Monday, December 23, 2013

Good glass is ageless.

That's a hell of a blanket statement, isn't it?  I find it to be true, in at least one circumstance - namely, Nikon camera lenses.  They've been making some pretty darned good lenses for many, many years.  What's neat is that any Nikon autofocus lens from 1986 forward will work perfectly in newer Nikon DSLR cameras that have their focus motor in the camera body. Those older autofocus lenses, intended for use in Nikon's AF film cameras, are known as "screw-drive" lenses, since the camera body engages and adjusts the lens focus by means of a small slotted screw head attached to the lens internal focus gearing. 

To be honest, these particular lenses have been pushed to the sidelines by the arrival of Nikon's newer IF series of autofocus lenses.  The latter have internal focus motors in the lens body, enabling the cheaper Nikon DSLRs like the D40, D3000, and D5000 to have autofocus without having dedicated focus motors inside the camera body.  If you have one of these cameras, you can still use the older film lenses, but you'll be forced to focus your images manually via the lens focus ring. 

My usual DSLR is a 2008-vintage Nikon D300.  It's technically obsolete, but the camera's ability to produce awesome images with a minimum of fuss endears it to me.  I also have a Nikon D200 as a backup, with a Nikon D70 owned by other family members floating around somewhere in the house.  All 3 of these cameras have the internal focus motors, so when it's time to find optics, I gravitate to those older screw-drive lenses.

Film-era Nikon autofocus lenses

These are all orphans.  They were donated to Goodwill, and subsequently grabbed by Yours Truly to continue their service attached to a DSLR. From left to right, there's an AF Nikkor 50mm F1.8 prime, an AF Nikkor 35-70mm F3.3-4.5 zoom, an AF Nikkor 35-105 f3.5-4.5 D zoom, an AF Nikkor 28-85mm f3.5-4.5 zoom, an AF Nikkor 70-210mm f4-5.6 D zoom, an AF Nikkor 70-210mm f4 fixed aperture zoom, and an AF Nikkor 75-300mm f4.5-5.6 zoom.  The oldest dates to 1986, while the newest dates to 1992. 

Were one to compare these older film-era lenses with their new digital counterparts, you'd find some obvious differences, both in appearance and construction.  These are heavy, metal and glass lenses, with metal bayonet mounts.  You'll know that immediately.  You'll see aperture rings, and depth of field scales on a few of the above older lenses.  The manual focus ring is also quite prominent on these older lenses, ostensibly because autofocus was a new concept to many photographers of the time, and probably not trusted 100% back then. 

Newer Nikon AF lenses dispense with the aperture ring, are mostly plastic in body construction, have no depth of field scales, are much lighter in weight, and some even sport plastic bayonet mounts.  Depending on the version, the newer lenses may also have internal focus (IF) motors built in, so they can be used on Nikon DSLR bodies sans that function.

While Nikon's engineers have designed these new lightweight, internal-focus lenses to have optical qualities as good as or better than their older film-era predecessors, they come with a price - especially if they have VR (Vibration Reduction) or a fast maximum aperture like f2.8 or larger.  I actually own a couple of the IF lenses, and they work just fine, albeit you have to be very careful with those plastic lens mounts.  I bought these at Goodwill, where they were donated as parts lenses with broken lens mounts.  (Something you can fix with replacement parts at home for just a few dollars, thankfully...) 

Late-model Nikon IF lenses in back row

The AF-S Nikkor DX lenses seen above in the back row are an 18-55mm f3.5-5.6G VR zoom, and a 55-200mm f4-5.6G VR zoom.  They're lightweight, fast-focusing, quiet, and both have Vibration Reduction to minimize the effects of camera shake.  As dedicated Nikon DX lenses, they have a smaller image circle compared to their film and FX counterparts. Had I not purchased them as broken salvage lenses, they would have commanded fairly high prices.  While the image quality produced by these lenses is good, they seem lackluster compared to my older film-era lenses.  Maybe it's my bias, maybe there's actual data that shows why.  Not that I discriminate against them, because I'll use them for those instances when I need the VR or wide-angle view of the 18-55mm lens. 

My catalog of Nikon lenses is by no means complete, and is conspicuous in the absence of high-end models.  Unfortunately, lenses like the Nikkor 80-200 f2.8 zoom and the Nikkor 105mm f2.8 prime don't show up too often at Goodwill, although I do keep an eye open for them.  Maybe someday I'll get lucky, but in the meantime I'll enjoy what I've found so far.  Stay tuned, I'll post about these useful "relics" as we enter 2014.  


Brigid said...

Such interesting reading. I will be happy to advance out of "point and shoot" to a real camera one of these days.

Gewehr98 said...

Brigid, based on the awesome photos I've seen on your blog, something tells me you've been well past point and shoot for a very long time... ;-)