So basically I'm planning on buying my first DSLR camera. I'm familiar with cameras it's just that I never had my own DSLR. I will probably get some entry-level second-hand Nikon body with kit lens since I don't want to spend money on the body at the moment. Probably something like d5100 or d3300. I will upgrade the body later.

The main question is choosing the second lens, but that is where all of my knowledge about lenses ends (kind of). I really love old retro looks, grainy, nostalgic feel photos. Not sure how much lens adds to that, but I would like to maximise my abilities to take photos like these with least post-production as possible. Total budget for accessories incl. lens is around 350$. What lens specs I should consider?

Akabane, Tokyo

Yakitori and Tachinomi

Kichijoji, Tokyo

Love hotel (Uguisudani, Tokyo)

photos's author: "xperiane" on flickr

P.S. Advices for accessories like filters, hoods are very appreciated

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    \$\begingroup\$ How would you feel about changing this question to something like "How important is lens selection for getting a retro, film look?" I think that would be a better fit for the way this site works. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 3:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for the suggestion. I will change it because I think your way of phrasing is much better. Basically, I just didn't know how much of an impact lens can have on achieving this kind of look. And how can I get close to this so I just asked for a lens recommendation. I obviously understand it's mainly because these photos were taken on film. I guess it's a very beginner's question, so that's why people are downvoting \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 21:13

5 Answers 5


Corey had some good info but my two cents is:

Getting the "retro look" is not about what lens you have but about your knowledge base of photographic techniques and post processing skills. Understanding how YOUR digital cameras sensor is affected by changes in ISO. ( Digital is different than film in terms of gritty grainy photos but the lens is not what gives you grain/noise.)

You should take a class or volunteer to intern with a pro. There is vastly more to photography then Instagram and Snapchat filters that give you a "look". Buy the best lens's you can afford and invest in learning.

In my opinion everyone should take a film camera coarse first to understand that ISO/ASA is not just a tool to change exposure parameters but is a matter of how sensitive your film/sensor is to the light that you allow to be recorded on it. (I loathe the term "exposure triangle" for just this reason. Exposure is a function of aperture and shutter speed, and ISO controls sensitivity)

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for take a film course and get a mentor. Everyone should have a favorite film. \$\endgroup\$
    – OnBreak.
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 3:06

The grainy, retro style of which you speak is going to be more a product of the film choice as opposed to the lens. Since you're going digital, it will take a bit of post-processing to get your images to mimic this style.

What I see when I look at these is night-time street photography. If that's the style that you're looking to shoot, then you'll need a decently fast lens. When I say fast lens, I mean one with a very large maximum aperture - f/2.8 or larger would be ideal.

Unfortunately, fast lenses are typically more expensive. But, Nikon (and Canon for that matter - but I see you're leaning towards a Nikon) do have very reasonably, if not cheap, primes. (A prime is a fixed focal length lens - no zoom).

I don't know enough about Nikon lenses to know which ones really stick out as great buys - but these seem to have good reviews and if you were shooting Canon, I'd be recommending the same focal lengths and price points:

I'm sure there are other options including some zooms, and I'm hoping others will chime in with more Nikon experience to help give you some options.

The reasons that I'd recommend getting a prime are 1) because you appear new-ish to photography, and I'm a believer that you'll have enough to think about that adding a zoom into the mix is overkill. Get to know a single focal length, learn it, love it, then expand. And 2) you get a faster lens for your money. Most zooms will max at f/2.8, and even there, they get pricey fast.

As for hoods and filters - I'd highly recommend a hood, they decrease flare and add a protective layer to the front of your lens.

And filters - for street photography at night, there isn't one that comes to mind that you would absolutely need. But, I do recommend getting a polarizer for other types of shooting - it's always good to have a polarizer in the bag.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You may want to mention that the Nikon 'AF' lenses you have listed (and most other 'D' lenses) do not have AF motors in the lens. Since the D3xxx and D5xxx series do not have AF motors in the body, those lenses would need to be manually focused with a D5100 or D3300. The 'AF-S' version of those lenses (and most other 'G' lenses), where applicable, have AF motors in the lens. For more, please see: What do all those cryptic number and letter codes in a lens name mean? particularly the Nikon answer \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 0:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelClark You may want to stop spreading the confusion that letter 'D' somehow indicates focusing mechanism, it doesn't. AF-S or AF-I has motor, AF-P has pulse motor, others don't have any - it's that simple. There are AF-S D and AF-I D lenses, and they do have a motor. \$\endgroup\$
    – Imre
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 7:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ There are only 2 AF-S lenses labelled as D, so you can see how the confusion arises. It took me ages to figure out that all lenses AF-S, AF-I, G are also D, they just don't label them any more. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 10:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelClark You must have missed quite a few, and what about older non-D AF lenses? How is stressing coincidence of "most D lenses" superior to checking for letters actually dedicated to expressing how the lens AF works? \$\endgroup\$
    – Imre
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 15:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelClark The context of this question is achieving retro look with a rather low budget, why assume only current lineup is relevant? Even if statement "most new D lenses" is coincidentally correct, the correlation is misleading. There are too many people who have heard it (in your version, without the "new" qualifier) and think that's what the D stands for, then grab a bargain AF non-D lens and assume it being broken as its AF doesn't work. We should know better. \$\endgroup\$
    – Imre
    Commented Oct 13, 2017 at 8:31

