Updated July 27, 2021
It is common knowledge among Nikonistas that the Series E line of lenses are unworthy of the Nikkor designation, due to the copious amounts of "plaaaastic" in their construction and their intended audience of wet-behind-the-ears beginner hacks (the only thing worse than "plaaaastic" to a Nikonista is a "baaaattery", always uttered with head reared back and clenched fists shaking at the heavens). Even having "Nikon" engraved on these "re-badged third party" lenses went way too far for these gatekeepers. Seeing as the little EM consumer SLR that the E lenses were designed for deservedly "failed" on the market (selling a paltry 400,000+ units in its first full year of worldwide distribution and "only" 1.5 million in less than 5 years overall) it should come as no surprise that the Series E line of lenses turned out to be one of Nikon's greatest blunders. Read on to see how they barely survived and the lessons they learned (or rather, failed to learn ;-)).
When Nikon Went Native
The late-1970's saw a major shift in the SLR industry as the professional and enthusiast markets became saturated and focus shifted (stinkin' focus-shift spoils many an image, as you well know ;-)) to previously untapped sectors. Canon was the first Japanese manufacturer to attempt to exploit a new consumer-level customer that was previously unreachable due to the heretofore high production costs of enthusiast SLRs. The AE-1 ushered in the era of engineered plastics (EPs), and electronic controls replaced mechanical systems as far as possible. The result was a greatly simplified design that incorporated as much automation in its assembly as was possible at the time, further slashing costs.
Canon did so poorly with the AE-1 that the rest of the industry felt sorry for them and quickly rushed their own ill-conceived attempts at SLRs for dummies to market so that Canon wouldn't lose too much market share, 'cause that's what good companies do for each other. Nikon was the last to do so, due to their proper regard for proper SLR construction, regardless of what Canon was going through. But, by 1979, their compassion got the better of them and they couldn't help themselves from reaching for Canon's outstretched hand and (you know what's coming) ended up in the same consumer quagmire, from which they have yet to completely extricate themselves. Of course, you could never completely envelop the mighty Nikon spirit, and they never got so deep as Canon into the quicksand (5.7 million AE-1s sold in nine years, big freakin' deal, shrugs). Nevertheless, they were now in the same mud hole and there was no escaping, just more wrestling. So let's dig in to this whole Series E thing a bit deeper :-0.
Series E? Surely You Can't Be Serious
Ok, Ok, Ok. My chimpanzee fact-checker just returned from lunch, and is currently threatening me with forty lashings with a used banana peel for my...as he is putting it, "fast-and-loose misuse of the typed word". Whaat?? How could something someone types for consumption (cough, cough) on the sticky ol' Interwebs be anything but truth and goodness for all humankind? I mean come on, I'm not even using spellcheck, for crying out lout. How much more real can I be?? #keepinitreal #thetruthisoutthere #nikonsucks #canonsucks #sonyforthewin #icantstophashtagging #ihavehashissues. STOP!
Deep Breath. Let's start again. First, let's dispense with the "third-party designed" or "subcontracted" nonsense that has been immortalized on internet forums (renowned for their enlightening effect on humanity and thus why they are often found at the top of a Google search ;-)). Series E lenses were designed by Nikon and made by Nikon - end of story. Actually, if you want more story, go check out The Thousand and One Nights by Nikon, specifically Tales #42 & #76 to get the particulars behind their development and production.
Next, let's establish the parameters that Series E lenses were conceived, designed, and constructed under according to Nikon optical engineer Kouichi Ohshita:
The price of the lenses was reduced by minimizing the number of lens elements required for optical components and using less expensive glass materials.
As well as:
In tune with this small Nikon EM, lighter weights were achieved through the use of plastic for the exterior parts of the Nikon Series E lenses, as well as their aperture rings and lens chambers that hold lens elements. Even the helicoid was plastic on some of the lenses.
That approach was balanced with this tenet:
There was absolutely no compromise on design, however, and one of the concepts behind the series was that the lenses would preserve the same quality as existing Nikkor lenses.
