In the mid-1980s, the photography industry was at the beginning of a massive tectonic shift, and there was one question on everyone’s mind. Would professionals buy into the new technology? It’s a question that had been asked before, like when purely mechanical cameras were superseded by cameras with battery-dependent electronics, or with the development of auto-exposure programming modes. But when Minolta released the first camera with integrated autofocus and motorized film advance in 1985, it was clear that this would be a much bigger leap into the future.
The same period in which autofocus was making its big splash also played host to another more quiet revolution. Zoom lenses, which had nearly always lagged behind their prime siblings in image quality, were starting to close the gap. Manufacturers like Nikon and Canon were improving their telephoto zooms year after year, while a partnership between Leica and Minolta had also birthed some high-quality zooms. Even third-party manufacturers like Vivitar were releasing surprisingly excellent zoom lenses.
For Nikon, these two imaging trends would collide in 1987 with the release of the AF Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8. Released in conjunction with the 80-200mm f/2.8 AF telephoto zoom, the 35-70mm was a statement to professionals. Nikon was signalling a commitment to zooms, releasing two that weren’t just convenient for the working photographer, but also delivered the quality they demanded.
This “normal zoom” would continue to be produced throughout the 1990s, and would become a staple in the kit of hundreds (if not thousands) of newsroom photographers and independent working professionals. Many of the reasons it was popular then make it valuable today; extremely high build quality, fast maximum aperture, sharpness, and lack of distortion. And while it’s true that the 35-70mm would eventually be usurped by zoom lenses with a wider focal range, this fact also means it can be bought today for bargain prices. In fact, it wouldn’t be going too far to call this the best value in autofocus zoom lenses today.
Background on the AF Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8
The AF Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8 debuted in 1987 one year after Nikon released its first autofocus SLR, the F-501 (or N2020). While that camera wasn’t going to win over Nikon’s demanding professional customers, it did signal Nikon’s intent to enter the autofocus market. The 35-70mm was Nikon’s first truly professional piece of equipment, meant to whet the whistle one year before they released their groundbreaking flagship camera, the Nikon F4. In it’s day, it made jaws drop. With its maximum aperture of f/2.8 it was the fastest mid-range zoom lens ever created. Canon wouldn’t release a similar lens for two more years. Minolta customers would have to wait five.
Lenses with maximum apertures of f/3.5 suddenly felt glacially slow and those with variable maximum apertures were left in the dust. It was a game changer at the time, and yet something we don’t even think about today.
The 35-70mm has 15 elements in 12 groups, with a 7-bladed diaphragm, is multi-coated and has macro capability when fully extended. It stops down to f/22 and can focus as close as two feet from the subject. The first iteration of the lens, designated “AF” was produced from 1987 until 1992, when Nikon added distance coding to assist with flash photography and therefore created the “AF-D.” (Other small changes also were made to the aperture lock and later to the distance chip.) The lens reviewed for this article is of the “AF” variety and came off the line in the early years of production.
The 35-70mm is compatible with every Nikon camera, only sacrificing autofocusing abilities on the lowest-tier DX cameras.
Compared to the modern 24-70mm behemoths Nikon currently sells, the 35-70mm looks small and unimpressive. And while it’s true that in its most compact form, this lens has the dimensions roughly equivalent to a can of soda, picking it up belies visual impressions. The lens has more weight than expected — made almost entirely out of metal and glass, it weighs in at a not insubstantial 23.4 ounces. It doesn’t seem like much on its own, but attached to a full frame SLR or DSLR, it’s a workout. If Thor carries a massive axe called Sormbreaker, a photographer carrying this lens on an F4s would be wielding Wristbreaker. It’s hard to imagine carrying around anything bigger all day without some sort of orthopaedic miracle.
Advantages abound for this lens. Let’s start with what we can see and feel.
Build quality is outstanding. While camera bodies and lenses were beginning their transition into overly-plasticized construction, this lens was still firmly planted in the era of metal. The AF Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8 is built for professionals. As such, it’s designed to take a beating. The lens zooms in and out with ease, but not so loosely to ever cause worry about sliding out of the desired focal length. The rubber grip rings feel as durable as the metal body. The aperture ring clicks firmly into place, locking at f/22 with an unlocking button slightly above and to the right of the wheel.
It’s not a beautiful lens — certainly not something you would put on display. Instead it has the appearance of something begging to be out in the worst environment you can find. It’s not waterproof, and the push-pull design can allow dust inside, but the copy used for this review — among the oldest of these lenses — is pristine inside after roughly thirty years of use.
The lens’s image quality is a direct reflection of the leaps and bounds manufacturers were making with zoom lenses.
