You’d have to be blind as to what has happened to the UK in the last couple of weeks or so. If the news of Britain’s seeming imminent departure from the EU doesn’t bother you one way or other then what has happened to Sterling and the Japanese Yen recently might.

Over the last few years there’s been a steady devaluing of the Yen to the point that occasionally companies in Japan are forced to put their prices up to protect their export revenues on international markets and indeed Nikon did this again in the first quarter of 2016. Price increases are not popular with anyone but sometimes needs must for Japanese manufacturers like Nikon – unfortunately this was a chunky rise resulting in an increase of 20% or more in the case of some lenses. Then the double whammy. Britain voted to exit the EU at the end of June and almost overnight confidence on the markets dipped a little (I’m trying to stay measured here) and £GBP plunged by 15% against the $US and more importantly for the sake of this particular piece, the Japanese Yen too. Disaster. The effect on imports to the UK would be a double hit resulting in UK camera stockists raising prices further to compensate and protect their own profits. If that wasn’t bad enough, a less than widely reported Japanese earthquake earlier in the year has also significantly hampered manufacturing and supply from Japan resulting in stock shortages linked to some silly supply and demand price premiums. Companies are already reacting to all of these forces in market conditions and Nikon’s goods will increase in price again for the second time in 2016.

If you’re not buying anything now or not interested in buying anything soon, then all of this will probably pass you buy and is moot, but it should be noted that even grey imports have shot up in price because of these factors. Don’t expect any quick return to cheaper prices either, the predictions are any recovery in the value of Sterling could take years. So what can you do? Well I have a not so surprising solution for you if you’re a Nikon Landscape Photographer, it’s time to take a much longer look at vintage AI-s and AF-D lens options on the second hand markets because my friends there are what I would consider to be some seriously hot bargains (it’s all relative of course where camera equipment is concerned) to be had on the used UK based market which don’t compromise on product or image quality.

I’ve been doing my research anyway and thought you might like to hear about some of the discoveries I’ve made which could give you a competitively priced high quality kit to shoot with in these increasingly expensive times. These are not exactly secret findings in any respect but those that know me will probably provide testament to the fact that image quality is incredibly important to me so I definitely wouldn’t waste your time with lenses which are not really great value which can totally deliver the goods.

But before you skip ahead, just bear in mind a couple of lens benchmarks below:

  • The first lens I’d like you to consider for comparison purposes is the often much loved staple Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S. This is an all plastic affair, made in China, it’s relatively compact with a 58mm front filter. Current new UK price at the time of writing (early July 2016) is now £170 at the likes of WEX and Calumet. Some might regard that as a bargain, personally I think it’s somewhat overpriced bearing in mind its overall build quality (extremely plasticky) and image quality which is in my view somewhat questionable wide open but improving stopped down. It wasn’t long ago that the price was at £130. I can spend that £170 more effectively…
  • The second lens for comparison sits at the quality end of the market and it’s the standard Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 AF-S VR. This is the latest version of the lens but has already been out a year. It’s a beasty at over 1Kg and ridiculously long at 15.5cm. Not exactly a pocket rocket. Worse still you won’t pay much less than £1850 right now. In the same way that I think the 50mm f/1.8G is over-priced for what you get, this puppy is now retailing at about double what I think it should be putting it right out of reach of many people. It’s a 3x standard zoom for crying out loud and according to reviews did little or nothing to improve on its predecessor other than the addition of the Vibration Reduction system which just seemed to add a lot more bulk and at least £750 to the price. You can do better than this.

But how then is it possible to land some top class beautifully built primes or a zoom without parting with ridiculous amounts of cash? Read on if you want to know more…

I’ve added the following five lenses to my kit over the last few months, letting go expensive and bulky modern equivalents. I also feel like I’ve compromised very little in the process too.

Nikon 20mm f/2.8 AI-s (£175-£275 Used)

ais 20mm copyKey information: An all metal, all manual focus f/2.8 wide angle, manual aperture ring, weighs in at a solid but insignificant 259g, 62mm front filter, super compact at only 43mm long. Thumbs up for infrared use. There’s nothing in particular to watch out for on this lens, with no AF, it’s pretty hard to damage. Original metal hood is Nikon HK-14 which is pretty much the only one which is suitable, cheap to replace.

