The Photographic Equipment used by Adam Butler
As I run photography courses I am regularly asked about what photographic equipment I use, or what my students should buy. Since I am a bit of a nerd regarding photographic equipment and techniques, I love to talk about this!
Therefore I have put up this page to answer a few questions about the lenses, cameras and additional photographic equipment I use.
I think most photographers spend far too much time reading about the latest lenses or new camera formats, or improvements in sensor technology, etc. The magazines are certainly full of articles on this. All of which is fine, but in the end the only thing that matters is the final, resulting images you make – ie. how you use what you have.
I have heard many (even purportedly professional) photographers say such ludicrous things such as “no professional these days uses Nikon, only Canon is acceptable”, or “the future is only in mirrorless cameras”. All of which is utter nonsense, and as ridiculous as imagining painters arguing about whether their work is superior because their brushes are made of badger rather than hog bristles. Such uninformed nonsense makes me slap my forehead!
All cameras and photographic equipment available now is excellent, and can create exceptional pictures. Almost all lenses currently available are very sharp, at least at normal print size reproductions. Most people only show their work digitally in any case, on websites, Instagram or Facebook or other social media sites, so who cares if you have a £50 or £5,000 camera or lens? Don’t be a nerd! Just get out and photograph and have fun! All you need is a good eye and imagination, all the rest pales into insignificance. Don’t think that expensive photographic equipment makes you a good photographer. It doesn’t….but having said that, there definitely is a difference between good and superb cameras and lenses.
Perhaps I have a little bit more stringent requirements to most amateurs, however, due to the sort of work I do or like doing, and how I go about doing it, so here is a little run down of the photographic equipment I use, and why.
I use Nikon cameras. I do not think they are any better than Canon or Sony or Olympus or Fuji or whatever (although I think most people will agree that the Nikon D810 and newer D850 cameras are unmatched amongst DSLRs in image quality, but whether they are better is another discussion, as other cameras might have very useful features that Nikons don’t have which might be more important for certain people or for certain uses. I just have always liked the look, design and feel of Nikon cameras, and this has always been important to me. My current Nikon, the D810, is quite simple and straight forward to use too; nothing is fiddly or awkward to set up, even in advanced or custom menu settings. Each year one of these manufacturers brings out a new body or improves their autofocus speed or shots per second a camera can shoot, and although I do read about some of this technological progress, and often lust for it, I try to remember always that it’s what you create that’s important, and at the moment I am totally happy with what my Nikon D810 helps me achieve. However, since I am on the topic, I’d love a future Nikon camera to have:-
i) Professional and robust built in Wifi connectivity (Snapbridge is not this).
ii) An ability to turn off the live view screen with miror lock up or whilst tethered.
iii) Built in GPS
Sadly the new D850 have not or only half heatedly attempted these 3 things….so for the moment I am not upgrading from my trusty D810.
DSLR vs. Medium Format
Although my Nikon model is now a few years old, it offers me exceptional image quality and has never caused me any issues. I know how to use it to get superb image quality. There are various medium format digital cameras systems such as Phase One or Hasselblad or others available, with astonishing technical capacity. But for the style of photography that I do, using the techniques I commonly use (panoramic stitching), and the lenses that I have (see below), the Nikon I have is all that I need, and I do regularly sell large format prints – often up to 2m wide or even larger, and the results are stunning even at this size.
I have also used Hasselblad cameras for much of my career, first film versions back from 1990 and then more recently a digital version for 10 years. But I honestly can now say that apart from some specific uses, DSLRs are all most most people need. At the moment I do not feel I need a larger format, nor do I think that the huge jump in cost is anywhere near being commensurate with their (modest?) increase of image quality. My Nikon is nimble, flexible, and offers fantastic quality, comes with a vast array of available lenses, and doesn’t have the fiddly primadonna handling of medium format cameras. Also, I use predominantly Zeiss lenses, which are at least as good as any lenses ever made, certainly as good as the lenses now available for Hasselblad digital camera bodies, thereby making up part of the shortfalls of the differences in sensor size. Read also the comments in the Zeiss Milvus 50mm review below.
My main area of photography is interiors and architectural, but I do happily use many of the same lenses (and photographic techniques) for my cityscape photographs, as well as for the landscape and Mediterranean scenes that I do.
My current collection of lenses and other photographic equipment
Adam photographing from Primrose Hill
Hasselblad & Nikon
Medium format and DSLR style cameras. The Haselblad camera has a sensor almost twice as large as the Nikon’s
I was extremely happy with my digital Hasselblad photographic equipment for many years, but now I feel that the large difference in price is no longer commensurate with the image quality gain over my Nikon, so I sold all my Hasselblad stuff and use exclusively now a Nikon camera with Zeiss and Nikon lenses.
Prime Lenses vs. Zoom Lenses
I started like most people with a SLR camera with a couple of zoom lenses. But I began to take photography seriously when I bought from an old architect friend called Stephan Buzas a classic square format Hasselblad 500C film camera. The lenses were prime – ie they were not zoom. I didn’t really mind this, and in fact it got me to think a bit more about what I was doing, and rather than zoom in and out whilst looking through the viewfinder, I was more careful with my position, seeing as the view of the camera was fixed. Some of my early black and white pictures from this camera I still rate as being amongst my very best!
