March 26, 2010

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

Part II of Brain Meltdown Recovery Program

Yep, this here is another one of those stories, about a lens to help me recover from my post traumatic brain lapse.  For those of you, who have no idea what I am talking about, let me explain.  Some years ago I did a foolish thing and sold off six primes lenses.  By now you may have guessed that I am not too happy about it.  And you would be right.

A little over a year ago (for therapeutic reasons) I decided to try and recover from my malady.  Again strictly for therapeutic reasons, I began my recovery by obtaining a Nikon AF-D 85mm f/1.4 lens.  Boy did it work.  I mean it was like magic, one moment in the doldrums and the next on top of the world.  It quickly became my go to and favorite lens.  However like most medicines it wore off.  Time for a new infusion.  Damn what is it going to be I thought.  The choice came down to three remedies.  Had to choose one, but which one?

Having changed over from my daily use of the D2X to the D3, I felt I needed something longer then the 85mm.  So the three proposed remedies were, a Zeiss 100mm f/2, a Nikon 135mm f/2, and last a Nikon 180mm f/2.8.  From the title you probably know by now which one it was.  So let me just skip the whole decision making part and get to the lens itself.


One of the previously mentioned six lenses was a Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 MF IF-ED.  It was a beautifully crafted and optically excellent lens.  During the course of the time I owned that lens, it saw plenty of use.  That was until I added the 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-D lens to my arsenal.  The quality of this new zoom lens and not to mention the versatility of a zoom, kept the 180mm in the drawer so to speak.  Time marches on for us all and I started to feel the weight of the zoom (coupled with the weight of the D2X / D3).  Suddenly I found I was getting a lot less keepers, especially when zoomed out towards the long end then before.  In my review of the 300mm f/4, I made the comment that despite the longer length and more weight of the 300mm, it felt better balanced on the camera.  The 80-200mm feels much more front end heavy to me, which I think is a big contributing factor in the lack of keepers.  Also the higher resolution of the D2X and D3 and even more from a camera like the D3X will allow even less keepers.

Enter the new 180mm.  First thing you notice is it’s size.  It seems so “small” (especially compared to the 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom, for that matter all of the new f/2.8 zooms).  A friend who had just gotten a 24-70mm f/2.8 even remarked how small it felt in comparison to his new lens.  Though the 180mm is a bit longer (10mm) it weighs about 200 grams less then the 24-70, and the front of the lens is 72mm as opposed to 77mm, which adds to that smaller looking size.  Let me reiterate that the 80-200mm

f/2.8 AF-D is a great lens, but there is a certain commitment to hanging a lens that size (or bigger) onto a “pro” camera body and walking around with it.  Lloyd Chambers has written several reviews where he discusses this very issue and how the weight of the lens can actually warp the lens mount on the camera (


The build quality is similar to the 85mm f/1.4 AF-D, all metal with that retro crinkle finish.  Though the aperture ring is made from plastic and takes a way a little from the overall quality, but then again it does have an aperture ring.  Which for an oldie like me is very comforting to see.  Like all AF-D lenses it has that troublesome A / M switch that needs to be moved, along with the AF switch on the camera.  Such a hassle.  During AF operation it does show some hunting in low light and low contrast situations, but can be overcome, after learning how to handle the lens (though in the process there will always be some missed shots unfortunately).  Manual focus works fairly well.  Thanks to a generous sized rubber focusing ring.

There is a built-in hood, which works well enough (I really don’t like the newer hoods made from plastic, as I have broken far too many) which I find to be an added bonus.  However I would like to see the hood when extended,lock in place like the 300mm f/4 does.  There is no tripod collar, which doesn’t seem to be a problem (though in my opinion “just”).  If using a tele-converter, it would probably be a good idea to find a third party collar.  Burzynski makes one which is built very well and highly recommendable.  **Note the newer Nikon tele-converters will not work with this lens, which means unfortunately finding a used old one or third party.


As I have said before, I do not do technical testing on my lenses, with charts and so forth.  All I can say is that when zoomed to 100% and you can count the individual eyelash and eyebrow hairs, well I find that good enough for what I do.  It also means that this lens is indeed very very sharp.  Even wide open, and I do not hesitate to use f/2.8 on any job, it still looks good.  The caveat being that it has very shallow DOF.  Especially when up close for a head shot.  Speaking of the DOF, the bokeh (in my opinion) is just beautiful.  The out of focus areas are rendered in a very “creamy” fashion.  Look at some of the examples and judge for yourself.  Really all you could ask for.

The chromatic aberrations at large apertures are a problem with this lens.  Most of which occurs in those areas of high contrast which has the effect of a lot “purple fringing”.  Also of lowering the contrast and making the image appear less sharp overall.  Though so far I have been fairly successful in removing CA in post and do not feel too bothered by this problem.  Or by stopping down to f/5.6, which will also clear things up.

The problem of the number of “keepers” has also improved dramatically.  Now I am far more successful in getting sharp images handheld, down to even 1/40 of a second.  Even when I zoom in to 100% and can “count those eyelashes”.  Not that I can do this all the time, nor wood I attempt it much while doing a paying job, but still not bad.  Much like the 85mm f/1.4 AF-D lens, I find myself wishing I could get a little closer with the minimum focus.  Not very knowledgeable about lens design and it’s technical applications, I am not sure whether it is possible.  Though using the smaller APS sensor, does crop the image, it is not the same thing.


All in all I am very pleased with this lens, despite it’s few flaws.  As you look at my example images, you will see that there are far more then usual.  The reason?  It was just that much fun to shoot with this lens.  I found myself either looking for shots or thinking up anything to photograph with this lens.

Sure there are still some more lenses out there that I would like to add to my kit.  Probably something to fill the gap between the 85mm and the 180mm.  My “dream” lens would be a focal length somewhere between 85mm and 180mm with a maximum aperture of f/2 or faster, an AF system as fast and accurate as the 24-70mm zoom (which is the fastest I have ever shot) and with the ability to focus close enough to yield a ratio of 1:3.5 or better (yeah I know dream on boy).  But I will certainly contend myself with this winner for, well until the next time I need a “fix” or when I can convince my wife of the absolute necessity of . . . well you get the picture .

It may not be the best lens of this focal length out there, but considering the cost and compactness it is truly a hard one to beat.  So if you are looking for a fast compact and sharp telephoto lens, then I say go and get this baby.  You will not be disappointed.

All of the example images were shot in RAW and processed with Nikon NX2.  The still life’s shot with the D3, were in live mode and focused manually.  On the D2X, I used AF (incidentally with this lens, I found myself shooting much more with the D2X then I have since getting the D3).  With both cameras I used a cable release and mirror lock-up. People and street scenes were shot handheld in AF.  While making these examples I endeavored to try out as many different combinations, between the cameras (D2X & D3), crop modes and with a tele-converter (Nikon TC-201 2X) for comparison sakes.

Tools d3wrenches3 CatchersBuddahgogglesjeans&sweaterscooterStrainerElephantsA-TrainbeltjoselitoHotel plantLight and churchrailTractor in snowVera & CVeraThe BroNadiaKirstenNadia at windowV&C

Where you can get a tripod collar for the 180mm f/2.8:,l:500,pp:1,ps:az,st:burzynski/de/0/Produkt.html

The Nikon link:

B&H Photo:

Adorama Link: