Ode To Junky Lenses

Contrary to popular belief I do go outside. Just not during the winter. Although the temperature is not up to standard yet I experience a touch of spring fever as soon as the tiniest bit of green starts showing through the apocalyptic winter deadness. Yesterday I went to two, yes two mini-photowalks. One was a quick scouting of a cluster of racing horse farms located a mile or so from my house. The other was a more extended walk to the end of the point where a lighthouse is located at the end of the road. Of course I took a camera with me. The D600 a 50mm 1.4G along with the battle axe – my Nikkor 18mm AI.

The 18mm AI is a strange beast. I'm usually a photographer that sticks to meat and potatoes kind of focal lengths, 35mm-ish to 85 or 90mm. I bought my 18mm used so long ago I can't remember exactly when it was. Likely before auto-focus was even a serious notion. I have a vague recollection it was sometime around the time I bought my first F3 body. By the time it reached my hands it was obviously used by some pro photojournalist somewhere. They were notoriously hard on gear and it shows cosmetically. That lens is in the exact same condition that I got it more than 25 years ago. It was probably about 5 years old when I got it and already looked as if it was through a war. I'm sure there are lenses out there that are far more beat-up, ugly, with more missing paint, more dents, etc. I just don't own them. This one seems to have perfect glass although there's a bit of clunky noises when you rock it back and forth. It works but there are some caveats.

To be candid it's not actually in really bad shape. Any AI lens that was professionally used is going to show paint wear on the aperture ring. The other rubbed off paint is on those very sharp protruding edges on the strange extended filter ring. It does have one dent in that protruding ring not shown. Nothing to impair it's function. I also have the original packaging and docs. I guess that's something. The box is in better shape than the lens cosmetically.

Compared to any of the current Nikon wide angle lenses around that focal length – even the DX cheapy lenses – this is not a great performer by any measure. It's so so. It's certainly not fast at f/3.5. Wide open it vignettes like crazy. It oddly gives erroneous focus confirmation on any AF camera I've ever bothered to try it on. You have to know how much to nudge it in a specific direction if you really want exact focus on a particular point. I can do it but I've lived with it for a long time. In regular pictures at typical shooting apertures I'd use it's actually hard to tell what's in focus and what's not. Let's just say this old lens has a lot of quirks and faults in both use and performance that could be considered unacceptable by today's standards. Many other lenses have come and gone from my Nikkor corral so why has this one stuck around?

There's definitely an emotional component. This was my first really cool lens. Nobody had anything like this except pro-journalists back in the day. Local camera stores in bumpkinville never saw one before let alone having any in stock. Even used it was a find. I really had to stretch to buy it. New these things were out of the question. Crazy rare (no internet) and crazy expensive. It was also a time where 20mm and 21mm lenses were rare and extreme so this was special. At least it was to me.

With the emotional part out of the way it does have some characteristics that are quite unique. All of that better-ness built into even the most plastic-y hunk of DX kit lens crap as well as lenses like the 14-24 or the 16-35 do have a downside. In addition to the crappy feel and build they make very different pictures. If you are a spec-sheet photographer you could say all that modern glass makes better pictures. For me they make different pictures, what some may see as faults I see as characteristics that are sometimes – even often times desirable. Let's take a look at a few images I shot in my outbreak of spring fever yesterday with the old warhorse.

I do crazy shit when delusional with spring fever. Not recommended, not safe, and certainly not worthwhile. It's not anything extreme like cliff diving. More along the lines of insanely dumb. I saw the deer from about 100 yards away while driving home. My Domke F2 was in the back seat. While driving on the corkscrew road with no shoulder and lots of hills and curves I reached behind myself and shuffled around until I could grab the D600. Guess what was mounted – the 18mm. I proceeded to fire off a few frames as I drove by. Of course I was looking through the viewfinder to frame. Who can resist a backlit deer. I would have stopped but there's no shoulder to stop on. In any case take a look at the way the sun in the frame renders with the 18mm AI. Very cool. You can reproduce this at will at f/8-f/22 on just about any specular highlight. New lenses, umm, not so much.

Another example of something that is very predictable and easily controllable that's completely different on most of today's newer glass. New glass sort of produces on big strangely shaped blob – sometimes. Even when it does it's really hard to position since it only happens at tiny very specific angles. Some new glass just doesn't do it at all – instead it produces an overall reduction in contrast in just one specific orientation which looks really bad. Here's another…

Not all old lenses do these kinds of things, some do and others aren't so easily controlled in terms of how they render. Sometimes faults are things you might actually want. Just something to keep in mind in our world of never ending upgrades and progress.

All images processed with VSCOfilm01 Fuji 400H except the top one VSCOfilm04 E100G.


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