Zooms are convenient, easy to use, and you don’t have to carry around multiple lenses. But all of this comes at a price – image quality and compositional laziness. With a prime lens on my camera, I am thinking about the viewpoint of that particular lens, and looking for subjects that fit in with this. With a zoom, my mind is a lot less focussed. I also like to shoot into the sun, with zoom lenses, their more complex design and greater number of glass elements means that in general they suffer more from flaring and ghosting (See the 80-200mm lens review below).
Also, I hate the bulk and length of zoom lenses. I much prefer the compact size and the discreetness of primes; they can be small and lightweight, and more often than not offer significantly better image quality, faster apertures, and less distortion than zooms. And for an architectural photographers, distortion is a major issue. One of the most popular lenses is the 24-70mm zoom, made and sold in vast quantities by Nikon, Canon, Sigma, etc. Although it does cover the most popular rages in which most people photograph, I would never own one – it is far too long, nowhere near sharp enough, distorts a lot and does not offer f1.4 or even f1.8 apertures. My cheap, light and small 24-85mm is probably as sharp and much better to use as a walkaround lens! For more critical use, I resort to my primes.
Not only do I prefer to use prime lenses, in fact I mostly prefer using manual focus lenses too. Of course auto focus is often very convenient, and essential for following people moving around (especially children!) or shooting sports. But I shoot mainly static subjects, and overwhelmingly in interiors /architectural shoots, I always focus manually in any case. And manually focussing a manual focus lens is infinitely better, easier and more precise, than manually focussing an autofocus lens. The focus throw – how much the lens barrel rotates as you focus it – is often an entire revolution or more of the lens barrel with good quality manual focus lenses. With autofocus lenses, it can often be barely be a quarter turn from closest focus to infinity, which makes it far too imprecise for critical focussing, and often the movement turns loose before locking in, making small, precise adjustments even more difficult.
Finally, prime lenses tend to suffer less from lens aberration issues, including focus shift, focus breathing, field curvature and geometrical distortions. Some of these can render a lens entirely useless in certain situations. More on this in respect to specific lenses below.
But the convenience of zoom lenses for many people might trump all other issues. If you need to constantly change lenses, then you might miss a critical shot when rummaging in your bag to look for a lens cap. Or if perhaps your search for image perfection might mean you don’t think as much about making interesting or engaging pictures. As the great American landscape photographer Ansel Adams said, “nothing is worse than a sharp rendition of a fuzzy concept”.
The lenses I use
These are summarized below. One day I will expand this into proper lens and other photographic equipment reviews!
For ultimate image quality, I use as much as possible Zeiss lenses. They are in my opinion better than almost any Nikon or Canon (or other) equivalent. They are built solidly, to last a lifetime. But they are heavy, expensive, and are all manual focus…therefore not for everyone! They are available for Nikon, Canon, and Sony cameras. I use mainly the Zeiss Milvus range of lenses, which are fabulous, but are a step below the extraordinarily good but extraordinarily expensive Zeiss Otus range. The Otus lenses are almost certainly the best lenses for any cameras ever made. Their quality even wide open is apparently beyond exceptional; but since my style and type of photography means I very rarely shoot wide open, I am happy with the Milvus range, whose quality approaches the Otus’s once stopped down a little.
With astrophotography, however, in which I am developing an increasing interest, using lenses wide open is an absolute must, and in such situations the Zeiss Otus lenses can make images that photographers and film makers could only dream of a few years ago.
Here is a list and brief review of the lenses and other photographic equipment I use.
Nikon 24-85mm zoom & Zeiss Milvus 50mm lenses
The zoom offers versatility but cannot match the image quality of the prime lens, and zoom lenses are often significantly longer – and extend out much more still when zoomed – than fixed focal length lenses.
Adam shooting architecture with a Hasselblad camera and tilt-shift lens
Being tethered to a laptop is often fundamental when photographing certain subjects – I now also use a wireless system called Camranger (see below).
15mm Zeiss Distagon f/2.8
An utterly wonderful lens. Amazingly sharp straight from f2.8, it produces incredible image quality even wide open right across from corner to corner, with just a little bit of inevitable stretching out of the picture plane towards the extremities. Coma is minimal, as is distortion, therefore this lens is superb for architectural photography as well as star photography. The newer Milvus version of this lens is externally different, but optically identical, with perhaps a slightly better coating. I see no need to upgrade however.
Zeiss Milvus 18mm f/2.8
My stock lens for wide angle shots in interiors or architectural work. It has wonderful bite and sharpness, with great micro-contrast (midtone contrast) although not quite as sharp as other Zeiss lenses in the extreme corners (still better than most other lenses of any manufacturer). The distortion is absolutely minimal.
I purchased this lens after using (and returning after the first shoot!) the Zeiss Milvus 21mm, which suffered from complex distortions, which was impossible to correct completely. The 21mm is a wonderful and amazingly sharp lens for landscapes, but completely unusable for interiors or architectural work.
Extreme wide view lenses – 18mm
This 18mm lens I use for when I need a wide view. The Zeiss Milvus 18mm lens is remarkable in its rectilinear perfection, without any fish-eye style barrel or complex distortions. Not only is it very sharp with great mid-tone contrast and bite, it has incredibly low distortion, which, as in this image here, I did not need to correct at all.
