Here is my breakdown of the best mf and reasonably priced af lenses. No I am NOT paying 1,500 for a plastic lens made in China without an aperture ring! I should say my criteria is sharp but not mega sharp, beautiful creamy bokey (no soap or swirl!), punchy colors, small not gigantic lens that you can actually lug around of have as 1 of 5 lenses in your bag. I have been a pro portrait and landscape/travel photographer for 35 years.
Why not MEGA SHARP? The lens designs which produce MEGA-SHARP typically lose other qualities I desire. And also, we don't want Mega Sharp portraits. Do people really want all their pores and wrinkles and nose hairs out there for all their glory? NO! So when I say sharp, all these lenses can deliver a tack sharp image. But not Mega sharp. What's the difference? It's hard to say. Just trust me. Modern lenses deliver MEGA sharp more often.
While FlickRiver can help you see what lenses can do, you'll get all the crap shots as well. Check out http://www.fredmiranda.com/forum/topic/929565/6178 for six thousand pages of manual focus nikon pictures done mostly by great photographers using great cameras.
ultra wide: zenitar 16mm, tokina 11-16mm series 1 (screw drive) the zenitar is the cheaper option. Bokey on tokina can be rubbish you have to watch it. Zenitars push $250 and Tokinas $450. Ouch!
Oddball wides: 10.5mm, 18mm. I just avoid these. Too pricey or too fragile.
16mm: the ais fisheye does amazing on dx or fx for a wide.
20mm: ais nikkor 3.5 (I cant afford it). a TITS lens. These always push $400 bucks. ouch. Useless for DX you need the ultra above. Well I shouldn't say useless. It's a 30mm on a dx. Also the 2.8 ais aint so bad. there is an old P non ai which sometimes comes up cheap. 20mm f4 is just fine.
24mm: ais Nikkor 2.8. This is a GOD lens. period. 'nuff said. a delight. wonderful on DX. Yah the 2,000 buck 1.8 is even better if you like plastic and no aperture ring.
28mm: The 28mm AIS 2.8 (only the AIS) is a great lens. on miranda they do a lot with the 28 ais which has CRC. Get the AIS. But really, its the lens you never reach for if you have the 24 ais because the 24 is much sharper.
35mm: mir 24n a GOD lens (bested ONLY by zeiss which I cant afford). for af, the nikkor 35 f2 af-d but will be flat and boring. The mir will shock you by how good it is. Its big heavy chunk of glass. essentially its a full on Zeiss clone so if you get a good one, its zeiss. How much is the zeiss? I think about $1,500. Yikes! A good Mir is $150-200. I have the standard 35 nikkor 2.8 and its just fine and sharp. the 35mm nikkor 1.4 ais is a big radioactive lens which is pretty good and in the honorable mentions. I will have to get my hands on one but they are pricey. The 35mm f2 ais is also nice, similar to the 2.8
40mm: voightlandar color scopar. An odd focal length. i don't bother. But if you need full frame sharp to corner this is it better than any 50 in that regard. $300. ouch. I think it's too pancake small also.
50MM: nikkor 1.4 ais a TITS lens, Helios 81H 50mm f2 is really great, 50 1.8 af-d for af but will be flat and boring. I have a love hate relationship with the 50 1.2. It has 9 blades and better color and sharper than these at f2 and f2.8. It's the king. But everytime I need money I sell it as its a 800 dollar lens and you don't really need it. when I get rich I will buy it again. I'm using the MIR converted on my 4/3s and loving the piss out of it because it super tiny and great colors. If I wanted to get maximum I'd use the 50 1.2 at f2.8 a TITS lens, or the 50 1.4 at 2.8. The 50 1.8D is a great street shooter lens on a DX or FX. Its fast to fire. But when I review the pics later I'm always like... where's the wow? Instead, I'm shifting to the 35-105 af-d as my af lens for street. More options and quick and sharp. It's just 4 times the size of the 50. So it depends if you want to be light. On my fuji s5 dx camera, the 50 afd is a tight small package. One thing on the 50 1.2. It has focus drift as it steps down. So you computer will set focus at 1.2 (even though its finder screen can only "see" 2.0) and then as it steps down to 5.6 just before the shot using the supposedly linear scale of f-stops, the focus will be a smidge off. Its a weird thing that only probably happens because they are trying to manage the design for a f1.2. So I generally only ever use it at f2 or f2.8. or an art shot at f1.2 when I want razor thing DOF or Coma blobs. The 50 1.8 ais is just fine.
