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Possibly the Best Manual Focus 80-200 Ever?

Tamron 80-200mm f/2.8 LD mounted to my Old Canon F-1

You may or may not be aware of this, but there is a growing trend among photographers, who are using older manual focus lenses on their digital cameras.  It isn’t just some flash in the pan sort of thing, either.  In fact, we have prestigious lens makers such as Zeiss making manual focus lenses expressly for DSLRs, and we have upstart companies, such as the Korean lens maker Samyang doing the same.  The surprising thing about the Samyangs is that this company is building top-notch optics for very reasonable prices.  They just don’t happen to be auto-focus.  But we also have more and more people taking looks backward at which optics were great in their day and reasoning that they may be worth a second look — or more.  Which is what leads to the subject of this article: manual focus zooms.  Zooms which haven’t been made in 10, 15, even 20 years or more.  There are many excellent manual focus zooms that were made over the years, and this article will discuss the one in particular that I feel is the best of the lot . . . for the group of 80-200 zooms at least.  Okay, about this comparison, when I wrote 80-200 in the title, I did not mean this literally.  Rather, this is a class of optics, to which I would consider 70-210s and 70-200s and 80-210s and even the old 90-230s to be qualified participants.  Think of this as a general zoom range, and it will probably work best for this topic.

So, moving along.  In order for a lens to be ranked “best of,” what sort of criteria would you judge as being essential?  Surely a lens’s resolution must rank highly on the list, but not just any sort of resolution, but corner-to-corner resolution, eh?  And of course a lens must also be blessed with good contrast.  Faithful color.  Minimal optical aberrations.  Maximum aperture value.  And the fact that we’re discussing a zoom here means that an inevitable challenge will appear: “Your zoom may be sharp, but it isn’t gonna be as sharp as my xxx prime.” (fill in the xxx with whatever focal length you want that fits within the zoom’s range)  So a zoom has to overcome what I call Prime Prejudice as well.  So, this “best of” zoom must also be able to accept the prime challenge and do well against them, despite the fact that, in this discussion we’re comparing zooms to zooms and not zooms to primes.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, a few lens makers started producing fast 80-200 optics — ones with a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture.  It could be argued, I suppose, that Vivitar started it all back in the mid-1970s with their Series 1 70-210 f/3.5 zooms.  After all, f/3.5 is only 1/2 stop away from f/2.8.  Nonetheless, pairing a lens with a top focal length of 200mm or so with a wide open aperture of f/2.8 caused a lot of interest.  Why?  Well, because 200mm f/3.5 lenses had been common for years, but 200mm f/2.8 lenses were uncommon.  In fact there were quite a few lenses that had fast f/2.8 apertures but that didn’t quite reach 200mm.  We had the Zeiss 180mm f/2.8 Sonnar and the Zeiss Jena f/2.8 Sonnar and Leica’s f/2.8 Elmarit and Olympus made a 180mm f/2.8  and the Nikkor 180mm f/2.8, and even Schneider made one for Rollei.  Again, why, you may be wondering?  Well, as it turns out, 180mm is still pretty much okay at f/2.8, chromatic aberration-wise, as is a lens with a longer focal length of 200mm and a maximum aperture of f/3.5, but when you open the design up just that 1/2 stop more or stretch it another 20mm — blammo! Color fringing all over the place.  In fact, I know of only two 200mm f/2.8 lenses that were made prior to this time that did not have special glass or optical formulations: the Canon 200mm f/2.8 and the Soligor 200mm f/2.8.  I’ve never tried the Soligor, but I owned the Canon — the late, internal focusing model, too.  And it had severe chromatic aberration problems.  They were so bad, I really had to be careful how I used it.  But that was back in the days of film, when Photoshop didn’t exist and if you had CA in an image, you were stuck with it.

Fortunately for photographers, the lens designers realized that if they were going to be offering zooms with a 200mm maximum focal length and a maximum aperture of f/2.8, they could not just use regular optical glass in these lenses.  So  the lens makers introduced their optics with special glass or formulations to reduce the chromatic aberration problems.  Of course, having to use special, low-dispersion glass and special optical configurations increases the costs for the lens makers, so they were forced to sell these premium lenses at premium prices.  Apparently, this wasn’t a problem particularly, because by all accounts I’ve seen, these premium lenses sold well, despite their much higher prices.  Compare the Vivitar Series 1 f/3.5 zooms, which sold in the mid-70s for maybe the mid-200s (USD), and routinely on the used market at the time for about $150, and the newer zooms with their special glass, which typically sold for $800 or more.  Street prices.  Interestingly, most of the manufacturers of the super f/2.8 zooms were aftermarket makers.  Sigma had its 70-210 f/2.8 APO, Tokina its 80-200 f/2.8 AT-X SD, and Tamron had its SP 80-200 f/2.8 LD.  The only exception I’m aware of is Nikon, who produced an 80-200 f/2.8 ED.  But this is a relatively rare lens.  I have the feeling that Nikon didn’t sell many.  Considering that theirs sold for about twice what the aftermarket ones sold for, this might have been some of it.  But perhaps not all.  In fact, I’d have to say that all of these f/2.8 super zooms are relatively uncommon.  They appear on the used market only occasionally.