Well this is quite a find. Previously I relied on the spectacular Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S to cover this particular focal length. I’m not about to tell you that the Nikon 20mm f/2.8 AI-s somehow is a straight alternative (it isn’t) but it’s definitely a top choice because you can carry four of these to the weight of the 14-24mm – it’s absolutely tiny by comparison of course. When I shoot wide angle, I’m always stopping down to f/8 to f/11 and at these apertures I promise you all you get is a top quality image even on a camera like the Nikon D810. It has to be said that I don’t think this one is for architecture because there is a certain amount of detectable wavy distortion (subtle but present) when shooting brick walls or perhaps a hard horizon line but when used for landscape this is of course invisible. Visible distortion can be reasonably well corrected with the appropriate Adobe lens profile in post processing (use the Nikon 20mm f/2.8D which is identical to this lens) but it never quite reaches perfection with certain subject matter.

Nikon still make these in a back room somewhere in Japan so getting hold of one isn’t super difficult – certainly if you buy new expect to pay well over £500 but second hand deals are where the bargains can be had.

Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AI-s (£175-£250 Used)

ais 28mm copyKey information: All metal, all manual focus f/2.8 semi-wide angle, aperture ring, only 250g, tiny 52mm front filter, feels pocket sized at under 6cm long, great for infrared again. Again, nothing in particular to be aware of. I have a metal Nikon HN-2 screw on hood on mine which is cheap to replace and works well.

Some will ask what sort of focal length 28mm is. Of course it’s neither really wide nor is it a standard focal length like 35mm but I think it’s a highly usable angle of view. It’s actually the equivalent focal length of the iPhone 6s camera and if it’s good enough for millions of Apple devices then it’s good enough for me. I used this lens extensively when shooting my Lunch Club series and I absolutely loved the results. As with all of Nikon’s older primes it’s a little susceptible to flare when pointed into the sun but that’s part of the charm in some ways of this older glass too. This is a highly corrected wide angle that some say is one of Nikon’s best ever lenses – I would certainly rank it better than the 20mm f/2.8 AI-s as an option here anyway. And yes, in my view it really does deserve that sort of mantle – just search on the internet for other reviews.

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The 28mm f/2.8 AI-s is capable of fabulous colour and contrast

Nikon 50mm f/1.2 AI-s (£275-£350 Used)

ais 50mm copyKey information: Another all metal lens that feels it has been hand-carved out of rock, Nikon’s widest aperture lens, all manual focus and aperture ring, a gorgeous feel at 350g, 52mm front filter, lovely size at 47mm. The original Nikon hood is the all metal HS-12 but I hated it because of its size. I use a metal Nikon HN-3 screw-on hood on mine.

OK so this is the one lens here that can be more expensive than the other comparable Nikon offerings at this focal length but in my view is still worth every penny. This is genuinely a lens where you get two for the price of one though because its rendering at f/1.2 with its 9 aperture blades generates a soft dreamy look only matched by the highly prized Nikon 58mm f/1.2 Noct which is considered by many to be the holy grail of portrait lenses that people part with £3000 for (yes, they really do). I can’t comment how the 50mm compares to the 58mm because I’ve never set eyes on one but I can tell you that the 50mm f/1.2 is a must buy. Stopped down at only f/2 and you have yourself a razor sharp 50mm with stunning contrast and an entirely different look – personally I love the fact that you can have a transition like that with one lens.

I previously owned the Zeiss 50mm f/2 ZF.2 which is another £950 super high quality all manual chunk of rock and I can confidently say that the Nikon 50mm f/1.2 is easily as good. That’s what makes it a total bargain in real terms, with the added bonus of that f/1.2 creative aperture. I struggled a long time to find a 50mm I’ve been completely happy with and I can confidently say this one is it, plus that front element looks gorgeous. Because of its stellar reputation, true bargains are hard to find on the 2nd user market however.

