Photo

Digital Photo Pro magazine

I picked up a photo magazine at my local Barnes & Noble today. Only afterwards did I realize it is their first issue.

The racks are overcrowded with me-too publication bearing funky names like e-Digit@l Photo-zine. They almost invariably serve the same mixture of fawning (yet superficial) product reviews and tutorials that manage to be even more obscure than the poorly translated manuals whose shortcomings they are supposed to address. As if anybody will wait three months for reviews of a camera that is probably already discontinued by the time they reach print, rather than getting them from places like DPReview… Even an old standby like Popular Photography had to re-brand by adding the seemingly obligatory “& Imaging” to its masthead. Magazine publishing is a cutthroat business, and no doubt consolidation will drive most of the dross out. Eventually.

Digital Photo Pro is a refreshing exception to this sad state of affairs. Interestingly, it is published from Los Angeles, not New York, the publishing capital of the USA. The first issue has decent technical content, that would not be out of place in specialized websites like Photo.net. It also has more creative features like a lengthy interview of Jay Maisel. In a way, it is reminiscent of American Photo magazine, but the feature articles are longer and the product reviews cover interesting products rather than every ho-hum digicam around.

The only false note is the presence of two “advertorials” by Minolta, one for flashmeters, one for scanners. I can understand the harsh realities of the publishing business, but sections like those, even when labeled properly as is the case, do not contribute to a magazine’s credibility.

We will have to see if the magazine can sustain the relatively good quality of the first issue, or if it will run out of steam, but the subscription fee is small enough ($15 for 6 issues) to make the risk limited. And we do want to help quality publications drive out the junk, don’t we?

The Ghola asset management program

I am now using Kavasoft Shoebox and thus this whole entry is obsolete and kept only for historical purposes. It is interesting to see one of my requirements anticipated Aperture’s stacks.

Introduction

I am in the process of migrating from Windows to Mac OS X as my primary home computing environment. IMatch is one of the key applications I need to migrate, but it is not available on the Mac. Ghola is an attempt to reproduce the key functionality of IMatch, and possibly go beyond. It is also a good way to learn Cocoa programming (my last programming experience on the Mac goes back to Think C 4.0 accessing raw QuickDraw calls).

Use cases

  1. Assign categories to images or a folder of images.
  2. Search for images matchin an expression of categories.
  3. Restructure a category (e.g. splitting a category grown too large into multiple, more manageable subcategories).

Requirements (incomplete)

The following are the key features from IMatch that need to be carried over:

  • The flexible set-oriented category system.

  • Support for RAW images (CRW and NEF).

  • Fast retrieval performance.

  • Extensible metadata.

  • Offline media support.

The following are the requirements for Ghola beyond IMatch:

  • Ability to group very similar variants of an image together. This would allow to group an image original, retouched versions, cropped and resized versions, or multiple very similar images taken in succession, yet manage them as a single logical unit. The role of each image in the group would be identified as well as part of its group membership, and each group would have a leader used by default.

  • Manage assets beyond images, such as PDF files.

  • Highly efficient categorization user interface.

  • Scriptable in Python.

  • HTML gallery generation, integrated with Mylos.

Implementation directions

The system core will be implemented in Python, and C if necessary. It should be as portable as possible. Possibly even multi-user and remotable.

SQLite will be used as the core database. Fast, simple, easy to manage.

GUI front-ends will use the native toolkits (PyObjC) whenever possible for optimal user experience and Aqua compliance.

A command-line UI could be more efficient for category assignment, if it is augmented with features like completion.

We may have to use bitmap indexes for efficient category indexing. Boolean operations on Python long integers are surprisingly fast, and C might not be needed at this point.

Colophon

The System name is a reference to Frank Herbert’s Dune (the original series, of course, not the opportunistic add-ons by Brian Herbert. It has the nice side benefit of not being already used by another open-source program.