55mm: the 55 2.8 ais. I would use this on product non-moving shots as its tack sharp, possibly the sharpest lens ever. But the focus is soo slow to use its not a great general purpose lens. And if you try to use it for portraits you will find its unflattering but if you are doing high contrast b&w it might work great if you are looking only for detail
58mm: helios 44-m7 helios 44m-6 f2, voightlander 58 1.4. I never use my Helios as it's converted m42 and I just go for a 50 or a 85. But sometimes its fun to play with for the great color and bokeh. But its a big heavy chunk of glass, like a 50 1.2. I like my 50s to be quick and easy and light usually. and its too short for in studio even on dx. I need to use my 44-m6 more, its a zeiss clone and a big chunk of glass just like the MIR 24N is for 35mm. Great popping color. But the nikkor 1.4 also has popping color. so if I have to chose, I think the native nikkor is more desireable. Still its fun to play with this and see what you get esp if color is involved. The 7 is rare, but its the sharpest, the number is the sharpness rating, except the 2, which is an older non-coated design. Some people love the 2 as it renders differently, but I would say try the 6 or 7. When I see pics like this (by the 44m-7) i think more about using it more often.
60mm: I'd try the af-d micro nikkor but I've never used it as I have the 55 ais which is sharper. I never use 60 but if I got the micro to try I might fall in love as its AF and similar to the 55. still its oddball focal length.
85mm: Jupiter 9 (a go to portrait lens for dx). this is a good distance for in studio dx. This is a GOD lens. Bokah creme due to its 15 aperture blades. Do not get the oldest rangefinder version or the non 15 bladed modernish one. It has a slight swirl to its bokey but not as terrible as a Helios 40.
100-105mm: kaleinar (amazing) 100mm 2.8 manual focus. a go to portrait lens for a distance outdoor shots. Nikkor 105 1.8 ais is good but pricey. Both are GOD lenses. The Nikkor DC is out of my price range. The Kaleinar consistently makes amazing model shots when you want a good face and body and creamy bokeh behind. (see the link). The Nikkor 105 has crappier bokeh less color pop and less microcontrast than the kaleinar. The Kaleinar costs 1/5th as much.
135mm: Nikkor 2.8 AIS (a go to portrait lens for fx). On dx, this is going to be crampt for a small studio but it is possible. Another GOD lens. The Nikkor DC is out of my price range
180mm: Nikkor 2.8 ais I never use 180. The AIS is fine, but the VR is probably very useful at this focal length. My DX camera - the fuji s5 - doesn't support VR. And the D800e isn't what I would us a 180mm on. so I don't use this. The 2.8 ED lens is quite coveted by many.
300mm: nikkor 2.8 ais or af-d. For non-fashion portrait at distance, this is a GOD lens if you want to reduce the entire background to mush. If I were being paid more than 10,000 to shoot a model, I'd take some shots with this one. On a tripod. So non - ais doesn't matter that much other than they cust a few thou more.
Note: all of these area available in native Nikon mount or converted except the Helios 44m
Macro: Minolta 135mm 2.8. This is a seriously oddball lens which must be converted. the results are worth it. its mf and its macro mode is bizarre what the lens does physically. Built like a voightlander tank lens. gives you the distance for macro. It is like the BORG lens, I've never seen anything quite like it. When you put it into macro, it has a trick new part that unhides which lets you fine focus it. Amazing! and this is the right mm focal for macro, not 55 or 60.
Honorable Mentions: Super Takumar lenses with convertors. Great coatings. Great construction. Pricey. 35mm 1.4 ais - its radioactive bliss but still not as good as the mir. they are hare to find in the used market and a bit pricey. its older design with an asph element means its a center sharp only lens. But its thorium lens gives it an edge over most modern stuff. 105mm 2.5 - a really great lens. It's just that the 1.8 is even greater. The 50mm 1.8 ais is great, just the 50 1.4 is so much better and feels better in the hand.
Lenses People Love I think Suck: The 55mm ais 1.2 comes to mind. Crap shite bokey. Really crap bokey. It was never considered nearly as good as the 50mm 1.2 (which is a Tits lens)
Zeiss: The 35mm f2 and the 85mm 1.4. If you have the dollars get them. But when your lenses start costing multiple thousands of dollars, I'd get too scared of banging them or something if I were shooting outside, and since neither of these is going to be a good portrait lens on the d800, that means they need to be insured. Try my alternatives first, you don't need to spend this much for 1% more wow. If you have three grand sitting around, by all means. Forget the new Batis and Toureg or whatever the fuck they call them. You want the ZF2 lenses.
and cheap but great zooms:
The Push Pulls:
Using a push pull zoom is an oddball delight. To prevent sliding, put a tiny piece of gaffer tape on the inside part of the lens. It will now hold. These are fun to use but have 16 elements so some people say they crush the light but I say try em they are fun fast and wonderful for AF
50-135 push pull 3.5 (sharper than the 75-150 but I dont like the range as much. If I'm grabbing a zoom I usually want the 150 reach, or the street shooter 35-105 for generally everything) [50-135 sample 2]
75-150 push pull 3.5-5 (this is a great portrait lens! shoot it at 135mm for greatness. not as great as the prime 135) [ 75-150 bokeh sample ]
35-105mm af-d 3.5-4.5 great walkaround street shooter lens. sharp. good color fast autofocus! nice bokey
24-85mm ais and af-d there are many versions of these, the 2.8-4 af-d is quite nice.
