Lens Review: Zoom-Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5s MACRO

50-135mm

One of the mistakes photographers often make is not choosing equipment that compliments their shooting style. I’ve been guilty of this myself.

Several months ago I purchased Nikon’s 70-300mm VR zoom lens. The 70-300mm VR’s relatively slow variable aperture tends to limit one’s creative choices, and it’s sharpness and contrast fall off a bit as you approach 300mm, especially at the maximum aperture of f/5.6. That’s not to say it’s a bad lens. Far from it. It’s a solid all-around telephoto zoom, and an excellent choice when you can only carry a couple of lenses. If you’re traveling, the 70-300mm VR and the Nikon 16-85mm VR make an excellent pair. However, as the old saying goes, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

After spending some time with the 70-300mm VR, I realized that it simply didn’t compliment the way I shoot. I needed more ability to manipulate depth of field at shorter telephoto distances, and the ability to shoot wide open at 300mm, while maintaining excellent image quality. I decided that I would be better off splitting up this focal length range into two lenses – a 300mm prime lens, and a telephoto zoom somewhere in the 50-150mm range.

Finding the right zoom was more difficult than you might imagine. Unfortunately, Nikon’s DX lens line has more than a few holes in it(another subject I’ll touch on at some point, and one recently covered quite well in July 13th and 14th 2011 posts by Thom Hogan). Nikon simply does not offer a reasonably fast, constant aperture zoom in the 50-150mm range. Competent entries from Sigma(50-150mm f/2.8) and Tokina(50-135mm f/2.8) were both recently discontinued. Sigma’s new 50-150mm entry looks promising, but is likely to cost more than my budget would allow. For awhile I considered carrying a couple of primes to cover this range, but I wanted to minimize both the amount of gear I carry, and the number of lens changes out in the field.

I finally decided to look to the past to fill my need. What I found is the subject of this review, the Zoom-Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5s MACRO.

50-135mm

50-135mm

50-135mm

The 50-135mm(approximately 75-200mm on a DX camera such as the D7000) was introduced way back in 1982, and discontinued a very short time later, in 1985. It’s a shame that Nikon has yet to revive it as an autofocus lens, because it’s a marvelous little zoom, especially for DX users. Perhaps “little” is not entirely accurate, as the 50-135mm is similar in size to Nikon’s 55-200mm VR lens. However, overall it remains a compact design. Build quality is typical of old manual focus Nikkors – that is to say, it’s built like a tank. If you’re used to the weight of today’s plastic lenses, you might be surprised by the heft of the 50-135mm. The weight is not overbearing, mind you. It remains light enough to carry all day, but you’ll definitely know that you’ve got some Nikon all-metal old-school goodness stuck to the front of your camera(which would be a D7000 or above, as this lens will not work with the lower models).

The 50-135mm is a one ring zoom. The ring zooms fairly smoothly – my lens has not developed the looseness sometimes seen in more worn copies – and focusing is an absolute joy. A long focus throw coupled with a smooth feel and just the right amount of resistance make precision focusing a fairly quick and simple affair, even with a modern DSLR whose focusing screen was not exactly designed for manual focusing. There’s even a macro mode at 50mm, which allows a 1:3.8 reproduction ratio. This can be moderately useful, though I prefer to simply use an extension tube when I want to get closer than the normal 4.3 foot focusing distance. Another nice touch is that the front element does not rotate during focusing or zooming, making it easy to use a polarizing filter. The f-stops click solidly and surely into place, from f3.5 up to f32. Every aspect of the lens screams quality. With the exception of Zeiss, they truly don’t make them like this anymore.

At this point you’re probably saying to your self, “excellent build quality and smooth handling are all well and good, but what about image quality?” I have no test charts to share with you, because I don’t believe those kinds of lens tests tell me what I really need to know about a lens. I find that actual photos are far more useful than charts. I want to know the character of a lens… how it reacts to different lighting conditions, and at various shooting distances. I want to see how it renders colors, and the amount of contrast it offers. And I want to know how it feels in my hands. What’s it like in real world shooting situations? That’s what matters to me.

After shooting with the 50-135mm for about two weeks(admittedly a short time), I feel comfortable saying that image quality is mostly excellent. The lens is more than adequately sharp at larger apertures, and stunningly sharp when stopped down to f/8.

135mm @ f/8…

50-135mm

100% crop, with only RAW pre-sharpening…

50-135mm

Moreover, it’s sharp across the frame, from edge to edge. Remarkable performance for an almost 30 year old zoom. I see no noticeable vignetting, even wide open. Contrast is excellent, and color rendition is lovely, if a touch on the cool side…

50-135mm

50-135mm

50-135mm

50-135mm

50-135mm

50-135mm

50-135mm

50-135mm

Only two problems appear, from my perspective. First, there’s a bit of red/cyan CA, though it usually only shows up in extremely high contrast areas. Thankfully, it’s correctable to a large degree in Photoshop. On the other hand, purple fringing does not seem to be much of an issue with this lens. The other problem I noticed is flare. You’ll definitely need a lens hood when shooting backlit subjects, even if the light source is not directly in the frame. Using a hood(or your hand) should render this potential problem a non-issue in all but the most extreme lighting conditions.

The Zoom-Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5s MACRO is admittedly not for everyone. If you shoot fast moving subjects, and aren’t comfortable focusing manually, you may need to look elsewhere. If you want an extremely compact, lightweight lens, the stocky 50-135mm might not fill the bill. However, if you’re a deliberate shooter who’s looking for a rugged lens with top-notch image quality, look around for this little gem.

I’d suggest starting any search with KEH, probably the premier used equipment retailer here in the states(and the source of my copy). KEH tend to grade their lenses quite conservatively. You can generally be assured of receiving a lens whose condition is at least as good as described, and likely better. Another used equipment source would be ebay. With ebay, as always, shop wisely. Check the seller’s feedback, and their return policy. If you don’t mind paying a bit more, there’s also the legendary Grays of Westminster, the world’s greatest source for new and used Nikon gear. Nikon is all they sell. If Nikon made it, no matter how rare, they most likely have it.

Update: In my review, I failed to mention two important points. The first is in regards to image quality, and it’s a perfect example of why I don’t like to rely on test charts. The Zoom-Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5s MACRO does an exceptional job of rendering fine textures. This is something you’d never learn from viewing a test chart. As someone who frequently shoots macros and closeups, I’m very aware of small details. I’ve often lamented the fact that my images didn’t always seem to capture the fine structures that my eyes could see. Not so with the 50-135mm. I don’t know if it’s because of the high level sharpness, or the contrast that the lens delivers – or some entirely different reason – but fine, complex textures are captured beautifully by this lens. So much so that I often find myself using the 50-135mm with extension tubes, rather than turning to my dedicated macro lens, which itself is no slouch in terms of image quality.

The second point is price. A clean copy of this lens, with minimal wear should cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $275-$325. You can find them cheaper, but I’d be leery of any lens that appeared to have been handled roughly over the course of it’s life. Being a zoom, the 50-135mm is inherently more fragile than a prime, because of all the optical elements and moving parts. Even a rugged well-built lens such as this is not immune to problems if it’s abused. Better to spend a few extra dollars and pick up a well cared for copy. Happy hunting.

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