Five Reasons Vintage Zoom Lenses Aren’t Terrible

Five Reasons Vintage Zoom Lenses Aren’t Terrible

2000 1125 James Tocchio

Few things in the vintage camera world are as universally reviled as old zoom lenses. They carry a reputation for being bulky, useless in low light, and criminally soft, especially when compared to legacy prime lenses, which most shooters regard as the gold-standard in vintage glass. Even photo geeks who embrace vintage zooms will tell you that only a select number of brand-name examples are worth shooting; that Leitz designed MD zoom from Minolta, select Vario Sonnars from Zeiss, the famous Beer Can.

Unfortunately, most of the legacy zooms we find parasitically clinging to otherwise great SLRs carry unglamorous third-party names, many of which belong to companies that folded long ago. Tao Five Star, Gemini, Quantaray – these are names that make classic camera lovers cringe, and their abundance have made many of us the reluctant owner of way too many junky zooms. Mostly, they sit in a storage box or get tossed directly in the bin while we spend our days shooting wonderful primes.

But wait, maybe they’re not terrible? Before you spiral that Vivitar straight into the trash can, let’s think about this. While their junky reputations are somewhat deserved, it’s possible that these old manual focus zoom lenses might just be worth our time and money. To find out, I spent a weekend with a bunch of zooms, and I’ve come up with five reasons to shoot these often overlooked lenses. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.

Reason One – They’re surprisingly well-built

Zoom lenses are tough to make, and that in itself is an understatement. A huge amount of engineering went into these zoom lenses and we should applaud the unsung manufacturers for their early efforts. And though most cameraporn showcases set fast primes, I think these zooms are beautiful in their own right.

My personal experiences with the build quality of both the Vivitar Series 1 and Tokina AT-X series has been an eye-opener, particularly in the case of the Tokina. The AT-X 28-135mm lens is a masterpiece of engineering and design, featuring all-metal construction with no less than eighteen elements in twelve groups, and that enormous front element alone provides enough instagram-worthy lens porn for a lifetime. The smooth flow of its focus ring and precision clicks of its aperture ring rank with the best I’ve used from Canon and Nikon. The same goes for the Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm, whose solid feel and optical prowess made it a favorite for sports and portrait photographers back in the day, even if its largely forgotten today.

The build quality of consumer zoom lenses has declined greatly in recent years (Nikon G, Canon STM), a far cry from these old, manual focus lenses. Get one in your hand and you’ll be surprised by the sturdy and thoughtful designs of days past. They really don’t make them like they used to.

Reason Two – They’re convenient

Convenience is probably the biggest reason to shoot a zoom. The logic is simple; why carry a bunch of lenses when you can carry just one? Purists the world over will no doubt scoff at this extremely simplistic thinking and prepare any number of angrily worded comments citing a loss of sharpness, speed, and sophistication. Nevertheless, it’s simple mathematics. Carrying one lens beats constantly swapping between three.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much a fan of prime lenses as anybody; in fact I often  proselytized the superiority of prime lenses to anybody who’d listen. Zoom lenses seemed like the easy way out, a solution for photographers who didn’t really care about the finer aspects of photography. But I soon found out that that was complete you-know-what when James sent me a zoom lens to try on my brand new Contax 139Q – the previously mentioned Tokina AT-X 28-135mm F/4-4.6.

It quickly turned out to be my favorite lens ever for use when traveling, a shooting situation that benefits from complete awareness and immersion in your environment. Vacations seem a lot more fun when you have a camera and lens combo which lets you focus on the world around you instead of the camera itself. Zooms let us play in flowerbeds and hop across streams, all while taking shots, instead of constantly worrying that we’re missing a shot because we brought the wrong focal length. Convenient.

Reason Three – They’re versatile

That convenience comes hand-in-hand with versatility, and zoom lenses are easily more versatile than their prime counterparts. Sure, they can be slow as hell, but what they sacrifice in speed they more than make up in the variety of focal lengths available to shoot, which make zoom lenses a powerful tool for those who want to work quickly.

This versatility showcased itself on a camping trip up to the Eastern Sierras. It was early morning and couple of birds perched themselves atop a rock to get their first sunrays of the day. Not wanting to disturb the idyll of the morning, I pointed the camera at the birds, pulled the heavy barrel of the Tokina all the way to its full 135mm setting and snapped the picture. The very next moment, the birds flew off into the distance.

