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Vibration Reduction or a Virtual Reality ?

Trying out a VR lens on both 35mm film and on my analogue sensibilities.

Nikon’s Vibration Reduction (VR) or Canon’s Image Stabilisation (IS) has been around quite a while now, Canon first introduced IS in 1997 and Nikon followed up with VR in 2000. Since then it has been a a mainstay of digital technology with most manufacturers making it available either in-lens or in-body with up to a staggering 5 axis in-body stabilisation now available. The exception being Fuji who perhaps have lagged a little in its introduction, who prior to the IBIS of the X-H1 had preferred to promote their systems on the basis of being as close to an analogue experience as possible.

Being a predominantly analogue photographer it’s a subject that hasn’t really been of a lot of interest to me, until one day when I was checking out the lens compatibility chart on the nikonians.org website, and it hit me, even though I’d seen it a thousand times before, wait, you can use the VR lenses on the F6 !!! And on a lot more Nikon AF bodies too, with full VR functionality, wow.

My mind was blown, up to 4 stops of stabilisation, on film ! Plus you can use it in full manual or in any of the auto modes, it really had me thinking, in the words of Monty Python’s Eric Idle “nudge, nudge, wink wink, what’s it like ?”.

So I had to buy one.

Looking at what was available, they were exclusively zooms and telephoto, which was both understandable and at the same time a bit of a disappointment, as I tend to shoot a bit on the wide side, even if Martin Parr did disapprove of doing so in this weeks episode of Master of Photography. However there are two medium range zooms in the range that go down to 24mm that Nikon make, and these seemed to fit my needs. The 24-70 mm f2.8 though, at around £1,000 used, I couldn’t justify that expense, especially for something I probably wouldn’t use that much, as I really do like primes and aperture rings. However, a kit lens that Nikon made for many of the FX bodies, the 24-85mm f3.5-4.5, now that was available in abundance and the prices were pretty reasonable. I managed to pick up a nice example from an eBay dealer for around £180, although I have to say it didn’t have a hood, so another fiver was required to sort that one out, still, it seemed like a good deal overall.

Now, what to do with it, try it out of course but how could I see what it could do, it was simple really, I just did what I usually wouldn’t do, i.e. go out in lousy weather with a 50 ISO film, usually its madness, but not this time, at least hopefully. I found my film fridge was out of Velvia 50, but I did have some Cinestill 50D tucked away, quite literally for a rainy day.

The weather forecast was pretty awful for quite a few days to come, perfect, so I loaded up the F6 with the Cinestill and headed down to one of my favourite spots for testing kit out, the boat yard on Heswall shore, I say boat yard, its often referred to as a boat graveyard too, with many old wrecks sitting on the banks of the river Dee. The rain was coming down sideways, so a big coat, wellies and several lens cloths were the order of the day, and as usual no tripod.

Rain making itself apparent on the front element.

I was confident of the F6 weather sealing as I had used it in the rain before, but taking photos in the conditions provided one major challenge, keeping rain drops off the lens. Apart from the occasional lens wipe, I was popping the lens cap off only for the minimum amount of time, and did my best to keep the wind at my back to shield the front element from the rain, a tactic which largely seemed to work.

I managed about 30 frames before I was pretty soaked through and headed back to the car park, once home and dry I finished off the roll taking photos of some toys and ornaments, being later in the day and with fading light both indoors and outdoors these frames I thought would really test out the VR function.

Home developing Cinestill in C41 for the first time with a Tetenal Colortec kit, I got quite a shock when I poured out the water used to prewarm the tank, it was a pretty bright shade of orange. This really made me fear for the roll of Portra that I had in the tank at the same time, but once they were scanned with my DSLR and processed with Neg Lab Pro I could thankfully see that my fears were unfounded.

35mm f5.6 1/20th sec
35mm f5.6 1/50th sec with manual focus
35mm f5.6 1/25th sec
24mm f5.6 1/15th sec

So here above and below you can see my results, I find them shockingly good in terms of clarity considering the conditions, this quality will of course have been further helped by the Cinestill and it’s very fine grain structure. In particular the shots made at home, these hand held shots required particularly slow shutter speeds for the relative focal length, to me at least it was quite amazing what was achieved.

70mm f4.5 1/15th sec
70mm f4.5 1/30th sec
28mm f3.5 1/2.5th sec !!

Normally in such a photography session at the boat yard, I would head to the spot with a roll of Tri-X and hope for a nice moody result in the poor conditions, with softness helped along by slow shutter speeds, a bit of shake and wide open lenses. The boat yard results above though, there’s not a lot of mood to be seen, the photos look pretty much as the scene was in reality, even better than reality perhaps, clearer as there is no need to cope with screwed up eyes, plus any sign of the rain seems to be minimised, possibly as a result of the longer exposure times. We end up with some sort of virtual reality, made by the virtues of a vibration reduction lens.

It seems to me that a bit of camera shake, being forced to use wider apertures and grainier film would have improved the boat yard images in terms of capturing the feel of the situation. After all, this is why we shoot film, for the feel, not the technical excellence.

VR seems to bring us to a point where we are at a half-way house between analogue and digital, a bridge between technologies. Useful at times perhaps, for low light or increased DoF, but lets face it, it’s not what we came here for.

© Copyright owner Steve Starr. First publication 6th May 2021