Serendipity



Pictured above, sitting on a fencepost is my new best (photographic) friend. Yesterday was one of those days when I started out to do one thing and discovered something completely different. I certainly had a "happy accident" and a (very) pleasant surprise.

My D800E in the picture has a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D fitted to it. It is I believe Nikon's cheapest lens and somewhat perversely, as I discovered yesterday, one of its sharpest. So why would that be? Well its not that hard to make a great 50mm, lens makers have been doing that for years. It is called a "standard" lens after all. All 35mm film cameras used to come with one of these. Now you get a zoom as that's what people want, isn't it? Its small and light (155g) and according to Ken Rockwell, who reviewed it here, Nikon had made 400,000 of them by 2007, which probably explains the price.

I've had mine for a while, yet for reasons unknown, yesterday was the first time I had ever screwed it on to my D800E and gone out to take some pictures with it. However, now that I've finally got round to attaching it, I suspect that its not coming off again anytime soon.




Its a funny thing with a standard lens, when they are on the camera, they can seem somewhat "boring". At least thats what I often think. Yesterday I worked out why. Since they correspond to the same perspective that I experience with my eyes, when I look through the viewfinder, and particularly an optical one such as on the D800E, then there isn't the "exaggerated" view that I get with a wide-angle or telephoto lens, there's no surprise. Things in the distance don't suddenly get drawn in and magnified or what is in front of me doesn't suddenly expand and become wider, longer and yet further away. We have all, I'm sure, had that "Whoa!" moment when looking through a wide-angle at the world in front of us. However, like me, you may have experienced that "Oh.... it looked much better when I was there" moment when you get back home and look at the images on the screen. I find "standard" lens images look much better as pictures than I imagined they would when I pressed the shutter, and what seemed to be a fairly mundane composition suddenly springs to life. O.K. maybe thats just me, but it is something I've noticed and as I often go out with just one lens, I've learnt over the years to reserve judgement on my images until I see them on the screen in their 2-D form.

As indicated yesterday I started out with something completely different in mind. I've been thinking about buying one of the new Sigma Foveon cameras or even another Leica M9 ( The M-E, as its now called!) Though neither will sell more pictures for me or make me any more money, I am somewhat obsessed about getting the best image quality I can. Pretty much for my own satisfaction. However, recently it occured to me to do a comparison between the results from these cameras and taking images shot with the D800E and downsizing them to what cameras like the SD1 (14MP) and M9 (18MP) produce. After doing this I realised that in fact, to a large extent, I had capability to produce files similar to those the SD1 and M9 produce already, certainly in terms of sharpness and resolution, by using my D800E. A downsized D800E file is in fact a thing of beauty, and reducing them in size down to 24MP, 18MP, 16MP, 14MP etc, just makes them look sharper. Are they as sharp as the Sigma Foveon or M9 files? Maybe not quite, but its so close, its difficult to quantify. However the most important thing for me is that I'm happy that the files I can produce are so similar that its removed any desire I have to change cameras. particularly when I realise just how much better, easier, faster etc. the D800E is in use.

So having sorted that out, my plan was that the next time I went out with the D800E I would shoot some files to show what I was talking about. Now because I visit the same places several times a year in different seasons, I try to use various different camera / lens combinations, to help give me a fresh view on a familiar scene. For yesterday I selected the 50mm f/1.8 Nikon lens. As I said I'd never used it on the D800E. I bought it a while ago for the staggering sum of £85 as a fast lens for the camera, since I didn't really have one. Also I'd worked out that the camera and lens weighed 1050g, which is not that far from the Panasonic GH3 weight I was writing about yesterday (Camera + Grip + 12-35mm lens) so thought it might be an idea to see how that felt to carry around. 

It wasn't actually that bad at all to walk with. Having spent some time with the D800E + 28-300mm, it did in fact feel reasonably light, so my adventures with the Nikon do seem to getting me fitter as I indicated! One thing I noticed immediately was that the lens was focusing much quicker than my zooms. Wide aperture primes do have this advantage. So I got what I thought were some decent shots that would be useful for my stock collection and for what I was thinking about writing for the blog. However I wasn't prepared for looking at them on my screen when I got home and being really surprised at just how sharp they were. Without doubt the sharpest images I have so far seen from the D800E and close to the sharpest I've seen from any camera. A quick downsizing of a few files to 24MP, 18MP, 16MP and 14MP showed me very quickly that any notion that I would get sharper images from other cameras was not the case. There would be little point in considering these other cameras since they can't offer what the D800E does anyway.

So after quite a while, I now have a new champion of image quality, the M9 has been "dethroned". Factoring in the lack of CA and fringing, spot-on colour and the much better high ISO performance of the NIkon / Sony 36MP sensor, means, as far as I'm concerned, the D800E is now the best camera I've ever used in terms of image quality. I was somewhat surprised that it took pretty much the cheapest lens I could put on it to give me that. 

To show what I mean here are three 100% blow ups.




So as the title says, Serendipity. I'm actually really rather pleased with this. Its been one of my fantasies that if I could find a really great camera / standard lens combination then I might just stick with it at the expense of eveything else. But then as I say, its a fantasy!! However, I really want to see just how far I can go with this. The idea I had was that somehow this dream combination that said "photographic purity" probably involved a Leica, or some retro mirrorless camera. The fact that it has turned out to be a Nikon DSLR + 50mm is something that would have been pretty near the bottom of my list of expectations. However, as I think people are aware, I'm pretty flexible and able to adjust very quickly. 

How long this remains my new best friend remains to be seen, but I know that I want to use this combination again as quickly as possible, as the files it produces are a joy to look at. A total surprise, but nonetheless a very pleasant one.



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