lenses can't be highlighted enough).
Speed will adjust automatically, usually it'll be very high so you can shoot fast moving subjects.
Pay attention to one thing though: since the focus is going to be on very narrow depth, if you are focusing on the wrong area, you might totally miss the shot, by having for example the nose sharp and the eyes blurry !

All of it being said, keep a last thing in mind : fuck the rules. Look at other photographers' work for inspiration (check those links), painters, and try for yourself. Use the rules in a vicious way, do the exact opposite, there are no rules, it is art. Just keep those in mind since, appart from rare cases of pure talent, you often need to start with rules to deconstruct them with creativity.

Now stop reading this blog and go shoot !