“A Sweet Piece of Glass”

Shooting with the 400mm f/3.5 AI Nikkor in Ada's Wintersmith Park
Shooting with the 400mm in Ada's Wintersmith Park

When I was in college, my photographer friends and I had what we thought were the best cameras and lenses we could afford. I remember by the time I was looking for my first job after college, I had two Nikon FM2s and an FE2, plus a 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor, a 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor, a 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor, and a 200mm f/4 Nikkor. It was a pretty balanced bag, and in the right hands, it was capable of great imaging.

These lenses, as you can guess, were not as capable on the long end as they could have been, especially for low-light, and, of course, there was always something out there I wanted, thanks to tons of free Nikon brochures and magazine ads. One lens in particular stood out as possibly the ultimate in photographic capability and hubris, the gigantic AI-S 600mm f/4 IF ED Nikkor. In the fall of 1985, I saw this lens once in a while at Oklahoma University football games, usually in the hands of a Sports Illustrated photographer, but sometimes belonging to the Dallas Morning News or Denver Post. I don’t remember if the Daily Oklahoman had one (if you are one of my friends from the Ok, please chime in.) It was actually pretty rare to see the 600mm, but it made appearances because OU was in the process of building a national championship season.

An image I made of a blue heron in Wintersmith Park with the 400mm
An image I made of a blue heron in Wintersmith Park with the 400mm

Oddly, the Associated Press photographer in Oklahoma City did not have the 600mm, although he talked about wanting one. Instead, he had a well-used AI 400mm f/3.5 IF ED Nikkor, which, while not the coveted 600mm, he described as “a sweet piece of glass.”

As the years passed I kept my eyes open for a well-used 400mm like that one, since new ones cost $5000 or more. In 1997, while Nikon was offering new autofocus versions of its big glass, I found one and bought it for $1400. From the first frames of my own through it, I knew why this lens was so highly regarded. It focused smoothly and effortlessly, and was super sharp, especially wide open. With the Nikon TC-14b, my 1.4x teleconverter, it was still very sharp, and gave me the reach I needed for pretty much anything in sports or news.

Now, in the digital world, this magnificent 1980s-era lens still shines, although I don’t lug it around when I am super-busy. On days that I just have, say, one baseball game, I’ll bring it, and it absolutely shines with its sharpness and its ability to fill up a frame from all the way across the diamond or all the way down a soccer field. It is also a fantastic lens for nature photography, for animals like bird and deer that require a lot of reach. And despite the fact that it requires manual focusing in an autofocus world, it’s still a sports and news champ. If you can snag one, I highly recommend it.

Baseball action from last night, about 20 minutes before sunset, shot with the 400mm f/3.5 AI-Nikkor at f/4, 1/2000th of a second, on the Nikon/Kodak DCS 720x.
Recent baseball action, about 20 minutes before sunset, shot from the third base dugout at the Roff High School baseball field, with the AI-Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 ED IF at f/4, 1/2000th of a second, on the Nikon/Kodak DCS 720x.