Praise for Primes: 35mm f/2.0

Shot wide open, the 35mm f/2.0 lens turns Christmas lights in the background into smooth, pleasant circles. This was handheld (one hand!) at 1/160 of a second.

For these last few days of 2011, I’m going to indulge my gear lust and write about images made with my four prime lenses (35mm f/2.0, 50mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8, and 105mm f/2.8). 

On Boxing Day I attended a scotch tasting and brought a camera to help me remember what I drank.  Okay, okay, I took notes to remember what I drank, and brought a camera to protect me from socializing.

To travel light, I brought the D7000 with my 35mm f/2.0 lens; a very compact package. If you read online reviews, this particular D-series lens is the Rodney Dangerfield of Nikon primes, as it gets no respect. It’s not the sharpest, not the least distorted, not the best bokeh, not this and not that. But what is it?

With the camera on "drunk mode" (Programmed exposure, auto-ISO, auto-area AF), all I had to do was point and shoot to get images like this. See how the background highlights turn into circles, but the highlights on the bottle retain definition.

Falling prey to the suggestion of critics, I tended to think of it as my least favorite lens, but a funny thing happened when I reviewed the images from the scotch tasting: I really liked them. I was so surprised, particularly at the bokeh I had criticized in an earlier post, that I did a search for images made with this lens and found quite a few of my favorites from the last few years.

I used this image in a previous post to criticize the lens's bokeh, but what we're really seeing here is my over-sharpening, plus the effect of the lens being stopped down to f/4. Down in the lower right background highlights you can see the shape of the lens aperture. Technically a wide-angle lens, the 35 produces considerable depth-of-field even at f/4.

Here is the situation I actually had in mind when I bought this lens: A photo of two people in a low-light environment. In this case, Buddy and Tree are watching Barack Obama's inauguration at our local bar, The Village Jester. Normally I would focus on the foreground person, but here I take advantage of narrow depth-of-field to soften Tree while capturing Buddy's rugged good looks in sharp relief. This is how Hollywood has been photographing men and women differently since the beginning of the age of movie stars.

In addition to choice of aperture, camera-to-subject and subject-to-background distances affect bokeh. We want narrow depth-of-field and good bokeh to better isolate our subject. Here you can still see the shape of the aperture with the lens set at f/2.8. Personally, I find the background distracting and consider this image a failure. Had I shot wide open at f/2.0, this would have a completely different look (see first image at top).

The recent revelation for me was this lens' utility for stage performance, since I've gotten bolder about approaching the stage. In this case, the lens offers adequate depth-of-field even when shot wide open, because I am about twenty feet away from the subject. Subject isolation here is achieved through lighting more than narrow depth-of-field.

Here I am close to the subject, but he is far from the fellow in the background, who is smoothly out of focus.

Likewise here: Her energy and motion is captured in sharp detail, while he is in softer focus but still clearly recognizable. She is the subject; he is context. Nothin' personal; just an artistic choice made possible with the right tools.

Regular readers know that I recently rediscovered this image. I was stunned to learn I had shot it with the 35, because I didn't remember having the lens on this trip. This shows that even at f/5.6 the lens offers considerable depth-of-field. Nice color, contrast, and detail, too.

Another advantage of prime lenses in general is that they change the way you see a scene, and force you to move around and reframe things by zooming with your feet. This often leads to compositions us lazy people would not discover with a zoom lens.

Next time, we’ll revisit a prime lens I’ve written about often and at length: the Nikon 50mm f/1.8. (After all, what has it done for me lately?)

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Filed under Camera Gear, Camera Settings, Composition, Low Light

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