Archival photography

Henry Wilhelm is a well-known authority on preserving photographs. He pretty much wrote the book on the subject, and it is now downloadable for free in PDF format from his website.

In a nutshell:

  • No widespread color process is really archival, unlike black & white
  • Fuji good, Kodak bad

Wilhelm has contributed greatly to making photographs last by raising the public’s awareness of conservation issues, at a time when manufacturers like Kodak were engaging in deliberately deceptive marketing implying that color prints would “last forever”, when they knew the prints would not exceed 10 to 15 years (Fuji has put far more effort in making their materials last).

That said, his simulated aging testing methodology has been criticized as too optimistic, and in one embarrassing instance, Epson Stylus Photo 2000 inkjet photo papers he highly rated for their durability turned out to be very short-lived because they were very sensitive to very common ozone pollution. For an alternative, more conservative, take on inkjet print longevity, Stephen Livick’s website offers a valuable counterpoint.

My take on the subject: I almost exclusively use black & white film because it has a distinct character and is archival without special equipment or active attention. Color film relies on dyes (that fade over time) rather than silver, and fades quickly or suffers from weird color shifts even when kept in the dark. The exception is Kodachrome, which keeps a very long time in the dark despite being also dye-based, but Kodak is not enthusiastic in supporting it and its future availability is uncertain. Given that, it makes more sense to use digital, which has more than caught up in quality, and at least has the potential for lasting images if managed properly (a big if: imagine you were to disappear tomorrow, would your heirs know how to retrieve your digital photos from your computer?).

And of course, I boycott Kodak, a company ruled by bean-counting MBAs whose only concern seems to be how to cut corners in silver content at the expense of product quality, much like Detroit automakers behaved before American consumers wised up to the shoddy quality of their products. Then again, Kodak’s current management is stacked with former HP executives who are turning the company into a HP-wannabe, thus predictably accelerating its slide into irrelevance.

Costco San Francisco switches to Noritsu

I visited the San Francisco Costco yesterday, and they have replaced their Fuji Frontier 370 mentioned here with a Noritsu QSS-3101 (PDF). This generation of Noritsu digital minilab uses a laser rather than the MLVA (LED) technology used in earlier Noritsu minilabs, and it should have equivalent quality (I will know for sure this coming Thursday when I get my prints back – it seems the word is out and Costco now has quite a backlog).

The nice thing is they now have a self-service Noritsu CT-1 kiosk where you can upload your photos from flash cards or CD, albeit with a slightly clunky interface. They also support 8×12 rather than 8×10 now, and more interestingly larger sizes such as 11×14 ($2.99), up to 12×18 (also $2.99 apiece).

Fortunately, the paper used is still Fuji Crystal Archive rather than the inferior Kodak alternatives Noritsu is usually associated with (Kodak resells Noritsu minilabs, and allegedly some Agfa minilab components as well).

Update (2003-07-30):

I picked up the prints this evening. Unfortunately, contrary to what the guy at the counter said, they did crop the photos instead of adding white margins. The end result? Many prints with partially decapitated people, and those that have been spared are too wide to fit in my 8×10 album.

The prints are sharp, but significantly darker and less saturated than my proof on-screen (I calibrate my monitor with a ColorVision SpyderPRO). The Fuji Frontier was much closer to the sRGB space, it seems. I have no idea why Noritsu calibrates its machines to some completely different standard than sRGB despite the fact the latter is the industry standard. I will take a calibration target when I go to have them redone tomorrow.

I consider myself quite knowledgeable about computers and digital photography, and I can cope with manual resizing of pictures to prevent brain-dead cropping, or working with custom profiles to work around poorly calibrated printers. I am sure 99% of the digital camera buying population will be unable to go through these unnecessary hoops. They will just get dull, oddly cropped photos back and naturally think the technology is at fault, and go back to using inkjet printers even though they produce grainy prints with poor durability, all for a king’s ransom. Fuji, Kodak and the rest are already playing catch-up in the digital printing space, they will definitely lose the race if they do not improve their firmware and require digital minilab operators to calibrate their units.

