Saving money while using legendary lenses
For those wishing to save a little money by purchasing used Nikkor lenses, this is a great time to buy. It's especially true for those preferring to use Nikon Manual Focus (MF) 35mm bodies. The introduction of newer Autofocus (AF) designs has driven down the price of their predecessors, creating remarkable value in some cases. Even those using AF bodies can find some great bargains out there in lenses that are one or two generations back. Here are some thoughts on what I perceive to be some of the better values out there right now. These are all lenses that I have some personal experience with, so it's not just an academic discussion. If a lens is absent from the list, it doesn't mean it isn't good; it just means that its cost to performance ratio isn't quite as good (or it means I forgot to include it).
Great Values in Used MF Nikkor lenses
24mm f/2.8 AI-S or AI: This is a sharp, contrasty, excellent handling lens that is hard to beat for landscape, travel and general photography. It has CRC (Close-Range Correction system), so edge sharpness at close distances is very good.
|35mm f/2.0 AI-S or AI: Very handy as a general purpose lens on an MF body such as an F3 or an FM3A. It's not quite as crisp as a 35mm f/1.4 in my opinion, but still excellent. The advent of mid-range zooms has made this focal length less popular, but I think it's great. Very cheap.||
55mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor AI-S: This lens has a reputation for being one of Nikon's sharpest and for good reason. It's small, lightweight, and works well at all distances. Prices dropped a lot on this one over the last year. While longer focal length macros are a bit handier in the field, there is still a role for this lens, especially when it works well for landscapes, too.
|85mm f/2.0 AI-S or AI: A very fine lens for portraiture. It's extremely compact and handy to use, not much larger than a 50mm f/1.4. It also makes a nice lens for travel if you enjoy using the classic 20/24mm, 35mm, 85mm combination. Due to its very small size, subjects aren't intimidated as much as they would be with a 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens. Very, very inexpensive.||
|105mm f/2.5 AI-S or AI: A classic Nikon lens with a stellar, well-deserved reputation. Why is it fairly inexpensive? There's a huge supply and a lot of people are moving to AF bodies and DSLRs. In some cases, this lens won't meter on them, so people are selling them. It's very sharp and renders backgrounds beautifully.||
105mm f/4.0 Micro AI-S: Prices on these have really dropped over the last five years, and they can be found in great condition for less than $200 US. Although this lens was made in an AI (and non-AI) mount, the AIS is a bit nicer because it has a focusing lock and a much more compact barrel. It's a very sharp and contrasty lens and because of its simple lens design, you get greater working distance than you'd find with the 105mm f/2.8 AF-D lens.
|180mm f/2.8 AI-S: Another situation where prices have dropped a lot over the last year. Like the 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor, this classic has a superb reputation that is solidly deserved. Images are extremely crisp and the out of focus areas are beautifully rendered. This lens is a delight to use with a good MF body or the F4, for example.||
|200mm f/4.0 Micro AI or AIS: Talk about prices dropping, they've really plummeted on this one. The introduction of the 200mm f/4.0 Micro AF-D is what forced prices down on this lens, but it remains an excellent choice and an interesting alternative to the AF-D lens. Why? Well for one thing, it's far more compact than the AF-D lens, which makes it easier to backpack to a location. In fact, it looks positively tiny if you set them side by side. In addition, most people don't use the AF on the AF-D lens because AF is clumsy for macro work. The AF-D has slightly better optics and will get to 1:1 rather than 1:2, but the cost and size differential make the AI-S lens an outstanding purchase. The AI-S has a slightly beefier rotating tripod ring than the AI /as shown at right), but both are more than adequate.||
|200mm f/4.0 AI or AI-S: The regular, non-macro 200mm 4.0 is not a lens many people salivate for, but it's very sharp, compact and easy to handle. The original four-element Nikkor-Q is not an especially good lens, but Nikon improved it just prior to the introduction of the AI series. Prices are very low on this lens.||
|MF Super Telephoto lenses: Prices on used 300mm f/2.8 AI-S, 400mm f/3.5 AI-S and 500mm f/4.0 P lenses have never been lower. They have outstanding optics, professional construction and can be a low cost (relatively speaking) way to get a super telephoto. The 500mm f/4.0 P lens is particularly nice as it will meter on all DSLRs and other recent AF bodies. If you can survive without AF, you can save thousands of dollars. As an example, the price for a new 500mm f/4.0 AF-S lens from B&H is $7,099 USD. I paid $1,300 USD for my used 500mm f/4.0 P. Works for me!||
Keep in mind that this isn't a list of "best Nikkors". It's more of a "very good bang for the buck". Having said that, prices on manual focus lenses are continuing to slide, so virtually all of them are nearing the "great value" category.
Great Values in Used AF Nikkor lenses
20-35mm f/2.8D AF: The 17-35mm f/2.8D ED AF-S has eclipsed this lens, but it remains an excellent choice. It's very sharp and has superb construction. You can find a used one in great condition for only $100-200 more than a new 18-35mm. If you're shooting slow speed slide film, this can be an excellent buy.
|35mm f/2.0 AF, 85mm f/1.8 AF and 180mm f/2.8 AF-N lenses: All three of these lenses are excellent optically and mechanically. They have good MF focusing feels and rubberized focusing rings, but lack the ability to pass distance information back to the body (they're not "D" lenses). Because of that, they sell for $50-75 less than their AF-D equivalents. The distance information from an AF-D lens only matters under isolated conditions with flash. If you don't use a lot of flash (and even if you do), these are great deals.||
|35-70mm f/2.8 AF and AF-D: Another situation where prices have dropped this last year. The advent of DSLRs has reduced the market value of many mid-range zooms, especially those with a minimum focal length of only 35mm. Here's an interesting concept, however: treat this as a variable focal length portrait lens. It has the equivalent focal length range of around 50-105mm on a DSLR, which is just about perfect for portraiture. The fast aperture and clean out of focus area rendition creates nice background, and the size isn't imposing. I'm not fond of the lens for landscape work because of the rotating front filter ring and slightly loose focus, but it works great for photos of people. Its optical performance is excellent.||
|50mm f/1.8 (all AF series): The 50mm f/1.8 lenses are dirt cheap, sometimes not more than the cost of a good filter. Even if you are a zoom enthusiast, it can be worthwhile having one of these in your bag. It's incredibly small and compact, and the f/1.8 aperture can enable photos in dim conditions without flash. Try one of these for shots of family - they work great in that capacity.||
|75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 AF: While there is sometimes a bit of hyperbole concerning this lens, it remains a very nice one for the money. It has a (slightly weak) rotating tripod ring that is great for vertical shots on the tripod, and its construction quality is very good. At around $200 on the used market, it's a steal. Add a Nikon 5T close-up lens, and you have a lot of versatility for very little money.||
80-200mm f/2.8 AF-D two-touch: With two generations of newer lenses out (first the 80-200mm 2.8 AF-S and then the 70-200mm 2.8 VR), this former flagship lens has declined a lot in price. Excellent optics and excellent handling. The two-touch version has a rotating tripod ring which makes it more stable on a tripod.
|300mm f/4.0 AF: Replaced by the somewhat nicer 300mm f/4.0 AF-S, this remains an excellent lens. Optically, it's about the same as the AF-S. It doesn't focus as fast and the MF feel isn't as good, but you can often find it quite cheap. Its build quality is excellent, and it works well with a 1.4x converter.||
Current AF-S super telephotos are starting to drop in price because of the introduction of VR technology. It's already happening with the 300mm f/2.8 AF-S and others will follow. If VR isn't extremely important to you, this can be a good way to save some money.
Let us now go down list of what to watch for when hunting for these great values ...
What To Check For when Examining Used Lenses
There has been a fair amount of discussion recently regarding used lenses and what to check for when examining them. I thought it might be useful to go thorugh the list of issues we've seen in used lenses.
- Sticky diaphragm. I've seen this on a variety of lenses, both MF and AF. You can spot it by flicking the diaphragm lever on the back of the lens. The diaphragm should open and close very quickly and without any sluggishness. Also, look for oil on the diaphragm blades. This is often the precursor to the diaphragm getting sticky. The natural state of a Nikon diaphragm is stopped down when the lens is removed. Note that other brands may work differently. For example, an Olympus OM lens opens up when removed from the camera. Ease of repairing: easy.
- Inability to focus to infinity or an incorrect infinity mark. I've seen this several times and on a wide variety of lenses. In some cases, the lens couldn't quite achieve infinity focus, but could focus on something that was 70-80 feet away. In other cases, the lens could focus on infinity, but the infinity point was well beyond the infinity mark. While you can get sharp pictures with such a lens, the distance markings and the depth of field indicators are incorrect. This is a little more complicated to fix, but not too big of deal. It's common with AF lenses and with ED MF lenses for the lens to be able to focus beyond infinity. Don't worry if you see that characteristic in your lens.
- Sloppy zooming action. This occurs primarily with older one-touch zooms, the most common example being the old 80-200mm 4.5. While this doesn't affect the optical performance, it can be a nuisance. One trick you can use to improve the situation is to apply several layers of transparent tape to the lens barrel in the area where the zoom ring slides. When you have the right number of layers, the zoom ring will still be easy to move, but won't move on its own. The tape trick is easy, fixing the lens so it's tight again is usually not economically viable.
- Lens fungus. This shows up frequently on lenses used in humid climates. You can see it by opening up the diaphragm, holding the lens to a light, and looking for growths on the lens elements that appear like faint spiderwebs. This is generally the kiss of death for lenses. Depending on how widely spread the fungus is, you can see a substantial loss of contrast.
- Dented filter rings. This one is pretty obvious. If you don't plan to use filters on the lens, it's no big deal, but otherwise it's quite inconvenient. Sometimes a good repair person can straighten out the filter ring and make it usable, sometimes not.
- Inaccurate transfer of f-stop information. I've seen at least one AF lens that incorrectly transferred f-stop information to the body. In the case I saw, the difference was two f-stops. This isn't too hard to fix.
- Small scratches or chips on front and back lens elements. If these aren't too big, it's not a problem and you can ignore them. Try to get a discounted price, however. Major cleaning marks can reduce contrast and increase flare.
- Dust inside the lens. Almost every lens has some dust on the internal lens elements. Generally speaking, don't worry about it. If the lens is really filthy you can have a loss of contrast, but I haven't seen many that have that much dust.
- Focusing and zoom rings that bind. This can occur on both AF and MF lenses even though their internal mechanisms are very different. A good clean, lube, and adjust will generally fix the problem unless there is damage to the mechanism.
Incidentally, I think used lenses are pretty low risk purchases, especially if you know what can go wrong and how to spot it. Good hunting.