The Nikon Series E 75-150mm f/3.5 – The People’s Telephoto Lens

The Nikon Series E 75-150mm f/3.5 – The People’s Telephoto Lens

2000 1125 Josh Solomon

When the Nikon Series E 75-150mm arrived at my doorstep earlier this year, I almost forgot it was supposed to arrive at all. The lens was a part of a Nikon FA review package sent to me by James, and was originally headed towards the junk bin at F Stop Cameras due to a minor bit of fungus on one of the internal lens elements. It was included just in case I felt moved enough to write a review on it. If I did, cool; if not, no worries – it was just another weird zoom lens. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t expecting much.

After six months with the lens, I realize that no matter if I expected the lens to be terrible, mediocre, or even great, I would’ve been wrong. Somehow, the Nikon Series E 75-150mm f/3.5 seems to exist beyond those descriptors. Even though it’s unglamorous and completely utilitarian both in its design and its imaging characteristics, it has somehow delivered all (read: ALL) of my favorite images taken this year. It has since outlasted the now-dead FA it came packaged with, pulled me away from my beloved Olympus Pen FT for most of the year, and has somehow found a near-permanent home on my Nikon F3. I’d call it a sleeper lens, but it’s a bit more special than that.

Unbeknownst to me, the Nikon Series E 75-150mm f/3.5 was, in its day, a truly special and renowned lens. It was a true classic back then (most notably used by Galen Rowell for his most famous photo), and was made for the consumer market but beloved by professional photographers for its unassuming versatility and quality. Today, it could represent the best value for money in the Nikon lens catalog. It was, and still is, one of the rarest objects in photography – a lens made for everybody.

The Background

The Nikon Series E 75-150mm f/3.5 was set up for success early. Even though it was formulated for Nikon’s budget-minded Series E line, it was designed by one of Nikon’s best minds, Yutaka Iizuka. Iizuka’s pedigree leading up to the design of this lens was impressive; he most notably helped design the groundbreaking Zoom-Nikkor 50-300mm f/4.5, one of the very first high-powered zooms made for 35mm still cameras. So when the company came calling for an inexpensive, but high-quality zoom lens, the brilliant Iizuka answered.

“Inexpensive” was certainly the most important word in the design brief for all of the Series E lenses, but this didn’t necessarily correlate to a drop in quality, as many people repeat in modern times. Quite the opposite – Nikon believed that good design would be able to withstand and overcome the cost-cutting measures put in place for the Series E line. This philosophy guided Iizuka through the lens’ design, which featured a simplified (for zoom lenses, anyway) twelve element in four groups structure optimized for a shortened zoom range of 75-150mm and a constant aperture of f/3.5. If the lens was any bigger or more complicated, it would be unwieldy and expensive; any smaller and it would be too demanding to manufacture and more expensive still. This specific design ensured that Nikon could save money and increase manufacturing volume while still having a lens which performed to their incredibly high standard.

The narrower zoom range also ensured high image quality. Its design could have been stretched to cover a greater focal range, but it was limited to 75-105mm to make sure that the lens didn’t sacrifice image quality at its extreme ends, as zooms often tended to do. The Series E 75-150mm’s uncommonly clean, sharp visual signature at every part of its zoom range as well as a versatile constant maximum aperture of f/3.5 gave credence to the claim that zooms could conceivably replace an entire set of prime lenses without sacrificing image quality.

The lens became a cult favorite among professional photographers seeking an easy-to-use, compact, and cheap short telephoto solution. It was portable in comparison to the big boppers of the day like the famed Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm f/2.8, and could conceivably cover portrait photography, landscape photography, sports photography, and general photography duties due to its stellar all-around performance.

Time, however, hasn’t been particularly kind to the reputation of the Series E 75-150mm zoom. Vintage zoom lenses have never had a particularly good reputation in today’s film photography renaissance, mostly owing to the vast improvement in zoom lens technology in the last twenty years, and because of the glamor of shooting prime lenses. The estimation of the Series E 75-150mm seems to be that the lens is simply Good Enough these days, and that its stellar reputation in professional photography circles is outdated. After using it extensively for the past few months, I can see where these arguments come from, but can’t disagree more about its utility. Although it doesn’t immediately dazzle, it is absolutely still one of the most usable, convenient, and dare I say high-performing short telephoto lenses out there, zoom or prime.