Update (2003-09-24):

I gave them a lot of 25 11×14 to print on Monday. Mindful of my previous cropping fiasco, I first gave them a trial run of 6 last week (3 “lustre” and 3 glossy), as well as to test the Dry Creek Photo color management profiles. The prints came out fine, with reasonably accurate color (within the limits of the printer’s gamut). They had a half inch white border on top and bottom, as the Noritsu’s native output size is 12×14, and the lab technician told me they were expecting a trimmer next week.

Unfortunately, when I retrieved my prints yesterday (insert mandatory joke here about “someday, my prints will come”), unlike the trial run, they expanded the print to the full 12×14 paper area (thus trimming off about 1 inch on each side from the print, and ruining the composition). Costco disabled 11×14 and 12×18 prints from the CT-1 interface. They must be running the printer on manual for these print sizes because the software on the CT-1 is brain-dead about cropping, but it seems all operators are not equally well trained with the new equipment, and I suspect the user interface is confusing enough to allow them to shoot themselves (or me, in this case) in the foot.

Conclusion: color management profiles are a must for this Noritsu printer, and be very specific about cropping instructions as their workflow is inconsistent from operator to operator. And it’s a good thing they have a money-back guarantee…

Beating the inkjet racket

HP introduced a new line of printers recently, with one model starting at $40, or barely more than the ink cartridges for it that cost $21. A British consumer magazine has exposed the deceptive and price-gouging practices of inkjet printer manufacturers. No wonder most of HP’s profits come from their printing business, their computer division being a mere hanger-on, and they have adopted King Gillette’s “give away the razor, sell the blades” business model with a vengeance.

Printing photos on an inkjet paper is particularly expensive since most of the paper surface is covered in ink, unlike conventional documents where the ratio is only 5% of so. If you are a digital photographer needing to make prints, you should look beyond the low purchase price for these printers, as there are far better options available.

There are many processes to produce prints from digital originals. You can use inkjet printers, dye-sublimation printers, Fuji’s Pictrography, and digital minilabs. Color laser printers are relatively economical, but are best used for office documents rather than photos as their output is not particularly vivid. Inkjet printers have vivid colors but their results fade very quickly (apart from a handful of pigment-based ink models from Epson in their 2000/2100/2200 series). Dye sublimation printers have excellent smooth colors, and last longer thanks to their protective overcoat layer, but are usually expensive to run and have limited paper size options. Fuji’s Pictrography process is a true photographic process, but both printers and media are expensive, and it is most suitable for professional photographers who need to produce in-house proof prints for clients on a deadline, but cannot afford a $175,000 digital minilab.

This leaves what is in my opinion the best option for obtaining prints, digital minilabs. These are machines that expose conventional (silver) photo paper with lasers or LEDs. The key players are Fuji with their Frontier system, Noritsu (Kodak’s partner) and Agfa with their d-Lab. All of these systems will yield excellent, smudge-proof and durable prints, and are invariably far more cost-effective than the alternatives. You can get 4in x 6in (10cm x 15cm) prints made for as low as 20 cents each online or at many places like Costco. In many cases, you can just insert a memory card or CD in a kiosk system like the Fuji Aladdin, select your pictures, crop and adjust contrast, and they will be sent to the minilab to be printed within an hour.

Digital minilabs are usually limited to 8in x 10in or 11in x 14in prints. For larger sizes, you need to use a professional lab that uses high-end large-format machines like the Cymbolic Lightjet or Durst Lambda, which use lasers as well, but operate on large rolls of photo paper for advertising and other high-end applications. I have had a 4in x 100in panoramic print (yes, you read that right) made on a Lightjet by Pictopia.com, with excellent results. These services are usually more expensive, about $10-15 per square foot, but use higher quality professional grade paper rather than the consumer-level kind (usually thinner and not quite as durable) used by mass-market shops.

