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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Why my 30 year old lens is better than the new version.


Panoramic stitch created using an old 24mm f2.8 Ais Nikkor lens

Technically this post should really be entitled: “Why my 30 year old manual focus, slightly scratched and potentially fungused lens is better than the brand new nano-coated silent wave focusing, wide aperture version”, but it seemed a bit wordy even if strictly accurate. This isn’t to say that I am not a complete gear-head continuously trawling the internet for reviews, comparisons and even MTF charts. I meet new students with their shiny new cameras and lenses with the excitement of a kid in a toy shop (remember the admonition, “look don’t touch”). I drool over the latest gadgets and weigh up whether my perceived ‘needs’ can match my meagre bank account. The reality though is: is this new kit really better - in a fundamental sense - than the gear that I already own? Nope. My lens is better! Here’s why…

The inspiration for this article came with the announcement from Canon that they are developing a 120mp camera alongside a production video camera capable of capturing 8K footage (for video neophytes, 8K refers to the long side edge of a video frame; 8K means a long edge of 8000 pixels while True HD or 2K refers to a long edge of just under 2000 pixels, and the newly touted 4K has a 4000 pixel long edge). Along with Canon’s announcement was their comment that only a certain percentage of their current 94 lens lineup would be compatible with the new camera if it ever comes to fruition as a saleable product.As is the norm it would seem, internet hysteria sets in as every Canon user suddenly screams, "my lenses aren't good enough"!

When the Nikon D800 was first released there was a sudden realisation among photographers that lenses that they held near and dear suddenly looked decidedly average if not completely soft when used on the 36mp Full Frame sensor. Even lenses with a serious pedigree such as the 70-200mm f2.8 mk2 were suddenly placed under the microscope of public opinion and found a touch wanting. The recent announcement of the new 50mp Canon 5Ds and Sony A7rii have only served to intensify this issue of sensors that are effectively so good that they highlight the flaws in our lenses.   The still-in-development 120mp Canon camera is going to be that much better at pointing out how inadequate our lenses really are.

Shot using my second oldest lens, a 50mm f1.8 Ais Nikkor.

So how can I possibly make the ludicrous claim that the 30 year old manual focus lenses that I use are better than the brand spanking new nano-coated AFS present-day equivalents? Simple; I don’t own the latest and greatest but I do own and use their ancestors. To argue the point that lenses are only as good as the person who wields them; are several images of mine that have been selected in competitions and for publications. One such favourite of mine is a Nikon AF 20mm f2.8D lens.  The front element shows tell-tale micro-cross-hatching from abuse and the exterior is far from even moderate condition. Judges don’t care. I’m fairly sure they couldn’t tell that the image was shot on a lens that is considered not quite as good as the current 20mm f1.8 or even the older 14-24mm AFS or 16-35mm AFS zoom lenses. 

Created with a D800 and a AF Nikkor 20mm f2.8.
Then I look at some of the images that I have shot that have earned an income through Getty Images or that have sold as fine art prints. Several have been shot on old manual focus lenses, because at the time that was what I could afford. The thing is, creating these images was made possible by those ‘inadequate’ lenses. Had I opted to wait to afford a better lens, those images would never have been made. What you have now is infinitely better than any lens, regardless of how optically perfect it may be, that you don’t actually physically possess. A lens in the hand is worth two in the bush. 


I absolutely agree that there are lenses that perform better than the crop of optics that I use. My 400mm f3.5 EDIF in particular is far from a perfect lens. Far off subjects are very definitely not as sharp as they should be and years of living at the coast in sub-tropical Durban has left the the insidious imprint that is fungus. However, with careful focusing, a good support and knowing the limitations of the lens (as well as having the internal optics cleaned every few years) have allowed for some really good images to be created. Similarly, the second oldest lens in my bag is an old, somewhat hazy, 50mm f1.8 Ais lens. I periodically have to take the lens apart to clean the dust that manages to worm it’s way into the internal workings of the lens (very obviously pre weather-sealing days).

Captured on a D700 with an old 75-150mm f3,5 E lens. This lens has terrible vignetting, but when you use it carefully can produce beautiful results.
Just because the lens is no longer considered the epitome of lens design does not mean that it no longer works as a lens. Try and remember the reasons why you loved the lens before throwing it into Ebay and forking out yet more cash for it’s newer rival. If you can afford the newer lens, absolutely go for it. For the aspiring professional though, or somebody trying to start down the rabbit hole that is photography while on a budget, the less spent on gear, the more that goes into creating the images (travel does not come cheap and quite frankly the money spent on a model and studio rental is probably better than if it had gone toward a new lens, especially if it is just a newer version of what is already in the bag). So don’t give up on your old glass. There are some good reasons for not only hanging onto it, but for actively shooting with it.

Captured on a D3x with a 50mm f1.8 Ais lens loaned to me by Joe Cornish as I had left mine in the lodge. The 30 year old lens still holds up well although if I am truly critical there could be better acuity on the leaves when I pixel-peep at 100%. An A2 print though looks as sharp as a knife when it comes to acuity and resolution.

Reasons for keeping the old lens:

  • You own it already (why spend more money when you could be out shooting right now)
  • Old lenses tend to be small (My hiking kit incorporates a set of 20, 24, 35 and 50mm lens, altogether weighing a touch more than my 24-120 f4, a D800 with a small set of primes is actually a fairly manageable size for hiking)
  • Nothing beats an old manual focus lens if you are into video or time-lapse (both video and time-lapse are better served with a lens with an independent mechanical aperture control)
  • Small old primes usually have smaller front elements, meaning that you can buy smaller cheaper filters than those required for a large front element on a modern zoom lens or wide aperture prime lens (a full Lee 100mm filter step can cost in the region of US$1000 while the smaller ‘P’ series 84mm filters will literally cost less than half of this).
  • Older lenses tend to be built like tanks. They may be heavy but they were made to last. The old Nikkor 200-400mm f4 manual focus zoom lens still commands a used price that is not dissimilar to the used price on the newer AFS version.
  • In some cases the old lens is arguably optically better than the newer version. A good case in point is the older AF Nikon 105mm f2.8 macro lens which some photographers consider sharper than the new AFS version. Do your homework!
  • Fairly obviously the older version, be it manual or autofocus, is definitely going to be cheaper than the new (which means… reread point 1).
Shot on a D3x with a 400mm f3,5 EDIF Ais lens. The distance to the leopard meant that I was using the lens' sweet spot in terms of sharpness.

My current reasons for replacing a lens or buying a new one:


  • It is broken and irreparable and I actually have to replace it (my new copy of the 16-35mm was a replacement for a lens that was irreparably smashed on coastal rocks).
  • I will use this new lens often enough to justify the price (anything over US$500 needs to be used on an average of a weekly basis over the course of three years to justify the cost). My 24-120mm lens is a good example as it was bought new and is my de-facto work lens.
  • It gives me something I actually genuinely need or would improve my chances of creating a particular image and it is impossible for me to rent a copy (my 12mm f2 lens for the Fujifilm system which currently has no rentable option available in South Africa, plus it was actually less than $500). 
Also shot with the 75-150mm f3,5 E on a D700. This time I used the terrible vignette of this lens on purpose. The vignetting that is very obviously evident in this image comes entirely from the lens....and I like it. To me it borders the image perfectly and draws attention to the latches and locks, which was not only the point of the image but also of the text in the book that this was shot for.

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