On a separate trip down to Lake Elsinore to see Southern California’s famous poppy fields, the zoom lens continued to impress. The group I was with decided to climb up a hill to see the fields below, and the dramatic angle of the climb called for a 28mm lens. A simple pull of the lens brought my focal length to 28mm and the picture was there for the taking. I looked to my left and there was a beautiful field of different flowers which would have served the 35mm focal length the best, so I picked it and shot it and continued scrambling up the side of a hill.

I could go on and on, but the point is that none of these shots would have been possible without the versatility of a zoom lens. Sure, they might not be tack-sharp and clinically perfect, but they captured a moment I’ll be able to look back on forever, which is far more valuable to me than corner sharpness.

Reason Four – They actually make great images

Speaking of corner sharpness, these lenses really aren’t the dogs many make them out to be. You’ll always run into the dreaded Sears and JC Penney branded garbage, but there are plenty of fantastic lenses made by the third-party trifecta, Vivitar, Tokina, and Kiron. Each of these manufacturers (save for Vivitar, they outsourced lens manufacturing to Tokina and Kiron) had stellar reputations for image quality and continue to impress to this day, if only we’ll give them a chance.

The Tokina 28-135mm given to me by James is a prime example. He told me it was a sharp, wonderful lens, but I was apprehensive. Now that I’ve used it I’ve become a true believer. This thing makes absolutely lovely images packed tight with all the things photo geeks love – sharpness, resolution, and drop dead gorgeous color rendition. Sure, it sacrifices a bit of sharpness in the corners, distorts at the wide end, and can’t deliver the bokeh that prime lenses can, but it does everything else with panache. One only needs to look at this 100% crop of some flowers for evidence. Pretty good, huh?

Reason Five – They’re cheap

If there’s one arena in which no other lens can beat the junky vintage zoom, it’s in price point. These things are incomparably cheap. Third party zoom lenses far and away offer the best value for money among vintage lenses, with top-of-the-line models commonly averaging around thirty bucks on eBay, and more often you’ll find one stuck to the front of a camera you’d like to own (or can even resell). That’s thirty bucks for a well-built lens that could reasonably cover most (if not all) of your focal length needs. This low price point also makes vintage zooms perfect for beginners who will no doubt appreciate the ease with which they can switch focal lengths, helping them learn and decide which prime lens might suit their shooting style the best when they’re ready to upgrade.

And that’s about it. I suspect most dyed-in-the-wool legacy shooters won’t be convinced, and zooms will never overthrow primes as the vintage camera go-to. But hey, that’s fine. The prices on these excellent zooms will stay low. Good for us!

Not convinced? Think zooms are junk or do you love zooms? Let us hear about it in the comments.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • Thanks for making me feel a bit better about my “collection” of old zoom lenses.

  • Thanks for this! There is so much prime-lens snobbery out there I’m usually a little ashamed to admit it when I shoot with a zoom. I just posted on my blog about a Pentax 80-200 zoom that was pretty good, with a harrumph-so-there (in my mind) to the prime-snob crowd! Oh and: I have a K-mount Sears 80-200/4 zoom-macro that does really good work. So you can occasionally get a brilliant department-store lens!

  • Definitely a fan of the Series 1 Vivitars…

  • They are ok, but why waste film for an ok image when you can get perfection with a prime?

  • I too had to recently overcome my aversion to zoom lenses when I found a Pentax SMC-M 35-70 f2.8-3.5 on ebay for $35 AUD! A quick check of the limited reviews online revealed it was constantly referred to as a ‘bundle of primes’, as in, it’s colours are so good and the images so sharp, it’ll gladly replace those beloved primes. It’s a beautiful lens in the metal, reassuringly solid but not burdensome, and a joy to operate. I’m glad I bought it and think it pairs nicely with my Pentax MX.

  • Ryan O’Connell May 31, 2017 at 11:54 am

    I have the fantastic Nikon 28-105 3.5 that I mount on my Nikon FE2. Never lets me down.

  • I’ve had a number of vintage zooms. Some were impressive. I’ve kept two, and there’s only one I regret selling. The one I wish I hadn’t sold was a Zoom Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.5 Ai. It did everything right, but was a bit bulky and heavy compared to primes. I may have to find another one…

    The only two zooms I’ve kept are a Zoom Nikkor 25-50mm f/4 Ais and a Nikon 75-150mm f/3.5 Series E.

