Wednesday, November 16, 2011

My favorite focal length & lenses.

My all time favorite lenses are 24mm f1.4, 50mm f1.8 & 85mm f1.4. After many years of trying & buying different lenses, namely from 14mm super wide to 200mm tele lenses. I found myself keep going back to these 3 lenses the most. Be it for assignments or leisures, these 3 lenses are always my first choice. So, years ago I decided to sell off all the lenses that are under utilized namely 16mm fisheye, macro lens, tilt-shift lens & 70-200mm f2.8 tele lens.

The lenses I sold off are all top rated lenses that are capable of creating beautiful images. Just that it will be such a waste if I keep all of them but always leave them in the dry box. Might as well sell them off to fund something that I would utilize the most.

Does cameras & lenses matters in photography? Some say no, but for me is yes. It matters! Does huge aperture matters? To me, yes. It matters! Does full frame matters? Yes, it does. Of course there is a catch here, all these matters only if you already know how to utilize the camera & lenses. Gears won't make you a better photographer, but top rated gears do produce better result if it fall into a right hand. People with sour grape syndrome has to face the fact that photographers who buy f1.2 lenses are not all after 'gimmicks'. It matters to me that I cover a wedding assignment with D700 & all f1.4 lenses possible. Come on, let's face it. Can you cover a wedding with Nikon J1 with 10-100mm f4.5-6.3?

Wide angle: Nikon 24mm f1.4G
8 years ago when I first pick up photography, an experience photographer once told me that the most difficult focal length to master is wide angle. Now, I can fully agreed with this photographer friend's statement. If you want to know whether a photographer's level of experience in photography, try look at his/her wide angle shots.

But why a Nikon 24mm f1.4G? Why not 24mm f2.8? Many friends keep asking me this question. Let me explain. First of all, if you can afford a 24mm f1.4 & you often shoot during low light environment & you are 90% of a portrait photographer, then 24mm f1.4 is a better choice compare to 24mm f2.8. Like wise, if you are a landscape & street shooter, then forget about 24mm f1.4. Cause you may often stop down the aperture & using tripod in low lights anyway.

For me, the top reason for acquiring a 24mm f1.4 is, creating environmental portrait with shallow DOF. My expectations is simple for a 24mm f1.4. First, it need not to be the sharpest 24mm, but preferably sharp enough wide open at f1.4. Second, reliable & accurate focus with the camera autofocus system. I'm very satisfy with the performance of Nikon 24mm f1.4G on D700 platform. Before Nikon announcing the availability of their 24mm f1.4, I was using Canon 5D II & 24mm f1.4L II. But the Canon set up is a let down on their focus accuracy. So I bought Nikon 24mm f1.4G soon after it is available.

Nikon 24mm f1.4G fullfil all my need of acquiring a wide angle 24mm. It performs superb on my wedding assignment which portraits shots are plenty & reception low light shots are made easy. Leisure time, it was such a pleasure using it on available light portrait photography with my kid.

Normal angle: Leica Noctilux 50mm f1 & Nikon 50mm f1.8G
50mm lens to me is a must have lens & I can never do without it. I love 50mm the most among these 3 lenses. 50mm focal length has always been labelled as closest to human eye perspective. I love shooting environmental portrait using this lens. 50mm focal length is so famous that most camera brands have 2-3 various versions of their own 50mm like f1.8, f1.4 & f1.2. I love 50mm lens so much that once I own 7-8 units of unit from Canon, Nikon & Leica. Now I only have 2 50mm which is Leica Noctilux f1 & Nikon 50mm f1.8G.

I often tell my friends I love my Noctilux but I hate the over priced Leica M9. I'm into Leica platform cause it is the only platform(with full frame sensor) which I can use my Noctilux with. Do I need a Noctilux? No. Will I get bored with it? Most probably. But since I'm blessed to have own one, I'll use it with it's full potential & I'll sell it if one day I grew bored with it.

Is Noctilux f1 superior in low light? Not really great but acceptable result, cause M9 doesn't perform great in low light. Is it sharp wide open at f1? No, a bit soft but sharp enough for my liking. Then why Noctilux? What I like Noctilux the most is it's character. Noctilux's character is one in the world that no other fast 50mm can mimic. Not even the new Noctilux f0.95. The way Noctilux f1 render the image is very distinctive. It's character is so strong that it can over power the character or style of the photographer using it. Don't be surprise with people comment you photos such as "Wow! Your Noctilux shots are excellent!", instead of "Wow! Your shots are excellent!". Noctilux can sort of steal the credit from the photographer's efforts in creating an excellent photo. What are the characters of Noctilux? First and foremost, it's shallow DOF & swirly bokeh (although some hates it) that I love. Second, the way is render lights. And lastly, it's a fast 50mm f1.0 in 35mm full frame format, but it can almost match the shallow DOF of a medium format(or any medium format be it Hasslelblad or Phase One) Leica S2 with 70mm f2.5. The last reason can justify the price of a Noctilux. I'm crazy over superfast lenses & pursuing bokehlicious result. But I won't consider medium format S2, Hasselblad or Phase One due to their exuberant price. Medium format is capable of capturing shallow DOF & amazing details with it's large pixels sensor. The closest equivalent of Noctilux medium format lens is 70mm with maximum f2.5(Medium format lens doesn't have aperture go as large as f1). Technically f2.5 is not as fast as f1.0, but interms of resolutions, details & sharpness, medium format wins hand down. Shallow DOF wise, M9 with Noctilux wins with aperture f1.0. The pocketable size of M9 & Noctilux made the combinations a winner compared to the hugemongous size of a medium format. Imagine this 2 photographers acquiring camera & lens that create shallow DOF. One photographer spent RM120k++ on the huge Leica S2 with a 70mm f2.5 & another spend RM43k on a M9 with Noctilux. The result of both set up is caparable. Noctilux is not as expensive anymore cause it can be seen as a "poorman's" Leica S2, Hasselblad or Phase One.