daydream copy

Getting creative at f/1.2 is what it’s all about with the 50mm f/1.2 AI-s

Nikon 35-70mm f/2.8 AF-D (£150-£225 Used)

ais 35-70 copyKey information: All metal, milled outer shell and focal length ring, constant aperture f/2.8 zoom, screw drive autofocus, manual aperture ring, a chunky 664g, 62mm front filter (rotates), if you loaded it into a field gun and fired it 2 miles through the air it would probably still be in one piece when it landed. Compact and dense for what it is at 9.4cm, push-pull to change focal length, slightly odd 35mm macro function available too. Older models of this lens can be susceptible to a break down in the cement which holds two internal elements together – this can result in a milky haze build up which will affect image quality. Make sure the lens you buy is completely clear – Nikon can repair this, but at a price. Given the volume of this lens available, just avoid anything with this ailment. Original lens hood is the plastic HB-1.

In truth this is a bit of an odd ball lens. From that wideish 35mm view to a semi-telephoto 70mm, this 2x autofocus screw drive zoom is beautifully built, optically outstanding (it really is) and I’d be amazed if you could ever break it. It isn’t the biggest zoom range but then again it’s no accident that it covers the most popular of focal lengths with such aplomb. This puppy is pure gold because you can take your ultra-modern Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 A-FS VR and tell me where the substantial optical difference is meant to be. Yes, the modern Nikon is stuffed with exotic ED elements and furnished with any number of coatings but these are all marginal improvements that you pay a small fortune for. The 35-70mm like all of Nikon’s vintage glass doesn’t cope with flare amazingly well, but make sure you use the hood and there are often ways around many shooting situations.

The key advantage is you can pick one up in perfect condition cheaper than that all plastic Chinese 50mm f/1.8G and actually replace it ten times over (never going to happen once let alone more than once) before you’d have spent the same money on Nikon’s latest 24-70mm. Recommended? 100%. This is a fantastic walkaround lens, better than any modern cheap zoom by country miles, and probably virtually indestructible. If you’re choking on Nikon’s latest prices for a comparable professional 24-70mm zoom, then this is the buy for you (just make sure your camera has a screw-drive for AF use).

Nikon 85mm f/1.4 AF-D (£400-£550 Used)

ais 85mm copyKey information: The fore-runner to Nikon’s 85mm f/1.4G, screw drive autofocus, manual aperture ring, metal body, 77mm front filter, nicely balanced at 520g, reasonably compact at 74mm long. Make sure you get a lens hood with this lens; not least because that gorgeous front element could benefit from a bit of protection, but it’s a very expensive one to replace. The original lens hood is the all metal HN-31 screw on, and will set you back the best part of £50 if you lose it or want to add one.

Some will already be choking on the idea of spending this sort of money on a lens like this but when you consider you can get hold of the 85mm 1.4 AF-D for one third of what you’ll pay new for the later AF-S G model I say that’s a real bargain. This lens was known as “the cream machine” because of it’s gorgeous out of focus rendering. In truth it’s a little softer that the 85mm f/1.4G and f/1.8g (I’ve owned both) but the bokeh on the f/1.4 AF-D is also softer. If you’re going to shoot with a lens like this, you pretty much want to use it wide open all of the time – in my view its artistic appeal outweighed the absolute sharpness of the later models. Obsession with sharpness is, I’ve learned over time, frankly over-rated – that’s one of the reasons why I own this and the 50mm f/1.2 too.

daisy time copy

The rendering of the 85mm f/1.4D is simply gorgeous wide open

Conclusions

So there we have it. It’s not all plain sailing with these older models, there can be a bit of flare to deal with at times (or play with depending on your frame of mind), certainly the 20mm is not optically perfectly corrected too, but you could obtain the whole set for around £1100-1200 over time by careful buying on a site like eBay. Given that’s less than one of Nikon’s latest primes I say that’s fantastic value; an entire lens collection with massive creative opportunities and options, built to last 50 years to boot (all the lenses listed here were made in Japan). For the autofocus lenses here you must have a DSLR which has a screw drive (motor drive) built into it – that includes all of Nikon’s full frame cameras such as the Nikon D600, D700, D800, D810, Df but you can also find one in the Nikon D7000 series too. I hope this helps and at the very least provides something to think about… Good luck out there in eBay land!