Taking Lenses to Their Limits: The 200mm f/2.0

Pecans cling to a branch on my only papershell pecan tree this week in an image made with a rare and beautiful lens, my Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 of 1985 vintage.
Pecans cling to a branch on my only papershell pecan tree this week in an image made with a rare and beautiful lens, my Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 of 1985 vintage.
The controls on the Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 are big and easy to use. Focus is super-smooth, and the aperture is firm and easy to adjust.
The controls on the Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 are big and easy to use. Focus is super-smooth, and the aperture is firm and easy to adjust.

My wife Abby and I live on a pretty little patch of green in southern Oklahoma. I garden, tend an orchard, and walk our dogs in this bucolic paradise. I have always enjoyed photographing this land, and when the light is right, it can yield some of the best fine art images in my portfolio.

Lately I’ve been grabbing lenses known for their dream-like imaging capabilities, lenses with large maximum apertures that can produce flattering “bokeh” in the out-of-focus areas of the image. Recently, those lenses have been the AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, and the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8.

In the past few days I’ve made a point to lug around my rare and beautifully-made Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 of 1985 vintage.

An interesting phenomena for me is that I get this lens out with the intention of using it, then don’t really use it. The whole point of shooting with this behemoth is to use it at f/2.0, “wide open,” and at this setting it is quite unforgiving. If I miss the focus by a few millimeters, the image is unusable.

The Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 looks big and heavy, but in my hands it feels even heavier, thanks to dense optical glass, brass and steel construction, and the fact that the biggest parts are in the very front of the lens.
The Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 looks big and heavy, but in my hands it feels even heavier, thanks to dense optical glass, brass and steel construction, and the fact that the biggest parts are in the very front of the lens.
The front element of the 200mm f/2.0 is 100mm across, about four inches. In addition to being heavy, this much reflective surface is prone to flare and ghosting, so the lens has a large, built-in hood.
The front element of the 200mm f/2.0 is 100mm across, about four inches. In addition to being heavy, this much reflective surface is prone to flare and ghosting, so the lens has a large, built-in hood.

With a beautiful late-summer sun setting one day this week, I ran into the house after walking our Irish Wolfhound and watering the garden, and grabbed the 200mm, and ran back into the yard just in time to take advantage of the golden moment and this rare, special lens.

Sure enough, when I reviewed my images after dark, half of them were unusable due to subtle focus errors. The images that were in perfect focus were magnificent, subtly sharp in a dream-like way that made the light on the leaves absolutely sing.

An oddly enduring myth about this lens is that it has “good” or “beautiful” bokeh. This is the classic mistake of confusing selective focus with bokeh. This lens has over-the-top selective focus, since f/2.0 at this focal length can throw the background so far out of focus, but if you examine the bokeh, defined as the quality of the out-of-focus area, you can see that it’s ratty and cluttered.

This is an excellent example of the difference between selective focus and "bokeh." Selective focus with the 200mm f/2.0 is quite striking in the area to the right of the flower, while the "bokeh," the quality of the out-of-focus portion of the image, is visible in the leaves on the left.
This is an excellent example of the difference between selective focus and “bokeh.” Selective focus with the 200mm f/2.0 is quite striking in the area to the right of the flower, while the “bokeh,” the quality of the out-of-focus portion of the image, is visible in the leaves on the left.

If you are willing to redefine “bokeh” as simply being all the way out of focus, every lens has “great bokeh” if you just use empty blue sky as the background.

Note that the areas in this image behind the plane of focus are sparkly and edgy, not nearly as smooth as many of my lesser lenses provide. The confusion occurs when comparing selective focus.
Note that the areas in this image behind the plane of focus are sparkly and edgy, not nearly as smooth as many of my lesser lenses provide. The confusion occurs when comparing selective focus.

But the main reason I seldom use this magnificent lens is its weight, more than five pounds, all of it in the front. It is a bear to use handheld, and awkward to use on a monopod. It’s easy to say that I don’t like heavy lenses now that I’m older, but I’ve never loved lugging them around, and doing so creates a payoff of diminishing results: huge lenses are only marginally better than not-so-huge lenses.

Finally, no, I don’t ever want to sell it. It’s one of the best examples of cameras from years ago, when lenses were made to last a lifetime.

Despite its reputation as a "bokeh master" or "bokeh beast," the Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 actually makes kind of ratty bokeh if you have much action in the out-of-focus areas of an image. This image was made at f/2.0.
Despite its reputation as a “bokeh master” or “bokeh beast,” the Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 actually makes kind of ratty bokeh if you have much action in the out-of-focus areas of an image. This image was made at f/2.0.

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