Glass Matters

I’m sure you’ve heard it countless times from folks in photography circles:

Invest in glass, not in bodies …

This phrase is absolutely true, especially when you step back into analogue from digital. When you use a 35mm film camera, the only thing the camera body provides is exposure control and frame movement … at it’s most basic level … everything else is down to the glass in your lens, and what film you choose.

Over the last year I’ve gone through countless lenses, and believe me, good glass can make the world of a difference between an average film photo and a great photo.

Optimus prime …

When you think of film photography, I mostly think of an old Pentax or Nikon with a knurled 50mm prime lens on it … but why were these prime lenses so popular, as opposed to the omnipresent zoom of today ?

To my mind, and from what I’ve experienced the last year, these manual focus, prime lenses offer three important advantages for film shooters when compared to digital era zoom lenses:

  1. They were usually very fast … f1.4 / f1.8 / f2 … which means lots of light 🤩 Using a camera that doesn’t offer an “auto-ISO” ability like digital, means having the ability to get as much light as possible is a major perquisite.
  2. The comparatively simple constraint of designing a lens that doesn’t need to zoom (see comparison below), means the engineers could focus their attention on making it as fast & sharp as possible, and reduce optical flaws.
  3. Pime lenses usually have great ergonomics: smoother focus throw, mechanical aperture blade control, helpful infinity stops, depth-of-field guides, etc. A lot of things you rarely see on today’s lenses 😔
Prime vs Zoom (non-VR and VR)

The good news is that these optical masterpieces of yesteryear can be bought online at a really good price, and often in mint quality. So you’ve plenty of choice, hence my dedicated Nikon & Nikkor quick-review reference page

That said, I personally ended up drowning in prime lens reviews … being swayed by this one here and that one there … and then discovering even more that I never knew existed ! Yikes !

In their prime …

Which one(s) did I choose ?

I must confess that I bought one, then another, then another … and then another … it wasn’t long before I realised that there was no way I could realistically buy every prime lens, to cover every situation !

It all depends on what you like photographing … so what I did was sit down, look at all my photos and see which prime lenses I was using the most.

  • 24mm f2.8 – yes, lots of landscape photos with this (however, as the months went on, I genuinely required something wider, for water reflections & waterfalls … so I ended up selling it for a 90’s 18-35mm zoom)
  • 28mm f2.8 – nope, just not wide enough, and I’m not doing astro nor wide sreeet photography to justify keeping it
  • 35mm f2 – yes, lots of ‘regular’ photos with this, and macro-esque shots
  • 50mm f1.4 – surprisingly used a lot less than I expected, yikes, mostly candid portraits and close ups
  • 85mm f1.8 – nope, beautiful bokeh, but with manual focus, trying to nail focus on the eyes was hit and miss
  • 135mm f3.5 – no way, despite it being super sharp, I couldn’t use it at all practically. Too error prone, especially when film isn’t as cheap as it was in the good old days, to try attempt multiple photos to cover the dud shots 😉

So I hung onto two primes only: the 35mm and the 50mm … and all the rest I’ve bought have been sold. These two prime lenses have worked the best for me over the last year, offering a wealth of creative opportunities 👍🏆

I hope this shared experience helps ! See you on my next blog post 😀 Paul

💻 Instagram: @irishanalogadventures