Are Lenses Built To Last?

I have way too many lenses. I cannot even keep track of them all. I have resisted as best I could buying a bunch of new glass for my D600 but ended up with the 105DC Nikkor when I originally set out to buy a new AF 50mm. I love it and am extremely glad that I spent the few dollars on it. Few dollars being relative to most pro-level glass these days.

I know that even that purchase was kind of insane as already have a boat load of 90-105mm lenses. I mean a boat load. The only focal length that I have more of is the 50mm-ish range. Why the hell do I need another 105mm? I don't. I have 4 in the same range for Nikon, a couple of Leicas, My superlative new 60mm Fujinon, a couple of zooms that cover the same range, on and on. There are about 1000 things that I could have spent my money on that would have done me a whole lot more good.

This got me thinking about my motivations that were not mere manifestations of the dreaded GAS. What I came up with were countless but in the end there were three things that really drive me…

  • First off is that I am a 50mm and short-tele fetishist. Wake me up in the middle of the night even after a bad bender and ask me to shoot a picture and the first lens I will grab will definitely be either a 50mm or a short tele in the 90-105mm range. When you use a particular lens focal length so so much you become insanely intimate with it's characteristics both good and bad and they stand out like a sore thumb to you - even if nobody else could possibly see the difference. This particular one does something wonderful under particular circumstances but drives you insane in another. The other one is a pain in the ass but has one characteristic that you love. Etc, Etc. Somehow this puts you on the quest for the perfect combo of all of the things you love. Probably makes no difference to anyone else but you.
  • The fear of missing out on a good deal. This is pure paranoia but actually plays a factor when it crosses my mind at the same time an opportunity exists. Most of the time the particular timing presents no real "deal" as the same or better deal proves to available down the road. Every once in a while I actually do buy something that is a fantastic deal. This is not from a speculative investment point of view - it's from a user point of view where if I would have waited the price of a particular piece of gear or the equivalent is astronomically high. This has happened a couple of time where I bought a near-new condition way under the retail price and then they stopped being made or replaced with something priced sky high which sent the prices through the roof compared to what I paid. I feel the 105DC and 135DC may enter that realm sooner or later. There aren't a ton of them out there since they are highly misunderstood, they are built to a standard that really doesn't seem carry through on many "pro" Nikkors today and as we have seen - every year one of those metal crinkle finished AF-D lenses is getting replaced with a "G" lens. While some of them have better performance than the old one - some do not - some aren't replaced at all. At this moment it's a bargain at less than a $1000 new. You can bet that if it gets replaced, even without the "DC" it will be crazy expensive and probably not built as well.
  • That brings me to the third and most important bit that goes through my mind. Durability, malfunction, and a backup. I am an absolute nut when it comes to having a backup system for the absolute essentials that I am using to shoot with. Extra lights, flash tubes, camera bodies, etc. Even though I have not shot gigs where an equipment failure would be the end of the world in the last few years, the mentality is built in at this point. In the film days it never crossed my mind to cary a backup to my most used/useful lenses. At least with my gear the only failure that crossed my mind was catastrophic loss. The bodies are what I was concerned about just up and breaking with no provocation.

Somehow this started to change with digital and my faith in lenses just working went out the window. I never experienced un-recoverable failure with any of my manual focus lens gear Nikon or other. This changed with my AF Nikkors. I have had four failures with AF Nikon lenses, three of them could be considered show-stoppers. Thankfully those three were not critical to accomplishing the job at the time - yes every single failure happened while shooting for real.

  • First was the failure of the aperture's ability to stop down from wide-open on my piece of shit but not cheap Nikon 24-50 AF. No big deal - was not my primary lens for the day - it was a mere convenience.
  • Same thing happened to my 20mm AF-D. I was using it for a few out of the box environmental portraits. Again no big deal as I usually use things this wide for goofy stuff just to see what happens. Shot two frames and then the rest were toast due to insane over exposure. Silent failures are the worst. I didn't even know until I developed the film. Thank goodness I only shot a total of six frames.
  • My absolutely fantastic 28-70 AFS stopped auto focusing. The AF-S part went belly up and needed a motor replacement. I just switched to manual focus and kept on going. Slowed me down a hair but not a big deal. As best I can calculate that happened somewhere around 30-50K frames in from brand-new. I still have that lens and easily have 200K frames on it now. I am just waiting for it to need a new motor at any moment. God help you if you are a wedding or event guy that only uses that zoom and a 70-200 with no other normal-ish coverage. Probably a good idea to pack either a 35 prime or a 50 prime depending on your style. I could easily get away with either vs the normal zoom. Same goes for either a 100 or a 135 incase your 70-200 decides to stop doing what it does.

That brings me to my fourth failure. It just occurred recently and somehow happened when it was sitting on a shelf. My Nikon 105 AF Micro has gone wonky. I used it a while ago, it sat on a shelf for a few months and the next time I used it - broken. It's particular malfunction is something I have never heard of and cannot seem to find anywhere on the internet or maybe it's happened and nobody bothered to diagnose it themselves prior to having it fixed or replacing it. Here are the symptoms - AF/Digital bodies recognize it as an AF lens at closest focusing distance to about 9ft exactly. From 9ft to infinity those same bodies jitter between sometimes recognizing it as a CPU enabled lens and a CPU-less manual focus lens. What's mind boggling is that this lens predates AF-D - "D" as in distance info. WTF? I can still use it but boy it's a pain in the ass.

For those that cannot guess at why this is such a pain in the ass it's due to the way Nikon AF glass is handled on CPU lenses with an aperture ring. If there are CPU contacts there is no way to tell the camera it's not a CPU enabled lens meaning you cannot effectively use it at close-focus to 9ft without turning the aperture ring to it's smallest aperture. The camera will not fire. When the CPU cuts out you are left with the lens at it's smallest aperture no matter what settings you dialed in using the command wheels. Even if you setup the "manual lens" to be correct you have to vacillate between using the command dial and the aperture ring as it cuts in and out between 9ft and infinity.

The good news is that I haven't used this lens for anything farther away than 3 feet in a decade. I hate it for anything that's not a super close up. The focus turn at between 4 feet and infinity is so short it's pretty much error prone, touchy, and useless. I have a couple of choices here - trash it and get a new macro. Use it only for macro in manual focus mode - something I do already but bugs the shit out of my and with my luck will probably get worse over time causing me to have to deal with the issue all over the focus range. Of course this will happen when I am actually shooting something I care about. Get it fixed? Nikon will probably charge me the same or more than I can buy a functioning used one. Last but not least either break or temporarily disable the CPU contacts somehow to turn it into a manual focus lens. I'll probably wait until it gets worse or I actually need it for a serious shoot before I decide.

In any case I just wanted to relay some of this experience to all of you with the intent of two points to consider. First of all a significant number of lenses don't seem to be built the way they used to be. Like the aperture activation mechanism failing on two of my AF Nikkors. Second, the additional functional complexity can cause failures that are at best inconvenient and worst case catastrophic in ways that you might not expect. If you have a focal length or particular lens that is a "make or break" lens for what you are planning on doing make sure you can back it up right then and there. I am not advocating a complete duplicate set of lenses - just something that can get you by in a credible way. In some cases this might be a large aperture 50mm to backup your go-to 24-70 or a "special purpose" tele macro to back up your 70-200. You be the judge but definitely consider the possibilities and account for it if the success of the job depends on it.


Ps. Shot above was just stupid crap I was using to quantify the whacky behavior of the 105 micro.

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