Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Lens Review - Nikkor 25-50mm f/4 AI Zoom Lens from 1979

Lately, I've been fascinated with older glass for Nikon's classic cameras, especially as used on modern DSLRs. I had heard about this little gem many months ago, but only recently picked one up for quite a steal. It's also only my second older manual-focus zoom lens, along with the 80-200mm f/4.5 AI lens I have.

This lens is quite a performer, and is also a mechanical masterpiece. It was a "hefty" lens back in its era, but today, compared to modern f/2.8 midrange zooms, it is a featherweight. It probably really isn't much heavier than my 50mm f/1.2 AI-S lens. It might become my new walk-around lens, unless I need speed.

The three-ring controls of this classic are solid and feel great in the hand. However, one gripe I have is that the zoom ring is backwards from every other Nikkor I've owned - looking from the rear, the 25mm side is on the left and 50mm is to the right, which while that makes sense, is backward from the 17-35mm and 80-200mm f/2.8 zooms I have, and every other lens I can remember owning. But it's a minor annoyance.

As for picture quality - I am blown away. Zooms were still in their infancy really, but this little guy is a stellar performer, and not just in the raw metrics of image quality. Yes, it's sharp. On the D800E, the detail and micro-contrast are stunning, even wide-open (which of course is still pretty slow). No, the corners aren't sharp though, same as most modern lenses really. However, stopped down a couple of stops, it's more or less deadly sharp everywhere.

The real charm of this lens though is its rendering. I have been searching for that illusive "look" that separates the truly fantastic lenses from the chaff of just technically excellent. So far, I have found 3 lenses that have this special quality, and 2 special mentions. The 3 are the pre-AI 35mm f/2.8 Nikkor-S lens, and then the two AI zooms, the 25-50mm and 80-200mm. Of note though is the 50mm f/1.2 AI-S and 35mm f/1.4 AI, both of which have a beautiful rendering at near full aperture, but become more bland as you stop down, unlike these zooms that always have the special look regardless of aperture.

You are probably asking what I'm talking about here, and rightly so. Basically, the images have a much more 3D, tactile, immersive look. I usually am not for talking in non-technical terms, but it's really something you have to experience to understand. I think I've had some 40-odd different models of Nikon lenses here, and I can see this quality quite clearly when I shoot these lenses.

The best part about this lens? The price I got it for. I've been waiting and watching eBay for about 3 months since deciding I wanted one of these. I finally lucked out and got one for only $125, which is quite a steal compared to the general going rate! I've seen them sell for anywhere between $200-$400 depending on condition. At around $200, I can't recommend this lens enough. It is as sharp as any prime lens in the center, and can be even better in the corners stopped down. It makes a fantastic wide-to-normal walkabout lens, even in just so-so light. I wouldn't use this indoors where I needed speed, but for landscapes and such, I'd rather have this and an extra $1300 than even the 24-70mm f/2.8 midrange zoom. Further - pair this with the 80-200mm AI for about $75, and you've got a world-class kit that could cover 95% of your landscape needs for probably under $300 (!).

Anyway, photos speak louder than words. Today was a glum, overcast day, but I still made some nice shots down at Langdale Park. These all were done with the D800E (sorry, no film today!), handheld, at ISO 400, and processed in Lightroom:


  1. This lens was a little known Nikon gem. I always regretted that I never picked one up.

  2. Yeah I really was surprised at how well this old lens did on the D800! And they are so cheap, relatively speaking.

  3. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.

    thank you :)

  4. Amen, what a gem it is on the D800E.....but wait until you find THE BEAST, the images have an unbelievable depth of color and 3D look to them...really reminds of "Hasselblad" images.....

  5. Thanks for your review! You mention the 80-200 AI zoom rendering similarly to the 25-50mm. Do you recall which of the 80-200s? Is it the f4 AI-S, the pre 1977 f4.5 AI, or the f4.5N AI?

    Thank you.

  6. Hi there,

    It is the 80-200mm f/4.5 AI lens with a rectangular cutout on the rear lens mount.

    Go here:

    And it's the AI that says "New" on it, made starting in 1977.