For those who, like me, have moved from DX to FX via D800, and are looking for great FX lenses, and ways to maximize the capabilities of the D800, I will recommend strong consideration for the Nikkor 135mm F2-D DC (Defocus Control) AF lens. For those who know already, forgive the redundant long review, but after just a single day of use on a job, I am now a disciple.
This lens is over 20 years old from a core design perspective, but when paired with the new Nikon D800, the results are spectacular. I received the lens yesterday, in time for a studio-based product shoot. Under controlled conditions, when you need to deliver razor sharp images and control everything that's in the full frame picture, this lens gives you unrivaled options and amazing images. In just one shoot, this expensive lens produced a return on investment and gave me confidence that it will be a long-term value, rivaling anything else in my kit.
I am taking it out for field/event type work this weekend, but here are my favorite first-impression features for studio-based shoots (many of these attributes will of course be valuable in the field, too)
- Focal length: The first telephoto I ever bought was a 135mm, in 1978, for a Pentax ME. In the era of DSLR and 10x zoom lenses, 135mm is somewhat overlooked... I love this focal length, and have forgotten how useful it is right out of the box. Portraits, product shots, and collapsing the background are all core benefits of this Prime lens. It's certainly no Macro, with a close focusing distance of just under 4 feet, but to my eye, it presents an excellent compositional framework, particularly to bring a viewer into the setting. Picture a nice bottle of wine placed between two glasses, under candle light. This focal length can render the subtleties and beauty of that scene in a compelling manner, without being macro-close for unnecessary detail, and still allowing other elements in the scene to provide context.
- Lens quality and form factor: It's a weighty, dense lens. Black, crinkly, metal. Exceptional build. Certainly no compact, it feels great mounted on FX, seems like a natural fit for the mass of the D800. No tripod collar provided or needed. The left hand under the barrel happens naturally, and allows you to focus easily when not using AF, support the lens, and compose. The metal threads for the 72mm filter mount provide a very close coupling with a B&W UV filter.
- 5 Rings: Like driving a really good stick shift, this old pro design Nikon D AF offers lots of manual control, and all the components operate in satisfying, responsive manner. The M-A Ring button would be at your left thumb when holding left-hand under the barrel, so you can press and turn for manual or AF as you like. And for those times when you prefer manual focus, the focus ring is exceptional under manual control, with perfect damping, and a wide latitude for precision, which you will need with all the other features of this lens (great for live-view critical focus checking). There are two aperture control rings, the traditional F2-F16 ring close to the body has the orange tab to set at F16 to allow for fully automatic Shutter, Program or Aperture priority shooting. The Defocus ring is at the front. More on that below. And even the lens hood has a machined quality -- turn and lock into place.
- Image quality: the color, dynamic range, saturation, and overall quality of photos rendered by this glass is superb. Bokeh is exactly as you would hope and imagine -- creamy and beautiful.
- Sharpness: pinpoint sharpness at 100-200-300% on screen for clarity of output on products, lettering, logos, etc. Corner to corner, edge to edge sharpness. Sharp from F2 to F11, and an incredibly wide sweet spot between 4.5 and F9. Use max resolution 36MP D800 with mirror-up, delayed shutter release, tripod mounted, etc. All those sharpness factors that come with the D800, and this lens will not run out of resolution. Virtually perfect clarity.
- Control: You have the quality built in to this lens to deliver amazing images at F8 without much effort. That's expected. But you also have the versatility of it at 4.5, 2.8, and 2.0, with delivered benefits of lower ISO settings, lower noise, shallower depth of field, faster shutter speeds if needed. And above F8 if you need to slow things down even more, you can still be assured of exceptional balance between sharpness and depth control. And the Defocus ring allows you to precisely contour blurred images, wherever they fall. In the studio, this puts you in touch with placement and detail across the entire frame. You can use images in background or foreground as much for color or texture effects, placing them just so, and still count on the sharpness and shallow depth of field from the lens to focus on your subject. You can use the DC setting to add a touch more clarity to the immediate foreground while maintaining background Bokeh, and play around with various combinations to satisfy the most demanding applications and sets. It's like being able to read a double-breaking putt on a fast, contoured green, strike it with perfect speed, watch it navigate its course, and drop in. Extremely satisfying when everything falls into place. And you can probably master this lens much easier than putting!
