Why I Love Cheap Manual Focus Telephoto Lenses

Why I Love Cheap Manual Focus Telephoto Lenses

1800 1013 Echo Lens Photography

Until recently, I hardly ever explored the realm of lenses longer than 85mm. The idea of a long telephoto lens seemed too impractical for even a passing thought. But I was so very wrong for not looking into them sooner. Among long telephoto primes, there are some very underrated lenses for dirt cheap prices that no one seems to be talking about. So, let’s start. Shall we?

I should preface that we won’t be discussing telephoto zooms. Another article on this site handles that conversation beautifully, and I encourage you to read that as well (after you’ve finished my article, of course).

Okay, let’s start for real, with my first foray into the new world of long telephoto lenses. Previously, I’d though long focal lengths were beyond my reach, as lenses 200mm and beyond commanded very notable price tags. This is especially true in the digital photography ecosystem. Nikon’s current F mount auto-focus 200mm f/4 macro lens, for example, starts at about $900 on the used market.

But the value proposition turned a complete one-eighty when I investigated the prices for manual focus telephotos. I recently acquired, a pre-AI 200mm f/4 Auto Nikkor Q with a factory AI conversion, which only pried from my wallet a measly $40.

After reading that price, you may impulsively ask yourself the same questions I initially had. What’s wrong with it? Is it damaged? Haze? Fungus? Was it dredged from a river? Is the focusing ring impossible to turn? Are the aperture blades soaked in oil? All of these questions and more circulated my mind, but even still, I risked the purchase. When delivery day rolled around, my expectations were exceeded ten fold. Not only is the glass in immaculate condition, the lens body itself has only suffered from some very minor paint loss. For a lens that’s almost sixty years old, I was very surprised. And the delivery of this lens is where this interesting but informative article, and my journey with cheap telephoto lenses, began.

If They’re So Cheap, How Can They Be Good?

Since my experience with the 200mm Nikkor is still relatively new and fresh, I want to now talk about an observation I made while still researching the lens. The common questions I seem to come across, whether it’s talking to people in person or pouring over forums online is this – How much would you actually use a lens like that? And what would you even use that for?

An initial response to questions like these would usually be met with silence or mere speculation. In order for a proper answer, I opened up an old booklet that I proudly own. This booklet is one that Nikon would include with the purchase of a Nikon F or Nikon F2, and it delves into the vast catalog of Nikkor glass. The answers were there. Nikon predicted a vastness of applications for these future bargain basement lenses; architecture, portraits, sports, auto racing, wildlife, and even landscapes were among the uses for these optical tanks.

If they are so versatile, then why the low price? One word: auto-focus. Or rather, the lack of auto-focus. Before the blessing of auto-focus, photographers had the arduous task of tracking an athlete, sports car, or cheetah. It’s not easy. They had to figure out quick and simplistic methods to achieving sharp or relatively sharp photos. These methods would include setting the hyper focal marks (those color coded lines if you’re using a Nikkor) on the lens barrel and then setting the exposure on the camera to track the moving subject while clicking and advancing away. Another method was keeping a steady hand on the focus ring and slowly turning towards infinity if the subject was moving away, and vice versa if the subject was moving closer.

The difficulty of these methods and the skill required to successfully employ them can be seen in the photos made with telephoto lenses in the era of manual focus. When we examine photos of moving subjects from the 1960s, ’70s, and even into the ’80s, the photos are certainly reasonably sharp, some even look like focus was missed only by a fraction. But many shots (even those made in such illustrious publications as National Geographic, aren’t what we’d call sharp in the auto-focus era.

But these old lenses did the job and they did it well. And they can still do it today. Arguably, with cheap adapters and mirror-less cameras and focus peaking, they can do it better today than ever.

Optical Chops

I’ll briefly talk about the optical quality of my 200mm f/4 Nikkor. For full disclosure, I am in no way an optical engineer. That being said, I am endlessly fascinated by the engineering involved in making these photographic tools; especially considering many of Nikon’s famous lenses were made during a time where the only tools the engineers had were pencils and slide rules. Impressive doesn’t even come close to describing the skills involved.

The 200mm f/4 Nikkor was introduced in 1961 during Nikon’s pre-AI era. Early versions of the pre-AI copies have six blade apertures, though this changed to seven blades in 1963. Four elements in four groups comprise the optical formula with the formula changing to five elements in five groups with the introduction of the AI series in 1977. At this time the minimal focusing distance was also decreased from three meters (9.8 ft) to two meters (6.5 ft).

The biggest technical boast this lens has to offer is that it is the first full scale telephoto lens to utilize a fully automatic aperture mechanism. This means that the aperture stayed open when composing a shot, stopping down the moment the shutter is released, and then automatically opening to maximum aperture afterward. Any pre-AI Nikkor glass that has “Nikkor Auto” on the lens will have this mechanism built into the lens. This is important because this is a common function of lenses that we all take for granted, myself included.