Using the Canon Magnifier S with the 10D

The Canon EOS 10D, like most modern autofocus cameras, has a viewfinder screen that leaves somewhat to be desired for fine manual focus. Manual focus is still required for special applications like macro photography or the use of Canon’s TS-E Tilt-Shift lenses.

The only way to improve the accuracy of the laser matte ground glass is to use a focusing magnifier. One is built into the Angle Finder C, but that is a very expensive accessory (not quite as princely priced as the $250 Leica Viewfinder Magnifier M 1.25x, however…).

Another, cheaper option is to use the Canon Magnifier S. This accessory has been discontinued by Canon, but it can readily be found on places like eBay. I paid $56 for mine (mint “old new” stock), including shipping.

Magnifier S

This is a focusing loupe that slides onto the 10D’s viewfinder using the supplied Adapter S as a replacement for the standard eyecup, as shown below. It magnifies the central portion of the image only by a 2.5x factor. Unfortunately, it seems Canon does not make a wide-field magnifier equivalent to the DW-4 viewfinder for the Nikon F3, which offers 6x full-field magnification!

Mounting step 1Mounting step 2 Mounting step 3

The advantage of this setup is that the magnifier can easily be flipped out of the way as needed.

Flip-up

Update (2003-09-12):

I got to handle the new Canon EOS 300D (Digital Rebel) last Wednesday, and the Magnifier S fits it as well.

Update (2005-09-04):

Yes, it also fits the Rebel XT.

Digital SLR cameras and the $1000 price theshold

In the film world, the technical quality of the pictures you take is conditioned mostly by the lens and film you use. A $79 Olympus Stylus Epic with a fixed 35mm lens will take as good or better pictures than a fancy SLR (single-lens reflex) by Canon or Nikon, and you can load it up with Fuji Neopan 1600 or Ilford Delta 3200 film for taking pictures in very low light conditions.

For digital cameras, this does not hold – the more expensive digital SLRs (DSLRs) have much larger sensors that collect more light and thus have a higher signal to noise ratio, which makes for smoother, cleaner pictures and higher sensitivity. Compact digicams peak at ISO 400, which means flash is required at night, with the accompanying “red-eyed rabbit caught in headlights” look…

Unfortunately, until recently DSLRs have been out of most peoples’ reach, with prices above $2000. Canon breached this by introducing its flagship amateur DSLR, the 10D, for under $1500 street price. Many believe that prices will still need to fall below the psychological threshold of $1000 for DSLRs to gain wide acceptance. It’s interesting to look at the Japanese camera manufacturers’ trade association CIPA’s statistics, from which it appears the manufacturers’ average wholesale price for interchangeable-lens digital SLRs was about $910 in February 2003. Some pundits think the $1000 retail price threshold will be crossed around the end of the year.

Update (2003-08-20):

The other shoe drops – Canon just announced its $900 EOS 300D, which packs most of the features (and more importantly, the sensor and image quality) of the EOS 10D for less than 2/3 the price. Canon can do this, as they are a vertically integrated company, making everything from the optics to the sensor.

Canon EOS 10D first impressions

I received my Canon EOS 10D digital SLR yesterday, as an upgrade to my D30.

Some observations that I haven’t found on the Internet yet, and that may be useful to other new 10D owners or owners to be:

  1. The camera feels solid, but not appreciably better built than the D30. The much-hyped magnesium shell does not make much difference.

  2. As usual, the Canon software sucks. The USB TWAIN driver for the 10D does not work, breaks TWAIN and you need to restart apps such as Photoshop to be able to use other TWAIN drivers again. I use a Firewire CompactFlash card reader instead.

  3. The camera supports the PIMA (now I3A) Picture Transfer Protocol (PTP), a standardized protocol to transfer images and control a camera over a USB connection. I wish they had also implemented the USB Mass Storage Class the way Nikon did. This would allow the camera to be recognized as a hard drive by all modern operating systems.