The Details

If there’s any prevailing strength of the Series E 75-150mm f/3.5, it is Yutaka Iizuka’s original design. The design was good enough to endure the initial cost-cutting, but it was also good enough to stand the test of time. To this day, the lens possesses a truly remarkable sharpness from corner-to-corner at every focal length that holds up even under heavy cropping. Distortion is minimized at either end of the zoom range, with minor pincushion distortion at 75mm and minor barrel distortion at 150mm. And I really do mean it when I say “minor” – in practice this really doesn’t affect most images barring critical architectural work, and even then a quick Lightroom adjustment will eliminate the distortion altogether.

The other strength of this lens is something uncommon to zoom lenses – bokeh. The proclamation that zoom lenses do not create good bokeh is usually one parroted by prime-lens obsessives, and while somewhat true, the repeated assertion does not apply to the Series E 75-150mm. Iizuka intentionally designed the lens to create smoother bokeh by reducing the amount of spherical aberration correction at close focusing ranges, a technique also used in the fabled Nikkor AI 135mm f/2 lens. This lens can paint bokeh with the best of them, which makes it usable for portraiture and close-up photography in ways that even many modern zooms cannot replicate, which makes the lens that much more versatile.

The beauty of the Series E 75-150mm is that all of its features come in service of practicality. Its compact design, good bokeh, and sharpness at every part of its focal range makes it an obvious choice for any shooter, professional or casual. I can see why professional travel photographers loved this lens back in the day – it’s a far more sensible choice if you’re not sure about what kind of image you’ll be running into. You simply don’t have to swap lenses as much, nor do you have to compromise by lugging around a heavy albatross of a zoom lens. All zoom lenses have this inherent advantage, but the Series E 75-150mm’s quality and practicality ensures that you’re also just as satisfied with the result as you would be with a prime lens.

While the lens is stellar in nearly every department, it does leave a little to be desired in a few key areas.

Optically, the lens suffers from pretty bad flare. Flare resistance is quite weak despite the design’s attempts to mitigate it, and images will tend to lose a huge amount of contrast if there is any amount of light that glances off the front element (note: this can, of course, be remedied by use of the Nikon HS-7 lens hood).

Build-wise the lens suffers from zoom creep, a problem that sometimes plagues “one-touch” zooms which feature a push-pull zoom action. Lenses which suffer from zoom creep have lost all friction over time, meaning that their barrels will tend to slide to their maximum or minimum focal length at the slightest provocation. Upon receiving my lens, the zoom creep was so bad that it just couldn’t hold itself at a constant focal length, so I had to remedy it by sticking a piece of electrical tape on the barrel to get it to stay put. It wasn’t a huge deal, but it was and is a major failing of the zoom design of this lens.

Barring those practical faults, there is one fault that might be a deal-breaker for some – it’s too practical. The lens’s zoom range of 75-150mm and maximum aperture of f/3.5 is respectable, but isn’t capable of the high-flying acrobatics of the Vivitar Series 1 70-210 f/2.8 or Minolta 70-210 f/4 “beercan” lens. And except for maybe its stellar bokeh characteristics, the lens’ rendering doesn’t immediately dazzle. It’s sharp and renders an incredible amount of detail at every focal length, but it doesn’t “paint” quite like other lenses, most notably prime short telephotos. The Nikkor 85mm f/2, 105mm f/2.5, and 135mm f/2 come to mind as truly beautiful lenses which have the edge on the Series E 75-150mm when it comes to image rendition.

The Bottom Line

Then again, the Series E 75-150mm wasn’t designed or produced in the name of beauty or extravagance; it was produced in the name of practicality. It’s a lens that earns its keep in the field, is made to be shot hard, and rewards handsomely those willing to learn its available focal lengths inside and out. It’s perpetually ready for you to take the next shot no matter the situation, which is something prime lenses just can’t do.

