I stare at my screen. If I spend that much on a lens, I will cry. Well, no, I will anger my wife and ruminate about cash flow for the next six months.
I want to take photos with the Nikon 1933 that will make people cry.
I cannot justify it, though. I do not shoot professionally. I leave the browser tab open for six months. It goes out of stock. I sweat a little. It goes back in stock. I breathe. I enable in-stock alerts for it. Nikon has already released the f/1.4G 85mm, its optically astonishing replacement. The Nikon 1933’s sun is setting. Production has already stopped, leaving only the new copies already in the sales channels. But I cannot spend that much on my avocation. Better the money go to our emergency fund. One’s day job is never truly safe — but safe decisions can choke the future.
1933 Flickr groups fill pages of Google search results. I have been following them for years. Sharp flowers float over ethereal backgrounds. Smiling children’s liquid eyes fade into softening cheeks and hair. Hard lives freeze onto adult faces. Razor details spread across high f-stop landscapes. I recognize the lens’ personality through its photos. The good 1933 photographs tug at my heart. The feeling reminds me of lucky watercolor results when I painted twenty years ago. I have little time to paint these days — only to click.
The more I study the 1933, the more I feel its sharpness as a tool. A good craftswoman never blames her tools, because she alone must choose them. A tool’s potential for powerful output relates non-linearly to its quality and design. You get rare satisfactory results from bad tools, no matter how much you practice. With much effort, you can coax occasional greatness from good tools. The rarest calibre tools accelerate the quality of your work with every use.
Nikon released the 1933 in 1995, two years before editor Mike Johnston popularized bokeh with his March/April 1997 issue of Photo Techniques magazine. Bokeh refers to the unfocused areas of a photo’s background, in particular when the photographer uses a wide aperture. Photographers loved the 1933’s smooth blurring of backgrounds into constantly shifting colors and tones instead of sharp-edged circles. Nikon makes only one DSLR lens today that opens wider than its professional f/1.4 primes, like the 1933— their remarkable manual focus f/1.2 50mm AI-S lens. The 1933’s bokeh, when shot wide open, and its near flawless sharpness when stopped down, immediately drew professional interest that developed quickly into obsession. Its all-metal construction helped it survive the professional’s grinding days. The lens soon became one of the sharpest tools in the Nikon portrait photographer’s toolbox. In capable hands, the lens could make back its steep price in only a few weeks.
The 1933’s renowned bokeh derives in part from its nine rounded diaphragm blades. These form a nearly circular opening at wide open to mid-closed f-stops that reduces the diaphragm blades’ effect on light exiting the lens elements. Nine multi-coated lens elements, in eight groups, guide light with precision through the diaphragm. To produce the 1933’s performance, Nikon uses only spherical lens elements and surgical engineering honed by decades of craft — no ED glass or aspherical elements.
By the mid 2000s, the Nikon’s DSLR engineering had started to catch up with their lens craft in the 1933. The Moore’s Law-driven pixel counts of newer sensors, combined with order-of-magnitude jumps in image processor performance made noticeable the 1933’s inconsistent softness in certain photos shot at wide apertures. It also lacked modern technologies like Nikon’s new silent internal focus motor and mixed auto/manual focus. Nikon’s engineers began work on the 1933’s replacement. On September 2nd 2010, Nikon released the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G, Product 2195, a lens superior to the venerable 1933 in nearly every technical aspect.
“This product has been discontinued by the manufacturer.” I feel sadness at missing the opportunity to own a new 1933 and sharp relief that the 1933’s new status prohibits me from spending its former retail price. The status forces me into purchasing a used 1933, and, frankly, I could only have ever justified buying a used copy. Photography is my primary artistic avocation. I have no desire to shoot professionally. After some saving, I get a decent-scoring used 1933 from the largest photography equipment vendor in New York City. My wife begrudgingly accepts. My old high school friend, Sean, a professional photographer in Mexico, chides me, “shame on you for buying a lens many pros can’t afford”.
Perhaps Sean is right in the context of the avocation status of my photography. But I feel another dynamic in play; the emotions and memories evoked by my 1933's photos are spoils of war. Sixteen years into my IT career, I recognize that my career, like the 1933, may start setting in the face of technology’s relentless march. My sixteen years of stress and sitting eight to twelve hours per day have taken a toll. If, for some reason, I cannot continue my career, my 1933's photographs will, in part, make the struggle worth its high personal cost. With good fortune, my 1933 may even provide me a second act beyond IT.
Several weeks after my 1933 arrives, we visit my parents in their newly rebuilt farm house. Aside from my brother and I successfully surviving outside of their household, the success of their rebuild is their greatest reward for years of toil in high pressure careers. The six-month project lasted more than two full years and transformed my childhood home and yard into beautiful new spaces for them to enjoy. We sit in their new greenhouse. With the late afternoon spring sun filtering gently through the glass walls, I get out my aging Nikon D70, with 1933 attached, and cajole them to sit for portraits. Even in the small rear display, their portraits take my breath away.