Dec 30, 2009

Review: Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G

Maybe you just got a Nikon D90 or D5000 for Christmas. Sure, the kit lenses are fine (especially the 18-105 VR), but the whole point of a dSLR is that you're not stuck with one lens. And you've probably noticed that trying to take indoor shots in natural light (no flash) with the kit lens, even at high ISO, is nigh on impossible. Enter the Nikon 35mm f/1.8. At $200 this is one the finest, cheapest lenses you can buy. Indoor shots, especially portraits, have a richly saturated look. Subject isolation is easy at f/1.8 and the bokeh is quite pleasing. Although 35mm (~50mm effective FX focal length) is a little short for a traditional portrait lens, this will one will get the job done if you're just starting out. The 35mm is a lot more versatile than the 50mm f/1.8 for shooting indoors unless you want extreme close ups. The lens is a compact, lightweight alternative to the kit lens and is handy for times when you want to bring your camera along without a lot of fuss.

Be aware that there's a learning curve with this lens. At f/1.8, depth of field is extremely narrow, so there's no room for focus error. And if you're trying to shoot more than one person, stop down to f/2.8 or else you probably won't get the sharpness you're after. Although f/1.8 is a big step up from f/3.5, this lens still won't see in the dark. There are some cases where you really just need a tripod and a longer exposure than you can handhold. If you're used to shooting with a zoom, it takes a little while to get comfortable with a prime. But it's easy to take a step forward or backward (or just crop in RAW). A fixed focal length forces you to think more carefully about composition, but it's also somewhat liberating in that you can just take the shot without having to worry about the zoom. Overall, the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 should be the first new lens you buy for your new dSLR.

Dec 29, 2009

Buying a camera lens on Craigslist

Once you get out of the consumer zooms, Nikon charges a mint for its lenses, especially the fast glass with f/2.8. Even if a lens isn't designated for the pros can still retail above $1,000. Fortunately, there's some good deals to be had on Craigslist, if you know what to look for and how to deal with sellers there. People get excited with a new camera and buy more lenses that they know what to do with. Eventually they realize that all the pieces of glass sitting in the closet are worth some real cash. Personally, I'd rather buy lenses of Craigslist than eBay, as you can get your hands on the merchandise before you commit the cash.

Finding Your Lens

Craiglook is a great resource for digging through Craigslist because it lets you expand your search beyond Craigslist's default search radius.


I'd rather get this out of the way by email or phone before meeting in person to avoid wasting everyone's time. Craigslist sellers tend to have an inflated view of what their lens is worth. While it's true that Nikon glass holds its value very well (especially compared to third-party manufacturers like Tamron, Sigma, and Tokina), it's still a used product that will sell for a substantial discount. Check eBay and KEH for pricing indications. The seller's price needs to be below comparable eBay transactions, because eBay/PayPal/shipping fees (which are paid by the seller) can easily amount to 10-20% of the sales price. Sometimes the seller doesn't know what they're selling, and has overestimated its value. For example, there are 5 versions of the Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 lens. The version made in 1988 is worth a lot less than the version that's currently being produced.


Find a neutral location - Starbucks works well - to meet. It's unlikely that someone's going to rob you, but since you're carrying a large wad of cash, why take the chance? I wouldn't meet at someone's house, nor would I want them coming to my house. There's just no reason to risk it.

Inspecting a Used Lens

  • Does the case have scratches or dents?
  • Are the zoom and focus rings smooth?
  • Check the autofocus and vibration reduction switches.
  • Check the front and rear glass elements for scratches.
  • Hold the lens up to the light and open the aperture, then look through it. Is there dust in the lens? Depending on the age of the lens, a little dust is ok. If you see lines or haze across the optics, sort of like a spiderweb, that may be mold or fungus, which is a serious problem. I'd avoid any lens with potential mold issues.
  • Check the aperture control with your hand - when you open the lens to full aperture, does it spring back to minimum aperture quickly?
  • Pop the lens on your camera and test it out. Does AF work? How about VR? Do you hear any strange noises from the AF or VR?

Keep in mind that if you ever plan to resell the lens, it'll be worth more with the original box and papers. The warranty papers are nice, but Nikon USA's warranty is non-transferable, so if you need repairs in the 5 year warranty period, you'll have to have the original buyer send it in. Also remember that non-US (gray market) lenses aren't accepted by Nikon for repairs if you ever need service, regardless of who owns the lens. Generally, the serial number on all US warranty lenses should start with "US" before the numbers.

Does it Work?

Yes - if you're patient. You have to do your homework on pricing and you'll probably have to walk away from several deals before you find one that works. For example, I was recently in the market for the Nikon 12-24 f/4 wide angle zoom. Amazon sells it new for $999 and used copies on eBay sell for $550-$600. I picked up a copy on Craigslist for $500, still in the box and didn't look like it had ever been used. If I ever decide to get rid of it, there's no question I can get my money back, so it's a low risk investment.