Things to bear in mind when using this exceptional lens:
- Working Depth of Field is extremely shallow. Can't emphasize this enough. At F2, from a distance of 4 feet, do you know how much actual depth of field you have? Just over a quarter of an inch! When you stop down to F8, you gain exactly one inch, for 1-5/16". This is a sliver, and the margin of error is tiny. It means precise focusing, zero movement, and perfect alignment. Even the curvature of a bottle will render curved label lettering out of focus at this range. At a subject distance of 8 feet, your DOF range is 1.75 inches at F2, to 6 inches at F8. Keep this in mind as you plan your shoot. Focus on the nose and you might miss the eyes. Did I say that working DOF is very shallow? it is! Nikon was helpful to offer a DOF table on P53 of the instruction guide. I derived and wrote down the working DOF values on the page to remind me how thinly sliced the prosciutto can be below F8!
- Defocus Control changes the focus distance of the lens to the subject. So you need to be disciplined in using this feature. Set your main Aperture first, then the DC ring as desired, then refocus the camera thru the viewfinder or Live View. You will see the distance indicator measuring a different subject distance. A setting at F5.6, with subject distance of 2 Meters, for instance, has a variation between 1.7 and 2.4 Meters when adjusting the DC from null to 5.6 in either Foreground or Background extremes. So it is critical to maintain discipline, and why DC is a welcome feature for controlled environments.
- This is not a Macro lens. As mentioned, the close focusing distance is about 1.1M, just under 4 feet. You may have a tendency to push up against this because the images are so exceptionally crisp, clear and bright. But this lens is not for small products or objects. It is for close-ups of larger items in context with an environment, great for head shots in a beautiful setting. I can use a Macro lens to fill a frame with a wine label, for instance. This lens cannot do that. It will deliver the bottle from base to just below the neck. Of course, with the sharpness and resolution, you can always crop...
- This is not a 300mm telephoto. On DX, which I will try this weekend, it should prove to be a fine 200mm F2 lens, so there is a useful reach and speed with this focal length, but it's not a substitute for a long tele for wildlife. Perhaps with a teleconverter? 400mm F4 on DX... hmmmm! May have to rethink this one.
- This is not a kit zoom lens for kids and pets on a Saturday in the back yard. The multiple settings create choices, and can require upfront planning for maximum results. For event work, I will simplify, set to AF, use a consistent Aperture and fire away. The AF speed is fast (not as fast as a silent wave) and precise, with occasional hunting. So it may yet prove to be adequate in the field. But in the studio, the various settings offer many ways to handle a shot. Personally, I prefer thinking critically about the shot before taking it rather than sitting in Post figuring out how to adjust it.
- This is not a cheap plastic G lens. Nor is it a weather-sealed lens. At $1300 new, this is a precision tool, purpose-built to last a professional throughout an entire career provided they take care of it. One you will be happy to use every time the occasion calls for it. Curiously, Nikon does not ship it with a case. Unexpected at this price. But old Jaguar E-types don't have airbags. Get a case. And put a clean, new high quality filter on it moment it arrives. If you do sell it down the line, chances are you will recover a substantial part of your investment... maybe 75%?
- This lens has no VR. Well, so? We landed on the moon without using Google Maps or iPhone GPS. That said, the size and mass will allow you to hand-hold shots in low light at 1/100, 1/60, even 1/30 on occasion. On a monopod, the original VR setting, this will be a great match.
Bottom line, this is an exceptional lens, very satisfying to use and delivers amazing results. You get out what you put in, and in today's disposable world, it's good to know that some 20+ year old designs are still highly useful. You may find yourself pulling out this lens anyway, because it can produce images of stunning quality, and perhaps because you will find it a joy to work with. That it will be a 200/F2 on DX, and should be a beast for 1080p Video is icing on the cake. A special lens, I wish I had bought it sooner!