    • That Nikon Series E lens is the only one I’ve kept too. Most old zooms are just too heavy, I don’t like the weight – why carry such weight when the image quality really isn’t that good. But that lens is quite fast, yet light, and has pretty nice bokeh. A useful zoom range too, to match with say a 50mm and a 28mm prime, making a three lens combo.

      I also have a Pentax M 28-50mm which I’m still evaluating, but which is supposed to be pretty good, and light enough.

  • I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned any of the Tamron Adaptall lenses, some of which are rated by aficionados as among the best zooms ever built – and with the added benefit of ‘cross-platform’ ability. I have one in particular – a 35-80 2.8/3.8 Adaptall-2 model 01A that is my go-to walk around lens when I don’t want to carry primes. It’s sharp as anything and with bags of character too. I’ve got quite a few, some of which are great, some not so much; but the advantage to having bought several is that I have Adaptall mounts for virtually every camera brand.

    On a wider note (and I may be guilty of preaching to the crowd here) is a great resource when looking at old zooms.

  • Though there are exceptions, most vintage zooms are far worse than primes from the main manufacturers. Ever use a Nikkor 43-86 zoom? Again, aside from a precious few (such as the Vivitar Series 1) most independent zooms were poor.

  • Great article! I have had some very good experiences with vintage zoom lenses, most notably a Nikon 70-210 f/4 Series E, and a Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5. Earlier this year I got my hands on a Nikkormat FT2 with an attached Vivitar 35-105mm f/3.2-4 and I never really gave the lens much of a chance till after reading this article, and I must say that I’m pleasantly pleased with the results. It makes a very convenient travel lens. Subsequently I was able to find a 70-210mm f/3.5 Vivitar Series 1 lens for a tremendous price (in Canon FD mount) and I’ve loved shooting this lens on my A-1 and adapted to my Fuji mirrorless digital camera. I’ve used this lens for shooting kids’ sports with great success. I’m totally sold on vintage zooms!

  • A nice story. I was pleasantly surprised by my old Tokina AT-X 35-200 on a FujiXPro2.

  • Michael S. Goldfarb March 29, 2021 at 11:40 am

    Okay, as somebody who goes back a bit further (my parents were pros, my photo memory goes back to the early 60s), let me state for the record that the first zoom lens we had was NOT good. I have been a prime lens chauvinist ever since.

    My folks were old school commercial studio pros: anything “important” was shot on 4×5 with our Graphic View II. Images that were only going to be used at smaller sizes, like catalog shots, were done in medium format – first with a Mamiyaflex C, then a C330, then an RB-67. They didn’t consider 35mm a professional format; they had only used ever used it for personal stuff, like stereo slides in the 1950s.

    Our first SLR was a Nikkorex F in 1963 (ultimately followed by several Nikkormats, Nikon Fs, and F2s) with the Nikkor 50/2. Our second lens was the Nikkor 28/3.5, which turned out to be very useful, followed by the Nikkor 43-86/3.5 zoom. Sure, it was convenient… but it was pretty much soft at all focal lengths. It was quickly consigned to just personal use, shooting slides on vacation.

    We had rock-sharp shorter Nikkors like the 35/2,45/2.8 GN (a fabulous lens, and remarkably small/light), multiple 50/1.4s, and a 55 Macro. And for longer, the beloved 105/2.5 portrait lens. The 43-86 was a loser next to all of these.

    Postscript: When my dad died in 2011, we put a broken Nikkormat FTn with the 43-86 (which had also seized up years ago) on it in his coffin. He’d been a photographer since the 1930s, it seemed only right to bury him with a camera by his side!

  • I’m a vintage lens/digital camera kinda girl and old zooms can be pretty cool especially with crop sensors. a 70-200 f4 is suddenly very long, small, light and reasonably fast on m4/3’s.. throw in a speed booster and it’s a party!

    • One of our writers uses a Canon 200mm on his crop sensor fuji, and the shots he gets are pretty amazing. I think you’ve figured out a sort of secret which many people haven’t discovered. Good job! If you haven’t seen them yet, try looking for Pentax M42 lenses – they’re some of the smallest and least expensive vintage lenses around.

  • Peter Bidel Schwambach May 31, 2021 at 7:28 pm

    Late to the party, but I actually just pulled the trigger on my first ever vintage zoom, a Tokina RMC 28 – 70mm/2.8 – 4. I’ve read some pretty good things about it, I believe it’ll make a pretty decent walk around or travel lens for my FM2 and FM3A since I tend to keep it on the wider side of standard.

