A quick review of my 2nd copy of the Nikon 70-210mm f4-5.5 Ai Zoom. A cheap, battered copy I bought for $75.

I'm always a bit curious about older lenses. I'm a cynic. I think camera makers use new lens design tools not necessarily to make lenses that are distinctly better than their ancestors but to make the new lens designs easier to manufacture and cheaper to make. I'm sure new glass types are wonderful and some of the newest lenses can do amazing things, in the right hands, but I am equally sure that there is a general race on to make lenses more uniform; more consistently consistent, and if they get some optical improvements then that's considered a bonus...

To a degree I think lens design is driven by an uninformed and loud group of consumers who have different ideas about what is essential in a lens than the lens designers themselves did a decade or so ago. The emphasis now is on lightweight, fast apertures and (because of very poorly conceived lens test interpretations) sharpness across a flat field (to the detriment of potential sharpness in the center 2/3rds of the lens). 

I was shopping for a 70-200mm lens last week, knowing that I'd soon be shooting some theater productions with the newly acquired Nikon cameras. I was shocked to see the price of the current 70-200mm f2.8 Nikon lens was $2800. I was so miffed at the rampant inflation for this product category that I abandoned my search for a current product all together and decided to plumb the opposite end of the market. I had in my own inventory a Nikon 70-210mm f4.0-5.6 manual focusing zoom that I'd picked up cheap a while ago. I subsequently read that Nikon doubled the focusing speed on the "D" series version of the same lens and I searched out a copy of that version. The one I found is very functional but a bit beat up. That's okay since I spent only $75. 

I took it along with me last night to do technical scout of Zach Theatre's newest production in anticipation of the "official" shoot we'll be doing on Tuesday. I didn't have overly optimistic expectations that the old 70/210 would be anywhere near as good as a modern lens but I wanted to try it: under stage lighting (this play has a very contrasty lighting design...), handheld (no VR back when this lens was made and originally sold) and at it's wide open aperture (look, I figure I'd just be using this for the longer end and it's already f5.6 from about 105 onward).  Seems like a viciously unfair test for a lens that's decades old --- right?

Well, I'm not so sure. Below are three variations from the same digital frame. The older screw drive lens was able to nail focus quickly and well. The lens also resisted flaring. But the thing that I appreciated is that the image is nicely sharp. As sharp as I expected it could be on a Nikon D800 set to 3200 ISO. 

After seeing the results and comparing similar files shot with the 24-120mm f4.0 and the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens I've called off my shopping and researching for a newer or faster telephoto zoom. While it may not check all the boxes for you this one delivers enough image quality for me. If I need a better lens I'll pull one of the Olympus Pro lenses out of the drawer and put it on a Panasonic GH5. Not a bad deal for a whopping $75. Sorry, no link. You'll have to find your own.

The full frame.

A tight crop.

Getting into the 100%, pixel peeping realm.


  1. There are some little gems in this "old" lenses. The 105mm f:2.5 Ais, as the 28mm f/2.8 Ais comes to mind ! For theater, the 180mm f/2.8 IF-ED Ais is still great ! I have a 135mm f/2.8 Q AI'ed, as new, that is wonderful in focusing smoothness and very sharp (if sharpness is your thing)...

    Sure all those don't have VR, nor even AF, but for those, as myself, who were used to focus on grounded glass, the modern viewfinders work as such. Sometimes you can even be quicker then with AF !

    While I like technology just as every other guy, I went through the Bronica SQ and Leica M years and can appreciate simple answers to simple problems. Thus those smaller sized lenses, the you can repair for a few euros, and get for often less !
    I still have a D3x, but use mostly the little ugly duckling called the Df :-) For what I use it for (Architecture school reportage), it's quite enough and I can even travel with just an iPad and a small wifi hard disk, making things even simpler !

    With Mike Johnston's TOP, your blog is the one I follow daily, as it always get me in a happy mood for the day. Thank you !

  2. I love how the colors are rendered here. You have inspired me to take out my Series E 75-150 this Wednesday for a project I have going. It is a great lens but I sometimes forget all about it. Thank you.

  3. I hate to say this but that cheapy lens is better than my $1,000+ Nikon first gen. 70-200mm f2.8. At least in your hands.

  4. Yep, I got a few lenses like that. My favorite is my 85 f2 I call it my $10 lens, why you ask? Because I got a bug and went to sell it and the best offer I got was $10. I keep the lens it's way to good to sell on a whim.


  5. Bought that lens to use with my D-70 ( many digital cameras ago)....decided I needed a faster 70/200, paid a lot for the F/2.8 (pre VR). Gave the 70-210 to my brother (D-90/D7100) who uses it frequently for sports and general photography - he has won many prizes at the Maryland State Fair over the years with this lens... he won't give it back! I miss it's small size compared to the f/2.8 which I hardly every use because it is so heavy... and I have also converted to Fuji X. I completely agree with your assessment!


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