I believe we owe great thanks to this lens for changing the course of lens mechanics for decades to come. Is my bias towards Nikon and Nikkor glass showing? Perhaps, but only a smidge.

Ergonomics of the Manual Telephoto Lens

Mine is a large lens, and other manual focus telephoto lenses will be bigger than the nifty-fifty with which most photographers are familiar. There’s no two ways about it. Choose wisely when deciding what body to mount it to, because you start to feel the weight if you’re shooting with something heavy, like a Nikon F2, which is coincidentally my usual daily driver. That being said, manual focus teles are far smaller and lighter compared with their modern auto-focus descendants.

I also highly recommend using a camera body that offers through the lens metering (TTL) and making sure your metered prism on your chosen camera body works. Metering for a landscape with a handheld meter is usually pretty straight forward and the light, unless it’s changing every little moment, will usually be kind and play ball and not cause you to miss exposure. However, the same cannot be said if you are photographing a subject on a bright sunny day and your subject happens to be in the shade or backlit. Depending on how much/fast your subject is moving, aperture priority is more than likely the best way to go in these types of cases, but if you are granted a slower working pace, then a straight forward through the lens meter should work just fine in most cases.

Finally, I want to make mention of the lens hood that just about all of these lenses came with (if your used lens is missing its hood, try to buy a new one). I forget to use mine quite often, but I can guarantee they will save flares and unwanted light trying to peer in on the front element. Plus, the telephoto look isn’t quite completed until a lens hood is utilized.

Other Examples of the Type

Before I start breaking down my personal experiences and applications with my particular 200mm lens, I have made an extensive list and notes of price for various 200mm lenses across various makes and mounts. Some of these will be surprising because of their price; of course it varies depending on condition, but it’s still worth mentioning how good these deals are. I would highly encourage everyone to look into one and add it to their lens collection. I am a huge advocate of great deals on great lenses, and these are arguably some of the best on the used market today.

The Manual Focus Telephoto in Various Photographic Styles

A fair amount of time has passed since my acquisition of the 200mm Nikkor. I haven’t taken it with me very often. but the times that I do use it are always a new lesson in composition and thought. Here are some of my experiences with the manual focus tele in various shooting scenarios.

Landscapes, City and Street : First, 200mm is longer than I expected. The jump from 85mm to 200mm is astounding. Even stepping up from 135mm is quite a noticeable difference. One abrupt discovery: your subject needs to be a considerable distance away from you. The lens allows the ability to really isolate a subject matter and direct the viewers eyes firmly on the subject, allowing no distractions.

For architecture, it’s not uncommon to use a lens such as a 15mm or a 20mm to show scale between the structure and the people that walk within its vicinity. To highlight certain features, long telephoto lenses are perfect for the task. They may be simply made from an engineering stand point, but the utilitarian aspect of their build makes them simply sharp. Landscapes make for a pleasing experience with a 200mm since everything on the horizon that would usually look minuscule with a wider lens is brought much closer to the viewer. I would highly recommend shooting landscapes with a tripod, if possible, because any small breath can and will cause you to move and more often than not compromise your composition.

Portraits and Bokeh : Portraits are a bit more of a tricky matter since the closest focusing distance of my particular lens is about seven feet. This will only serve well if I am outside or in a considerably large studio where such room could be granted. But the effort to do portraits with a lens of this focal length will be well rewarded. I say this with confidence because the mushy, blurry background (otherwise known as bokeh to those in the portrait photography business) produced by this lens is fantastic and arguably a worthy challenger to the portrait titans of the realm such as the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 and Nikkor 105mm f/1.4 (lenses which command small fortunes, even on the used market). I understand those lenses have a certain application and use, working portrait photographers use them until the focusing rings fall off.

Anecdotally, if you’re like me and don’t usually see bokeh as a deal maker or breaker, then these affordable telephotos will do the job ten times over. I usually make portraits with my 35mm f/1.4 AI-S, but now that I have a 200mm at my disposal, I can really start to perfect portraits across whatever space I’m working. If you are shooting handheld, I usually recommend slowing your breathing patters while composing and either holding in an inhale or exhaling very slowly right before or during taking the photo. Again, these are things that have helped me and may not work for you, so don’t be afraid to develop your own method.

Final Thoughts

The experience of incorporating a manual focus telephoto lens (in my case, a Nikkor 200mm) into my rotation of lenses has been a challenging, yet fulfilling one. My planning, composing, and overall style are put to the test whenever I grab and use this lens. The overall flow of my work may be slowed down due to the changing mindset of composing, but that seems to be part of the beauty of shooting a lens like this.

