Pic:  Macro shot of focus markings on my newly-acquired Nikkor 135mm f3.5 lens. (C) Chris Ferguson
Pic: Macro shot of focus markings on my newly-acquired Nikkor 135mm f3.5 lens. (C) Chris Ferguson

So it was my birthday, and I’d been given some beer-vouchers for the privilege.  Thing is, I can drink beer pretty much anytime I want, so I decided to put the cash towards something a little more useful.

BACKGROUND

For a long time now I’ve been feeling somewhat limited in my photographic tools.  Not that I want to fall into the all-too-common trap of letting the tools define my work, but from a very functional perspective I was feeling that the Sigma 28-300mm zoom lens I’d carried from my first Nikon SLR kit to be somewhat lacking in some areas.

Sure, the Sigma takes more than reasonable pictures, but it’s a slow lens when used anything longer than 28mm, I’m not entirely enamoured with its colour handling.  The biggest problem I have with it however is that it’s a real pain to focus manually; the focus ring doesn’t need to be turned very far to get from closest to furthest distance settings, making precision a thing that is guessed at rather than measured.  Oh, all of that, and the damn thing changes focal length or focal distance when I’m adjusting the other parameter.

The other area of photography that interested me a lot when I had a compact camera capable of such shots, is macro (close-up) work.  It’s amazing what detail there is to be found in all manner of everyday objects, people, flora and fauna.  Looking in more detail at these not only gives fascinating images, but an even more fascinating insight into the designer of said subjects – the same truth applies whether we consider said designer to be God or Man.

FROM ZOOM LENSES TO PRIME LENSES

A couple of years ago I bought my first prime lens – a fixed 50mm model that with its reasonably wide-open aperture of f1.8, it gathers enough light to use indoors at reasonable ISO’s and shutter speeds, without flash.  This lens was a revelation.  Not only did it open up a world of new photographic opportunities, its overall quality (and the quality of the shots it produces) is far above the standard kit lens that came with the D40.  The only downside?  Manual focus only, as it lacks a built-in focus motor.  No big deal for me, since I’ve come to prefer manual focus anyway.

Just before Christmas last year I found an elderly Vivitar 28mm lens, mentioned elsewhere on this site.  Again, the clarity and sharpness of the lens far exceeded either of the zoom lenses in my kit, and allowed for indoor shooting without flash.

Both prime lenses feature stiff, half-turn (or more) focus rings that allow far greater precision than either of the zoom lenses.  I would guess that this explains why the prime lenses have given much sharper shots than their zooming counterparts.

THE MISSING LINK

I can do wide work with the 28mm lens, and the majority of my work with the 50mm lens – but all too often I was having to swap out to the Sigma lens (and deal with all of its shortcomings) because I needed a bit more “reach”, or to make portraits that looked slightly more natural.  In the end, I would avoid any portrait shots as I didn’t want to take such terrible pictures of the subject!

I also worked out that all too often I really needed a zoom range somewhere in the middle of the Sigma’s range, but would end up setting it to the full 300mm not only because I could, but also because the lens tends to slip away from where I want it if I’m taking a photo at anything other than purely horizontal perspective.  Aim high or low and the lens wanders.  Terrible.  So what I needed was:  A lens in the 100-150mm range, with an appreciably wider aperture than the Sigma, and with better control over focussing – like the other two prime lenses.

I did some research during a much-needed day off work, mostly by looking at Pixel Peeper and Flickr.  Both these sites allow the user to search for specific lenses, and will show images registered as having been taken with them.  This allowed easy comparison of various options from Nikon, Sigma, Panagor and Hanimex.  I eventually saw that pictures taken by the Nikon lens were sharper than most others, and seemed to have a more pleasing tonal/colour quality than the others.  That said, the Nikon lenses were more expensive and the others did tend to give better contrast.

So I wound up looking around the Internet for used camera stores in London stocking the Nikon 135mm f3.5 lens, and found plenty of examples for around £50-£100 depending on age and condition.  At the same time, I also was looking for a reversing ring, which would allow the mounting of my existing 50mm lens backwards onto the camera body.  This allows the lens to work as a macro lens, focussing on subjects around 6-9 inches away from the lens.

PURCHASE

The research basically led me to look at two stores, one in London and one in Croydon.  The London store, Grays of Westminster, looked to be the “gold standard” of used camera-gear stores and had a very good range of lenses in store.  I sent them an email one morning and they hadn’t got back to me by the end of that day, so I looked elsewhere.  This latter search led me to Mr Cad in Croydon.

Eventually Sarah and I took a trip to Mr Cad, and found a veritable Aladdin’s Cave as our reward.  This store is about 10mins walk away from West Croydon rail station, and run by a guy whom I can only describe as a friendly mad professor.  He’s been in the business for years, specialises in old film-based photographic gear, and clearly knows more than his fair share of the business and the practise.  On the advice of his assistant, Mike, I was able to try four lenses.  Two of these were Nikon-made (one “Q” version, the other was “QC” which was newer and deployed technically better optical coatings than the older “Q” lens), and the other two came from Panagor and Hanimex.  It was clear in the end that the Nikon lenses were better, and that with my gear, in that store on that day, I was unable to tell the difference between the “Q” and the more expensive “QC” lens.  I decided to buy the cheaper lens, as well as a reversing ring found on a nearby shelf to scratch the “macro” itch.

The lens I purchased looks from research to have been made sometime in the 1960’s, and has a lovely weighting, turning a range of around 300 degrees to focus between 4.5 feet and infinity.

PROVING

Okay, so the only thing to prove was that “I’m right” – in that having done the research, the results of the products themselves matches the promise of what I found elsewhere.  Well as it happened we were blessed with a day of wonderful weather – sunny, but with some occasional cloud cover and a very light haze in the distance.  The results of the 135mm testing are here.  I also managed to get some macro shots in when I could persuade myself to let go of the 135mm for a few moments – results of *that* testing are here.

I’m very happy with the purchases, and am very much looking forward to further getting to know the new lens!