Saturday, December 29, 2012

Nikon 24mm f/2.8 AF-D Review: Just Another Classic 35mm Shot

"Raincouver"  earned its reputation this week, so for smiles I decided to revisit a sunny summer afternoon. This is a greatly expanded review of the Nikon 24mm f/2.8AF-D. Count the number of photographic "rules" being broken in this picture...

  • "Portrait" taken with wide angle lens
  • Subject not placed far enough away from busy background
  • Subject isn't in optimal focus.
  • "Burnt" highlights

Yet, this picture is still a favourite of mine...

It was shot with a Nikon 24mm AF, which on a D7000 and other DX cameras, is equivalent to the classic 35mm street photographer focal length favoured by Leicaphiles. If we had framed tighter on our bargain hunter, we would have lost vibrant atmosphere of the rummage sale around her. There's a reason why cameras like the Sony RX1, Fuji X100 and Leica X2 are still made today... 35mm equivalent is a versatile shoot-all day focal length. On a sunny afternoon like this, I didn't miss having a normal zoom one bit... this was quite liberating, as it cut down the temptation to over-think composition. With so much hustle and bustle, there's no real call for close ups, you'd be missing the forest for the trees. If you don't believe me that 35mm full frame equivalent is still a useful focal length in the digital era, think back to all of those matchbox compact cameras that Canon and Sony sold a few years ago. Most of them had lenses that went from 35-105mm, and I'll be a majority of the shots them with them were never zoomed out.

Between the D and non-D version, the Nikon 24mm f/2.8 lenses are essentially the same. These are old lenses which lack the edge to edge detail of the modern 24mm G-version, but they are fairly contrasty in the center. In other words, this lens still has good center rendition (detail and how the detail is produced) despite not matching the MTF numbers of a modern lens. The lens is sharpest around f/5.6 to f/8, as with most of the old AF-D primes. If you are careful about out of frame light sources, chromatic aberration can be tamed, even though it is a bit on the high side. It's a bit of a tug-of-war with this lens, as vignetting is high at f/2.8, but chromatic aberration increases as you stop down. If you use it as a walk-around street photographer's lens, then the corners won't matter as much.

Yes, the background is busy... there's some added Gaussian blurring going on just to tame that. You could also play around with adding vignetting to further add to the isolation, but I chose to go a bit on the high-key instead, as her shirt and hair are dark against the brighter background. Cropping options are limited by the fellow in the white shirt walking toward us from the background. There is no way to crop 'down' without removing his head, nor would we want to, as we would lose the sense of depth that the converging lines of tables give us.

As far as rummage sales go, these lenses still command strong prices among the the old AF-D lenses, and usually have higher asking prices than the 50mm AF-D f/1.4 and 35 mm AF-D f/2.8, but less than than 20mm f/2.8 AF-D. The 24mm primes also command respectable resale prices and have steady demand, so reselling one isn't that hard to do. Asking prices can be as high as $300, but you really shouldn't pay more than $280 for a good copy. As with most Nikon screw-drive lenses, there is not a lot to go wrong, though older copies might focus more noisily because of wear in the gear train. I'm of the opinion that we'll see the old AF-D lenses outlast some of the AF-S by simple virtue of the reduced mechanical complexity.

This a good lens to hold on to if you are playing on moving between DX and FX, and that trope is definitely alive again with the addition of the D600 to the Nikon lineup. It's genuinely useful on both formats, even if there are better alternatives. On DX, this lens would be competing against the multiple normal zoom options on the market, like the 17-50 lenses from Tamron and Sigma (the Nikon 17-55 is too expensive to count in the same territory). Compared to those lenses at 24mm, the image quality could be said to be less sharp, but I think it's best to describe the scene rendition as "different" rather than "inferior". Compared to a modern lens with aspherical elements, the old primes with all-spherical glass elements tend to produce softer transitions between in-focus and out-of focus regions; modern glass can produce a very sharp in-focus region, but with a more abrupt transition. However, for FX, the alternatives aren't cheap: most new lenses that cover this focal length tend to be expensive, though the cheapest is probably the 24-85VR. Comparing that to this lens, the 24 AF-D is still not as sharp as the zoom at f/4, but has less barrel distortion, and of course, can open up further to f/2.8. Ultimately, your experience with the 24 AF-D lens will depend quite a bit on whether or not you intend to use it on FX or DX. On a crop-frame camera, the corners aren't as noticeable; on a full frame camera, you are really getting this lens because of the small size and lack of expense compared to the alternative, not because of it's performance relative to modern alternatives.

All in all, this picture was a happy accident. I was just snapping a picture of the crowd for the crowd when she looked back, and what becomes a mundane "I was there shot" now becomes a story told through a rummage sale shopper's smile.

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