Nikkor 200 mm f/4 AI is a great lens in a small form factor. It is sharp and very well built lens that was introduced in 1977 when Nikon came up with the concept of AI. 200mm occupies is a sweet spot in the variety of focal lengths available. It is not too short as 105 or 135mm lenses. The close-ups of faces look more pleasing due to the change in perspective by using a 200mm lens. The lens is also not as long and heavy as 300mm Nikkors which can be quite uncomfortable for hand-held use.
(Nikon Df with Nikkor 200mm f/4 AI at f/11, 1/100 sec)
I bought a second hand Nikkor 200 mm f/4 AI just a few weeks back. It was quite inexpensive and I got a good deal. The lens was almost unused with some insignificant cleaning marks. Great deal indeed. There are treasures to be found in used lenses if one is vigilant and knows what to look for. (More on buying used lenses – Buying a used lens).
AI stands for “Automatic Maximum Aperture Indexing” system. This is the mechanical system for coupling the lens to the camera’s exposure system. The camera is given the information about the maximum aperture of the lens which helps in exposure calculation. These lenses have a ridge that touches a feeler near the lens mount on the camera body. These lenses focus only manually. (Read about various Nikkors – Evolution of Nikkors (Nomenclature)) AI-s version of this lens was introduced later and is exactly same to this model in terms of optics.
The lens that I bought was clean piece and just a bit of blowing by blower-bulb and a couple of gentle wipes by microfibre cloth made it look real shiny. It looks really handsome in the high gloss finish. Take a look at the photos again. The lens is very well made and feels better than even the latest AF lenses. Without waiting I went out and tried it. It is a metal body lens and yet not very heavy. The lens handles very smoothly. The manual focusing is easy even without using any dedicated focusing aids, though I did use my spilt-screen and prism based focusing screen (Staying Focused). With use I have found that when I focus on an object just by looking at the viewfinder, even without a focusing screen with manual focusing aids, it is easy to nail the focus well. A quick glance at the green dot also confirms that I am able to focus quickly and correctly.
I liked the fact that it uses 52mm filters which were a standard with most lenses earlier. I have all kinds of 52mm filters lying with me. The lens is not too heavy and so I can haul it around on long walks. f/4 is not as fast as the f/2.8 obviously but it is not slow either. Despite being f/4 the lens is bright enough for general use and focusing. The lens has a built in lens hood which slides out. This is a very nice feature that is super comfortable to use.
(Nikkor 200mm f/4 AI lens with the focusing ring set to closest focusing and Hood slid open. The lens appears quite long and stretches to about 17 cm from the camera. Depth of field scale is etched on the barrel under the focusing ring.)
Coming to its performance. It is above average in sharpness at f/4. It gets fairly sharp by f/5.6 and excellent by f/8. While shooting against the light there is almost no flare. The lens has noticeable light fall off when wide open but it almost disappears at f/5.6. There is some amount of color fringing visible which also almost goes away by f/5.6. Between f/5.6 to about f/11 it is super sharp with excellent micro-contrast and almost no light fall off. Due to diffraction the image starts to get soft at f/22 and there is noticeable softness at f/32. I find this lens very well suited for portraits on a full frame camera. The bokeh looks pleasing.
(Distant hills photographed with the Nikkor 200 mm f/4 AI lens at f/8 aperture and 1/640 sec shutter speed at 100 ISO and -1EV dialed in as exposure compensation, and with a little over-the-top processing to please one particular person.)
(Some distant pines in the late evening light. The limited dynamic range does wonders and makes this simple scene look like a painting through the eyes of this lens.)
The colors are rendered very nicely and the micro-contrast seems good. The image quality has a bit of that classy vintage look to it. The more I use this lens, the better I feel it. Seems like a really good deal to me.
One mildly disturbing fact is that somehow the lens body seems to resonate the sound of mirror slap on Nikon Df. It does not happen with some of the other cameras that I have. The resonation may be due to some cost cutting Nikon might have done with the lens body. Does this resonation have any impact on image quality? I am not sure. To be on the safe side, I use a high shutter speed which should take care of any inadvert camera movements.
A word of caution – One of my colleagues had this lens. His piece had a prominent focusing error and he used to use it with a small aperture most of the time. I had to get that lens repaired by an old master and once this error was fixed, it was a pleasure to use, or so he says. Such repairers are hard to find, so do check the focusing before purchasing. If you find a good piece, go for it. This is one lens that I will gladly buy again and even be ready to pay a higher price than usual.
(Nikkor 200mm f/4 AI gives beautiful bokeh while maintaining excellent sharpness and microcontrast in the focused elements.)
I have tried this lens with Nikon D200 and Df in Manual Mode and Aperture Priority Mode. This lens is a gem if your camera supports it. Check your camera’s user manual to see if this is supported. If it is, then you are in luck. Being an inexpensive lens, the model was quite popular in its time and is very easily available used and at very attractive prices. Do check out the piece that you get hold of properly.
People are running after the AF versions and heavy zooms. Take my advice and give this lens a try if you can find it. In today’s times of super heavy and uncomfortable lenses with VR and internal auto-focusing motors, Nikkor 200mm f/4 AI or AI-s can be a welcome change.
(Flower in a vase – Nikon Df with Nikkor 200mm f/4 AI, f/16, 1/4 sec, ISO 100, mounted on tripod.)
(Nikon Df with Nikkor 200mm f/4 AI, f/11, 1/200 sec at ISO 1600)
Buying a used lens