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.
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).
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.
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.