But perhaps the best thing about this lens is that it’s still inexpensive. The market hasn’t really decided how to feel about this otherwise nondescript lens from the early 1980s, so prices still range anywhere from $25-80 USD. If you see one in the wild, snap it up and don’t think twice about it. There’s really not much that can go wrong with this lens other than zoom creep, so you’re virtually guaranteed a high-quality, compact short-telephoto lens for cheap. And in my humble, totally out-of-touch opinion, I don’t think prices on these are going “to the moon,” as the kids say. Old manual focus zoom lenses are like ’90s autofocus SLRs; they’re unglamorous, utilitarian, and just dorky enough to evade the Sauron’s eye of internet influence. I don’t even think a beanie-clad, Squarespace-sponsored film photography Youtuber could make these things hip enough to be out of reach, and that’s saying something (I think).

The Series E 75-150mm could be labeled a “sleeper lens” and even a “cult classic” but I think those terms betray the original intent of the lens. This wasn’t designed to be a lens for those in the know – it was supposed to be a lens for everybody. Its greatness was on display from the start, and it was once enjoyed by quite literally every class of shooter. So if you find one, pick one up, maybe even tell a friend about it. A product this plentiful, this good, and this useful is too rare to pass up, and too beautiful not to share.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
  • I can only confirm everything Josh has stated about this lens. One thing which could be added to the review is that the advanced Nikon FA has zoom exposure correction while metering, which makes this lens a great companion to this techno camera.

    • Very true! All Nikon Series E lenses are AIS-compatible, and so can maximize the (fantastic) metering capabilities of cameras like the FA.

  • Thank you Josh for this great article.
    Yess this is a great lens.
    We can’t be wrong with a Nikon.
    Yesss if you buy it at F Stop Cameras LLC, you will be sure to have a good one or from Japancamerahunter.
    Nikon make, made the things slow, but very well, they have made the FM3 A, the SP, the S3, the F6, the 35 TI, the 28 TI, the EM, …. after others, like their mirrorless cameras, but with respect for the consumers. The E series was for the EM, not expensive but with Nikon quality !!! Nikon with some products is as good or better sometimes than Leica or Zeiss, I give you some example : Nikon S3, Nikon SP, Nikon FM3a, Nikkor ai-s 28mm/2.8, just a few ones…. there are many….. This is Nikon.
    By the way, every time, pictures are great. And this is made in Japan, serious people!

  • Isn’t it absolutely wonderful to discover a gem! I’ve never tried the Nikon 75-150mm, but I did have a similar experience with the Minolta MD 75-150mm f4 two years ago.

    I bought the lens while investigating manual Minolta zooms. Apparently, almost no one considered it worth writing about. Eventually, I found only one source that discussed it. After letting my copy sit around for months before using it, I was blown away by the images. It is now part of my permanent collection and one of my three favorite Minolta manual zooms.

    Perhaps it has something to do with the 75-150mm focal length. Nikon produced a budget lens that proved to be exceptional, and my Minolta 75-150 is the best of the manual Minolta zooms I have tested. To my eye, it is equal to or better than the more highly touted MD 35-70mm f3.5 that Leica adopted.

    I wonder if the 75-150mm FL is more straightforward to design for than other ranges?

    • I own one of those Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5 lenses and it’s really nice. It’s a very solid performer within a very useful focal range. I even have adapted this lens to my mirrorless digital camera too and been very happy with the results.

      • The 35-70mm f3.5 is an excellent lens! It along with the 28-85mm f3.5-4.5 and 75-150mm f4 are three that I will carry over to my Sony A7 (future purchase).

        • I ended up buying a Tokina RMC 75-150mm f/3.8 lens in Minolta MD mount for use on my X-570. I know the Minolta 75-150mm f/4 is highly regarded, but this Tokina lens was selling for $25, considerably less than the $75-100 the Minolta zoom typically sells for. The reviews I’ve seen for the Tokina lens are decent and I don’t think it’ll be 3-4x worse than the more expensive Minolta.

    • That’s an interesting observation! I’ll have to try the 75-150mm f/4 Minolta for myself, but seeing as Iizuka and Nikon chose a reduced zoom range to ease manufacturing and optimize optical performance, 75-150mm likely is an inherently stable zoom range. Great images by the way!

      • Glad you like the images! I have a Nikon camera that I have only used once because the lenses were more expensive than Minoltas. I knew nothing about the E series. Now, will have to go looking–the prices are right!

