Updated May 6, 2021
With the longest-lived current 35mm SLR bayonet-mount (introduced in 1959), Nikon has a vast catalog of manual focus lenses in a sometimes dizzying array of variations. This can make choosing the right one for you seem daunting. Hopefully, we can help you to find the most suitable candidates for your Nikon lens (Nikkor) arsenal. In our first Nikkor article, we looked at the best bargains in single focal length (prime) lenses. In this follow-up we will attempt to peruse the bargain bin for zoom lenses. "Bargain" is relative in this case to other Nikkors in the same general focal length range ;-). Nikkors generally have higher prices than other Japanese brands of vintage glass because the mount is still current and because of Nikon's reputation as the "choice of pros" over a period of many decades.
Manual focus F-mount Nikkors can first be separated into two major categories: 1) pre-AI (non-AI) and 2) AI. AI stands for Automatic Aperture Indexing, which debuted beginning in 1977. Before 1977, Nikkor lenses used a metering prong (referred to as Rabbit Ears or the Crab Claw, colloquially) which was the means of communicating the lens aperture setting to the camera body for metering purposes. This slotted prong engaged a pin that protruded below the prism housing of the camera. To properly couple the lens to the camera, you had to: 1) set the lens to f/5.6, line the slot up with the pin while inserting the lens into the bayonet-mount camera, 2) turn the lens counter-clockwise to lock it into place, and 3) twist the aperture ring to minimum aperture and then back to maximum aperture to index the lens with the meter. This was called by Nikon the "click-click" procedure, and was given various other names by Nikon users ;-). It was anything but automatic. In 1966, Minolta had introduced its MC coupling for its Rokkor lenses, which was a simple tab on the aperture ring that engaged a spring-loaded collar with a tab on its new SRT SLR body. All you had to do was mount the lens, and the coupling & indexing took place automatically. Nikon basically copied this simple system in 1977 to quicken the lens indexing process.
AI lenses will mount on any manual focus Nikon F-mount body, pre- or post-1977. Non-AI lenses, however can only be used on pre-1977 bodies or bodies with a flip-up AI tab (Nikkormat FT-3, Nikon EL2, FM, FE, F3, F4, Df). Mounting an unmodified pre-AI lens on Nikon bodies with fixed AI tabs WILL DAMAGE the camera and/or lens and will necessitate repairs. The greater mounting versatility of AI lenses thus makes them more popular and they have higher prices than pre-AI Nikkors do. This leads to our first bargain possibility: pre-AI lenses can be a more cost-effective way to get into the Nikkor system, especially if you are using them on a mirrorless camera (no AI tabs to worry about on adapters). Another avenue available to the pre-AI user is conversion of the aperture ring to allow AI operation. Indeed, for many years, Nikon offered a factory AI conversion program where they would do an aperture ring swap to your lens. Unfortunately, this program is no longer offered and the few remaining conversion kits are rare and can be costly. Fortunately, though, most pre-AI aperture rings can be machined (AI'd) or have a tab added to permit full AI compatibility. We are happy to provide this service at 678 Vintage Cameras for $40 CAD per lens plus shipping. Feel free to contact us for details.
All of our zoom lens recommendations will be from the New Nikkor (or "K", the last pre-AI generation) and newer generations as zoom performance wasn't too great until the mid-to-late 1970s came along. Below is a quick description of these 4 lens designations:
Wide - Normal Zooms
25 - 50mm f/4 AI/AI-s Zoom-NIKKOR (1979 - 1985)
This was a pro-level offering from Nikon, which can easily be seen from its weight (600 grams/21 oz.), and it was the widest angle manual focus Nikkor zoom, ever. It is a two-touch (one ring for zooming and another for focusing) design. If you can handle the weight, optical performance is excellent, especially for landscapes. For a zoom of this age, it handles flare and ghosting quite well, setting it apart from most of its contemporaries. The front element rotates with focusing changes, adding a little inconvenience with polarizers, but easily overlooked when you consider the performance of the lens. Filter ring diameter is 72mm. Nikon produced around 28,000 of these beauties, so they don't exactly grow on trees, but they aren't that difficult to find. Specifications were unchanged from AI to AI-s with 11 elements/10 groups and a 7-blade aperture. You can find examples in very good to excellent condition from $150 - 200 USD.
28 - 45mm f/4.5 K/AI Zoom-NIKKOR (1975 - 78)
The predecessor of the 25 - 50/4, and as the world's first true wide angle zoom, the 28 - 45/4.5 is a milestone lens which also happens to perform very well. With its smaller maximum aperture and smaller zoom range, its weight (440 grams/15.5 oz.) is substantially less than that of its successor. It is also a two-touch design with 11 elements/7 groups, 7 aperture blades, and a 72mm filter size. The front element does not rotate with focusing. Flare and ghosting are more of a problem than with the 25 - 50. There were less than 20,000 produced, making it a touch rarer than the 25 - 50. It is less well-known, too, which helps to keep the price down, rarely selling for more than $150 USD and easily found in the $100 USD range. A true bargain.