Everything about this lens has been a welcomed addition to my ever-growing catalog of Nikkor lenses. The build quality is as expected, the glass is wonderfully sharp, especially for a near sixty year old lens, and I can guarantee that I only want to keep shooting it more so that I can quickly improve with the focal length.

I implore everyone to seek out a long telephoto lens for their camera system. Whether shooting film or digital with an adapter, it’s a great investment. The odds of finding a great lens for a low price are high. Time has proven these lenses were made to last. Like the old truism goes, “They don’t make them like they used to.”

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Echo Lens Photography

My name is Echo Lens Photography, at least that is my photographic pen name. My photographic interest began seven years ago when I bought a Sony A6000 for my birthday. Seven years later, I am fully analog with Nikon as my 35mm system of choice and photograph across all formats from 35mm to Super 8. I currently reside in Fort Worth, TX where I am a proud member of Fort Worth Photo Club alongside many talented photographers and wonderful people. I’m very excited to share my thoughts, knowledge, and experience with everyone!

All stories by:Echo Lens Photography
10 comments
  • One more wonderful Great REVIEW HERE. BRAVO.
    I am like you. For the tele I use on my Sony A7 R2 a Nikon Ai 200mm/4 which works very very very well, my cheapest lens 😉
    Totally agree. GRATITUDE to this intelligent review when there are so many old lens which wait for a good owner and we need to stop to consume too much, to produce too much to save the earth !!!

  • Michael S. Goldfarb September 11, 2022 at 8:59 am

    While prices on so much vintage photo equipment are skyrocketing, Pre-AI (aka Non-AI) Nikkor lenses – and camera bodies – remain a tremendous bargain. These babies were really built to last, and we’re talking legendary optics. So yeah, it’s no surprise that a 50-year-old Nikkor 200/4 is still an awesome lens!

    My parents were pros, so I have a bunch of these lenses that we bought new when I was a kid in the 60s/70s. I’ve recently used all of them – 28/3.5, 35/2, 45/2.8 GN (my favorite!), 50/1.4,105/2.5 – on my Nikon F2 and Nikkormat FTN with great results. (I’ve also got a 55/3.5 Micro, but it’s on loan to a friend who’s getting stunning images from it on a digital camera.)

    More to the point of this article: I bought a vintage-1961 Nikkor 135/3.5 lens (older than any I have from my parents: it’s marked “13.5cm” vs. 135mm!) a few months ago from an online dealer, in “Good” condition… for $36. I put it on the Nikkormat, it performed perfectly! The same dealer often has some of the classic lenses I listed above (*) in the same condition, always for well under $100. (A few months earlier, I got the Nikkormat body from the same dealer for a mere $60!)

    (* Only the 45/2.8 GN lens is expensive these days. Though it was literally the lowest-priced Nikon F lens when new in the early 70s, and its original purpose [working with full-power flashes by linking the focus and aperture rings based on the guide number, so the aperture automatically closed as you got closer and opened as you moved further from your subject] became obsolete with the introduction of “self-quenching Thyristor” flashes like the Vivitar 283, its secondary value as a “pancake lens” remains. It’s literally half the size/weight of any other Pre-AI lens and a pleasure to carry.)

    So, I’ll say it again: these amazing Pre-AI Nikkor lenses are a STEAL at these prices!

  • I don’t think that the lack of interest in mid to long telephotos is because they’re hard to focus on moving objects….. I think they lack popularity because they are tricky to use, require effort and time to learn to use effectively, and they’re not the darlings of Youtube culture. I prefer to shoot with a 24 and a 50…… and have never shot well with a longer telephoto. But this article makes me realize I should try. Thanks for a new perspective on a forgotten focal length.

  • I loved reading your review of this lens, and of using vintage telephoto primes in general. I am a Nikon shooter as well, and a few years ago I opted to buy a very nice copy of the Nikkor-H Auto 300mm f/4.5. My lens was originally a pre-Ai version, but had a factory Ai conversion done at some point before I purchased it for only about $80. I don’t use the lens terribly often, but I enjoy it every time I take it out. This 300mm lens is my largest, heaviest lens by a wide margin, and while I have used it hand-held, I find that using the built-in tripod attachment points to attach a monopod really adds to the usability and enjoyment of shooting with such a long lens. I’ve used my 300mm Nikkor lens to shoot birds by the lake near where I live and I’ve used it to make lovely photographs during my kids’ sporting events. Let me tell you, I’m definitely the only one at the track meet, shooting a vintage telephoto prime on a monopod. I have used this lens attached to my Nikon FE2 to good effect, but I find that the extra heft of my Nikkormat FT2 leads to a better balanced package. And to get as much reach as possible, I’ll adapt this long lens to my APS-C sensor Fuji X-H1 mirrorless digital camera to get 450mm equivalent focal length. The X-H1 also has a stabilized sensor, so I get the additional benefit of 2-3 stops of IBIS when shooting this way. For the price of $80, I don’t think I could replicate this kind of utility and performance any other way. These vintage telephoto primes really do punch above their price point.