Nikon 19mm f/4 PC-E Tilt Shift lens
What an amazing lens this is. Without a doubt the best of the Nikon tilt shift lenses, and most likely of any DSLR camera. Both the tilt as well as the shift can be adjusted independently, unlike the other 3 Nikon PC-E lenses, so it has the same creative photography abilities as Canon tilt shift lenses have had some for time (finally, Nikon!). But this lens is extremely well made, and very sharp.
It is replacing my 24mm tilt-shift entirely as for sure it is capable of resolving far more detail. The one downside is that with its bulbous front element, you cannot use normal screw in filters as you can on the 77mm thread of the 24mm lens, but I have solved this issue by purchasing the Nisi S5 filter holder system for this very lens. Also, with a 1.4x TC I can increase the focal length to c. 26mm thereby replicating the field of view of the 24mm lens.
Nikon 24mm f/3.5 Tilt/Shift
One of my favourite lenses. Not because of the image quality, which although extremely sharp is not in the same league as the ultimate quality of the Zeiss optics, but because of the creative possibilities it offers.
I love using it whilst walking around cities to photograph buildings or their interiors, and sometimes to extend dramatically the field of focus.
But on a tripod shooting interiors or especially architecture it is an indispensable lens, with its extremely useful focal length, and its ability to avoid converging verticals. It has a few drawbacks however, including strangely distorted field curvature (less sharper on one side than in the other when shifted) and vignetting whilst shifted too, necessitating it to be stopped down to f11 for optimum image quality.
With the Nikon 1.4x TC III teleconverter, it makes this lens a very useful 35mm (approx) focal length tilt/shift lens too, without losing much image quality.
Tilt/shift lenses enable you to shoot tall buildings whilst maintaining the camera angle square, and therefore keeping the verticals parallel. With normal lenses you would have to point the camera up to the sky to capture the top, which would lead to the ugly converging verticals.
Nikon 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5
I use this lens very rarely, but I keep it as my “walkaround” lens when I can carry only one lens but want to have a few options. It is small and light, it has the useful VR (vibration technology), it’s an autofocus lens, and the image quality is pretty decent – I have certainly used it for large prints that I have sold.
But as most lenses of this focal length, including the even longer and much more expensive 24-70mm options from both Nikon and Canon, at its zoom extremities, the image quality and especially the distortions are pretty bad. The latter aspect annoys me no end, especially when taking pictures in which there are straight lines (ie anything other than landscapes or portraits), and therefore also using it for stitching together rotational panoramic views can be problematic.
However, it is an extremely useful lens (along with the 80-200 zoom) for shooting from a helicopter, as I’m lucky to have done recently over Panarea. A quick comparison will reveal that this consumer-grade Nikon zoom lens is not as sharp, and definitely has much more distortion, than other prime lenses that I use.
Zeiss Milvus 35mm f/2
Perhaps my favourite focal length for interiors photography. It captures a view which is spacious without being to wide, enabling the back of the room to be still connected to the furnishing or furniture or objects in the front, and without much foreshortening distortions. This lens is again superbly made of solid metal, and feels wonderful to handle, like all Zeiss lenses, especially the Milvus line. It is a very useful focal length for generic street or landscape photography too, not least because it is quite small and discreet (unlike the awful telescopic size of the 24-70mm Nikon or Canon equivalents) although I prefer the slightly narrower field of view of the 50mm for these candid shots. It is slightly soft with some a little visible chromatic aberration and vignetting wide open, but by f/2.8 all seems pristine. It has also some discernible barrel distortion, so it needs correcting for architectural use (leading to a little bit of loss of quality, and field of view). I haven’t used it for astrophotography yet, but this focal length and aperture appear to be ideal for stitched views of the starry night sky. Watch this space!
Nikon 45mm f/2.8 PC-E Tilt Shift lens
This is now fast becoming my favourite lens for interiors photography. It is wonderfully sharp, with even illumination from side to side at practically all apertures (thanks to its huge image circle). I love using tilt shift lenses more and more…and wish all my lenses had this facility!
Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4
A stunning lens. I love this focal length, and I love this lens, it is heavy and solid and sturdy but handles like a dream. Its quality is exceptional, and can barely be bettered – perhaps only by its bigger brother, the (extremely expensive) Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, and even then probably only at the widest open apertures. Even shot at f/1.4, the image quality is probably at least as good as any 50mm Nikon or Canon lens at their best, although there is visible vignetting, some softness towards the edges and the contrast is not as biting. By f/2.8-f/4 it is razor sharp right across from corner to corner. There is just a slight amount of discernible geometrical distortion (barrel), but easily corrected if shooting architecture. It has wonderfully soft “bokeh” or out of focus areas which are rendered like a creamy paste, and not like a jagged child’s scribble as with most other lenses.
I love this lens for generic shooting, including street or people photography, and I use it extensively for stitched cityscape and landscape views or panoramas. I have shot directly into the sun without any issues with this lens, quite amazingly. It is heavy, but handling it feels very balanced and solid in your hands, and the focussing is butter-smooth (like in fact all Milvus lenses). If I want to create shallow depth of field “Brenizer” style images of medium format (or better) quality, I simply take 2 or 3 or more slightly rotated images of a scene at wide apertures and stitch them together later in Lightroom or Photoshop, thereby creating a wide image with even shallower depth of field than medium format cameras could offer (no medium format camera offers lenses as wide as f/1.4).
In interiors or architectural photography, this lens is perfect for making lovely close up vignette views, or to bring into juxtaposition elements in larger rooms, or to emphasise space by utilising shallow depth of field. It is also very useful in architectural shots when you have some space to work with. I don’t think there are many better lenses of any format available.
Interiors photography with 50mm lens
Many prospective interiors photographers always raise their eyebrows when I tell them the 50mm lens is one of my favourite lenses to capture interiors. I generally hate wide shots in interiors (!!) and much prefer the creative possibilities that you have at your disposal when using longer focal lengths, such as this Zeiss 50mm lens, with which you can both bring into the shot the more distant background, and also separate elements of your composition by using shallower depth of field. It is also a great lens for capturing people within a setting.
Nikon 85mm f/1.8
This short telephoto lens has always been a favourite with me. I can visualize very well street views or generic scenes with this focal length, which can be great to pull your subject, compress the perspective a little, and to create patterns of architecture or other objects receding into the distance. You can also control the depth of field sufficiently to separate the elements of a composition.
It is a great focal length also for capturing portraits or people from a short distance away. Very useful also in interiors photography; I feel I don’t really need anything longer, and it’s perfect to produce architectural or design patterns in an interior, as well as for shallow depth of field shots.
It is also great for portraiture, or for full or half length studio portraiture. I have found it to produce supremely sharp and bitingly contrasty images. I have not encountered – so far – any focus shift issues (when the focus point moves when you close down the aperture) but I do not do much close up photography with this lens.
I think this Nikon 85mm f1.8, which is light and has also extremely fast autofocus, is great for generic photography, as it is discreet and easy to handle. More recently, it is establishing its place in my camera bag again as I am now not carrying around with me my 80-200mm zoom lens, after buying the Zeiss 135mm APO lens.
It is very a very, very sharp lens, and the bokeh is rendered pleasingly, although maybe not as smooth as the Milvus 50mm. Flaring and ghosting have never been much of a problem, and certainly far less so than with the 800-200mm zoom.
Nikon 85mm f/2.8 PC-E tilt shift lens
I now use this lens increasing for my stitched panoramas, as I can shift it up (thereby cutting outage foreground and gaining more sky without having to tilt the camera up) but it has now firmly established it’s place in my interiors and architectural camera bag.
Having done a series of test shots comparing it to my AF f1.8 Nikon 85mm lens, I have noticed that this takes a little bit longer to get as sharp – starting from around f5-5,6 – but it displays less chromatic aberrations at all apertures and is equally, if not more sharp as the fantastic f1,8, and is also more evenly sharp across the frame.
The only small drawback is that the focussing barrel is a bit stiff and not as smooth as my other Nikon PC-E lenses, making precise focus adjustments that little bit more difficult; perhaps this is just my copy of the lens. But apart from this it is a joy to use and a true legendary lens. I use it for stitched panoramas as mentioned above but also for shifted panoramas, when I shift the lens right and left (or up and down for a vertical panorama).
As far as I can tell, the bokeh is creamy smooth too, so far I have noticed at least as good as my other 85mm, if not nicer. This is just a quick review, more to come later, including images!
King’s Cross Station
I have used the Nikon 85mm f/1.8 often and extremely successfully for cityscapes and stitched panoramas. This f1.8 version is extremely light, and great value, much less expensive than its f/1.4 sibling, and it offers great image quality. I might well eventually be tempted to change it for the Zeiss Milvus version, which I hear is phenomenal, or perhaps even the Zeiss Otus, which is even better, albeit extraordinarily expensive.
Nikon 105mm f/4 Micro Ai-S
This is an old lens, so much so that I have to dial in its aperture in my Nikon D810 in order for the camera to be able to set electronically the aperture. I bought it on eBay for not very much, as much on a whim as anything. I have to say, however, that I am astonished by the superlative image quality this lens brings. I have not tested it extensively, in order to ascertain its ability under extreme conditions such as wide open or shooting into the sun, but so far I note extremely little geometrical distortions or chromatic aberrations. This is because I only really carry it around in my interiors/architectural photography shoots and very rarely with me for cityscapes or landscapes, as it’s too close in focal length to my 85mm. But I will eventually test it more thoroughly and will report back here. However, for close up shots during my interiors shoots, and in the few occasions that I have used it in cityscape photography, the results have been extremely good.
All old Nikkor lenses from the 1950s on can still be used in auto mode and using the camera dials to change aperture, on semi-pro and professional Nikon bodies; all you need to do is program them in. Some of these lenses, like this one, are of excellent quality, and can be found in eBay for next to nothing. All of them are made to very high standards, using metal barrels with engraved markings, a world better then the cheap plastic modern versions of today, and although their coatings might not be as good at resisting flare or veiling as modern “nano coatings”, many of these vintage classics have wonderful character and are a sheer joy to handle. Only with Nikon is this the case – all other manufacturers’ cameras don’t allow the use of older lenses…..this alone might be enough to choose Nikon over any other camera system.
Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 ED
I have the second-to-last version of this venerable telephoto zoom lens. All of these were optically similar, and with only slight incremental increases in image quality (and better handling). Being a useful range, I use it a lot, and I have to say that the image quality is absolutely superlative. I have shot countless great images with this lens, and have used it in many of my panoramas too, stitching together many individual shots. Geometrical distortions are certainly present, especially at its extremities (80mm=barrel, 200mm=pincushion) but not beyond control, and chromatic aberrations are minimal.