28 - 50mm f/3.5 AI-s Zoom-NIKKOR (1984 - 85)
Another under-the-radar wide to normal from Nikon, the 28 - 50/3.5 is a one-touch zoom that comes in a noticeably smaller package than the prior two lenses listed. Weighing in at just under 400 grams (14 oz.), and using 52mm filters with a rotating front element, it makes for a great travel or backpacking lens. It contains 9 elements/7 groups, with the standard 7 aperture blades. Its f/3.5 maximum aperture makes for a brighter viewfinder than the two previously listed lenses, as well. With just over 20,000 produced in less than 2 years (replaced by the 28-85/3.5-4.5), it is even less well known, and sits squarely in between the 25 - 50 and the 28 - 45 price-wise, averaging $120 - 175 USD.
NOTE: With their moderate apertures and 2:1ish zoom ratios, these lenses often display better abberation and distortion control than the more popular 28-70 or 28-85 zooms. Sometimes less is indeed more ;-).
35 - 70mm f/3.3 - 4.5 AI-s Zoom-NIKKOR (1984 - 2005)
If you are looking for the ultimate in compact portability while still retaining very good imaging performance, here's your winner. It's not a consumer kit nor a pro-level lens, but a tweener. And it's one of the best bargains of the bunch. Coming in at less than half the weight of the f/3.5 constant aperture 35 - 70s (255 grams/9 oz. vs. 520-550 grams) it can easily be had for less than $50 USD. Obviously, its outright performance will not meet the same standard as the pro-level 35 - 70/3.5s, but you would be hard-pressed to see much difference at f/8. It blows away the Series E 36 - 72/3.5 and for less money, to boot. That makes for a very agreeable travel companion. A simple two-touch, 8 elements/7 groups layout, 52mm filter diameter, the ubiquitous 7-blade aperture, and rotating front element round out the details. There is a 0.35m/14" close-focus setting at the 70mm. In production for over 20 years, with over 300,000 coming off the line, it fits the classic definition of a "bargain".
35 - 70mm f/3.5 AI(72)/AI-s(62) Zoom-NIKKOR (1977 - 86)
On the other hand, if you must have the absolute best optical performance in this focal range (and weight is no object ;-)), you might want to take a long look at the constant aperture version of the 35 - 70. There are some differences between the AI and AI-s types to take into consideration beyond the change in filter size (noted in the caption above). Both sport the same two-touch design and number of elements and groups (10/9) with the front element rotating with focusing, but the older lens only focuses down to 1m (40"), whereas the newer version goes down to 0.7m (28") and has a close-focus setting of 0.35m (14"). The AI-s version also deals with flare and ghosting more effectively. It might seem that there isn't much of a choice here, but now comes the AI lens' trump card, it edges the AI-s slightly in sharpness. So it will come down to your personal priorities when choosing between the two. With just over 105,000 produced, it's not hard to find either version of this lens. Prices range from not-so-much-of-a bargain $250 USD to a pretty-decent $120 USD for examples in excellent condition. It pays to be patient and shop around.
43 - 86mm f/3.5 K/AI Zoom-NIKKOR (1975 - 82)
Here is the first big seller of all Nikkor normal zooms (and a one-touch design, by the way). The original 43 - 86 debuted in 1963. It wasn't that good (like all early zooms) but it paved the way for the boom in zooms in the 1970s. The 43 - 86 has a mixed reputation, one reason being that the the not-so-hot 9 element/7 group construction was originally meant for the lens-shutter Nikkorex Zoom 35 SLR model, which placed some serious constraints on the lens designer as far as size and, therefore, performance was concerned. However, in 1975, with the introduction of the New Nikkor (K) version, an updated 11 elements/8 groups design bestowed a sizable improvement in performance. Simply look for a serial number of 774071 and higher, and you will have a very usable lens for under $60 USD. Our recommendation is to look for an AI version from 810xxx - 933xxx to get the best value (with the beautiful 6-line DOF scale and 5-screw mount versus the simplified 3-line DOF scale and 3-screw mount of the later AI lenses). Weight is 450 grams/16 oz. and there were around 270,000 of the 11/8 produced. Filters are 52mm and the front element rotates. One caveat...if you are a bokehphile (a lover of creamy out-of-focus areas), DON'T buy this lens. Enough said ;-).
50 - 135mm f/3.5 AI-s Zoom-NIKKOR (1982 - 84)
This is another sleeper among Zoom-Nikkors. Only in production for 2 1/2 years with just over 30,000 made, it never got the respect it deserves. So much the better for the bargain hunter. It's not a lightweight (700 grams/25 oz.), but its 16 elements/13 groups gives it some serious imaging performance chops. It teams well with top-quality close up lenses for excellent close-focusing performance. A one-touch zoom with a non-rotating front element, it take 62mm filters. It makes for a very appealing package on crop-sensor digital bodies (giving an effective field of view of 75 - 203mm on full-frame). A real steal at $80 - 120 USD if you can handle the weight :-). Makes a great package with the 28 - 50/3.5 AI-s.