  • There are many fantastic old lens like that. For SLR from Olympus, Contax, now I am Nikon, and Leica for RF, I pair all my old Nikkor old lens mainly ai or ais and old Leica M to my Sony A7 R2, and it works very well for me, more than 10 lens.
    They are cheap, better than some actual new lens made in some red dictatorship !!!
    I really prefer to put an old Japanese, German, lens on my gears, because I recycle, I give a new life, they are very good, than to buy a lens from this red dictatorship.
    And the tele lens are fantastic, there are many gems.

  • You are absolutely right. A few years back, I picked up a Pentacon 4/200, which is the successor of the Meyer Optik Gorlitz Orestegor 200mm f4, to use on my M42 cameras, and mostly, my Canon 70D. I leave it home more often than I should, yet when I have it, it’s an absolute blast to use.

  • When I was a young photographer back in the early 1970s, I used MF Nikkors on Nikon F and F2 bodies for newspaper work as well as for my own personal photos. These manual lenses were the only choices available at the time, of course. Over the last few years I’ve managed to again buy many of the same manual focus Nikkor lenses I used decades ago to use on current Nikon DSLRs. Learning to manually focus again after so many years using AF was quite a trip. The green focus confirmation dot in Nikon viewfinders help tremendously. Once confident in my MF abilities, I’m using a lot of older manual Nikkor lenses these days as well as more recent models by Voigtlander and Zeiss. Of course I’m not shooting sports, wildlife or even my active dog playing in the yard. These simple lenses are for more subdued subjects and quieter moments.

    One thing I will point out that wasn’t stressed in the article, long telephotos are highly useful for close subjects as well as for distant ones. I like filling the frame using long lenses, getting in close at or near minimum focus distance. When I worked for newspapers (when they were paper and actually contained news), I often used a 180/2.8 Nikkor to do tight face photos during interviews. This requires a lens that focuses fairly close to begin with or else some heavy cropping in the darkroom. But the results can be very effective, even dramatic in showing emotions.

    I have one of the Nikkor 200/4 lenses mentioned in the article. It’s one of the oldest models with the bright chrome ring. When I bought it, I was skeptical about it because it was so cheap but it looked almost new. When I tried it out on a D810, it was proved to be very satisfying. Whatever limitations it has compared to modern designs is overcome by the optical character. All these older Nikkors have their own personalities, I think. They’re all easy to get along with.

  • Michael S. Goldfarb September 15, 2022 at 8:31 am

    Follow up to my earlier comment…

    I just checked my dealer’s site, and there are SIX Nikkor pre-AI 200/4 lenses in “Good” condition available for under $50 there right now.

    Not to mention many of the other classics – 135/2.8 for under $60, 28/3.5 around $50, 55/3.5 Micro for $65. Their “Good” rating has proven to be conservative on the stuff I’ve bought from them, so these are definitely worthwhile buys at these prices. I don’t know if my query URL will work, but here it is:

    https://usedphotopro.com/products/usedlenses/used-slr-lenses/used-manual-focus-lenses?mount_types=7618&used_pro_condition=5675,5676

    Boy, I’d pounce on some of these if I didn’t already have a whole bunch of pre-AI Nikkors!

  • For EOS, the 180mm macro is a great lens. It is not super fast focus but MF is good and the pics are amazing. its still a bit pricey compared to truly vintage but it does the job very well and is not super heavy.

  • I only use old, manual focus lenses, usually primes. Though I have the kit lenses for my Sony A7 and A6000 I never use them – they’re body caps. I prefer wider lenses. 12mm to 28mm
    I bought a Sony 24-240AF lens that was heavy, slow and soft. Cost me £700. I now use a Tamron 28-200 (Nikon AF but focus it manually on my Sony) and it’s so much faster and sharper than the Sony – for just 5% of the cost.

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Echo Lens Photography

My name is Echo Lens Photography, at least that is my photographic pen name. My photographic interest began seven years ago when I bought a Sony A6000 for my birthday. Seven years later, I am fully analog with Nikon as my 35mm system of choice and photograph across all formats from 35mm to Super 8. I currently reside in Fort Worth, TX where I am a proud member of Fort Worth Photo Club alongside many talented photographers and wonderful people. I’m very excited to share my thoughts, knowledge, and experience with everyone!

All stories by:Echo Lens Photography