PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux

1Aug/117

Nikkor 180mm f/2.8D AF IF-ED Review

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.

Operation

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.

Drawing

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.

Conclusion

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.

Samples


Comments (7) Trackbacks (1)
  1. I own both the AFD and the AIs versions of this lens and have nothing but good things to say, it is light, compact compared to my 80-200 and exhibits very little distortion or aberration, is super sharp, and has a very pleasing bokeh as well.

    It can be a little bit of a work out as you walk around a lot more to get your shot the way you want, but it is worth the effort. I would say get one of these gems and go out and shoot.

    • Hi Lorne,

      I agree that this is a real photographer’s lens. If you own one of these there is no reason to not go out and shoot with it.

      That’s not to say that it can’t be improved though, or that we don’t have obvious examples of more powerful optics available. The VR-II zoom comes to mind. A prime lens made in this era would be even more impressive.

      Cheers,

      Olivier

  2. The only competition is the 200mm F2.8 Canon prime. Optics are excellent, sharp at F2.8, so is it’s AF. This outdated Nikkor is beaten by the competition.

    • That Canon lens is 15 years old too by the way, and that model basically just changed the hood from its 5 years older sibling. So while I’m sure the AF is much better, it’s got to be almost the same optically (a bit more glass so a bit better).

      Irrespective though, I caused confusion here, what I really meant to say about the competition was in the context of the F mount. Nobody is hesitating to choose between the EF and Nikkor lenses, that’s for different people.

      Cheers,

      Olivier

  3. Welcome back, Oliver!

    Enjoyed the review again! Personally I do not see how this lens could add while there is a 70-210 VR-II available. Only the price and volume/weight are then considerations. These may be good reasons for some to prefer it to a 70-210 no pun intended here but I do not see a great deal of added value. This may become different (I agree with you) if there will be a successor that is more up to the job to saturate 24 MP FX sensors with quality going beyond what the 70-200 is offering and VR-III added. Maybe also a 2.0…..

  4. Hi Olivier,

    Don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but what about the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 EX DG APO HSM Macro (phew!) prime? It’s a modern design, with autofocus, image stabilization, macro capabilities and well.. it is a prime :).

    You can find loads of reviews on the internet and also lots of pictures taken with this lens. It is reportedly very sharp.

    Possible cons: a) maybe it is to short for what you are looking and b) I know you are not very happy with Sigma rendering and contrast in natural light conditions but who knows, maybe this one is different than the other lenses you’ve tried from them. Maybe it’s worth a test drive.

    All the best,

    Florin

    • I agree entirely, it’s worth a test drive.

      My biggest concern for this specific lens is less contrast, but focus speed. Its reputation is that it focuses very slowly — and the excuse given for that is that it’s really intended to be a macro lens and not a medium telephoto.

      If time and money permit, I will test it.

      Olivier


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