How Can Two Very Different Lenses Be the Same?

Once in a while, when I am going through my gear and trying (usually unsuccessfully) to get better organized, I pull out one of my oldest, most prized lenses, a Nikkor 200mm f/2.0, and set it aside with the notion that I am going to insert it into my workflow in some way.

This lens is from a period in photography known for build quality, an era in which cameras were made by hand, often in Japan or Germany, and when you take a camera or lens from that era in hand, the phrase “they don’t build them like they used to” leaps to mind.

This 200mm is no exception. It is big, heavy, smooth, and quiet, and handles like a scientific instrument.

That period of photography lasted for much of the 20th century, and I have nothing but admiration for those products.

But that era was about to collide with the next: an increase in computer aided design and manufacturing, married to a period of increasing outsourcing to countries with cheaper labor around the Pacific rim, and an increased use of plastic, which saved both weight and cost.

So how does this add up? My beloved 200mm f/2.0 is an art object, but decidedly optically inferior to modern lenses.

The obvious replacement for a lens like this is a modern 70-200mm zoom, and yes, I have one. It is optically unimpeachable, sharp and fast to focus, completely reliable, but, sometimes, just a little boring. We all have one. We all make the same photos with them.

My wild card in the deck is a lens from between these two eras, the AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8. I love this lens, both because it is super-sharp, even wide open (f/2.8), but also that it has it’s roots in the same build era as the 200mm.

Comparing them, though, is one reason I make so few pictures with the 200mm. The 180mm does pretty much everything as well as the 200mm, and the reason is a little unexpected: the 200mm isn’t very sharp when used wide open, at f/2.0. To get sharp results, I really need to stop down two-thirds of an f/stop, which is true for a lot of lenses. The 180mm, though, is absolutely great wide open. So the choice really becomes: do I shoot with the 200mm at f/2.5, or shoot with the 180mm, which is five times lighter, at f/2.8.

Everyone likes lighter cameras when we have to carry them, and I am no exception. I’ve been lugging gear from press conferences to house fires to ball games since college in 1981, and it adds up.

In conclusion, no, I am not interested in selling my giant 200mm f/2.0, but I doubt I will use it all that much. It’s a beautiful relic from the past that I can just admire and play with once in a while.

My AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 and my Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 sit on my kitchen table recently.
My AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 and my Nikkor 200mm f/2.0 sit on my kitchen table recently.