  4. Even though the 10D is compatible with the BG-ED3 portrait grip/battery pack, the base plate is slightly different from the D30/D60, and dedicated Arca-Swiss style quick release tripod plates like the PZ-52 or BL-D60 from Kirk fit loosely and twist. In the meantime, my older, non-dedicated B24E plate from RRS will fit, but as it is held only by friction, it is a less than ideal solution.

  5. As usual with the introduction of new cameras, third-party (i.e. usable) RAW workflow software struggles to catch up. IMatch will generate thumbnails correctly, but not display the images. BreezeBrowser displays the images in quick preview mode but will not do RAW conversion yet.

  6. The eyepiece cover is now integral to the strap and is less likely to fall off.

  7. The 10D uses the same batteries as the D30/D60, but unfortunately not the same USB cable.

  8. 10x magnification is better than the D30, but I wish they could resolve down to individual pixels to check for critical focus.

  9. The camera feels quieter (muted shutter and mirror sound) and snappier than my D30, except for image review, which is still too slow for any but the most leisurely review.

  10. Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0 is supplied, a nice touch as this version is far more capable than the Photoshop 5.0 LE supplied with the D30.

  11. The viewfinder is similar to the Elan 7E. It does not have eye control focus, unfortunately. The only other major missing feature is spot metering.

I also posted some sample images I took during my lunch break, with the Canon EF 20mm f/2.8 USM. The images were converted with Canon’s File Viewer Utility V.1.2.1

Update (2003-03-27):

Kirk Photo now has an Arca-Swiss style quick-release plate for the 10D, the PZ-80. They are expecting to have a L bracket as well in about three weeks’ time.

Update (2003-08-05):

The current version of BreezeBrowser is fully functional with 10D RAW images, and has been so for a few months now.

Kodak E100GX slide film compared to Fuji

I shot a sample roll of Kodak’s new Ektachrome E100GX film. It is marketed as a fine-grained and sharp film, clearly to challenge the current dominance of Fuji Velvia and Provia 100F (RDPIII), with similar specs to Provia, at least on paper.

Here are a few small 256×256 crops of 2900dpi scans I made on my Nikon Coolscan IVED scanner. I deliberately exaggerated the grain structure by applying equalization in Photoshop.

Velvia E100GX
Velvia E100GX
Provia Provia pushed 2 stops
Provia Provia +2

Keep in mind this test is highly unscientific since the crops represent different scenes with different contrast levels and colors.

Exodus from Leica?

If you read the Photo.net Leica forum, it’s striking to see how many people are trying to sell off their Leica gear, some of them apparently to finance a digital SLR purchase. I come from the opposite direction, but an interesting phenomenon to be sure. The Leica has taken the status of a fetish among certain photo snobs, what with all the special collector editions and all, and one would think it would be immune to purely practical considerations… Or maybe some people anticipate the resale value of these fine cameras will fall as photography goes digital and are trying to realize it now.

Mountain Light

Galen Rowell

Sierra Club, ISBN: 0871563673 PublisherBuy online

coverGalen Rowell was a world-class mountaineer and photographer. He passed away with his wife in an airplane crash on August 11, 2002.

He was a master of color landscapes and had the knack of catching unique combinations of light in the memorable photos that can be seen in his Mountain Light Gallery. Interestingly, he eschewed the large format cameras used by Ansel Adams and used exclusively 35mm cameras from Nikon (thus thoroughly debunking the orthodoxy that 35mm cannot be used for serious landscape photography).

In this book, Rowell lays out his relation to mountains, his artistic vision and his photographic techniques, in an engaging and lively style alternating between theoretical text and more illustrative intermezzos with detailed descriptions of the story behind each image (reminiscent of Ansel Adams’ Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. Like Ansel Adams, he was a member of the Sierra Club, but ecological preoccupations are woven subtly in the text. He shows a photo taken near a 4900 year old bristlecone pine that was felled by a botanist who couldn’t be troubled to special-order a core sampling borer from Switzerland.

