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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

My Perfect Lens? Maybe Not Yours

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Back long ago, when zoom lenses were a novelty and their optics a joke, I relied totally on the "normal" 50mm lens that came with my old Nikon F – the first "real" camera that I ever owned.

It was a 50mm Nikkor f.2 – a fast lens 40 years ago and a fast lens today. Why? Because at 50mm the lens was, as the name implies, normal. It merely had to approximate the "normal" range of vision of the human eye – and not, for example, have to keep things aligned and sharp at an extremely wide angle.

Sharp. Fast. Normal.

I used the lens happily for about 20 years, never owning another. Then in 1980 I met Judy, whose repertoire of cameras and lenses was impressive: a Nikon F2 with at least three lenses – not to mention a Hasselblad 500C/M.

Is it any wonder I was smitten?

I recall the first time I met her being enthralled by her smile and easy laugh. She, however, recalls the evening as one in which I grilled her about camera gear.

In the more than 20 years that Judy and I have been shooting professionally, we have gone through any number of lenses. It's not that we wear them out; just that lenses themselves have changed and improved so much over the years that we tend to upgrade to a new "money lens" every few years or so.

But first, a little perspective. Arguably the biggest improvement in lenses over the past 30 years has been the ability of zooms to hold their own with fixed focal length gear in terms of sharpness. Pros used to scoff at zooms, regarding them as little more than novelties for amateurs. Not now though. For example, for what seems like decades the standard piece for the news shooter has been Nikon's legendary 80-200mm f2.8 zoom – or its Canon counterpart.

Right now, though, I'm in a bit of a quandary. The lens on which I currently rely for most 35mm event, portraiture and wedding work is an AF Nikkor 28-105 f3.5-4.5 zoom. It's so good that I recently bought a second one, for Judy to have on her own Nikon F-100. I have been very impressed with the lens' sharpness and comparative speed, despite its variable maximum aperture.

In addition, the 28-105 very nicely expands my visual horizons, replacing the assorted 35-70 and 28-70 lenses that I had used in the past.

It used to be that the variable maximum aperture was a problem, especially when using flash – as Judy and I almost always do for our commercial work. With our specially modified Vivitar 283 flash units (customized with a bare-bulb Lumedyne head, and powered by a high-voltage battery pack) our general working aperture is f.5.6 in the Vivitar's Red Mode. But zoom all the way out in manual mode with a variable aperture lens, and the lens' light-gathering power would diminish a full stop to f.8. In the old days, unless you manually opened up the lens to compensate, the zoom pix very likely would be underexposed.

But cameras like the F-100, as well as any number of other modern SLR's feature "command dial" adjustment of aperture and shutter speed with thumb and forefinger. This means the lens must be set permanently at its smallest aperture (say f.22) so that it can be electronically opened with a flick of the aperture command dial in manual mode, or automatically in any of the other exposure modes. More importantly, this arrangement also assures that a selected aperture will be maintained electronically as a variable zoom lens is fully extended.

Problem solved.

Of course, there would be no problem at all if I simply used a zoom lens with a fixed maximum aperture of, say f. 4 or f.2.8. But, like Nikon's legendary 80-200 f.2.8, these lenses tend to be far heavier, not to mention far more expensive, in order to support that fast glass. And, since so much of our commercial work is with flash and not by available light, we really don't need to shoot as wide open as a news, sports or nature shooter might, faced with dim or changing available light conditions.

So the quandary I face with the 28-105mm is not over its speed. I just wish it were a little wider so I would not have to switch to my fixed 24mm f.2.8 whenever I had to do big group shots, for example.

Enter the new AF Nikkor 24-120mm f.3.5-5.6 – possibly my new money lens.

I say "possibly" because the f. 5.6 end of the aperture may turn out to be a little too slow for me. I just won't know until I have used it for a few months. I will say that initial tests indicate the lens is plenty sharp. It certainly is compact enough – at 24mm the boxy little lens is maybe 3" long. And I love the fact that, at the last wedding we shot, I barely changed lenses. [Note: The change from a maximum wide angle of 28mm to 24mm is more significant that it may sound. To be sure, it makes a big difference to me when I am shooting weddings and have to shoehorn a 17 person wedding party, or a huge family group, into my frame.]

It's no accident that the 28-120 is now gaining a reputation as a first rate all-purpose lens.

List price on this lens is $699, with street price likely to be significantly less. But either way it's an investment.

For digitals shooters, the lens has an added advantage – a tad more wide-angle room and a nice jump at the telephoto end. Since nearly all digital cameras today that take multiple lenses do not have image sensors capable of covering the traditional 35mm frame, a shot made with the same lens will look different on a film camera than on a digital one. That is: the digital image will not be as wide because the coverage area is less. Conversely, at maximum telephoto your subject will appear closer than with a film camera. (N.B.: new generation digitals, like the Canon EOS-1DS and Kodak DCS14n, actually will cover the entire 35mm frame.)

A medium range telephoto (whether the 28-105 or the 24-120) obviously suits Judy and me for our work. But if I were a sports or nature shooter? Fuggeddabahdit.

The point is that different preferences in photography inevitably lead to different preferences in glass. In his new and profusely illustrated book, "The Art of Bird Photography," (Watson-Guptill, $24.95) nature shooter Arthur Morris says flatly that, hands down, his favorite lens is a Canon EF 400mm f5.6L. At a fraction of the size of the f.2.8 version of the same lens, he says, "[the lens is] so light and easy to use that anyone can begin making good flight shots with it the first time they pick it up."

Just don't try shooting a wedding with it.

Morris – whose bird imagery is stunning, not to mention sharp as a tack – has found his favorite in a lens that combines a long reach with sharpness and portability.

For other types of shooting – my documentary work in Maine, for example, or Venice – my medium range telephotos are fine on my SLR Nikon. But when I want to be an unobtrusive photo fly on the wall, the last thing I want is a camera that sports an ominously long lens barrel, never mind the loud SLR mirror bang and a whirring motordrive.

That's when my favorite rig most often is a quiet-as-a-whisper Leica M6 with a fixed 35mm medium wide f.2 Summicron.

The irony is that of all the gear I've mentioned here, the Leica is easily the most expensive, yet it also is the most unprepossessing. With its small size, black body and tiny lens, people sometimes mistake the camera for a point-and-shoot and me for just another tourist.

Which as far as I'm concerned is just fine.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Frank Van Riper

Two Nikon F-100s with two great lenses. My current money lens is on the left – an AF Nikkor 28-105mm f.3.5-4.5 zoom. Its possible heir apparent is Nikon's stubby little 24-120. Not as fast as the former, its maximum aperture is only f5.6. But it does do a number of jobs well at events and weddings.

(From Morris' excellent, just-published book, "The Art of Bird Photography.")

Renowned nature photographer Arthur Morris handholding his favorite lens, a Canon EF 400mm f5.6L. Though not as fast as its humongous (and pricey) 400mm f.2.8 counterpart, Morris says the lens' performance is "unsurpassed" for the kind of photography he loves. And that, in a nutshell, is what should make any lens a favorite.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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