Sweet and Sour

Looking at the numbers, I shot far more in 2017 than in previous years, and for a broader range of uses across a broader range of cameras.

That much shooting with gear found me pondering something as I started this year: which gear did I continue to find "sweet" for my uses, and which did I "sour" on? 

I'm going to keep this article to just Nikon DSLRs and F-mount lenses. I'll try to do a similar article over on sansmirror.com about mirrorless cameras and lenses soon.

So, to get us going, here are three categories and my definitions:

  • Sweet. Love this stuff. Every time I shoot with things in this category I'm happy with both the experience and the results.
  • Solid. Have no real issues with these items. They perform about the way I'd expect, and they don't introduce anything that gives me clear pause on the experience side.
  • Sour. No longer loving this gear. Something about the experience or the performance just doesn't make me happy. 

The Nikon DSLRs that fall into the Sweet category are few, and they're related:

  • D5 — This started the new generation of Nikon DSLRs, and it's a joy to use on sports with the big lenses. Yes, it's a big, heavy camera, and my back aches when I'm carrying two of these with heavy lenses for an afternoon, but in terms of light gathering, focus, exposure, and all the shooting experience things, I'm very happy with where the latest generation of pro Nikons has ended up. Favorite combo: D5 and the 400mm f/2.8 or the new 70-200mm f/2.8. Nothing better (focus or sharpness).
  • D500 — The mini-D5 takes away the big, heavy aspect, with the penalty mostly being that it just isn't the low light king that the D5 is. Almost everything else is the same when all is said and done. Favorite combo: the D500 and the 300mm f/4E, which has got to be the most capable handheld 450mm equivalent combo you can find.
  • D850 — And now we have more pixels than ever before, yet somehow they still seem to be incredibly clean, and all in a body that's a blend of the D5 and D500 niceness. What more could I ask for? Well, one thing: I'm not sure there's a lens combo that simply makes the D850 stand out from the crowd. I'm still looking for my favorite combo here. Maybe the 19mm f/4E?

In terms of lenses, I'm going to be a little tough on Nikon here and only pick a few lenses that I feel really stand out from the crowd:

  • 14-24mm f/2.8G — I'm surprised I'm still sweet on this lens. It's been out a long time while pixel densities have gone up, it doesn't take filters, and it has some field curvature. Yet I still smile when I see the results, even on the D850. 
  • 19mm f/4E PC — Don't have a lot of experience with this yet, so I'm early smitten with it. And a far better PC-E experience than the previous lenses, that has to count for something.
  • 58mm f/1.4G — This is the lens that started the current regime of redesigns, and a lot of controversy on the net. Sure, point it at a test chart at somewhat close distances—which is what all the tests you see on the Internet do—and the numbers don't seem very great. Put it on a camera and point it at a subject. Well, I'm still very sweet on that. This is a great portrait lens on a D500.
  • 70-200mm f/2.8E — Someone was on top of their game designing the optics for this lens. Night and day difference over the older lenses, particularly on the high pixel count bodies. Since you can still get the 70-200mm f/2.8G, is this new one worth the extra US$700? Absolutely, positively yes.
  • 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P — This one surprises me every time I put it on a body. Either I have an exceptional sample, or Nikon just managed to considerably improve a lens we pretty much all had in our kits at some point and basically liked. It also helps that it's not an expensive lens, which makes it sweeter.
  • 105mm f/1.4 — This lens is not perfect, until it is. There's some focus shift, the corners can get a little problematic wide open, you need to beware the longitudinal chromatic aberration. And yet...if I need 105mm this is the very first lens I reach for. Heck, I reach for it when I need 85mm or 135mm.  Like the 58mm f/1.4, above, there's something magical about the way this lens renders when used well.
  • 300mm f/4E — You can't help but be sweet on this lens. It's sharp, but it's incredible small and light. It takes the TC-14E about as well as any lens. Just don't shoot small light sources in the background with this lens.
  • 400mm f/2.8 — But really, any of what I call the exotics (200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4, 800mm f/5.6) are going to be on this list. I'm just pointing out my favorite, the one I'm sweetest on. Now some of that will have to do with the types of shooting I do, but I'd still say the 400mm is either the first or second sharpest of the bunch. Not that there's a lot of difference in this group.

Nikon doesn't make a lot of junk, so you're going to find quite a bit of their product line sitting in this category.