However, it does have certain drawbacks. Firstly, my favourite technique of shooting into the sun always rings alarm bells in me when using this lens. Depending on the angle of the sun, certain focal lengths within its range are fine, but zooming in and out can create great flares and ghosts at certain settings. Often these can not be seen easily in the viewfinder, or LCD screen during live view, because the sun tends to dazzle your eyes with its glare. I have returned home to find large numbers of images ruined by these lens flares. Of course, most lenses suffer from this if you are daft enough to point your camera at the sun. But I have found that with fixed focal length lenses this can be much more controlled, if not totally absent, as with my experience so far with the Zeiss Milvus lenses, and other top prime lenses.
Also, this lens suffers from focus shift at close range. This means that your focal point will shift (backwards in this case) when closing down your aperture. For example, if you are shooting a head shot portrait at say f/5.6-8 with the lens set at 200mm, and you’re at closest focus range, your careful focussing on the eyes of your subject will produce soft eyes but sharp temples. All lenses focus wide open, and only close down to your chosen aperture once you press the shutter so you cannot see this in the viewfinder. Only using live view can this be corrected, since live view uses the aperture you’ve set, but this is not an acceptable way of shooting people. For this purpose, this lens is totally useless.
I have heard that the newer incarnations of this lens – now of 70-200mm focal range, suffer from focus breathing, meaning the image gets smaller when you focus closely, thereby making it equally useless for photographing close up head shots when you are trying to fill the screen (ie sensor) with your subjects head.
No lens is perfect for all situations….but in this case a fixed 135mm or 200mm lens would be the choice of any professional portrait photographer, and their 70-200mm or 80-200mm zoom lenses would be used as paperweights.
For shooting half torso portraits, or generic use of photographing far off subjects, I have to say that my 80-200mm zoom is a fabulous lens, as long as you avoid getting the sun in the viewfinder. If you do, be careful! Also, although you can use teleconverters with this lens, they won’t allow you to autofocus, nor is the EXIF data fed through. You do have full functionality, however, with the 70-200mm versions…worth considering for this reason alone.
Princes St, Edinburgh, Christmas 2016
This shot I captured with the 80-200mm lens set at 170mm. Having a zoom enables you to get the precise crop on your image, without having to move back (or forward) which is not always possible. Any focal length above 135-150mm really feels like you are pulling in close distant subjects, and compresses space.
Zeiss 135mm f2 APO Sonnar
After briefly using a borrowed version of this lens, I bought my own copy of it. It is phenomenal. As someone familiar with quality photographic equipment, this is one of the very best.
Quite literally, it blows all similar focal length lenses out of the water, including all 70-200 and 80-200mm zoom lenses, and even more so the 135mm lenses by Nikon or Canon, which are just mediocre in comparison, despite being similar in cost.
The clarity is astonishing, with great detail and biting mid-tone contrast, the evenness across the frame is superlative and the quality straight from its max aperture of f2 is breathtaking. It has extremely low distortions (important for me as a cityscape / architectural photographer) and the chromatic aberrations are miraculously just non-existent.
For distant cityscape views it is superb but also for candid street shots of people or architectural details it is great. It not light by any stretch – its solid metal construction is well… very solid and hefty, but it is not uncomfortable to hand hold, as it feels quite balanced on mid to large sized professional level dSLR cameras such as my Nikon D810 (or similarly the Canon 5D, etc). On a lighter camera/ APS-C format camera it might not make as much sense, because the equivalent focal length will be a bit too long and you will definitely not be getting the most out of this lens (like driving a Ferrari to pick up the dry cleaning).
As a portrait lens, it is supreme. If you have used most of Nikon’s telephoto zoom offerings – such as the 80-200 ED (which I have) or the newer 70-200mm VR versions, it is almost impossible to take a decent tightly cropped headshot. My 80-200 has awful focus shift at close distances, and the 70-200 suffers from significant focus breathing; making them pretty much useless for this. I am not familiar with Canon equipment, but from what I read they all have the same issues.
With this Zeiss 135, the focal length is perfect for portraits and you will end up with perfectly sharp, dynamic and vibrant images, with astounding clarity and micro contrast. Of course you need to focus it properly – and it is a manual focus lens – but if you are spending well over £1000 for any lens you should know what you are doing first.
Sharpness and contrast are superb straight from f2 and only get better as you close down a little (until about f8 when diffraction inevitably starts be be felt). The bokeh is soft and dream-like. With this lens, you can get all of those wonderful effects of shallow depth of field – buttery smooth bokeh & perfectly circular out of focus highlights that you just cannot achieve with any zoom or with any other lens apart from some other Zeiss Otus or some rare, esoteric lenses such as the Meyer Triploplan 100mm.
Buy it, do as I am intending to do and dump your boring 70-200mm zoom, which everyone has, and enjoy a pure style of photography with manual focus and prime lenses – and you won’t find a medium telephoto lens better than this one. Including this lens in your photographic equipment bag will only bring you joy and pleasure.
The City of London from Marylebone.
It’s hard to show you in a small scale image the eye-popping clarity of this lens. For me, it negates the purpose of using medium format, as in conjunction with a quality camera (eg the Nikon D810 or new D850 or perhaps the Sony AR7) the clarity and 3 dimensional feel is just better. Even if you need to crop in a little, the end result will be better than a standard 200mm from a zoom. Of course, it does not have the convenience of either the zoom, nor autofocus, not VR. But still, I am beginning to love this lens more and more and find that I am leaving my 80-200mm zoom at home.