Vignetting is at its most noticeable at f/2.8 and 35mm. At that focal length, it is reduced at f4, almost gone at f/5.6 and completely gone by f/8. At the 50mm length it is less intense at f/2.8 and gone by f/5.6. At 70mm vignetting is the least noticeable of all the focal ranges at f/2.8 and gone by f/5.6. But the only time this vignetting is truly noticeable, and even then against a blank wall, is at f/2.8 at 35mm. Even then, it would actually improve environmental portraits, which is the most imaginable use for such exposure settings.
As can be expected from any zoom lens, sharpness isn’t quite on the level of any of the focal lengths as prime lenses, but matches performance in certain areas. Center-image sharpness is fantastic through the entire focal range. At 35mm results on the edge are very soft at f/2.8, and don’t sharpen to perfection until f/8. At 50mm, corner sharpness is very good except at f/2.8 and (to a lesser extent) at f/4. At 70mm, corner sharpness is outstanding from f/22 to f/8, acceptable at f/5.6 and f/4 and soft wide open.
Distortion is almost non-existent as are chromatic aberrations. To the degree that anyone would purchase a zoom lens based on bokeh, the 35-70mm isolates all subjects at f/2.8, though it couldn’t be called dreamy, creamy or even attractive.
Sharpness samples below – click desired focal length and aperture for full size samples.
As already mentioned, the lens does have heft to it when attached to a big camera and would make smaller ones quite long in the nose. But compared with modern zooms, or even other zooms in this lens’s immediate family, it’s still a welterweight (though it should be considered the Manny Pacquiao of welterweight lenses.)
All the aforementioned advantages are amplified when considering one of the lenses most impressive features; its price. While the other lenses that made up Nikon’s “journalist trinity” in the 1990s — the 20-35mm and 70-200mm f/2.8 — still command prices in the $300 to $900 range, an AF Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8 in good condition can be had (almost always) for less than $200. Often they sell at auction for below $100. The lens used in this review was purchased for $85. That looks pretty good when compared to the $1,900 it takes to own Nikon’s newest 24-70mm f/2.8. In fact, you could buy all three of the 1990s Nikon trinity set for about $750 less than a single lens today.
Real World Image Samples
There aren’t many disadvantages to this lens. The most glaring of these few is its susceptibility to flaring.
Anyone who’s used a 24-70mm lens will immediately feel constrained by the narrower focal range. That’s not something to blame the lens or the company for, a 35-70mm was standard in the mid-eighties. But if you’re a photographer who frequently operates on the 24-35mm range, you’ll need to carry extra glass. That could be one prime lens, or Nikon’s 20-35mm f/2.8, a lens equal in quality to the 35-70mm but with a higher price.
Lens creep, or when the lens slips out of its focal position, is typical to almost every lens with a push-pull design. Creep does occur with this lens to a small degree, and it can be annoying. But it rarely happens when the lens is attached to the camera and can often be solved with a sturdy rubber band.
Lastly, the 62mm filter ring rotates as the lens focuses. It’s not really a problem until you’re using a polarising filter or an external “Cokin-esque” system where focusing and composing simultaneously quickly becomes annoying.
It’s not clear whether the macro capability should be considered an advantage or a disadvantage. In the sense that it has it rather than lacks it, the feature is an advantage. To use the macro function, the lens must be extended to 35mm, at which point a button below the “AF NIKKOR” badging is pushed and the grip twisted to allow for manual focusing.
But in practical use, this macro functionality isn’t terribly useful. Most of all because getting that close to a subject at that focal length cuts down considerably on the light hitting the subject. With its 1:4 reproduction ratio, some macro purists may not even consider it a truly macro lens, which it wasn’t designed to be. Considering that Nikon had a dedicated (and quite excellent) autofocus 60mm f/2.8 Micro lens as early as 1989, adding any macro function to the 35-70mm seems more designed to make the already groundbreaking lens more remarkable. It’s not a gimmick, because it technically can be used effectively, but it’s not something anyone asked for nor, in all likelihood, will it be used very much.
Buying this lens should be a no-brainer for any Nikon shooter that doesn’t already have a zoom lens in this focal range. Photographers on a budget or prime lovers looking to start a journey into the zoom world need only look here for their first step.
It’s incredible that a lens with this sort of build quality, toughness and performance is available for such a low price. The same was said here of Nikon’s F100, but bears repeating; it’s downright criminal that something this good costs so little. It’s lighter than modern mid-range professional zooms while nearly matching those far more expensive lens’ image quality, and it has on-lens aperture control. To have all of that at less cost than nearly any zoom lens sold today is remarkable.
We often talk about bargains and value here, but when it comes to this lens, it’s more like a fire sale. The Nikon AF Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8 was in the bags of thousands of photojournalists for more than a decade, and it remains an excellent addition to any Nikon shooter’s bag today.