Roughly, lens selection is unimportant relative to experience and the hard work of learning from your photographs over time. Or to put it another way, the question of "which lens?" is about 1% of what gives those images their look and suggests not yet having gained the experience to see the other 99% of the technical details that make the shots look the way they are...at least for Images 1, 2 and 4 (image 3 can probably be approximated by pure luck).

Image number 4 is particularly illustrative:

  • Unusual vantage point
  • Careful framing
  • The illumination of the lane markers
  • The warmth of the headlights
  • The reflection of the headlights off the wall
  • The blue-orange lighting (popular in modern film making)

There is a huge amount of work that makes the shot. To the degree that time equates to money that effort to 'buy the look' dwarfs the price of the lens because getting a shot like Image does not have any shortcuts. Not even luck.


If you look at the information with each of these images you see that either a 77mm f/1.8 or a 50mm f/1.2 lens was used with Kodak Ultramax 400 negative 35mm film. That works out to about 50mm and 35mm focal lengths to get the same fields of view with a 1.5X APS-C crop body camera such as the Nikon D3300 or D5100.

The wide aperture is needed to give the photos their distinctive narrow depth of field. The wide apertures (low f-numbers) also help to keep shutter times shorter when shooting in such dark environments.

In terms of getting "... old retro looks, grainy, nostalgic feel photos..." the lens has very little to do with it. The lens does have a lot to do with the clarity of the image and the depth of field of the image. To get images that share those characteristics you'll need similarly sharp glass with wide apertures. You'll also need to use very good shooting techniques and nail exposure. But the color has very little to do with the lens. The graininess has nothing to do with the lens.

The examples you have included are highly processed. The lion's share of the processing has most likely been done digitally after the film or prints have been scanned. The colors and contrast have both been altered significantly from what one might expect from Kodak Ultramax 400 processed normally after shooting in the lighting pictured. Ultramax 400 is a daylight balanced film. The light sources in the example images are anything but daylight balanced. Correcting for the overall color of the light sources could have been done when printing from the negative if prints were made to scan, but it is just as likely that the overall color balance was altered when the negatives themselves were scanned. Further adjustments to the hue, saturation, and tone/luminance of various colors have been made to the digital files. Compare these two images that appear to have been shot in the same place at the same time:

Kichijoji, Tokyohttps://www.flickr.com/photos/xperiane/34379111210/in/datetaken/

Kichijoji, Tokyo https://www.flickr.com/photos/xperiane/34390129882/in/datetaken/

The second image, which is one of the examples included in the question, is more contrasty and has more saturated but neutrally balanced colors. The first image, shot with the same camera, lens, and film (and presumably developed identically from the same roll) looks very different. The colors are muted but with an orange cast, and the contrast is much lower. The darkest tones (black point) are brighter and the highlights (white point) are not as bright as the second image.

The way to get there is to learn how to shoot and edit such photos. Choosing a particular lens won't. In addition to similar color processing you'll also need to add digital filters to provide the look of film grain.

Lenses you could consider for a D3300 or D5100 to shoot the types of photos in the example on a crop-body Nikon DSLR would be the following:

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G

Notice that all of those lenses have an 'AF-S' prefix and a 'G' following the maximum aperture.

The 'AF-S' means there is a focus motor inside the lens. This is required if you want to use autofocus with the D3xxx and D5xxx bodies because they do not have a screw-drive focus motor in the camera body (some other Nikon bodies do - more on that in a moment).

The 'G' means there is not an aperture ring on the lens and the aperture setting can only be controlled by a compatible Nikon body. This would include any of the D3xxx and D5xxx series cameras and most other Nikon Digital SLRs.

