Until recently, I hardly ever explored the realm of lenses longer than 85mm. The idea of a long telephoto lens seemed too impractical for even a passing thought. But I was so very wrong for not looking at them sooner. Among long telephoto primes, there are some very underrated lenses for dirt cheap prices that no one seems to be talking about. So, let’s start. Shall we?
I should preface that we won’t be discussing telephoto zooms. Another article on this site handles that conversation beautifully, and I encourage you to read that as well (after you’ve finished my article, of course).
Okay, let’s start for real, with my first foray into the new world of long telephoto lenses. Previously, I’d though long focal lengths were beyond my reach, as lenses 200mm and beyond commanded very notable price tags. This is especially true in the digital photography ecosystem. Nikon’s current F mount auto-focus 200mm f/4 macro lens, for example, starts at about $900 on the used market.
But the value proposition turned a complete one-eighty when I investigated the prices for manual focus telephotos. I recently acquired, a pre-AI 200mm f/4 Auto Nikkor Q with a factory AI conversion, which only pried from my wallet a measly $40.
After reading that price, you may impulsively ask yourself the same questions I initially had. What’s wrong with it? Is it damaged? Haze? Fungus? Was it dredged from a river? Is the focusing ring impossible to turn? Are the aperture blades soaked in oil? All of these questions and more circulated my mind, but even still, I risked the purchase. When delivery day rolled around, my expectations were exceeded ten fold. Not only is the glass in immaculate condition, the lens body itself has only suffered from some very minor paint loss. For a lens that’s almost sixty years old, I was very surprised. And the delivery of this lens is where this interesting but informative article, and my journey with cheap telephoto lenses, began.
If They’re So Cheap, How Can They Be Good?
Since my experience with the 200mm Nikkor is still relatively new and fresh, I want to now talk about an observation I made while still researching the lens. The common questions I seem to come across, whether it’s talking to people in person or pouring over forums online is this – how much would you actually use a lens like that? And what would you even use that for?
An initial response to questions like these would usually be met with silence or mere speculation. In order for a proper answer, I opened up an old booklet that I proudly own. This booklet is one that Nikon would include with the purchase of a Nikon F or Nikon F2, and it delves into the vast catalog of Nikkor glass. The answers were there. Nikon predicted a vastness of applications for these future bargain basement lenses; architecture, portraits, sports, auto racing, wildlife, and even landscapes were among the uses for these optical tanks.
If they are so versatile, then why the low price? One word: auto-focus. Or rather, the lack of auto-focus. Before the blessing of auto-focus, photographers had the arduous task of tracking an athlete, sports car, or cheetah. It’s not easy. They had to figure out quick and simplistic methods to achieving sharp or relatively sharp photos. These methods would include setting the hyper focal marks (those color coded lines if you’re using a Nikkor) on the lens barrel and then setting the exposure on the camera to track the moving subject while clicking and advancing away. Another method was keeping a steady hand on the focus ring and slowly turning towards infinity if the subject was moving away, and vice versa if the subject was moving closer.
The difficulty of these methods and the skill required to successfully employ them can be seen in the photos made with telephoto lenses in the era of manual focus. When we examine photos of moving subjects from the 1960s, ’70s, and even into the ’80s, the photos are certainly reasonably sharp, some even look like focus was missed only by a fraction. But many shots (even those made in such illustrious publications as National Geographicaren’t what we’d call sharp in the auto-focus era.
But these old lenses did the job and they did it well. And they can still do it today. Arguably, with cheap adapters and mirror-less cameras and focus peaking, they can do it better today than ever.
I’ll briefly talk about the optical quality of my 200mm f/4 Nikkor. For full disclosure, I am in no way an optical engineer. That being said, I am endlessly fascinated by the engineering involved in making these photographic tools; Especially considering many of Nikon’s famous lenses were made during a time where the only tools the engineers had were pencils and slide rules. Impressive doesn’t even come close to describing the skills involved.
The 200mm f/4 Nikkor was introduced in 1961 during Nikon’s pre-AI era. Early versions of the pre-AI copies have six blade apertures, though this changed to seven blades in 1963. Four elements in four groups comprise the optical formula with the formula changing to five elements in five groups with the introduction of the AI series in 1977 At this time the minimal focusing distance was also decreased from three meters (9.8 ft) to two meters (6.5 ft).
The biggest technical boast this lens has to offer is that it is the first full scale telephoto lens to utilize a fully automatic aperture mechanism. This means that the aperture stayed open when composing a shot, stopping down the moment the shutter is released, and then automatically opening to maximum aperture afterward. Any pre-AI Nikkor glass that has “Nikkor Auto” on the lens will have this mechanism built into the lens. This is important because this is a common function of lenses that we all take for granted, myself included.
I believe we owe great thanks to this lens for changing the course of lens mechanics for decades to come. Is my bias towards Nikon and Nikkor glass showing? Perhaps, but only a smidge.
