The recent surge of activity surrounding prime lenses has yet to reach the classic primes with focal lengths above 100mm. Only the exotic “Super” telephoto lenses have been updated in recent years, and at a frequency that hardly seems reasonable. Meanwhile, moderate telephoto primes from all equipment manufacturers grow old and dusty on store shelves as the years pass. The 180mm Nikkor lens is an example of this decades-old trend.
Today’s 180mm Nikkor prime lens is the same model that was first introduced 18 years ago, a cosmetic refresh of a model from 7 years earlier. It is a straightforward design with 8 elements in 6 groups, including one element with anomalous dispersion to correct chromatic aberrations. There are no AF-S, VR or Nano technologies included in this implementation, yet all of these are very desirable on this type of lens.
Several times I’ve written on this blog about my ongoing search for a telephoto lens that I would actually want to use, and I’m still at an impasse for now. I’m not excited about getting another 2.8/70-200mm zoom lens; in my hands these are effectively 200mm prime lenses and I would always choose a real prime lens if a comparable one was available. However I am prevented from acquiring a copy of the 180mm Nikkor because it appears to be obsolete, i.e. that it is in fact not comparable to other modern lenses. That is an assertion I recently put to the test.
This telephoto prime is small and light compared to modern zooms with similar specifications for focal length and aperture. The finish used on the barrel, and especially the rubber grip on the focus ring give the lens an old-school look and high-quality feel. The built-in sliding hood is shallow and doesn’t always move into position smoothly, but it does a lot to minimize the total size of the lens in use. Balance on the D700 is great, this pairing is lighter and more agile than popular normal zooms on the same camera.
Manual focus is markedly better implemented on this lens than most modern lenses, despite some glaring usability issues with the feature. When engaged for manual focus, the focus ring is both fluid (not sticky) and lightly damped, with minimal (but some) play. Focusing manually at this focal length can be difficult due to the thin depth of field, but shooting at one or two apertures down makes for a very productive process in practice. Going in and out of manual-focus mode is very awkward unfortunately, requiring modal switches be set on both the lens and camera, or risk straining the camera’s focus motor.
Auto-focus is a low point on this AF lens because it is slow and uncertain. It is more than serviceable for distant and slow-moving subjects but not fast enough for the type of action photography that 200mm lenses really excel at. That is one of the aspects of this lens that make it more suitable for landscape photography than other types of photography.
The 180mm Nikkor focuses internally with floating elements. It focuses down to approximately 1.5 meters, like many other 200mm lenses on the market.
This Nikkor’s performance ranges from good to great, but never quite meets the current state-of-the-art in terms of contrast and sharpness. This lens is also noticeably sharper at long range than it is at close range, at all apertures, despite the floating elements employed for focusing.
At the full aperture of f/2.8 the 180mm Nikkor resolves fine detail on axis with average micro-contrast, and fine details in the outer regions with low micro-contrast. Spherical aberration is quite noticeable in images shot at this aperture, but many of these will sharpen nicely in post-processing. Bokeh isn’t great at this aperture either, with nervous rendering of busy background highlights.
The first stop down to f/4 greatly improves image quality across the entire frame. Fine detail is resolved with good micro-contrast everywhere but the corners. Spherical aberration is much less noticeable at this aperture and bokeh is now excellent in almost all cases. This is the practical maximal aperture of the lens if it is held to modern standards.
At the smaller apertures f/5.6 through f/11 the 180mm Nikkor is a good performer, depending much more on technique than optics to deliver. It never seems to resolve very fine detail however, but it is difficult to pass a final judgement on this with the attached camera being a D700.
This Nikkor is fairly resistant to flare. Longitudinal chromatic aberration is much less of an issue with this lens than an I anticipated, but of course spherical aberration does render artifacts around the plane of focus. Light fall-off is not a big issue with this lens.
The 180mm Nikkor is a very nice lens today but in the early 1990’s it must have been the paragon of medium telephotos. Time is not always kind to the fruits of engineering, but at the current street price of $899 this lens still delivers a solid value proposition. There is little doubt in my mind that this old Nikkor beats the competition at this price point.
Would I recommend this lens to other photographers? Yes. If I owned one I would shut up about telephotos and just use it, but for now I am still waiting for an updated version.