The photos in the book are gorgeous, but this is no mere coffee-table book (it is too affordable to be one, for starters). All in all, I believe this book is a must-read for anyone interested in landscape photography, even if you are not into the strenuous physical style he favored.

The lure of classic cameras

Hi, my name is Fazal and I have a camera problem.

I guess I should have heeded the first signs almost a decade ago when I bought a ridiculously expensive but oh-so-cool Nikon 35Ti. The incubation period was long, and I thought having shifted to digital in 1998 would protect me, but this year alone I bought a Nikon FM3A and a Leica M6 TTL (unlike the pictures, my FM3A is chrome and my M6 black).

What is it about these technologically obsolete cameras that makes them so compelling? Clearly, retro nostalgia, harking back to my first camera, a Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super, plays a role, but there is more to it. And I certainly intend to use them, unlike some Japanese who collect them with almost fetichist care (as narrated on this page).

Much of the appeal these cameras have lies in their timelessness and near-perfect design, like those of other classics like the Rolleiflex TLR or the Porsche 911. More importantly, the more relaxed (some would say inconvenient) shooting style, due to manual exposure and focus, forces one to pay more attention to the picture taking process.

Arguably, this leads to better images than the blunderbuss approach (specially with digital cameras where there are no film costs to moderate shooting frenzy). But this also means more conscious cognitive time is passed in the process of taking pictures as opposed to the mere end-result.

Thus the real reason these cameras endure lies in the mutually reinforcing combination of conscious time spent handling (fondling?) the camera and the tactile or visual pleasure experienced in using them. These cameras are about photography, not photographs.

Louvre Panorama

For your enjoyment, a 360° immersive panorama I took of the Louvre courtyard in 1998. Java-enabled browser required (I tested this with Mozilla 1.1 and IE 6 with the Sun JRE 1.4.0 plug-in).

Immersive panorama

For your enjoyment, a 360° immersive panorama I took of the Louvre courtyard in 1998. As a Java-enabled browser required, I moved it to a page of its own so as not to slow down the loading of this page too much:

Louvre Panorama

End of an era at Nikon

I bought a 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G AF-S Zoom-Nikkor for my father. This lens is a “G” series lens, which means it does not have a manual aperture selection ring. Unfortunately, the only Nikon camera I have to test the lens against is a mechanical FM3A. I thought the lens would be usable, if only wide open, but it also lacks the mechanical exposure meter coupling ridge, which means it isn’t usable at all except maybe with a handheld meter.

One of Nikon’s main arguments was the compatibility in its lens line (unlike Canon who sacrificed compatibility when they replaced the manual-focus FD mount with the “fly-by-wire” EOS mount). Most newer Nikon bodies (including the $2100 D100) are no longer able to meter with manual-focus AI-S lenses (other than the 45mm f/2.8P), and now older Nikon bodies won’t be able to use newer lenses either.

The two worlds of Nikon manual-focus and autofocus systems will now inevitably diverge.

Update (2002-12-13):

Nikon recently announced they will be producing a new “DX” line of reduced-image-circle lenses specially designed to offer wideangle capabilities to APS-size sensor digital SLRs like the D100. The other shoe drops?

Displaying prints

Prints are still the most common way of viewing and sharing photos. Framing is certainly an option, but there is only so much wall space. Photo albums and portfolios are the most practical way to display prints to their best advantage.

Avoid the cheesy slip-in white plastic sleeve kind sold in supermarkets, get albums with thick paper pages where you can stick your prints with photo tape and optionally photo corners (available at most art supply stores). The better albums also have thin translucent buffer sheets to protect the prints. Make sure all the supplies you use (including the photo tape and corners) are archival (at the very least, acid and lignin-free, using archival polypropylene or polyethylene, not PVC or polymers with excess plasticizers from their manufacture, which can attack the prints).