70 - 210mm f/4 Nikon Series E (1981 - 85)
The bigger, heavier, less popular sister to the 75 - 150/3.5 Series E, the 70 - 210/4 (185,000 produced) offers a package of very good image quality and cheaper than standard Nikkor build quality. Comparing it to the contemporary 80 - 200/4 AI-s Nikkor, you can expect a small step down in optical performance, and a slightly flimsier feel (still miles ahead of a modern cheap zoom). Prices run about 2/3s the cost of the 80 - 200/4 Nikkor, making it less of a bargain than it was in the past. Interestingly, once Auto Focus came along, the 70 - 210/4 miraculously became good enough to have the Nikkor title bestowed upon it ;-). Weight is 730 grams/26 oz., the optical formula is 13 elements/9 groups, the front element rotates and accepts 62mm filters. Prices are from $50 - 80 USD. If you can grab an 80 - 200/4 Nikkor in the same ballpark, do it. Before settling on either one of these zooms, have a look first at the 80 - 200/4.5 Nikkor listed below :-).
75 - 150mm f/3.5 Nikon Series E (1980 - 85)
This is probably the most famous bargain zoom in Nikonland. As a Series E lens, it was intended for consumer use, not worthy of the Nikkor nameplate. Somebody forgot to tell the optical designer though, as was quickly discovered by fashion and nature pros in the early 1980s. Construction is, of course, to a slightly lesser standard than regular Nikkors, and the 75 - 150 is notorious for its loosey-goosey one-touch zoom ring. But when it comes to image quality, look out! Featuring 12 elements/9 groups design, a 52mm rotating filter ring, all in a relatively lightweight 520 gram/18 oz. package, the 75 - 150 makes for a highly portable pocket rocket of a lens. One thing to watch for: early examples (into the 184xxxx serial# range) have flimsy sheet-metal rear element protectors that were replaced with more substantial cast versions (starting in the 184xxxx serial# range, with some overlap). The easiest way to tell them apart can be found here on Roland Vink's invaluable site. Definitely go for the beefier protectors if at all possible. There is much ado made about the black versus chrome trim ring in front of the aperture ring, but the protectors are a more important concern and were changed during the so-called "black ring" period. The only advantage of the knurled chrome ring is that it is easier to grip when changing the lens. Look for a serial number of 189xxxx and up, and you can rest easy on all fronts. Over 260,000 75 - 150s were manufactured, meaning that, in spite of the fame of this lens, you can still find examples in excellent condition for $50 - 80 USD without a lot of effort.
80 - 200mm f/4.5 New AI Zoom-NIKKOR (1977 - 81)
Now for a rather specific version of the famed one-touch 80 - 200/4.5 lens that was first offered in Auto Zoom-Nikkor form in 1969. This was the first good-quality tele-zoom from Nikon. However, in 1977, Nikon updated/simplified the design from 15 elements/10 groups to 12 elements/9 groups, improving the already very good image quality along with better handling of flare and ghosting. Over 152,000 New AI Zoom Nikkors were produced, with many photographers feeling that it outperforms its 80 - 200/4 AI-s successor in sharpness, although not in flare/ghosting performance. It also used smaller 52mm filters in a rotating front element as opposed to the 62mm of the 80 - 200/4. Look for examples from serial# 760xxx and up. Build quality is first-rate. Examples in excellent condition can be had for $125 USD. Weight is 750 grams/26 oz., which is the lightest of all the 80 - 200/4 & 4.5s and only 20 grams heavier than the 70 - 210/4 Series E which it considerably outperforms.
100-300mm f/5.6 AI-s Zoom-NIKKOR (1984 - 98)
Our final zoom bargain is a unique lens that may not be for everybody, but offers an intriguing level of performance in certain situations. Of course, with a maximum aperture of f/5.6, this is a bright-day sort of lens, which, for its focal length, weighs in at a spritely 930 grams/33 oz. It was intended to be used hand-held, with a long one-touch grip and no tripod collar. This means high shutter speeds when handholding, and its length can make things a little dicey on a tripod as far as vibrations are concerned. It pairs very nicely with a top-quality reversed 62mm close-up lens (like a Nikon 6T) to make for a killer close-up combination, according to Bjorn Rorslett. The 100 - 300 sports 14 elements/10 groups and has a 9-blade aperture, setting it apart from all the other lenses in this list. Just over 58,000 were produced, making them not super-common, but not that difficult to find, either. Now for the best part, you can score one for $80 - 120 USD. Most have seen little use, so they are easy to find in excellent to mint condition. Happy bargain hunting!
Roland Vink's Nikon Pages @ http://www.photosynthesis.co.nz/nikon/lenses.html
Lens Survey and Subjective Evaluations by Bjorn Rorslett
The Thousand and One Nights Story #61 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/story/
The Thousand and One Nights Story #46 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/story/
The Thousand and One Nights Story #42 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/story/
The Thousand and One Nights Story #15 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/story/
The Thousand and One Nights Story #4 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/story/
Suffers from a two-decade and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.