Ergonomics of the Manual Telephoto Lens
Mine is a large lens, and other manual focus telephoto lenses will be bigger than the nifty-fifty with which most photographers are familiar. There’s no two ways about it. Choose wisely when deciding what body to mount it to, because you start to feel the weight if you’re shooting with something heavy, like a Nikon F2, which is coincidentally my usual daily driver. That being said, manual focus teles are far smaller and lighter compared with their modern auto-focus descendants.
I also highly recommend using a camera body that offers through the lens metering (TTL) and making sure your metered prism on your chosen camera body works. Metering for a landscape with a handheld meter is usually pretty straight forward and the light, unless it’s changing every little moment, it will usually be kind and play ball and not cause you to miss exposure. However, the same cannot be said if you are photographing a subject on a bright sunny day and your subject happens to be in the shade or backlit. Depending on how much/fast your subject is moving, aperture priority is more than likely the best way to go in these types of cases, but if you are granted a slower working pace, then a straight forward through the lens meter should work just fine in most cases.
Finally, I want to make mention of the lens hood that just about all of these lenses came with (if your used lens is missing its hood, try to buy a new one). I forget to use mine quite often, but I can guarantee they will save flares and unwanted light trying to peer in on the front element. Plus, the telephoto look isn’t quite completed until a lens hood is utilized.
Other Examples of the Type
Before I start breaking down my personal experiences and applications with my particular 200mm lens, I have made an extensive list and notes of price for various 200mm lenses across various makes and mounts. Some of these will be surprising because of their price; Of course it varies depending on condition, but it’s still worth mentioning how good these deals are. I would highly encourage everyone to look into one and add it to their lens collection. I am a huge advocate of great deals on great lenses, and these are arguably some of the best on the used market today.
The Manual Focus Telephoto in Various Photographic Styles
A fair amount of time has passed since my acquisition of the 200mm Nikkor. I haven’t taken it with me very often. but the times that I do use it are always a new lesson in composition and thought. Here are some of my experiences with the manual focus tele in various shooting scenarios.
Landscapes, City and Street : First, 200mm is longer than I expected. The jump from 85mm to 200mm is astounding. Even stepping up from 135mm is quite a noticeable difference. One abrupt discovery: your subject needs to be a considerable distance away from you. The lens allows the ability to really isolate a subject matter and direct the viewers eyes firmly on the subject, allowing no distractions.
For architecture, it’s not uncommon to use a lens such as a 15mm or a 20mm to show scale between the structure and the people that walk within its vicinity. To highlight certain features, long telephoto lenses are perfect for the task. They may be simply made from an engineering stand point, but the utilitarian aspect of their build makes them simply sharp. Landscapes make for a pleasing experience with a 200mm since everything on the horizon that would usually look minuscule with a wider lens is brought much closer to the viewer. I would highly recommend shooting landscapes with a tripod, if possible, because any small breath can and will cause you to move and more often than not compromise your composition.
Portraits and Bokeh: Portraits are a bit more of a tricky matter since the closest focusing distance of my particular lens is about seven feet. This will only serve well if I am outside or in a significantly large studio where such room could be granted. But the effort to do portraits with a lens of this focal length will be well rewarded. I say this with confidence because the mushy, blurry background (otherwise known as bokeh to those in the portrait photography business) produced by this lens is fantastic and arguably a worthy challenger to the portrait titans of the realm such as the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 and Nikkor 105mm f/1.4 (lenses which command small fortunes, even on the used market). I understand those lenses have a certain application and use, working portrait photographers use them until the focusing rings fall off.
Anecdotally, if you’re like me and don’t usually see bokeh as a deal maker or breaker, then these affordable telephotos will do the job ten times over. I usually make portraits with my 35mm f/1.4 AI-S, but now that I have a 200mm at my disposal, I can really start to perfect portraits across whatever space I’m working. If you are shooting handheld, I usually recommend slowing your breathing patters while composing and either holding in an inhale or exhaling very slowly right before or during taking the photo. Again, these are things that have helped me and may not work for you, so don’t be afraid to develop your own method.
The experience of incorporating a manual focus telephoto lens (in my case, a Nikkor 200mm) into my rotation of lenses has been a challenging, yet fulfilling one. My planning, composing, and overall style are put to the test whenever I grab and use this lens. The overall flow of my work may be slowed down due to the changing mindset of composing, but that seems to be part of the beauty of shooting a lens like this.
Everything about this lens has been a welcomed addition to my ever-growing catalog of Nikkor lenses. The build quality is as expected, the glass is wonderfully sharp, especially for a near sixty year old lens, and I can guarantee that I only want to keep shooting it more so that I can quickly improve with the focal length.
I implore everyone to seek out a long telephoto lens for their camera system. Whether shooting film or digital with an adapter, it’s a great investment. The odds of finding a great lens for a low price are high. Time has proven these lenses were made to last. Like the old truism goes, “They don’t make them like they used to.”
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