70-300mm nikkor. AF (or ed vr version for more money) the af is a cheap way to get 300 reach. I much prefer af-d lenses to af-s. Seriously if you are going to bother with a zoom, why not get one that goes to 300?
Note all G lenses are puke garbage EXCEPT the 50mm 1.4 and 85mm 1.8. the 35mm 1.8 is double puke. The 50 1.8D makes boring pictures but its a good basic sharp autofocus lens.
Honorable Mention: The Tokina 50-135mm. Amazing. Its just big and heavy and expensive. On a day I feel strong I'd pull it out and shoot for a bit its going to be SHARPER than any of these zooms. Its amazing. The 18-55 af-p G lens (the new updated one) is a good dx zoom for the dollars. Doesn't work at all on my old s5. sigh. So much for nikon maintaining compatibility in its electronics over the years.
Why No Trinity Lenses?: Why not the 14-24, the 24-70, the 80-200 2.8 (or whatever the third is these days). Too big too heavy too expensive. I offer cheaper options for all these which are just as good or better. Ok the 14-24 is pretty damn fantastic. So is the tamron 15-30? To heavy. It's just not how I like a camera to be. All the zooms I recommend are also fairly big and heavy solid metal beasts. But even they are not as big as these.
Favorite Nikon Cameras:
The Nikon F3:
It's such perfection. Use it with the DA-2 Action finder to freak people out so they go WTF is THAT! COOL! Oh its just my 38 year old camera. Gorgeous HP viewfinder. A good one is $500.
It's like having a 34 Bugatti. You pull it out on sunny spring days and just enjoy it. Is it the fastest? Well the F3 was designed by Porsche hence the red stripe (the FIRST Nikon red stripe!)
One thing that is still the best ever on the F3 is that it has the best film movement system of any camera ever made. ever. silk sex and suger as AP would say. It's also the most swappable part camera Nikon ever made with viewfinders, winders, focusing screens all user swappable. Even the F4 is more limited! You can get a retro "looking down" folder viewfinder for it. On the tiny 35 thats ridiculous. But it's fun. And the DA-2 stands for TWO POUNDS of GLASS finder, and using that is amazingly fun. What else has one? I think they did also make one for the F4 but its so rare.
The Nikon 8008s:
If you are shooting film, I pretty much grab this over the F3. The F3 is now a museum piece. It's loved but not practical. IT adds autofocus screwdrive, spot metering, matrix metering, and a beautiful in the viewfinder meter unlike the hard to see meter in the f3. the F3 is perfection and love. The 8008 is what you drag out to shoot. Its sooo much smaller than these big nikon D cameras. Gorgeous viewfinder. A good one is $150.
The Nikon F4:
Gorgeous camera but I don't currently own it. The 8008s does 90% of what the F4 does, only the F4 has nicer controls. I will have to buy one again when I get rich but I would probably just stare at it and drool. Gorgeous controls, viewfinder, matrix metering on old lenses. A good one is $400. You have to get an imported japanese one to lose the huge ulgy bottom battery thingie.
The Nikon D700:
I don't own it. But I like it. Makes great pictures. But I own instead the much lighter s5 which is dx not full frame and doesnt blow out highlights like a d700 does. A good one is $1200 but a banger goes for as little as $700. When I lift it I just groan. Its heavy. Gets you up to 12MP. But blown highlights, heavy, and crap to soso colors. The BEST use of a d700 is with Nikon manual AIS lenses. Then you get some great results. I think AP did a test where it had BETTER results than a 24MP d750. wouldn't surprise me one bit. They have been struggling to get these new high MP sensors to work right. go to the fredmiranda forum for MF nikkor lenses and you will see a lot of shots of ais on d700 that amaze. (also amazing are the leighton photos on his 50-135 push pull, see zooms above section)
The Fuji S5 Pro:
Effective 8MP seems dated. Highest dynamic range of any camera ever made. Dual large and small sensor in each of its 6 million pixels interpolated to 12mp and equal to about 8mp in a standard sensor. On top of that add Fuji Color. Perfect size. d200 based body. My only complaint is the tiny viewfinder and shit lcd screen on back and double shit menus. A good one is $500 which is a huge amazing miracle bargain so much so I am now looking for a second one. I swapped my shit d7000 crap color camera for it and never looked back. Something went amiss when those cmos sensors came in. they mucked up the color because the pixels got so small they effected the wavelengths! That's why the d700 still trumps a 24MP camera when you compare.