(Let me say it again. Please don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that M9 with Noctilux is better quality compared to medium format S2, H4D or PhaseOne. In terms of resolutions, sharpness & details, medium format alway will have the upper hand. But if you are looking for shallow DOF or great bokeh. Noctilux can match the medium format in creating bokehlicious result.)

I find that Noctilux is not a suitable lens to use for my wedding assignments which very often require fast movement. So, the Nikon 50mm f1.8G on D700 is my choice of set up. Nikon new 50mm f1.8G is a very sharp lens. It is of modern design, so it has less character to talk about. It is very sharp in the middle & corner even at f1.8. The lens is contrasty, color is vibrant, CA is at minimum & bokeh is great for a f1.8 lens. Nikon 50mm f1.8G is a value lens consider the price is relatively cheap. I highly recommend this Nikon 50mm f1.8G over the f1.4 due to it's price, performance & value.

Short-tele angle: Nikon 85mm f1.4 AFD
85mm is the least used lens during my leisure time. I find myself using this focal length more for my wedding assignments. If I wasn't doing photography for living, I can do without 85mm. I mainly use this lens outdoor. It is too tight to use indoor for my liking.

This lens has earn the reputation of creating creamy bokeh. 85mm bokeh is different from 50mm bokeh. 85mm is tighter and is used in different application compared to 50mm. So stop comparing 50mm & 85mm. If financially allows you to get a 85mm f1.4, get both 50mm & 85mm. It is a must have lens in the bag of every serious portrait photographer. It is sharp wide open. CA is present.

I have experience with Canon 85mm f1.2L II too. I used it on 5D II. I was wow by it image quality but disappointed by it's focus accuracy. A new Canon 85L is around RM8000, with this kind of money & budget, I went with a Nikon D700(RM6000) & an used Nikon 85mm f1.4AFD(RM2800). Which I feel that I'm happier with the Nikon purchase.

So, there you have it. My favorite focal length & lenses. Due to the reason I know that I often shoot portrait, low light, available light, wedding photojournalistic & some street photography, these 3 lenses is going to be with me for a long time. My choices of acquiring new lenses or new camera are dictated by these 3 focal length. Maybe I will get a superwide in future for landscape & wedding, but I won't go as far as considering a macro lens, or a fisheye or a 70-200mm tele lens.

For every new photographers or even some experience photographers, I know you may be confused by the abundant choices of photography gears. Hours of reading online reviews & reading lens chart reviews is not going to help. Be it Canon, Nikon or Sony. DSLR or mirrorless system. Zoom lens or fix focal lens. Spend a little time to know what you shoot & love the most. If 80% of your shots are portraits, then get both 50mm & 85mm prime. If your cover event for living, then gat a zoom 24-70mm f2.8 lens. If you are into landscape, then get a great if not decent superwide Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 lens. Sport photography lovers, please get the 70-200mm f2.8 lens. In a nutshell, let your subject of photography dictate the way you choose your lenses set up & camera system. Don't choose a camera body or camera format & let the lenses being dictated by the camera. For example, if you know you are serious into portraits photography. Go get a 50mm f1.8 & 85mm f1.8 on a D700 full frame platform. Don't get a micro 4/3 and try to mimic full frame result. Don't get me wrong. Micro 4/3 & mirrorless system have great lens line, just don't get them for the wrong reasons.

Let me give you an example, I had a friend who have potential in portrait photography without himself realizing it. He bought a Canon 7D for RM4500. He bought a Canon 10-22mm f3.5-4.5 for RM2900 which he seldom use. He uses 50mm f1.8(RM420) the most for his portrait shots. Tele lens he uses 70-200mm f2.8 IS RM5500) which he often complaint about it's weight. All the gears & lenses set him back for RM13k. Nothing wrong with that. This amount is average what a photographer normally invest. If someone is happy with this kind of set up I usually will remain silent so everyone is happy. This is not the case for this friend of mine. He keep telling me how much he would love to get a 5D II but his budget won't allow. Tired of his lament, I told him sell everything (keep 50mm f1.8) to fund 5D II(RM7000), Canon 28mm f1.8(RM1800), & Canon 85mm f1.8(RM1400). All have cost him RM10,200. He was so happy with these 3 tiny lenses that he uses equally & his only complaint was what took him so long to take the plunge into full frame. Has my friend improve his photography after the upgrade? No. But he is more focus now on his subject of photography & he uses all his lenses instead of leaving few in the dry box.

Although photography is not about gears. But we do spend lot of time & money to acquire them. Hope to share my view so everyone who read it may not have to make the same wrong purchase I make before. Happy shooting.

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