  • I agree with everything you’ve written Josh and the comments made above. I paid slightly more to get an ‘as new’ copy. I don’t use with film but when adapted to the Sony the IQ is superb. Impressively, detail at infinity focus is excellent. A highly recommended lens

    • …and I paid very little for a late one that is pretty much as new, from a reputable dealer too. The kind of buyer’s luck that can still happen when you’re not desperate to have one tomorrow.

      I confess mine gets out less than it might, but that’s because the 85/2 or the 135/2.8 will fit in a pocket on days when I don’t want to carry a bag. 12 elements will always weigh more than five or six.

      Still, I do enjoy it when I take it on a walk. That detail at infinity makes it great for picking out features in a landscape — the 150mm end is the longest in my Nikon kit. And mine hasn’t a trace of creep.

      It does suffer a bit of split-image blackout, with the FE anyway. I should try it with the F-301, whose viewfinder is reputed to be blackout-proof. And it won’t meter with the Nikkormat EL, because it lacks the coupling fork — although I expect there are people who could attach one.

    • Totally agree too Peter

    • Totally agree, and great observation! All of my infinity shots contain a truly mind-boggling amount of detail, even on 400 speed film. The sharpness on my Fuji XT-1 shots are incredible as well.

  • I just bought one of these on eBay yesterday and the day after there’s an article about it! Should be arriving in a few days and I look forward to trying it out with my EM and my FE. The two Series E lenses I’ve tried so far punch way above their weight class and I’m quite sure this one will do the same.

    • Great timing! I’ve found the 75-150mm actually stabilizes the lightweight EM due to the extra weight, but doesn’t make it handle awkwardly due to the compact size. Really, really good budget SLR option, great for quick telephoto shots. Enjoy!

  • Oh Josh.
    One more times your images are great.
    The images of the great famous boxer from Philippines who will run for Presidency to cut the bad behaviours, the treats of the bully dictature to Philippines sovereignty !
    One more great image is your fantastic Made in USA electric bass: whaouuu such beautiful model and so great.
    May I have a question, because you are an expert of Jazz, you listen to and you play: what do you think of Esperanza Spalding? They are many great women players, some from Japan are fantastic too.

    • Thank you Eric! Love Esperanza. I saw her all the way back in 2010 at the Hollywood Bowl, right before she became a household name. Very lyrical and fluid player, love her style.

  • I’ve seen it written online (grain of salt) that this lens is the same—essentially—as the Kiron 70-150 f3.8 and, supposedly, a Vivitar, and was manufactured by Kiron. Kiron was a well regarded 3rd party lens maker that made many of the Vivitar Series 1 lenses, among others. Someone thoughtfully tossed in the Kiron when I purchased a Nikkor-H 50mm 2.0 on Bay last year, so I got it as an unexpected freebie. I didn’t get around to using it until this summer and I was astonished by how wonderful it is. Supposedly the Kiron model has less zoom creep, but once again that’s just what they say on the internet. Anyway, the Kiron sells for about half as much as the Nikkor and everything you’ve written about the latter pertains to the former, so I thought I’d make note of it.

    • That’s pretty interesting! I didn’t read anything about Kiron when reading up on this lens. For transparency, I did use the Nikkor Thousand And One Nights article on the 75-150mm for much of the technical and historical information, and there was no mention of any third-party outsourcing. Regardless, I will be looking out for that lens – they made some fantastic glass back in the day!

    • the Vivitar/kiron version is almost the same design: the Nikon has 12 elements in 9 groups, and the Vivitar/Kiron 15 in 10 groups. It’s essentially the same, just the Vivitar adds a couple of achromatic doublets in the focus group (allowing you to have that extra range marked as “macro”)
      I have the 2-ring version of Vivitar, and I fully agree with everything said here in the review, it is a very practical lens (especially when we don’t want to carry the weight of a 70-200 f2.8). The “macro” range (1:4) is very sharp, sharper than any other position and focal in “normal mode” (Kiron’s hand is noticeable there), I would just say that the bokeh can be distracting at times. And, just like the Nikon, flare in difficult lighting conditions can also be annoying. Other than that, it’s an excellent zoom (performs better than modern cheap zooms like the af-s 55-200 or 55-300, at least in the center)

  • I’d say this is one of the absolute best classic lenses for the money, and it should be noted that if you put it on a speed booster / lens turbo for APS Crop sensor cameras, you essentially retain focal length while getting the aperture a stop faster to f/2.5. And on a regular adapter it becomes a 112-225mm equivalent. For general purpose and documentary photography, it’s replaced the Nikon 105mm f/2.5 in my bag that used to be my go-to telephoto. That’s a famously great lens but the ability to get more length with reasonable penalty of size / weight / speed is very useful.

