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.
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