Here are some good suppliers of presentation albums:

  • Pina Zangaro, a San Francisco-based company, makes elegant designer portfolios and display cases, with a predilection for brushed aluminum.

  • Kozo Arts, also based in San Francisco, makes exquisite hand-bound photo albums with silk covers, very popular for wedding albums.

  • Kolo makes expandable archival photo albums in handsome linen and leather covers, and are widely available in arts supply stores. Kozo Arts albums are not much more expensive, however and preferable in my opinion.

  • Prat and Panodia are two French brands of photo presentation and archival supplies, commonly used by professionals for their “books”.

Update (2003-01-27):

Unfortunately, I can’t recommend Pina Zangaro’s “BEX” line of slipcovered presentation portfolios. I had two, and they came apart unglued in my admittedly very humid apartment. What’s worse, one was placed in a bookshelf and acted as a kind of fungus magnet. Apparently, the cloth used for the binding is very hygroscopic (absorbs and retains humidity), and something in the glue is very nourishing for molds and fungus.

Nikon D100 tests

I got my father a Nikon D100 digital SLR for his birthday. I tested it for a couple of weeks beforehand, and have posted some tests. There is a small gallery of macro shots, and an informal comparative test of three normal lenses.

A tale of three lenses

Introduction

This is a quick and semi-scientific comparison of three normal prime lenses for the Nikon system:

Why these three lenses? Simply because I happened to have them on hand. The 45mm is the lens I use on my FM3A (see also my Epinions.com review), the 60mm macro is the lens I bought along with a D100 for my father, and the 50mm f/1.8 (non-D) is the normal lens I used to have on my old N6006, before I sold it off on eBay (and gave the lens away to a friend who lent it back to me for the purposes of this test).

Construction

The 45mm and the 60mm are both very well constructed in metal, to the same standard as old AI-S lenses. The 50mm is the cheapest lens in Nikon’s line, and it shows: the barrel is plasticky (and the silk-screened focal length has actually partly worn off).

The 45mm and 60mm both have well-damped manual-focus rings without play. The 50mm has a loose focus ring. The 45mm and 50mm are both quite light, the 60mm is a more substantial and heavier lens (but I think it balances better with the D100 body).

The 45mm is a Tessar, a lens design invented exactly one century ago by Paul Rudolph of Zeiss. It is supplied with a compact lens hood and a neutral filter to protect the lens. Interestingly, the “real thing”, a Contax 45mm f/2.8 Tessar T* by Zeiss is actually cheaper than the Nikon copy…

The 60mm has a deeply recessed front element that comes out as you crank the helical for close-up and macro shots. The concentric inner barrels rearrange their relative position as well, due to the internal focus design which allows the lens to be used both as a macro and a general standard lens. For general photography, no lens hood is needed as the lens body itself acts as one.

Sharpness

To test lens sharpness, I taped a page from the classified ads section of the Sunday paper to a wall, and lit it with a cheap Ikea halogen lamp. I then set up a Gitzo 2227 tripod with an Arca-Swiss B1 ballhead and shot the newspaper. I tried to use the same framing as much as possible to keep the shots comparable. Before running the tests, I applied a custom white balance using a standard 18% gray card. The shots were all taken with a 2s self-timer and the mirror vibration reduction function activated. The 50mm and 60mm were focused with AF, the 45mm was focused manually with the D100’s focus assist “electronic rangefinder”. The NEFs are “compressed NEFs”, around 4MB each.

You have to take this test with a grain of salt, as I had no way to make sure the camera axis was precisely perpendicular to the wall, whether the wall itself is flat and if the newspaper lay really flat against the wall. Furthermore, as I had to move the tripod to keep the framing identical across different focal lengths, I may have introduced subtle shifts in the tripod. To make this more usable, I am attaching below a table of 256×128 crops taken at the corners and center of the frame.

Lens sharpness test crops
Position 60mm f/2.8D AF Micro-Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor 45mm f/2.8P Nikkor
Top Left
Top Right
Center
Bottom Left
Bottom Right

The differences between the lenses are subtle, and certainly within the error margin for the experiment, but all the lenses show excellent sharpness without fringe chromatic aberrations or the like.

