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The AF Nikkor 35-70mm f2.8 Macro-Zoom Lens

A colleague's recent excursions into buying older Nikon optics for use on a D700 prompted me to re-examine a lens that I've had in my possession for 20 years. 


The Nikkor 35-70 f2.8 macroThe AF Nikkor 35-70mm f2.8 Macro Zoom lens was introduced in 1987 and classed as a 'professional' lens. My model is one of the last produced before the introduction of the 'D' series, so it's a 1992 model. The 'D' series started shipping in September 1992 and only differed in that it introduced transmission of the focus distance to the camera, to improve TTL flash exposure calculation.
The lens finally went out of production in 2005 and has never been reintroduced, although to a large extent it was superceded by the Nikon AF-S 24-70mm/2.8G ED.

As I own the new Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR, an excellent lens - and before that the f3.5-f5.6 version, vastly inferior -  the old 35-70 has lain unused for many years. Based on results from other Nikon lenses of the same age - now available at extremely attractive prices - there seemed no reason not to review just how good this 'vintage' optic was with today's digital cameras.

This is not by any means an authoritative test, no lens charts or MTF data, just a look at how it renders 'real life' subjects. As such, it should be taken purely as a demonstration of its abilities and/or shortcomings in practical use for anyone considering purchasing one. 'Used' prices at the time of writing (March 2012) are between £200-£300. 

Physically it's quite a compact lens, though weighty, but it balances on a D700 very well and the AF works as rapidly as any of today's lenses. The zoom is the 'trombone' type, which has the disadvantage of sucking dirt into the internal optics (mine has a lot of dust specks which appear as dark spots when using small apertures) and the lens extends 7/8 inch at 35mm from it's length of 3¾ inch when at 70mm. Closest focussing distance is around 2 ft (600mm). The macro feature only works at 35mm focal length and gives a subject-to-lens distance of 7 inches, with a small amount of focussing range available. The reproduction ratio in macro mode is 1:4. The lens has 15 elements in 12 groups and weighs in at around 24 ozs (670g).

My tests were fairly arbitrary, popping outside when the sun shone the other day! I used a D700, tripod mounted in Live View mode, with a cable release.

I took three images in quick succession at each location at f2.8, f8 and f22.

  • f2.8 to show what the resolution and coverage was like at full aperture;
  • f8 because that's usually considered an optimal aperture for lens sharpness and coverage;
  • f22 because, particularly in macro mode, you are likely to want to stop the lens down quite a bit to get sufficient depth of field, but lens performance tends to fall off for various reasons at small apertures. 

Click on each thumbnail to view larger (each can be opened and displayed on-screen simultaneously and moved around, or click the annotation to pop-up the full-size JPG file of each - click on the expand button on the overlay to view full-size, or right click and open in new window).
Admittedly, the pop-ups don't show much, the full-size files are best if you really want to see the quality of each image.

Here are the results:

35-hedge-2.8 35-hedge-8 35-hedge-22
35mm f2.8 35mm f8 35mm f22

 

70-hedge-2.8 70-hedge-8 70-hedge-22
70mm f2.8 70mm f8 70mm f22

 

35-caravan-2.8 35-caravan-8 35-caravan-22
35mm f2.8 35mm f8 35mm f22

 

70-caravan-2.8 70-caravan-8 70-caravan-22
70mm f2.8 70mm f8 70mm f22

 

macro-caravan-2.8 macro-caravan-8 macro-caravan-22
macro f2.8 macro f8 macro f22

 

In general, this is a surprisingly good lens, even at full aperture, with little distortion and good, even coverage.

No corrections or sharpening have been applied to any of the images displayed, other than to convert from RAW to JPG and apply a modicum of white balance correction.

There is a slight degree of barrel distortion at 35mm, easily corrected in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, as this (uncorrected) series shows:

35-wall-2.8 35-wall-8 35-wall-22
35mm f2.8 35mm f8 35mm f22

 

At f2.8, there is also very noticeable vignetting at the corners across the entire zoom range, but this disappears rapidly on stopping down.
Hover over the f2.8 image below to see the same view at f8. 

35-wall-1

The slight resolution loss between f8 and f22 is shown in the following macro example:
(Hover over image to switch to f22 view) 

macro-f8

You can also pop-up the f8 and pop-up the f22 image corners above at a larger size, grabbed from the Lightroom screens at 1:1 scaling.

In summary, this lens is every bit as good as modern Nikon optics in general use, apart from the obvious lack of sophisticated coating, ED glass, VR, etc. General consensus is that it has the same optical performance as today's Nikon AF-S 24-70mm/2.8G ED, for a fraction of the price with a lot less size and weight.
I will be inclined to take this lens and the excellent Nikon 20mm F2.8D in preference to my Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR on occasions where size and weight are a consideration.

 

UPDATE:

Thomas Pindelski has been making lens profiles for all the 'new old' lenses he's been collecting and one of these is for the 35-70mm zoom. So I downloaded it and tried it out.

Here's an example image taken at 35mm focal length with that lens, where most distortions are apparent.

Mouseover the image to see the result after applying Thomas's 35-70 profile in Lightroom.

DSC_5431-WithoutProfile

Certainly does the trick.