Nikon 200mm f/2 VR I
Just like the 300mm f2,8 lens reviewed below, this is a beast. It is actually quite a ridiculous lens, but what it can do is just phenomenal.
I bought it as much on a whim as anything else; I had seen a series of wonderful portraits by a photographer using this lens which had really struck me. The whole point of this lens is to use it wide open, and boy what an awesome lens this is.
Wide open – unbelievable it has f2 – it is as sharp as anything I’ve used (including even the remarkable king of lenses the Zeiss APO 135mm which I also have), and the 200mm focal length just melts the background away. The AF is lightning quick (even if some of the sensors of my D810 occasionally hunt a bit) and incredibly I have not noticed any chromatic aberrations even at f2. I don’t believe it can get any sharper closed down; by f5,6 I am sure it will match or beat any lens for sharpness and image purity.
Portraits in the open outdoors are fabulous, if you can hold it. It weight 3kg, of solid metal and massive glass elements, so a monopod or tripod would be advisable even if the VR works fine. I got the first VR version of this lens 2nd hand (still a huge cost), as I could not justify the £5000+ price new.
Is this lens worth it? Well if you need or value the images this lens will allow you to take, yes. You also need to work out if your shooting style is suitable for this beast; it is pretty uncomfortable to use hand held for extended periods (ie more than a few minutes) unless you have very strong wrists and forearms; I was always looking for a way to rest my elbows on my legs when shooting low down. A 70-200mm f2,8 lens is also a great lens, but if you compare them at 200mm and wide open the difference is notable. Also, the latest Nikon 70-200mm lose magnification at 200mm, which is a bit disturbing. At f5,6 I’d imagine the image quality is comparable, that’s why you don’t buy this lens for anything other than to use wide open, or – as I intend to do – for the ultimate image quality on a sturdy tripod to make stitched panoramic views with a gimbal.
The tripod foot it comes with is a bit small and useless, as it’s not Arca-Swiss compatible, so instead I removed it and replaced with with a Really Right Stuff tripod foot, which also can serve as a handle, although it points towards the camera, thereby making it less holdable.
The lens hood is fine, but you can also use the longer and carbon fibre HK-30 of its 300mm brother; just swap it over don’t buy it as it’s over £300!!
This 200mm lens is awesome for portraits. The lens is as sharp as a razor wide open at f2 and has no chromatic aberrations. See how the background melts into a creamy smooth paste in this portrait of my daughter Cosima in our local Regent’s Park in London. Superb lens, if you can carry it!!
Nikon 300mm f/2.8 VR I
This lens is a beast. I could not believe how big it was the first time I saw it in a camera shop. You do not attach this lens to your camera. You attach your camera to this lens. A lens of this focal length is very difficult to use handheld, without a tripod or beanbag-on-wall to rest it on. But the Vibration Reduction technology works great, this clever invention stops the lens shaking in your hands, allowing you to shoot at much slower speeds (eg 1/200 rather than 1/500s). This f/2.8 version has the first version of this VR – apparently the newer VRII version is much better, although optically the lenses are identical. Despite what you read on Nikon manuals, always turn off the VR when on a tripod.
I have owned two other version of this lens in the f/4 format, and I have achieved great results, although the f/2.8 version I now have is significantly better. This is one of the great lenses in Nikon’s huge arsenal of lenses. It creates images of stunning clarity and sharpness, and it works perfectly fine with my 1.4x and 2x teleconverters, with minimal loss of image quality. Furthermore, I have shot directly into the sun with this lens, with no problems.
Nikon make now a very small and very light f/4 version of this focal length with VR and Phase Fresnel glass, the same as used in lighthouses. I would dearly love to have this lens, but apparently it produces horrible smudges around areas of light when shot at night – therefore it is not so good at night time cityscapes, which I really like to do! Oh well, I will have to continue to lug around this beast for the time being….
Nikon 500mm f/4 P Ai-S
This manual focus telescopic marvel is an old lens dating back to the late 1980s. It has however, the P designation, meaning it passes lens and aperture information electronically back to the camera, and stored within the Exif data in the resulting files. It works fine on all modern Nikon bodies. The impressive front element is the size of a dinner plate, and it shimmers with a dark, rich greenish hue.
The image quality of this huge chunk of vintage glass is still quite stunning, apparently better than any other Nikon 500mm lens other than the very latest modern version. It is, however, extremely hard to use. Focussing is critical, even at distances of miles, and atmospheric haze can significantly detract from image quality if you are shooting distant subjects (as I do) such as cityscapes. You also need impeccable techniques (using the electronic front shutter, a shutter delay, and a cable release), a very sturdy tripod, and preferably be shooting away from any wind as even a slight breeze can set into a quivering motion this beast with its monstrous carbon fibre lens hood even on the heaviest tripod and mount.
The new AF/VR version of this lens costs around £10,000. This old one I picked up for around £1,500. I don’t use it much since it is so big and heavy to carry around, but when I do I can get great results, even if I have to focus it so carefully…. for this I am happy to have saved the difference in price! It also works fine with my 1.4x and 2x TCs, although the use of these is not stored in the EXIF data, as it is with more modern lenses.