Bokeh

Bokeh is the Japanese word to describe how out-of-focus highlights are rendered. It is principally controlled by the shape of the lens diaphragm. All three lenses have a seven-blade diaphragm, but only the 45mm’s blades are rounded.

Out-of-focus highlights (Bokeh)
Lens JPEG NEF Crop
45mm f/2.8P Nikkor @ f/8 DSC_0045.jpg DSC_0045.NEF
45mm f/2.8P Nikkor @ f/2.8 DSC_0043.jpg DSC_0043.NEF
60mm f/2.8D AF Micro-Nikkor @ f/2.8 DSC_0038.jpg DSC_0038.NEF
50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor @ f/2.8 DSC_0036.jpg DSC_0036.NEF
50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor @ f/1.8 DSC_0037.jpg DSC_0037.NEF

At the largest aperture, the aperture is usually constrained by a circular portion of the lens barrel rather than by the diaphragm, which explains why the bokeh of the 50mm lens is significantly better at f/1.8 than f/2.8. The next table shows the incidence of aperture on the shape of out-of-focus highlights:

Out-of-focus highlights (Bokeh)
Aperture 60mm f/2.8D AF Micro-Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor 45mm f/2.8P Nikkor
f/1.8
f/2.8
f/3.3
f/4
f/5.6
f/8

The 50mm’s out-of-focus highlights have a hard heptagonal shape beyond f/2.8, as do the 60mm beyond f/4. The 45mm clearly benefits from its rounded diaphragm blades.

Flare control

Not tested yet.

Barrel distortion

Not tested yet.

Real-world image tests

Click on any thumbnail to enlarge. ISO200 unless stated otherwise
45mm f/2.8P f/2.8
1/4000s
NEF
f/2.8
1/90s
NEF
f/8
1/60s
NEF
f/2.8
1/500s
NEF
60mm f/2.8 AF Macro f/2.8
1/4000s
NEF
f/2.8
1/80s
NEF
ISO400
f/4
1/60s
NEF
50mm f/1.8 AF f/2.8
1/4000s
NEF
f/2.8
1/100s
NEF
f/1.8
1/320s
NEF

Summary

Lens summary
Criterion 60mm f/2.8D AF Micro-Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor 45mm f/2.8P Nikkor
Price Reasonable Cheap Expensive
Build quality Excellent Mediocre Excellent
Sharpness Excellent Excellent Excellent
Bokeh Good Fair Excellent

Conclusion

The 45mm f/2.8P Nikkor is clearly an excellent lens, and not just a retro head-turner. Unfortunately, it is rather expensive for what you get compared to the 60mm f/2.8D AF Micro-Nikkor (no AF, no macro capability). The 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor has less pleasant out-of-focus highlights than the other two, but it is remarkably sharp and one quarter the price. If the construction is an issue, the famous 50mm f/1.4D AF Nikkor (not tested as I don’t have one on hand) is also an excellent choice.

In any case, any of these lenses is an excellent performer that brings the best out of a Nikon camera, and no photographer’s camera bag should be without one.

Learning more

Here are a few good sites to learn more about Nikkor lenses:

Bjørn Rørslett is a nature photographer with reviews on quite a few Nikkor lenses.

Thom Hogan has a lot of instructive material on the Nikon system, including lens reviews.

Ken Rockwell has many opinionated reviews on Nikkor lenses (sometimes entertaining, sometimes infuriating). How he has the chutzpah to review lenses he has never held in his hands continues to elude me.

For French readers, Dominique Cesari has his take on Nikkor lenses.

The Nikon historical society in Japan has an interesting series, 1001 nights of Nikkor, with the back story on lens design.

Stephen Gandy’s CameraQuest website has reviews on some exotic Nikkor lenses on his Classic Camera Profiles page.