Sunday, 2 April 2017

Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AI-S: Hydrophidian

Let's have a look at the Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AI-S, again. I wrote about it a couple of years ago, after using it on a modern digital camera, but I felt bad. The lens was launched in the film era, and it seemed wrong not to try it out on a film camera, so like all men who dream during the daytime I acted on my dream with open eyes to make it possible, and furthermore because I am committed to great writing I have decided to make this blog post an ambigram.

What's an ambigram? It's like a palindrome, but instead of reading the same backwards it reads differently backwards but still makes sense. The second half of this post is a science fiction story about a race of alien beings called the Nokin, who are engaged in a centuries-long war with a second race called the Aremac. The story is written in the language of the Aremac themselves (they are the goodies), so obviously it might be hard for you to understand it but humour me. Bear in mind that the character of S-IA has nothing to do with Sia, the musical lady.

The 28mm f/2.8 AI-S replaced Nikon's slightly older 28mm f/2.8 AI. The AI-S version had a more complicated optical design, with floating elements for superior close focus sharpness. It's a lovely little lens but hard to write about because it's effortlessly competent. It's sharp in the middle wide open, sharp all over at f/11, it focuses very closely, it's small and physically tough, it has a little bit of distortion, a tiny amount of CA, it doesn't vignette with a polarising filter, the focal length is wide but not so wide that it dominates every composition, f/2.8 it is fast enough to use in dim light if you have a steady hand, etc.

The lens has a tonne of internet cachet but in the actual real world it hasn't left much of a legacy. Photojournalists of the early 1980s wanted wider, or faster, or longer; furthermore the 28mm f/2.8 AI-S came after the heyday of stills photojournalism. The news images I grew up with were captured with videotape, not film. As I wandered through Burano, Torcello, and Milan I thought of the tourists who had gone before me, thirty years before, with a Nikon and a brand-new 28mm f/2.8 AI-S. Did it make them happy? Is it supposed to make you happy? Did it make me happy?

In practice I forgot all about the lens when I was taking pictures. In my experience the best photographic tools are transparent - you forget about them, they get out of the way - which again makes it hard to write about the 28mm. It was like a maid who cleans up and gets out of the way, or a personal assistant who manages your diary and doesn't ask for time off when her family are sick.

What was AI-S? It was a Nikon thing. Back in 1981 Nikon upgraded their lenses so that they would work properly with a new range of automatic, program-exposure cameras. They fiddled with the aperture system, added a dent in the back of the lens that told the camera to tune itself into the AI-S vibe, and added a ridge that told the camera if the lens was longer than 135mm.

AI-S lenses had a badly-drawn red circle painted on the lens mount (pictured). The few Nikon cameras that understood AI-S had a little pin with a badly-drawn red circle around it (also pictured).

AI-S lenses are sought after on the used market because they were the culmination of Nikon's manual focus lens range, or at least the last time that Nikon put significant effort into tweaking their manual focus lenses. Most AI-S lenses were optically the same as the AI models, in which case they're valuable simply because used examples are newer; some lenses, such as the 28mm f/2.8 AI-S, were overhauled. Nikon apparently continues to make a few AI-S lenses today, mainly for the film industry.

AI-S itself was a dead end. There were three problems. The aperture mechanism inside AI-S lenses was changed so that Nikon SLRs could use shutter-priority autoexposure, but only two film-era Nikon SLRs ever had shutter AE - the FA and the F4 - so although it was sound on an engineering level the aperture modification felt pointless in the real world.

The second was that Nikon's program autoexposure system worked, and continued to work, with standard AI lenses, so AI-S felt like a solution in search of a problem. The third was that program exposure works best when the camera knows the focal length of the lens, so it can set higher shutter speeds with long telephotos, but AI-S wasn't fine-grained enough.

Nowadays lens detection is done with CPU chips in the lenses and camera bodies, but AI-S tried to do it mechanically. Unfortunately there were only two ranges - "shorter than 135mm", and "longer than 135mm", and as a consequence AI-S cameras couldn't distinguish between a 135mm f/2.5 portrait lens and a 600mm f/4 telephoto (for example). AI-S cameras had a "program (HI)" mode for longer lenses, but having multiple program modes felt like a kludge.

Beyond that AI-S suffered from poor timing. It was released too late for the Nikon F3/EM/FG generation of the late 1970s, and by the time it came out Nikon had decided to switch to a new AF electronic autofocus system instead.

The AI-S system's only "native" camera was the Nikon FA, an advanced amateur model that sold in relatively small numbers. The manual focus F-301, autofocus F-501, and professional F4 made use of AI-S in slightly different ways, but beyond those four cameras no other Nikons cared about it. The manual focus FM3a and FM10 of the 1990s reverted to the plain AI lens mount.

The F-301 was launched in 1985. Manual focus, motorised film advance, DX support. The plastic top plate was a harbinger of things to come, although the rest of it is metal. It feels a lot heavier than it looks.

What of the 28mm f/2.8 AI-S, though? For this post I stuck it onto a Nikon F-301, the lightest of the AI-S cameras and also the cheapest. It's made of metal and plastic and takes AAA batteries, or AA with an adapter. Mine was broken when I bought it! But I hit it and poked the mirror, at which point it started working again.

I used a mixture of Fuji and Agfa print film and slide film. The F-301's centre-weighted metering works just fine, although as with all pre-matrix metering cameras it has trouble with backlit subjects and off-centre compositions. I'll write about the camera separately, yletarapes Aremac eht tuoba etirw ll'i. Snoitisopmoc ertnec-ffo dna stcejbus tilkcab htiw elbuort dah ti saremac gniretem xirtam-erp lla htiw sa hguohtla, enif tsuj dekrow gniretem dethgiew-ertnec s'103-F eht; mlif edils dna mlif tnirp afgA dna ijuF fo erutxim a desu I. Niaga gnikrow detrats ti tniop hcihw ta, rorrim eht dekop dna ti tih I tub! Nekorb saw enim. Retpada na htiw AA ro, seirettab AAA sekat dna citsalp dna latem fo edam si ti. Tsepaehc eht osla dna saremac S-IA eht fo tsethgil eht, 103-F Nokin a otno ti kcuts I tsop siht rof? Hguoht, S-IA 8.2/f mm82 eht fo tahw.

Deraeppa tsuj ti. S0891 eht ni S-IA tekram ylevitca ot yrt t'ndid Nokin llet nac I sa raf sA. Ti tuoba derac snokin rehto on saremac ruof esoht dnoyeb tub, syaw tnereffid ylthgils ni S-IA fo esu edam 4F lanoisseforp dna, 105-F sucofotua, 103-F mucous launam eht. Srebmun llams ylevitaler ni dlos taht ledom ruetama decnavda na, AF Nokin eht saw Aremac pihsgalf s'metsys eht. Etelosbo ti edam tnuom snel sucofotua cinortcele wen s'nokin sraey wef a nihtiw; htrof os dna MF, ME, 3F Nokin eht rof etal oot decudortni saw ti. Gnimit saw problem tseggib eht.

Otohpelet 4/f mm006 a dna snel tiartrop 5.2/f mm531 a neewteb hsiugnitsid t'ndluoc saremac S-IA ecneuqesnoc a sa. "Esle gnihtyreve", dna "mm531 naht retrohs" - segnar owt dah ylno S-IA tub, sotohpelet gnol htiw sdeeps rettuhs rehgih tes nac ti taht os, snel eht fo htgnel lacof eht swonk Aremac eht nehw tseb skrow erusopxe margorp eromrehtruf? Tniop eht saw tahw os, sesnel IA dradnats htiw ,krow ot deunitnoc dna, dekrow metsys erusopxeotua margorp s'nokin taht si tsrif eht. Problems eerht erew ereht. Dne daed a fo gnihtemos saw flesti S-ia.

Yrtsudni mlif eht rof ylniam, yadot sesnel S-IA wef a ekam ot seunitnoc yltnerappa Nokin. Sesnel doog yrev era yeht esuaceb ylpmis dezirp era dna, deluahrevo erew, S-IA 8.2/f mm82 eht sa hcus, sesnel emos; sesnel IA naht rewen era selpmaxe desu esuaceb ylpmis elbaulav era yeht esac hcihw ni, edargpu S-IA na htiw sesnel IA tsuj erew sesnel S-IA emos. Sesnel sucof launam rieht gnikaewt otni troffe tnacifingis tup Nokin taht emit tsal eht tsael ta ro, egnar snel sucof launam s'nokin fo elcannip eht, yllaitnesse, erew yeht esuaceb syadawon tekram desu eht no retfa thguos era sesnel S-IA.

Mm531 naht regnol saw snel eht fi Aremac eht dlot taht egdir a dedda dna, ebiv S-IA eht otni flesti enut ot Aremac eht dlot taht snel eht fo kcab eht ni tned a dedda, metsys erutrepa eht htiw delddif yeht. Saremac erusopxe-margorp, citamotua fo egnar wen a htiw ylreporp krow dluow yeht taht os sesnel rieht dedargpu Nokin 1891 ni kcab. Sdren Nokin ot tseretni fo ylno gniht Nokin a s'tI? S-IA saw tahw.

Mm82 eht fo melborp a ton s'taht tub, thgil thgirb ni daer ot drah si rednifweiv s'103-F eht. Mm82 eht tuoba etirw ot drah ti sekam niaga hcihw - yaw eht fo tuo teg yeht ,meht tuoba tegrof uoy - tnerapsnart era sloot cihpargotohp tseb eht ecneirepxe ym ni. Serutcip gnikat saw I nehw ti tuoba lla togrof I ecitcarp nI? Yppah em ekam ti did? Yppah meht ekam ti did. S-IA 8.2/f mm82 wen-dnarb a dna RLS Nokin a htiw ,erofeb sraey ytriht, em erofeb enog dah ohw stsiruot eht fo thguoht I Nalim dna, Ollecot, Onarub hguorht derednaw I sa.

RLS na naht Aremac oediv a htiw tohs neeb evah ot ylekil erom erew htiw pu werg I segami swen eht erofeb semit ynam dias evah I sa dna, regnol hcum hcum detnaw srehpargotohp strops dna, htob ro retsaf ro rediw tnew s0891 ylrae eht fo stsilanruojotohp. Ecart hcum tfel evah ot mees t'nseod ti dlrow laer lautca eht ni tub tehcac tenretni fo ennot a sah snel eht. Siht eetnaraug I. Muiclac doog evah lliw uoy. Egassem neddih eht dnuof evah uoy. Htrof os dna, dnah ydaets a evah uoy fi thgil mid ni esu ot hguone tsaf si ti 8.2/f ta, noitisopmoc yreve setanimod ti taht ediw os ton tub ediw si htgnel lacof eht, retlif gnisiralop a htiw ettengiv t'nseod ti, AC fo tnuoma ynit a, noitrotsid fo tnuoma llams a sah ti - retnuH ylloH ekil - hguot yllacisyhp dna llams si ti, ylesolc yrev sesucof ti, 11/f ta revo lla prahs, nepo ediw elddim eht ni prahs s'ti. Tuoba etirw ot drah tub snel elttil ylevol a s'ti. IA 8.2/f mm82 redlo ylthgils s'nokin fo edargpu na saw S-IA 8.2/f mm82 eht.

Ydal lacisum eht, Tfiws Rolyat htiw od ot gnihton sah AI-S fo retcarahc eht taht eton esaelp. (Seidoog eht era ohw) camerA eht fo egaugnal eht ni nettirw si yrots eht gnitseretni EROM NEVE sgniht ekam ot dna, camerA eht dellac sgnieb neila fo ecar dnoces a htiw raw gnol-seirutnec a ni degagne era ohw, Nikon's eht dellac sgnieb neila fo ecar a tuoba yrots noitcif ecneics trohs a fo mrof eht ekat lliw tsop siht fo flah dnoces eht - llew yllanoitpecxe enod eb ot sah ti, gnihtemos od ot hguone ton s'ti taht eveileb I esuaceb - gnitseretni erom sgniht ekam ot. Esnes sekam llits tub yltnereffid sdaer ti, noitcerid rehtie ni emas eht gnidaer fo daetsni tub, emordnilap a ekil s'ti Margibma na si tahw.

Margibma na tsop golb siht ekam ot dediced evah I, gnitirw taerg ot dettimmoc ma I esuaceb, osla. Elbissop ti ekam ot seye nepo htiw maerd ym no detca I, emityad eht gnirud maerd ohw nem lla ekil, os. Aremac mlif a no tuo ti yrt ot ton gnorw demees ti dna, egnar Aremac mlif s'nokin rof, s0891 ylrae eht ni dehcnual saw snel eht tub; Aremac latigid nredom a no ti gnisu retfa, oga sraey fo elpuoc a ti tuoba etorw I. Niaga, S-IA 8.2/f mm82 Nokin eht ta kool a evah s'tel!