Why the love for the S5? Its the perfect size shooter that does everything. It's not too heavy, works with all lenses (except some G lenses and more modern crap which I hate those anyways.) With the grip its a great solid chunk thats not beast heavy but stable for studio and careful outdoor work. For travel just take off the battery grip and you can fit it and 3 lenses in a small bag. It was the wedding shooters choice for a long time.
Downsides? The biggest is it only retains is huge DR up to iso 800. And only shoots decent up to iso 1600. Tell that to a film user and they will be like great whats the problem! But a d500 shoots great up to 32,000 iso. so well...its getting older. If you need 10fps, don't get it.
When I need a bit MORE than what the S5 can deliver....
The Nikon d800E:
Theres magic in the E. Don't get the 810 or the 800. There is some special character of every camera/sensor and the E for me is really film like. And its affordable, you can get a good one for $1400. It's totally a studio cam or very careful in the field cam. It's NOT a travel cam.
And... My new joy... the Micro 4/3rds Panasonic G7:
OK, focus peaking and old manual lenses. I slap the Mir 81 or jupiter 9 on this and its god. great colors. super light camera. I shoot in 16x9 and get 12MP. GREAT! 16x9 is great for posters! So this is a really wonderful camera. Why not get the Fuji XT-2? With battery grip? Well thats over $2000 bucks! And doesn't match this for video! And is heavy! No, the G7 is the camera to get. It's now my go to Travel camera. I will no longer lug the S5 pro off to borneo.
The problem with 4/3s cams is their lenses are absurd priced. So get a mitakon speed convertor. Now when I shoot my 50mm Helios 81N f2, it becomes a 75mm 1.4. Thats a great focal length and aperture, in a size and weight thats impossible! MAGIC!
It's $600 + $125 for the convertor and a good helios is $100. A jupiter 9 is about $200. You are well under $1000 and you have a great system!
Finding what button does what is a pain. Like you up arrow for ISO. you f5 to set + - . I assigned my scene to the little indent hidden button in the top wheel. You spin right to zoom. Yah it takes a few months to learn what is where. A GH5 does that better. But thats another 2000 camera. The GH5 will def be my upgrade path.
Lenses I use with my G7:
This is my standard kit, mostly drawn from my old AIS and Russian lenses. You want to use manual focus with the adapter as you dont get AF through it.
35 MM Mir GOD lens
24 MM nikkor ais 2.8 GOD lens
Jupiter 9 85mm f2 GOD lens
Kaleinar 100mm f2.8 GOD lens
and walk around - Helios 81H 50 mm f2 . Not a god lense. But so much fun as its so light and small and a step Above a series e pancake nikkor 50mm.
The Old Beast - The Pentax 6x7 MLU:
If you are young and strong as sasquatch, this four pound medium format camera, with the 90mm leaf shutter lens, will do amazing things. I am no longer like sasquatch. I sold it for pennies when I was out of food. I really regret ever selling it.
To take a picture with it simply: set the aperture and shutter speed on the camera and meter. Transfer that speed and aperture to the 90mm. Now set a much longer time to the speed on the camera. Cock the lever on the lens. Focus. Swing up the mirror lever. Now push the trigger. Easy right? All the while youve got five pounds in your hands. Newbies with AF cameras simply could not imagine. The alternative is a Fuji 6x9 fixed lens 90mm or a Mamiya 6 or 7 which is three grand. When I get rich, I will get a mamiya 7 II I think. and all 5 lenses for about 10 grand. someday.
OK 35 years. Thats the hardware side of what I've learned. I've tried hundreds and hundreds of lenses and even the very expensive ones. All of this gear is stuff you can LOVE. Not the soul-less plastic Nikon now churns out. Get at it! Oh one more thing. NEVER EVER EVER EVER sell a camera UNLESS it is made in thailand or china and covered in plastic.
Note : Thanks to the Angry Photographer for the Lens Classification System. A TITs lens is a 10 lens perfect in just about every way, exceptional for the breed and top of its class. A GOD lens is a miracle lens that shouldn't even be possible for humans to create. There are only a few of these types of lenses and mostly they are just stumbled onto by accident.