    Anyways, I remember my old man saying something to the effect of vintage zooms being crap when I picked up his old kit. He had three primes back then, a Nikon 50mm 1.8 series E lens, which came bundled with the aforementioned FM2, and two Tokinas, a 28mm and a 200mm, but no zooms. I guess he wasn’t the only one around who thought that, since i’ve amassed a far bigger collection of “inferior” bodies attached to lenses I’ve bought than the other way around, that’s how I came to own a complete collection of compact vintage Nikon bodies, plus an extra EM. They’re all great bodies, BTW, hard to believe people were just giving them away for free.

  • Color me still unconvinced 🙂 I like to shoot in the last part of the day and 5.6 isn’t enough. Plus I’m a snob, but that’s more of a personal issue. (I do admit a fondness for the Series E 78-150 though)

  • A bit late to the party, but I’ll throw my support behind two legacy Nikon zooms. As others have pointed out, the 75-150 Series E lens is simply superb in terms of optical quality. The zoom creep on most of them is a bit annoying, but otherwise the mechanical quality is great for a budget lens. And it’s small and light, even on something like the D810 I use it makes a fantastic walk-around lens paired with a 35 or 28mm.

    And I also quite like the 80-200/F4.5 N I acquired a few months back. Some credit it with convincing pros that zooms were actually a workable option for paid work. Optically and mechanically, that is one stellar lens.

    Nice thing is, both of those beauties can easily be found for well under a hundred bucks. Fantastic bargains if you know what to do with them and don’t have to lean on autofocus for everything.

  • As our Albanian fellow poster has commented, obviously James has never had to make do with a Nikon 43-86.

    I had one for a brief and unhappy time long ago. Given to me by a friend who otherwise would have sent it off to land fill, he hated it that much. I used it a few times, once with the long-obsolete Kodak Ektachrome Infrared film which gave me such odd colors that when those slides came back (I had to send them to the one and only lab in Australia that could process this film, in Adelaide) I thought I had ingested something hallucinogenic before going out to photograph.

    Finally I gave up on it and it sat unloved in a box of old photo gear until the Covid crisis, when I cleaned house and (along with 90% of our town going by the junk that ended up in the op shops for the next year) I turfed out heaps of stuff to the local charity shops and it went too. I think they got $90 for it, which astounded me. Truly, there must be one born every minute, and by this I don’t mean zoom lenses…

    Somehow I then acquired an old Nikon 28-85, from the same friend. This lens had the sad look of one he had taken with him during a year long trek in north Asia, the body scratched to summery, a few marks on the glass, letters faded (the brand read N-k–r, which opens up no end of language possibilities) and it wobbled when zoomed. I played with it, and to my amazement I found I could get quite usable images out of it when set at f/11 and left there. Nothing I could sell, but good enough snaps for web posts. In the end it too went to the local op shop. Not sure what they got for it, but last year that same shop sold a decrepit Nikon D70 with no battery and bits missing, for $180, so the shop manager is surely a wizard.

    I now make do entirely with primes.

    All the above said, “back in the day” (in my case the mid-’70s I did my Asian trek (of several months) with only one backpack which held the essentials (being French I made sure I had a corkscrew with me at all times, ha!) and a Mamiya 500TL, two Hanimex lenses (35mm and 135mm) and an ancient Kiron zoom, I don’t recall the range but I think it was 70-210 or maybe a bit longer. I shot heaps of Kodachrome and Ektachrome, again usually at f/8 (given that incredibly bright tropical light) and sold heaps of images on stock web sites as we could so easily do way back then. Most of that kit was stolen in a house burglary in Sydney in 1977 and I used the insurance money to upgrade, first to a Pentax kit, then a Minolta SRT101, and finally with Nikkormats which I still have and now and then use.

    (I reckon it says something about the mindset of that crim who broke into my house that they left behind a Rolleiflex TLR and that old Kiron zoom.)

    I nowadays use exclusively primes as fixed lenses suit me best. Different strokes for different folks, or as the French say (loosely translated), to each their gout. And yes, I still have the Rollei. But not the Kiron, it went some time in the late 90s. I think someone borrowed it and never returned it. Kharma…

    I do agree with James and the posters here, that zooms when used properly and without great expectations of perfect results, can be rather a hidden blessing. To each their own.

    Best from DANN in Australia

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio