is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Who’s Telephoto Zoomin’ Who
The problem with my 70-300mm Nikkor is that it doesn’t have a particularly fast f/stop (for those who, like me, have trouble remembering what that means, the lower the number, the better. Read a tedious explanation of the concept here.) Especially when the lens is fully extended, it’s highly prone to the unsteadiness of my hand, and since my hand is pretty damn unsteady, the result is that a lot of my photos come out blurry. You really need a tremendous amount of light in your environment to get decent pictures out of this lens, as I was lucky enough to have this past Saturday. When the sun’s out, though, it brings people outdoors too, and this lens suddenly becomes a tremendous amount of fun.
What I’d like to do is upgrade to a telephoto zoom with Nikon’s Vibration Reduction (VR) technology, which uses special, high-tech magic beans or something to compensate for shaky hands and unsteady cameras. There’s a version of my lens that adds VR, but I have my eye on the crazily far-reaching 80-400mm VR. Unfortunately, it checks in at a ridiculous US$1,430. Even at that price point it’s not truly a professional lens, and reviews indicate that it’s highly imperfect. Yikes.
In the meantime, I picked up a Sigma 28mm f/1.8 Macro over the weekend, on a recommendation from my friend Naz. It has a fixed focal length, which is a little odd to get used to for an amateur like me.
I’ve relied on the lazy luxury of zoom lenses for almost the entirely of my short picture-taking career, for better or for worse. Rather than being able to passively hone in on a faraway detail, this lens forces me to move the camera — and my body with it — within range of the subject. It’s a different kind of picture-taking physicality; if you’re an experienced photographer, you know this already, but hey, this is a world that’s still new and wonderful to me.
The best thing about this lens, though, is that it’s very fast at f/1.8, making it great for low-light situations. I’ve learned a few really reliable rules about the craft of photography, and one of them is that you should buy the fastest lens you can afford. The speed of this one is all the more remarkable for its relatively affordable price tag of just US$270. At that rate, anyone can play. Well, mostly.
I went out in this weekend’s torrential Nor’easter with the Sigma and tested it out in the unreliable and murky daylight of the worst storm we’ve had in New York in years, apparently. It worked reasonably well, producing satisfyingly sharp and well-lit images. It’s not perfect, certainly — the build quality of a Sigma compared to even the cheaper Nikon lenses is quite pronouncedly inferior — but at this price range, it’s completely appropriate for someone who shoots sporadically and with only moderate pretentious to photographic art.
Between this and my 70-300mm telephoto zoom, I feel like I have two relatively affordable, relatively capable lenses that will help me produce most of the kinds of photography I like. But here’s another of those few lessons I’ve learned about photography: there’s almost no end to the amount of money that one can spend trying to capture the perfect shot.+