I've been wanting a tele-zoom ever since I laid my hands on a DSLR. Why? Because I like my candid people shots as much as the next person, yet I'm not fortunate enough to live in one of the more civilized places where you can shoot strangers with a 50 mm prime and get away with it. As I've told you numerous times in the past, new stuff is murderously expensive down here. Meanwhile, the hand-me-down market seems to be dominated by either the dirt-cheap Nikkor 70-300 mm G, which I don't want due to its plastic mount; or its not-so-cheap Sigma and Tamron counterparts, which I don't want due to reliability concerns. Then I stumbled into this lens...
1. Appearance & Build Quality:
Here, take a look:
I know this does not provide too great a sense of scale, so let me just say that it's about as large as the cutting-edge AF-S 70-300 mm VR with the zoom fully retracted, though it is heavier. Despite being the oldest autofocus telezoom in Nikon's line-up, it is a two-ring design that does not
extend while zooming. It does extend while focusing, albeit no more than two inches. Build quality is decent, with a high-quality plastic exterior with metal mount and innards. The lens makes my D80 a bit front-heavy, but it's manageable. It definitely feels more at-home on the D200 or the F100. The zoom ring is broad and comfortable to operate. The zooming action is completely undamped yet very smooth, and my 23-year-old example has absolutely no creep. In contrast, the focus ring is mated to the front element (similar to the AF-S 18-55 mm kit lens) and thus too thin and out-of-reach to be practical. Nikon seems to have acted on the thought that autofocus made these obsolete and deliberately crippled it. The less than stellar performance of early autofocus systems would result in a back-step eventually, but that's rather off-topic. Along with the front element, it extends and rotates during focusing. The lens takes 62 mm filters and works well with larger ones using a step-up ring. It did ship with a metal hood back in '86, though my copy doesn't have one.
The lens has a traditional slot-drive autofocus system whose speed depends on the motor that drives it. This, coupled with the unusually long focus path, makes autofocus markedly slow on the D80 and only marginally better on the D200. It may or may not disturb you, depending on your shooting style. You can track things that move about slowly and you can shoot action if it happens beyond the hyperfocal distance (which is 50 feet, by the way) but don't expect miracles. On the other hand, it can focus down to less than 4 feet, and you can shoot some very decent macro with it using a screw-in conversion lens.
I can't give you an exact measure, but my experience so far shows that the lens has somewhat noticeable barrel distortion on the wide end and no perceptible distortion from 100 mm onwards.
Again, I can't test this without a special setup, but it is unrecognizable in the field. As this is a full-frame (FX) lens, the DX sensor will only use a central portion of the image circle, which usually counteracts whatever vignetting there might be in the first place.
Now comes the hard part. It is known that certain copies of this lens suffer from focusing errors, and I'm yet to determine whether my copy is among the lemons or not. Either way, it is markedly soft wide open at the telephoto end, not recovering until you stop down to f/5.6 and below, which kind of defeats the point of having a constant f/4 aperture in the first place. Still, it is nice to have that extra stop when you need it, and the images respond very well to unsharp mask and other post-processing tricks.
Optically speaking, this is an old lens, based on an even older E-series manual focus design. It has a disturbing tendency to flare and particularly nasty colored fringing. The latter can be mitigated if you shoot RAW, and you can avoid the former if you keep light sources out of the frame. One of those pricey multicoated UV filters might also help. I will try to build a makeshift hood someday and see if that works too.
This lens has "imperfect" written all over it: It does extend during focusing, but not zooming. It focuses slowly, but very closely. It has a wide constant aperture, but it's a bit too soft to take advantage of it. Of course, it was designed for imperfect cameras, used by imperfect shooters to shoot imperfect film. Just like what we have now in what's called the "enthusiast" segment. However, imaging technology has since been perfected enough to make this lens seem even more so. You want to get this lens only if you believe its virtues outweigh its flaws, and that depends on many things: your shooting style, your patience, your approach to post-processing and of course, your budget. One of these days, I want to try this on decent film using a decent SLR (like the F100) and see if that makes a difference.
NOTE: To view the photos larger, please visit my flickr photostream
Nikon D80, 90 mm, f/5.6, 1/320, ISO 200
Nikon D80, 210 mm, f/8, 1/320, ISO 200
Nikon D80, 70 mm, f/6.3, 1/500, ISO 200
Nikon D80, 95 mm, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO 800