If you are willing to manually focus your lens, you can get older lens designs that can't autofocus with a D3xxx or D5xxx series:

Nikon AF Nikkor 35 mm f/2.0D
Nikon AF Nikkor 50 mm f/1.8D

The 'AF' means they are capable of autofocus only with a body that has a screw drive focus motor in the body (D7xxx, D7xx, D8xx, Dx, etc.). The 'D' means the lens can communicate with the camera electronically, particularly with regard to distance information about where the lens is focused. This is used by the camera for 3D matrix metering and for automatic flash calculations.

For more about the nomenclature of Nikon lens model names, please see: What do all those cryptic number and letter codes in a lens name mean?

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    \$\begingroup\$ You know, in the battle between Nikon and Canon, I'm thinking Canon won the nomenclature game. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – OnBreak.
    Commented Oct 13, 2017 at 14:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Corey They won the lens compatibility test, too. Sometimes you've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em (1987 and the advent of AF systems was such a time). \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Oct 13, 2017 at 18:39

"What gear was used..." isn't a very interesting question, IMO it is much more interesting to ask "what makes this picture good?"

Pic #1 - The Bus

Good composition, vertical lines on the left create perspective. Choice of aperture blurs the background (but not too much) and prevents distraction. The bus' rectangular windshield acts as a frame, which creates a picture inside the picture, which seems further away, behind glass (the reflections on the bus' windshield are nice). Then the driver's head, which is dead center, is again framed in another rectangle. All this works to tell a little story, who is this guy, what is he thinking? Who is the other guy leaving the bus behind him? He's slightly out of focus, so kind of mysterious. The empty bus stop looks eerie in the night.

I like this picture. Notice we haven't talked about lenses yet ;) here it's mostly about composition, focal length, aperture (for the blurry background), and post-processing for the nice colors.

Photo #2 - Kitchen

Here the single most important "filter" is the steam rising from the food being cooked. This is what creates most of the ambience. Notice also there is again a frame inside the frame, with the inclusion of a guy on the left, who is basically us as we look at the photo. He's blurry, again good aperture choice, so he doesn't distract from the action.

Photo #4 - Bridge

This one is about perspective, and perfect exposure. Colors are the result of skilled postprocessing, so I'll ignore them. The composition is again good, and the car in the middle helps, by adding some life in an otherwise quite dead place, and its headlights create repeating patterns on the left side as they illuminate the pillars, which adds a very nice touch of warm color on the left side, which would otherwise be swamped in greenish tint.

However if you look at the streetlight on top center, you will notice there is a little bit of fog/smog which creates a "beam" of light. So here again, the "filter" is an atmospheric effect. Note the photographer nailed the exposure perfectly, as the sky is not pure black, and the (not very bright) "beam" coming out of the streetlight is clearly visible. If this had been exposed lower, he could still have added some "background light" in post, but the "beam" would have been lost. Also the buildings in the background silhouette against the slightly brighter sky. Less exposure, and it would have been black on black, and not recoverable in post.

Now, about your gear...

It's a DSLR, so you can have fun with filters in postprocessing, as long as the information is there in the RAWs. So exposure and composition are key. If you're cash-strapped, the only filter you need is a polarizer for fun, and maybe a ND-graduated filter for those sunsets and stuff like that, but don't spend money on filters until you reeeally need them.

If intense light hits the lens at night, you'll need a lenshood: your hand is free, just put it on the right place to block the light.

Wide apertures are nice for night photo due to catching more light (so, shorter exposure or lower ISO/lower noise, but the widest aperture will of course have lower depth of field. Which is an advantage when you want to blur things...

Now, the others recommended prime lenses: I'm gonna go against that. I agree that primes have the best image quality, best sharpness, and least flare, all of which matter when there is a streetlight or other intense light source in the frame to avoid halos.

However prime lenses are damn expensive, and since I believe this is your first DSLR, a good zoom would be a much better choice, as it would allow you to experiment, be creative, have fun, make tons of mistakes, and learn.

So I would recommend a 17-50 2.8 zoom, maybe Tamron or Nikon, check the reviews. I own a 10 year old Tamron 17-50 2.8 and for the price it was a damn good deal at the time. There are probably better alternatives today, but you get the idea.

Don't get a cheapo zoom with aperture like 3.5-5.6, first of all these are half blind so you can't do anything at night without a tripod, and also they tend to have quite a bit of flare. The difference between a 150€ cheap junk zoom and a 300€ Tamron 17-50 2.8 is huge. It's clunky and plasticky, but it works well and it's light, versatile, and cheap.

Primes are better, but you need to buy them, carry them, mount them on the camera... Nikon also makes a 17-55 2.8, more expensive.


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