Few things in the vintage camera world are as universally reviled as old zoom lenses. They carry a reputation for being bulky, useless in low light, and criminally soft, especially when compared to legacy prime lenses, which most shooters regard as the gold-standard in vintage glass. Even photo geeks who embrace vintage zooms will tell you that only a select number of brand-name examples are worth shooting; that Leitz designed MD zoom from Minolta, select Vario Sonnars from Zeiss, the famous Beer Can.
Unfortunately, most of the legacy zooms we find parasitically clinging to otherwise great SLRs carry unglamorous third-party names, many of which belong to companies that folded long ago. Tao Five Star, Gemini, Quantaray – these are names that make classic camera lovers cringe, and their abundance have made many of us the reluctant owner of way too many junky zooms. Mostly, they sit in a storage box or get tossed directly in the bin while we spend our days shooting wonderful primes.
But wait, maybe they’re not terrible? Before you spiral that Vivitar straight into the trash can, let’s think about this. While their junky reputations are somewhat deserved, it’s possible that these old manual focus zoom lenses might just be worth our time and money. To find out, I spent a weekend with a bunch of zooms, and I’ve come up with five reasons to shoot these often overlooked lenses. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.
Reason One – They’re surprisingly well-built
Zoom lenses are tough to make, and that in itself is an understatement. A huge amount of engineering went into these zoom lenses and we should applaud the unsung manufacturers for their early efforts. And though most cameraporn showcases set fast primes, I think these zooms are beautiful in their own right.
My personal experiences with the build quality of both the Vivitar Series 1 and Tokina AT-X series has been an eye-opener, particularly in the case of the Tokina. The AT-X 28-135mm lens is a masterpiece of engineering and design, featuring all-metal construction with no less than eighteen elements in twelve groups, and that enormous front element alone provides enough instagram-worthy lens porn for a lifetime. The smooth flow of its focus ring and precision clicks of its aperture ring rank with the best I’ve used from Canon and Nikon. The same goes for the Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm, whose solid feel and optical prowess made it a favorite for sports and portrait photographers back in the day, even if its largely forgotten today.
The build quality of consumer zoom lenses has declined greatly in recent years (Nikon G, Canon STM), a far cry from these old, manual focus lenses. Get one in your hand and you’ll be surprised by the sturdy and thoughtful designs of days past. They really don’t make them like they used to.
Reason Two – They’re convenient
Convenience is probably the biggest reason to shoot a zoom. The logic is simple; why carry a bunch of lenses when you can carry just one? Purists the world over will no doubt scoff at this extremely simplistic thinking and prepare any number of angrily worded comments citing a loss of sharpness, speed, and sophistication. Nevertheless, it’s simple mathematics. Carrying one lens beats constantly swapping between three.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much a fan of prime lenses as anybody; in fact I often proselytized the superiority of prime lenses to anybody who’d listen. Zoom lenses seemed like the easy way out, a solution for photographers who didn’t really care about the finer aspects of photography. But I soon found out that that was complete you-know-what when James sent me a zoom lens to try on my brand new Contax 139Q – the previously mentioned Tokina AT-X 28-135mm F/4-4.6.
It quickly turned out to be my favorite lens ever for use when traveling, a shooting situation that benefits from complete awareness and immersion in your environment. Vacations seem a lot more fun when you have a camera and lens combo which lets you focus on the world around you instead of the camera itself. Zooms let us play in flowerbeds and hop across streams, all while taking shots, instead of constantly worrying that we’re missing a shot because we brought the wrong focal length. Convenient.
Reason Three – They’re versatile
That convenience comes hand-in-hand with versatility, and zoom lenses are easily more versatile than their prime counterparts. Sure, they can be slow as hell, but what they sacrifice in speed they more than make up in the variety of focal lengths available to shoot, which make zoom lenses a powerful tool for those who want to work quickly.
This versatility showcased itself on a camping trip up to the Eastern Sierras. It was early morning and couple of birds perched themselves atop a rock to get their first sunrays of the day. Not wanting to disturb the idyll of the morning, I pointed the camera at the birds, pulled the heavy barrel of the Tokina all the way to its full 135mm setting and snapped the picture. The very next moment, the birds flew off into the distance.
On a separate trip down to Lake Elsinore to see Southern California’s famous poppy fields, the zoom lens continued to impress. The group I was with decided to climb up a hill to see the fields below, and the dramatic angle of the climb called for a 28mm lens. A simple pull of the lens brought my focal length to 28mm and the picture was there for the taking. I looked to my left and there was a beautiful field of different flowers which would have served the 35mm focal length the best, so I picked it and shot it and continued scrambling up the side of a hill.
I could go on and on, but the point is that none of these shots would have been possible without the versatility of a zoom lens. Sure, they might not be tack-sharp and clinically perfect, but they captured a moment I’ll be able to look back on forever, which is far more valuable to me than corner sharpness.
Reason Four – They actually make great images
Speaking of corner sharpness, these lenses really aren’t the dogs many make them out to be. You’ll always run into the dreaded Sears and JC Penney branded garbage, but there are plenty of fantastic lenses made by the third-party trifecta, Vivitar, Tokina, and Kiron. Each of these manufacturers (save for Vivitar, they outsourced lens manufacturing to Tokina and Kiron) had stellar reputations for image quality and continue to impress to this day, if only we’ll give them a chance.
The Tokina 28-135mm given to me by James is a prime example. He told me it was a sharp, wonderful lens, but I was apprehensive. Now that I’ve used it I’ve become a true believer. This thing makes absolutely lovely images packed tight with all the things photo geeks love – sharpness, resolution, and drop dead gorgeous color rendition. Sure, it sacrifices a bit of sharpness in the corners, distorts at the wide end, and can’t deliver the bokeh that prime lenses can, but it does everything else with panache. One only needs to look at this 100% crop of some flowers for evidence. Pretty good, huh?
Reason Five – They’re cheap
If there’s one arena in which no other lens can beat the junky vintage zoom, it’s in price point. These things are incomparably cheap. Third party zoom lenses far and away offer the best value for money among vintage lenses, with top-of-the-line models commonly averaging around thirty bucks on eBay, and more often you’ll find one stuck to the front of a camera you’d like to own (or can even resell). That’s thirty bucks for a well-built lens that could reasonably cover most (if not all) of your focal length needs. This low price point also makes vintage zooms perfect for beginners who will no doubt appreciate the ease with which they can switch focal lengths, helping them learn and decide which prime lens might suit their shooting style the best when they’re ready to upgrade.
And that’s about it. I suspect most dyed-in-the-wool legacy shooters won’t be convinced, and zooms will never overthrow primes as the vintage camera go-to. But hey, that’s fine. The prices on these excellent zooms will stay low. Good for us!
Not convinced? Think zooms are junk or do you love zooms? Let us hear about it in the comments.