Paradoxically, to design a good lightweight, and yet inexpensive, lens takes a more deft touch than being able to just throw the latest technology and copious amounts of top-level materials at the problem (Exhibit A: the new Z-mount Noct. 58mm f/0.95 Nikkor). One sure sign that Nikon was not compromising on the optical design of Series E within the above-cited limitations was its choice in designers to execute them. These were not interns or apprentices cutting their teeth, they were the same men who had fashioned some of the most advanced Nikkor optics to date: from the then-widest rectilinear lens in the world (13/5.6) to high-performance telephotos like the 200/2 & 400/2.8 and everywhere in between. Another common myth concerning E lenses claims that they lacked popularity due to compromised performance and this was reflected in poor sales and they thus suffered a premature death in 1985, after only six years on the market. Was that actually the case?
The E-ntire Lineup
We will now take each of the eight Series E optics in isolation and compare them with their illustrious Nikkor brethren in terms of optical quality and sales performance:
Should You Buy One Today?
As far as value per dollar went, it was never a contest between Series E lenses and their corresponding Nikkors when they were new. You got 90-95% of the performance and optical quality for half the price. As with anything, the law of diminishing returns makes that last 5-10% the hardest and most expensive gain to make. But the demarcation between the two is more blurry in the used market of today, especially when we are talking zooms. The depreciation on MF Zoom Nikkors from the late-'70's to mid-'80s is staggering. We are talking 90+% adjusting for inflation. So you can often find a full-on Nikkor for close to the same price or even less sometimes than the corresponding E; the penalty, in most cases, being weight. That is why the 75-150/3.5 E continues to be the most popular E zoom. It is the only one with an appreciable weight advantage over a similar Nikkor (the 50-135/3.5 was the closest, and it weighs a third again as much) And that is what will be the deciding factor when it comes to the prime lenses, too. The major advantage of Series E primes over Nikkors today is weight savings. And that would be the only real reason to seek one out specifically, unless you are a fan of single-coated normal or medium telephoto lenses :-).
Okay, so searching out E lenses may not be as rewarding financially as it used to be. By far, your chances of encountering an E are highest as part of a kit or package, especially if you come across an EM, FG, FG-20, or F-301 (N2000). So should you just toss it and get thee to the nearest Nikkor? That's totally up to you, but I would recommend giving the E a chance first. Even if you find that you prefer a Nikkor, having a lightweight backup lens is never a bad thing. Lens hoods are an excellent add-on for any Series E (or Nikkor, for that matter), and will help them to maintain contrast in brighter conditions. Aside from the 70-210/4 (62mm), all Series E lenses used Nikon's standard 52mm diameter filter thread, so any 52mm or 62mm threaded Nikkor hood will work for the corresponding focal length in E (all of which had dedicated accessory or built-in hoods for each focal length). Here is a brief rundown of the pros, cons, and Nikkor alternatives to each Series E:
When held up to the standard of any other economy-level OEM SLR lenses of the late-'70s & early-'80s (such as Minolta Celtics and Pentax Takumar Bayonets) Series E glass is, at the very least, a match for (and often better than) them. And when they were selling new, the value proposition versus Nikkor optics was undeniable (you got far more than 50% of the performance for half the price :-)). The fact that most of them can go for nearly the same price as a corresponding Nikkor, nowadays, only serves to underscore that the optical quality is there. But, aside from the weight-savings, that is also precisely the reason why you should look at a Nikkor equivalent when considering a Series E lens today. The present value-per-dollar situation has reversed from 40 years ago: if you can get 5-10% more performance for the same or just a fraction more money, why not? The only real exception is when you purchase a package of an SLR and lens(es). In that case, the glass is often basically a throw-in and the value proposition goes back up. Bottom line? Series E glass is just as usable as it ever was (which was pretty darn good :-)) whether mounted on an F3 or FG, just don't overpay for it. Seriousl-E ;-).
Roland's Nikon Pages @ http://www.photosynthesis.co.nz/nikon/lenses.html#top
Various Tales from The Thousand and One Nights @ https://imaging.nikon.com
Nikon Series E Lenses Brochure (Feb. 1981) @ www.pacificarimcamera.com
Nikon Series E Lenses Brochure (May 1981)
Nikon Series E Lenses Brochure (Sept. 1982)
Several entries on Google Patents
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.