It’s time I got to the point.  Based on articles and tests I’ve read at the time this lens was available new, it is my conviction that the Tamron 80-200mm f/2.8 LD is the best that has ever been made of the manual focus zooms in that range.  I can already hear you Contax guys with your T* 80-200 f/4s saying that my conviction is a load of cow manure.  Maybe even you Nikkor 80-200mm f/4 guys.  And for sure you folks who own the Canon 80-200mm f/4 L.  Now these three lenses I’ve just mentioned are truly outstanding optics that deliver resolution and contrast on par with some of the best primes.  But I really do believe that the Tamron has the edge.  I base my convicition mostly on the lens tests that the much missed Modern Photography magazine used to conduct.  Unlike the mushy IQ bullcrap that Popular Photography magazine replaced it with (PP bought out MP), Modern Photography’s tests gave the reader real numbers that could be compared to other lenses’ real numbers.  And the real number tests for the Tamron 80-200 f/2.8 at 200mm show it to be almost the exact equivalent to Nikon’s superb 180mm f/2.8 ED.  It is, in fact, uncanny how closely the two lenses match each other’s numbers.  At shorter focal lengths, the Tamron’s numbers are even higher.  So because of this, I feel that the burden of proof must lie with those f/4 optics and for their users to prove their superiority.  But there is, for sure, one area in which they cannot compete and that is shooting with the lens wide open at 200mm f/2.8.  For example:
Tamron 80-200mm f/2.8 LD @ 200mm and f/2.8
A 100% crop of the above image
The above photo was taken at a distance of about twelve feet and the camera/lens combo was hand held.  I probably could have done better if it would have been mounted to a tripod, but I believe this is “good enough” to show what the lens is capable of at f/2.8.  Of course, no image sharpening of any kind was done to the above images.  My apologies for not offering more example images at this point, but I’m an outdoor photographer, and we have reached the dog days of summer here in Houston, and it is difficult for me to find much of anything interesting to shoot pictures of at this time of year.  Except maybe for a few neighborhood birds hoping to snag a few morsels of food out of my dog’s food dish and drink from his water bucket.  The odd squirrel or two.  Aw hell, what the hey.  If you don’t mind, I don’t either.
Here’s a common grackle — a bird species indigenous to eastern North America. They are very common around where I live and I’ve been observing them quite a bit. The grackle is a fairly large bird — larger than blackbirds but smaller than crows, and the males are larger than the females. The sexes tend to congregate together. That is, I’ll see gangs of males or females, but seldom do I see them mixed. The males are characterized by a glossy black plumage that can have a greenish-purple tinge, whereas the females have brownish-gray colored bodies with black wings and tails. The males are also characterized by having large, almost out-of-proportion tail feathers. Perhaps the grackle’s most distinguishing characteristic is its call. The grackle’s call can range from a shriek that rises in pitch to a something that sounds like a combination of a high-pitched squawk and a stick snapping in two. Strange.

Common Grackle: Tamron SP 80-200mm f/2.8 LD @ f/2.8

I was about 15 meters away from the bird when I took that shot.  Here is a 100% crop of the image.  Taken with a 10.1 megapixel Canon XS (the megapixel count determines the size of a 100% crop, which is why I mention this).

100% crop of the above image.

So this may not be the most photogenic of subjects, but as you can see this Tamron holds detail exceptionally well.  Here’s another — a white-winged dove.  I like these more than their more common ring-necked cousins because of their blue mascara.  First the uncropped image, then the 100% cropped image.

White-winged dove, Tamron SP 80-200mm f/2.8 LD lens

100% crop of the above image

Incidentally all of the above images were taken with the lens wide open at f/2.8 and at its maximum zoom setting: 200mm. I’m kinda funny that way about lenses, especially zoom lenses. I want to see how well a lens performs at its most demanding setting, and to me its most demanding setting is wide open, and if it’s a zoom, it’s wide open at its longest focal length. This is when it will tend to show softness, chromatic aberrations, and other problems. So if a lens performs well at its most demanding settings, I feel reasonably confident that it won’t let me down if I have to stop it down a bit or bring the zoom in a notch or two. And as you can see, this lens is doing very little in the way of letting me down.

Finally, I would like to mention that this lens is a recent acquisition of mine and that I bought it from KEH (keh.com).  I’m not getting paid a dime by KEH to mention them here and the only reason why I do so is because I feel that they are an exceptionally good outfit to do business with when one is shopping for used equipment.  This lens arrived in much better condition than their rating system indicated and I was able to obtain it for a great price.  KEH has a very large inventory of used gear and they have become the place I usually check first when I’m in the market for a piece of used gear.  Also, it’s worth noting that, despite their worldwide reputation as a dealer in used photo gear, they sell new stuff too.

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