  • D3400 — Okay, the real reason this sits in the solid category is the price. US$500 for a camera and lens this good? Can't be topped by anything. 
  • D7500 — All the things that Nikon trimmed in the D7200 to D7500 upgrade seemed to doom it on the Internet. But you know what? It's a solid camera. Really solid. Of course, had Nikon not messed with the details, it would be a sweet camera, for sure.
  • D750 — I've had a little bit of a love/hate relationship with my D750, which survived two trips to Nikon to fix problems it originally came with. But when it's in my hands and shooting, it's fine. A really solid camera at the current prices.

Because there are so many lenses that fit this category, I'm going to do this in groups:

  • Wide angle zooms: 8-15mm f/3.5E
  • Midrange zooms: 16-80mm f/2.8-4E DX, 17-55mm f/2.8D DX, 24-70mm f/2.8E, 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G
  • Telephoto zooms: 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G DX, 70-200mm f/4G, 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G, 200-500mm f/5.6E
  • Wide angle primes: 10.5mm f/2.8G DX, 20mm f/1.8G, 24mm f/1.4G, 24mm f/1.8G, 28mm f/1.4G, 35mm f/1.4G, 35mm f/1.8G, 
  • Normal primes: 35mm f/1.8G DX
  • Telephoto primes: 85mm f/1.4G, 85mm f/1.8G, 180mm f/2.8D
  • Macro lenses: pretty much all of them, though I still think the 40mm focal length is too short for DX and the 60mm focal length is too short for FX: no working distance to speak of as you approach 1:1.

Okay, here's where I put on my flak jacket, helmet, and duck. Wait, no, I don't put on the duck...

  • D5600 — Sorry, but I'm completely sour on this camera these days. First of all, I'm seeing low level amp noise in the recent D5xxx models at fairly low ISO values. That just destroys the ability to pull up shadows. Reminds me a lot of the D80 fiasco. But I just don't understand what it is I'm supposed to like about this camera. For an extra US$150 I get a swivel LCD? Yes, I know there are a few other things different, like more autofocus sensors. But in the end, frankly, I'd rather just shoot with the D3400 and put the money towards a better DX lens (buzz, buzz). The D5600 is right where Nikon's feature addition/removal between models just doesn't grab me. I want more, not less. And I certainly don't want that amp noise, which I didn't find in the D3400.
  • Df — I really wanted to like this camera. But the dials lie to me sometimes, the viewfinder needs to be better for manual focus, and the grafted-onto-a-D600 nature of the design just never recedes. The idea was right, the execution was wrong. Here's the thing: if I want to use a camera like this I'll pick the Fujifilm X-T2 over the Df every day. The Fujifilm retro design is better, there's no Frankencamera aspect to it, and Fujifilm now has all the primes the Df really cries out for, with better manual focus support. All for less money. Ouch.

I'm not going to go through all the remaining Nikkors, but I'm pretty sure there are a few that you want me to write about as to why I've gone sour on them:

  • 16-35mm f/4G — Just too much linear distortion to deal with. You can't frame with a DSLR when the corrections are going to be that severe. Moreover, that mushes up corners when you do correct them later. Not the lens I want on my D850. Maybe a mirrorless camera (linear distortions would at least be corrected in the viewfinder so you could frame more clearly ;~).
  • 24-120mm f/4G — First of all, too much sample variation. I've tried almost a dozen now, and there were one or two that were acceptable, one or two that were clearly unacceptable, the rest in between. But even the acceptable ones just don't give me a good starting point for pixels on the high resolution bodies. I find that I always want to run Piccure+ on 24-120mm images, and even then probably want to throw in some more sharpening to crisper up the images. There's just no pop in the pixels when all is said and done. I sold mine and bought a 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5, which I find better in the same range (though again, I've seen sample variation in that lens, too; I happen to have a good sample).
  • 50mm anything — Sorry, Nikon, but your efforts here are incredibly poor compared to your other 21st century primes or anyone else's 50mm lenses. Did someone forget to put these lenses on the upgrade list?
  • 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G — Just try the new AF-P version. You'll know immediately why the old version is now sour. Very sour. 
  • 200-400mm f/4G — Brilliant lens at 25m or less. Far cheaper stuff beats it at longer distances. I can't live with that kind of personality. 
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