However, however sharp it is, this lens does still show its age….high resolution sensors will reveal its shortcomings with the chromatic aberrations it suffers from – magenta and green fringing on areas of high contrast, which was just never visible in the era of film. It can be corrected however, but it is an aberration that does make precise focussing more difficult. And the ghosting when shooting into the sun can be quite awful. This vintage lens is not meant to be used like this!! But careful use will reveal its grandiose pedigree and it can create truly stunning images.
Absolutely indispensable for much of my work. I have both Manfrotto and Gitzo tripods. They are all excellent, sturdy and strong, and the larger ones are fine with big and heavy super telephoto lenses (as long as it’s not too windy!) including the 500mm with teleconverters. Any collection of photographic equipment needs to include a tripod. The sturdier the better, how sturdy depends on how much you will want to, or can, carry. Pointless having one that’s so heavy you will never use it, but equally pointless is a cheap one which is very light but on which your camera will wobble like jelly on a plate. With photographic equipment – and especially tripods – you get what you pay for.
When shooting interiors or architecture, I use a Manfrotto Triaut 058B, which is as heavy and sturdy as a brick wall. It has very useful ratchet central column for precise height adjustments, and very handy quick release leg extension levers, which means you don’t have to constantly bend down to extend or retract the legs. Great for your back! With this tripod, with its mid-leg spreader support, you can be sure that nothing will move, so great for long lens photography as well as for multiple exposures. It can also be raised up to almost 3m in height too if necessary. I’ve used this for coming up to 15 years now and it has served me very well.
For cityscapes and other uses, I have recently purchased a much lighter but equally strong (if not stronger) and very chunky carbon fibre Gitzo Systematic Series 5, 3 section tripod, which I can still – just – walk around with. This is superbly well made, but fiendishly expensive. See above why I don’t like 4 or 5 section tripods. Normally attached to this is a Berlebach N90 levelling plate which I find to be extremely useful when taking shots to be joined together as panoramic views, and a Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead. Not having a centre column on this tripod makes it more stable; I find I don’t need this other then when photographing architecture and interiors.
In my house in Panarea I have a carbon fibre Manfrotto 055MF3 which is light, small and very transportable. I prefer the 3 section versions – much less fiddling around than the 4 section-per-leg version, although of course the 4 version is shorter in length when retracted and taller when extended. I also have in Panarea an old Gitzo Reporter aluminium tripod which I’ve had for well over 20 years. Still works great, but doesn’t go very high – I will probably only use this only as a second camera tripod for example when shooting stills when the main camera is occupied shooting a timelapse.
Just to max out my collection of tripods, I also have a table top FLM tripod which fits into the front pocket of my camera bag. Useful for taking shots on top of walls, at ground level, or when normal tripods are not allowed. Useful for use with lenses up to around 50-85mm max; longer will just topple over. With this I have the FLM Centreball 38 which is small but very decent quality and solid. With an appropriate threaded attachment, I can bolt this and a second camera to the side of either my large Gitzo or Manfrotto tripods, thereby having two cameras on a single tripod.
Of equal importance to the tripod is the head that you use with it, which attaches your camera to the tripod. I used to use the Manfrotto ballheads, but since their attachment plates are proprietary, I prefer to use the more widely used Arca-Swiss style dovetail mount system. I now have two Markins ballheads, and for the bigger tripods I have the Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead, which is built like a tank. It also has a useful external spirit level bubble (the Markins are placed beneath where the camera sits, so you can’t see it once the camera is attached!) and also millimetre markings for compensating any lens movements in order to avoid parallax in stitched images when using tilt/shift lenses.
To attach your camera to the head, you need a dovetail plate. I prefer to use L-plates, which means that you can rotate your camera 90º for vertical shots after composing and lining up your shot, without losing your careful alignment. It also acts like a protective metal cage around half of your camera. I have both Kirk and a RRS L-plates; the latter has the useful millimetre markings for precisely shifting your camera from side to side.
Stromboli with the Milky Way above.
An image captured with a fast, ultra wide lens. A f/2.8 aperture allows you to capture a clean shot of the night sky without using a high ISO setting which generates much noise. A sturdy tripod is however, always necessary for any shot of the night sky, since exposures can be easily up to 30 seconds. The time limit, being, of course, the movement of the start across the sky.
I love shooting tethered wherever possible. You can see what you are doing on a much larger screen, and get a much better idea of the composition of your image. For many years I used long Firewire and USB cables, attached to my laptop running either Phocus (for Hasselblad) or Lightroom. With Phocus you could set it easily to apply your image adjustments as they are imported; with Lightroom it’s a bit more fiddly since you need to save to a folder which you then set as a target folder for automatic import within Lightroom in order to apply your presets.
Some cameras have built in Wi-Fi, negating the use of cumbersome 3rd party solutions, but thye are not always as sophisticated as you would want for more advanced photographic needs.
Now I use a very clever wireless system called a Camranger, which works great, and avoids entirely the use of cables attached to a laptop, as you can see your shots immediately appearing on any number of iPads, Android tablets or smart phones wirelessly over a Wi-Fi network. You can of course also control your camera fully directly from these devices, including setting the focus point (if you are using autofocus lenses, of course 😉 ) as well as setting timelapses, or video capture. When doing timelapses you can adjust the exposure settings and ISO remotely as the images are being captured. This means you can sit indoors in the comfort and warmth as your camera is clicking away on the roof or terrace outside, capturing that holy grail of day-to-night sequences….checking the results in real time and adjusting the exposure on your iPad as you go along. Very useful.