    • Great to hear! I’m a 105mm f/2.5 fanatic, and i’ve gotta say that this 75-150mm f/3.5 nearly always gets my pick these days, especially if i’m out and about. Gotta check up on getting a speedbooster though, that would make this lens a permanent fixture on my Fuji.

      • Yes, speed booster (I have the $150 zhongyi mitakon lens turbo ii for Fuji) makes a lot of these modest speed lenses … if not ultra fast … competitive with much more expensive natively fast lenses that are also much heavier and larger. Of course the 105mm f/2.5 becomes a f/1.8 … so there’s that, too!

  • The 75-150mm f/3.5 lens is just one of the Series E lens lineup that Nikon built during the 1980s. The whole Series E lineup consists of 8 different lenses (5 primes and 3 zooms) ranging from 28mm to 210mm in focal length. They are essentially Nikon Ai spec lenses, with similar optical design albeit with different/lesser coatings and lighter build. However, many of these Series E lenses punch above their entry-level, consumer weight class and price point. Series E lenses that are often lauded are the 50mm f/1.8, the 75-150mm f/3.5, and 70-210mm f/4. I personally own a copy of the 70-210mm Series E lens and can personally attest to the quality of the lens. It does not really feel light-duty to me and I have taken many very nice images with this lens. I think it’s really a hidden gem. Below are some links to some details/specs/reviews of the entire Series E lineup for those interested to learn more.

  • Would you please stop driving up prices for these lenses!

  • I do not own a Nikon camera but it seems that this lens can produce some great images. I really like the title btw:The People’s Telephoto Lens

  • I saw an old forum post from around 2002 suggesting that people go for the Nikkor 50-135 f/3.5, which would naturally have better image quality, being a Nikkor. Looking around ebay they seem to be the same price. Why shouldn’t I just go for that instead?

    • Because 75-150mm is really a more useful range than 50-135mm … 135mm was the go-to mid-telephoto lens for decades but if that’s what you need you can any of the 135mm f/2.8 lenses out there for pennies and they are all good to great, and at the wider end, it’s the rare photographer who doesn’t already have an excellent 50mm f/1.4, f/1.8, or f/2.0 in their bag. Whereas 75-150mm really punches out a bit further. On an APS sensor it’s a 225mm equivalent… and all of the various 75-150s are much smaller and lighter than the 80-200mm or 70-210mm offerings out there. So for a lightweight load-out, especially for photographers that are mostly shooting 50mm or wider but want to have something longer just in case, 75-150mm remains a great compromise. Re image quality, the Nikon 75-150mm profiled in this post is going to be more than adequate for almost if not all general photography situations. If it isn’t, you’re probably better off going up to medium format film or digital capture area rather than pixel peep with lenses.

  • I love this lens as well. I bought one to adapt to my mirrorless a handful of years ago and use it for photo and video work. I love it for its image quality and portability. I’ve purchased 5 copies of this lens – one for me and I’ve gifted 4 others. I’m about to buy yet another for a friend who just purchased a new camera. I tell anyone who might listen about this lens.

  • The only thing I did not like about the lens is somewhat cheesy plastic aperture ring (same as all Series E). So I decided to do something about it. My other hobby is miniature machining. I determined that the Micro-Nikkor 55mm f3.5 has exactly the same width aperture ring, and the same f-stop range (f3.5 – f32). I found a “for parts or not working” AI 55mm Micro that cost me $22 shipped. Then I bored out the inside of the 55mm aperture ring, and turned down the outside of the 75-150mm aperture ring, and epoxied them together. (It is a lot more challenging than this sounds). Voilà! Looks like it was made that way by Nikon. Most people will not understand why I had to do this, but so what? It’s a hobby, after all (two hobbies!)

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon