My daily go-to camera is the Nikon D810 and I always aim for crispy pixel-perfect results. But there are days when the Zeiss optics just need to sit in the bag for a while and stop being so perfect, so sharp, so consistent and so flawless. Those are the Ai-s days. This is a love story about one of my little Ai-s gems.
If you're reading this, I'm pretty sure you're thinking about getting yourself a Nikon 35mm f/1.4 Ai-s. I'll spare you my rambling. My advice to you is simple and sounds like the punchline of an old shoe commercial - just do it!
It took me the better part of 12 years, from the start of my photography to the acquisition of this lens. It's always been there in my head but I never really felt it was "my thing". Then, a few years back I learned to appreciate the 35mm focal length when using my Nikon 35mm f/1.4G but I never really felt it performed as expected. Not for a new lens in that price range anyway. The Sigma Art alternative is sharper and better for sure, but I felt I needed something else. Deep within was a growing urge to dirty up my videos and photography, and so it came to me. I needed soul, unpredictable light phenomenons, vignettes, flares and character. All tell-tale signs of the classic Nikkors, I know cause I got a boatload of them now.
The 35mm f/1.4 Ai-s delivers just that, and at an affordable price point too. I payed about €380 for mine (in 2014) in superb condition. But you can get it a lot cheaper. The lens feels so good in your hand you don't really want to put it on your camera. But when you do, man you're rewarded. It's creamy, it's dreamy and it's very, very sharp. It flares easily and the contrast drops when the sun slips in form the sides. But hey, that's why you buy this. I use it mainly for video production but on occasion it tags along on social events and casual shooting too. There's quite some aberration going on but again, it ads to my soft, fluffy love for this gem.
Casual barbeque shot. Nikon D800, Nikon 35mm f/1.4 Ai-s @ f/1.4, 1/100sec, ISO3200, Standard picture control, no post processing.
100% crop of the above. Bare in mind this was shot after several glasses of red wine. Hence the motion blur ;)
The photo above is not even close to a lab chart photo for pixel hunters. Instead it gives you a hint off what to expect from the Nikon 35mm f/1.4 Ai-s in a situation you're most likely to use it. Oh, and smoking kills, don't forget.
The video thing
35mm is a focal length you can shoot almost any kind of video with. It's very allround. What you have to know is that this old lens was created with photo journalism in mind so the focus throw is rather short. Nikon made a lens that let the photographer go from close focus to infiniti in no time. The short focus throw may present a problem if you're trying to achieve a follow focus clip without a silly follow focus contraption. My advice is to get to know your lens before you shoot video. Shoot stills to hone those focusing skills and soon you'll nail that focus faster than your mom can say AF-S. I never use a follow focus rig, I do everything with my hand straight on the lens. I feel more attached to the process that way.
A graded frame from a music video I produced this summer. Shot with the D800 and Nikon 35mm f/1.4 Ai-s at f/1.4. Did anyone say bokeh? View in full resolution.
I just finished producing a music video for a swedish duo and that really put the Nikon 35mm f/1.4 Ai-s to the test. The frame above is grabed from a car sequence, shot with me in the backseat with the D800 on a monopod, pointing the lens straight into the sun.
100% crop. The sharpness at f/1.4 is excellent, really.
Final verdict: Excellent
So this lens makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside without having perfect optical performance? That's because I bought it for it's imperfections. So, from that point of view this lens is excellent. It is very sharp though, don't think anything else. And as an extra bonus it looks and works like a dream on my chrome Nikon FM2. So, go like my facebook page, then get yourself a 35mm f/1.4 Ai-s today!