Dec 19, 2009

Review: Tamron AF 17-50mm f/2.8 SP XR Di II VC Zoom Lens for Nikon

I had five minutes to play with a sample of the new Tamron 17-50 lens at the camera store today. Here are my impressions based on test shots with my D90. The VC (vibration control) seems to work quite well, at least on par with Nikon's VR (vibration reduction). I was able to get sharp handheld shots down to 1/10th. I didn't try it at any slower shutter speeds but expect it would help out there as well. Autofocus is relatively quick, I can't say that it's as fast as my Nikon lenses but it certainly wasn't slow. The lighting in the store was ok, not great, but not extremely dark, so it's possible the lens would hunt more in adverse conditions. Build quality was decent, not on par with the Nikon 17-55 f/2.8 but certainly not flimsy. Lens felt well balanced on the camera smooth action in the zoom and focus rings. The big disappointment was image quality at f/2.8 - there was a lot of smearing of bright colors in high contrast areas. I've posted a couple of 100% crops below - check out the transitions between white and yellow to black to see the problem. These shots were taken at ISO 200, 50mm, 1/30th, VC on, RAW with no postprocessing, JPEGs exported from Capture NX 2 (full EXIF information is included). I didn't test anything other than f/2.8 because if you can't shoot wide open, why buy a fast lens in the first place? I expect that this problem diminishes as you stop down. Ultimately, I wouldn't recommend this lens based on image quality as observed below. At ~$650, it's less than half the price of the Nikon 17-55 but I still wouldn't call it cheap.

Dec 17, 2009

Review: Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR

This is the kit lens that comes with the Nikon D90, usually at a premium of about $200 over the stand alone camera body. Or you can buy it separately for about $350. If you're wondering whether to buy this lens as part of the kit - go for it. This lens is a bargain for only $200 and a great way to start out if you're new to dSLRs. Focal length range covers just wide enough to get the entire Thanksgiving table in the frame to enough zoom for close up shots outside. Shoot with this lens for a couple months and you'll have a sense of whether you want to invest in the wide (11-16, 12-24mm) or the tele (80-200, 70-300mm) for your next lens. VR is handy, provides a significant improvement for handheld shots at low shutter speeds. Admittedly, build quality could be better - I'm not a fan of the plastic lens mount. But it does keep the weight down. Autofocus is fast. Image quality overall is very good, photos are sharp across the frame with a little distortion at 18mm and slightly less detail along the corners, but you'd only notice this at 100% crop. I have noticed that outdoor shots in direct sunlight tend to be about half a stop overexposed, but this is easy to correct. In total, this lens is a great value and the low price doesn't reflect the high quality shots you can take with it. Highly recommended.

Dec 16, 2009

Review: Nikon D90 dSLR

After using this camera for the last few months, there's no doubt in my mind - the D90 is a great camera and a terrific entry to the world of dSLRs. Image quality is outstanding - 12MP gives you enough flexibility to do substantial cropping and still print or display at large size. The dynamic range provided by the sensor is a thousand times better than point and shoot cameras; it's almost like shooting with film. Finally, you don't have to choose between crushed blacks and blown out whites! The camera just feels right in your hand, with all the controls where you'd expect them to be. Well-balanced and solid, but not so heavy that it's a chore to bring with you. Low light performance is top notch. You can't see in the dark (yet) but results at ISO 1600 are definitely usable, maybe even ISO 3200 for prints below 8x10. The camera gives you a lot more latitude to work with natural light and avoid the stunned, washed out look of flash photography.

Downsides? Not many. Video is one feature that still needs some work - I wouldn't expect much from it. Trying to manual focus while shooting is an acquired skill that takes some practice. Plus, rapid panning results in the infamous "jelly motion" effect because the camera's sensor isn't designed for video. You could buy a $300 camcorder that would take better video and audio. Another feature that falls short is live view - shooting through the LCD. Yes, it works, but the autofocus is extremely slow compared to viewfinder focusing. Presumably you bought an SLR because you wanted a viewfinder, so don't let this hold you back.

Compared to the D5000? Yes, the D5k provides the same image quality and low light performance as the D90. And it's slightly cheaper. If you're not upgrading non-AF motor Nikon lenses, the D90's built in motor is of little value. But I found the D5000's flip LCD to be impractical given how slow live view focusing is, and if you compare the cameras side by side, the resolution of the D90's LCD is immediately apparent. Another more subtle difference is in the viewfinder. The D90 has a larger, brighter viewfinder which makes composing and checking focus much easier, especially in low light conditions. The D5000's 18-55mm kit lens is no match for the D90's 18-105mm VR Nikkor, which is easily worth the $200 premium for the camera bundle (as compared to buying the body without a lens).

Dec 15, 2009

Digital camera: upgrading from point and shoot to dSLR

I gave the latest point and shoot digital cameras (Canon S90 and Panasonic LX3) a shot but neither one could justify its $400-500 price. My next thought was the Panasonic GF1, a promising new entry in the micro four-thirds format. Despite being released a couple of months ago, Panasonic doesn't seem interested in actually shipping any GF1s to the US, as they are on backorder for at least a month from any legitimate retailer. What's the point of buying a new camera if it's not going to be delivered until after Thanksgiving and Christmas are over? Which left me with only one option: the Nikon D90 with 18-105mm lens.

After using the D90 for a couple of weeks, I can recommend the upgrade over a point and shoot without hesitation. However, it should be noted that a dSLR isn't just a P&S on steroids - it actually takes some thought to get great pictures out of a dSLR. Don't have to be a rocket scientist, but it helps if you understand the basics of exposure, focus, aperture, and shutter speed.