A couple of weeks ago I told the story of how I came to love the 28mm field of view. Surprisingly, very late in my own photographic endeavors. The moral of that story was not a recommendation or any sort of persuasion for other photographers to use this particular lens. It was a personal example of deep seeded biases of my own subtly diverting gear choices over a long period of time that proved to be limiting. I also conveyed a completely different and very active unproductive thought process I go through when making purchase decisions.
Over the last few weeks I’ve happily used that old Nikkor Non-AI 28mm f/3.5. The one I got for free. For no other reason than I’ve had no time to virtually shop for the replacement I think I want. What I think I want specifically is that optical gem — the Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 AIS. Small, inexpensive, plenty fast for any modern DSLR, crazy good performance — especially close up where I live. What’s not to like? In a word — nothing. So why’s it still sitting in my cart unacquired?
Gaining experience with this meager piece of glass I’ve discovered a few things I like are completely due to it’s deficiencies. A land mark design historically as one of the first retrofocus optical designs to overcome the inherent imaging performance issues that come with said design. It’s elegantly simple — 6 elements in 6 groups — leaving a lot of “performance” on the table. It’s sharpnesss is typical of old glass, crazy sharp in the center soft in the corners as well as the edges. It never gets sharp all over due to field curvature and a slew of other optical abberations. Additionally it’s not that great close up. The AIS 28/2.8 is one of those Nikkor sleepers — stunningly good and quite comparible with modern glass. It solves all of the performance issues displayed in the 28/3.5.
Here’s the rub. There are many things I actually like about those abberations and the overall rendering. There are a few things I’m not so crazy about but I’ve managed those effectively so far. In many ways this old lens reminds me of the things I liked about the 23mm f/2 welded to the Fuji X100S. It flares in backlit conditions. It has a graceful and subtle transition into out of focus areas of the frame. It’s bokeh gives a nice separation to the subject without calling attention to itself. Better yet, all of these characteristics are variable, predictable, and controllable merely by varying the aperture. Unlike the 23mm f/2 Fujinon the effects are progressive as aperture varies rather than night/day with a one stop change. Which particular behavior is preferrable is situational.
I think I’ll sit on the lens decision for a while longer. I’m not so sure I want to solve all these theoretical optical performance issues. Maybe I’ll opt for the 28 f/2 Non-AI instead. We’ll see.