An alternative to the quite costly Camranger, but one which needs some programming skills, is the much less expensive qDSLRdashboard system, which apparently is very sophisticated, and popular amongst professional timelapse practitioners. I haven’t used it, so cannot pass judgement yet….once this changes, I will.
If you aspire to take your photography to the next level, a tethered system will be a very useful part of your photographic equipment.
Other photographic equipment
Here is a brief list of other photographic equipment that I have, and use to a greater or lesser extent.
Camranger Wireless Camera Control
A Camranger is very handy instrument to connect wirelessly your camera to a laptop, iPad, tablet or smart phone, via which you can view, control and even download your pictures to.
Radio control devices. I have the Plus III versions, which work great. I connect these to my camera and flash unit(s) in order to fire them without a flash PC cable. You can also use them to focus your camera (when using AF lenses!) and fire your shutter at far greater distances than you could with the Camranger. Also indispensable when you are “painting” a scene (or building or interior) with light using a hand held flash unit, with the camera fixed in place.
Camera strap Seems like a minor issue, but the fixed camera neck straps that come with your camera are very irritating when you use your camera a lot on a tripod, as I do. They just get in the way, get tied up with any other cable you might have attached, and if it’s windy they can flap around like mad and can even end up in front of the lens. I much prefer having an easily removable strap, and the one I now use is a Black Rapid strap which fits transversally across your chest and screws onto your camera’s base plate.
I have a large 500W studio flash (Bowens) with tripod stand and umbrellas and softbox when I am taking portraits. I also have a couple of battery powered small Nikon Speedlights SB-700 which are useful for mobile flash illumination, or for light painting a scene. If I were to get any more, I would get a less expensive, less feature-laden 3rd party brand – since most of my shots are done planned I don’t need the TTL (the in-camera auto flash intensity adjustment), and besides TTL doesn’t work in any case with the Pocket Wizards I have.
I now use Lowepro bags for storing and transporting my camera gear. I have 3(!!) but the one I like most is the Lowepro Pro Runner AW 450 II, as I can get all of my interiors/architectural shoot photograpahic equipment comfortable inside. I also have a small Photo Classic 300 AW as a light bag for minimal gear trips with only 3-4 lenses. Each of these bags are (just!) suitable as aeroplane carry-on luggage.
Not so necessary these days as a simple examination of the histogram can reveal the light or flash intensity; but still handy to carry around in mixed lighting conditions. I have a Sekonic 308s which although pretty basic has worked great for many years, and I see absolutely no need for the fancy spot meter versions.
I hate doing it but sometime you just have to shoot through glass. This is especially the case when you are atop one of the many rooftop bars in London which have wonderful views but for safety reasons have tall glass panels to stop (drunk?) people falling off. One solution to help you get better pictures is a Lens Skirt. It won’t help with any lens distortion or image degradation issues but it will cut out completely any reflections, which is a major step towards getting usable images. I have found that the AF on my Nikon 80-200mm and also on my 300mm lens is not accurate when shooting through glass, and I need to focus manually.
Shooting with Lens Skirt
A lens skirt is a clever solution to help you shoot through glass. It is a dark velvety cloth that goes around your lens and the front part of it attaches to the glass with little suction cups, thereby cutting out all reflections. If you ever shoot through windows, even from an aeroplane whilst going on holiday, your photographic equipment invariably needs to include a lens skirt.
Very useful additional items for your bag of photographic equipment.
I have screw on polarizing filters to fit all of my lenses (apart from the monstrous telephoto lenses) as well as 8-10stop ND filters for long exposure shots. I prefer to have the screw on type as they are a lot less fiddly than the square filters that fit on a frame attached to the front of the lens. Polarizing filters are indispensable for landscape photography especially when you are photographing near water; it cuts out the surface reflections to make much richer images, as well as darkening blue skies. Be careful however when using them with wide angle lenses! Their effect is not even across the sky, and you can end up with darked patches if you are using a 15-20mm lens. They are also a definite no-no when doing stitched panoramas for the sale reason. Some people still use graduated ND filters, but I find them to be pretty useless since it is so easy to digitally blend together two (or more) different exposures if there is a tonal discrepancy or great contrast between the sky and the foreground. Be parsimonious with your photographic equipment whenever possible! Don’t carry around what is not necessary!
Photographic Equipment Disclaimer.
I receive no sponsorship nor endorsement deals from any of the companies or manufacturers of photographic equipment mentioned here. All of the photographic equipment described above – from lenses, cameras and ancillary photographic equipment, has been purchased outright by me, and I only use them because I think they work well and fit my needs.
If any manufacturer would like me to test and review their photographic equipment then I would be only most happy to – but I will make it clear in the review that they have lent me their products.
Photographic equipment review by Adam Butler
Adam Portrait with Hasselblad
For many years I used a lovely Hasselblad digital camera. Nowadays I am happy with just one camera system – and I choose Nikon for its great image quality, the vast and unmatched range of lenses, and for the sleek design of their products. However, I am sure would be just as happy with either Canon or Sony too….but I have no desire to change my extensive collection of Nikon lenses now!!