I am not a big fan of zooms. There, I said it. They are bigger and slower than most primes within their focal range. At wide and telephoto ends, distortion can also be a nuisance, but my biggest gripe comes from an artistic standpoint. When you have the option to stand still and zoom into a subject to take a photograph, it’s very easy to become lazy. This can really take the creativity out of a shot and its composition. Zooming speeds up the process leading one to get a quick grab rather than truly thinking about what the picture should look like. Super-zooms (such as the “do-it-all” 18-200 lenses) are my worst enemy because of this, though admittedly, they are okay lenses for traveling light.
That said, I look at the three zoom lenses in the Series-E collection and note how two offer only a 2x magnification (36-72 and 75-150) and the other a 3x magnification (70-210). This is rather interesting, as with the restricted zoom ranges (especially compared to the 11x magnification of an 18-200), these Series-E’s can be treated as two prime lenses in one. For the 75-150, I tend to leave it at either 75mm or 150mm, rarely zooming to the middle of the range. I move forward and backward to frame a shot as I otherwise would with a prime lens—though that may very well be a carried-over habit from only shooting prime lenses. The problems of a relatively slow maximum aperture and unwieldy length are still present, but the shooting process is a bit more enjoyable using this method.
All that aside I’m looking at reviewing the lens here, rather than the methods behind its use, so let’s move on to how this 2x zoom performs!
Full Name: Nikon Zoom 75~150 1:3.5 Series-E
Dimensions: 4.9 inches/125mm long, 2.6 inches/65mm in diameter, with a pretty light weight of 18 ounces/520 grams. In another sense, the lens is about 6 ounces/170 grams heavier than the NEX-7.
Close-Focus: Marked at 1 meter/3.5 feet at all focal lengths, you can get a tad closer. At 150mm, the maximum reproduction ratio is a rather large 1:5, good enough for quasi-macro shots!
Miscellaneous: 7 straight-bladed aperture stopping down to f/32 for greater depth-of-field, focal lengths marked at 75/100/150mm, depth-of-field curves marked for f/16 and f/32, infrared-focusing curve, 52mm filter thread (metal), metal mount, effective push/pull one-touch zooming and focusing system.
With my previously-described dislike of zooms, if one doesn’t handle well, you’ll never see me use it regardless of its optical performance. Thankfully (for the most part), the 75-150 E is a pretty enjoyable lens to use. The simple action required to both zoom and focus with the push/pull mechanism is leagues better than the modern two-ring design. Granted, people rarely use manual focus on modern autofocus lenses anyway, so they aren’t optimized for manual usage. Though focusing is smooth and aperture control is snappy, my copy of the 75-150 E exhibits extremely loose zooming—common in the Series-E zooms. I’m talking about the worst zoom creep imaginable: all you have to do to change the zoom is tilt your camera up or down to the slightest degree and it will slide around. This is a non-issue when focusing, as your left hand will always be keeping the lens still. But it still is unnerving to have to worry about where the lens is tilting when you can’t be holding the lens, such as on a tripod at low shutter speeds.
As far as build quality, the 75-150 is typical of most of the other Series-Es. Much of the lens is (high-quality) plastic, but the metal barrel, mount, and filter threads are a nice touch for long-term durability. It isn’t up to the AI-s Nikkors in this aspect, but is still much better than the cheap made-in-China plasticky Nikon kit zooms.
The most important aspect though, does it live up to my four pillars of “shootability” (small size, lightweight, smooth operation, favorable optical performance)? In about every way, yes! Considering the optical range it covers (short telephoto to mid telephoto), the 75-150 is pretty compact and lightweight. As mentioned above operation is smooth in every way (too smooth in zooming though). Even optically I’m pretty impressed with this $100/€80 2x zoom!
Taking my personal bias against zooms out of the equation, the 75-150 E’s performance is generally pretty great. Areas of excellence are overall sharpness, distortion control, and its macro capabilities. However, there are a couple serious issues with this lens that cannot be ignored, such as flare control and purple fringing. Another important quality this lens lacks is adequate depth-of-field control (at least, compared to what I’m used to from my much faster prime lenses). With the slow f/3.5 aperture, getting backgrounds/foregrounds really out of focus requires using this aperture along with the 150mm focal length. Even then, the signature “pop” of separation is still difficult to get. Do note, this is a non-issue where shallow depth-of-field isn’t needed.
Sharpness is supposed to be only a small component in a lens’ performance, but many feel it is the deciding factor between a good or bad optic. I personally fall somewhere in the middle. I love seeing pixel-level sharpness (especially with a 24MP sensor), but it isn’t terribly important that all my shots are sharp when viewing at 100% on screen. To be honest, I was quite surprised to see just how consistently sharp the 75-150 was at all focal lengths and most apertures. To show 100% crops from all apertures at all three marked focal lengths would take up a whole page. Instead, I’ll keep it to the extremes: showing wide-open, optimum, and fully stopped down to help keep this review from being too awful long. I’ll still provide a bit of commentary for the other apertures. 🙂
Starting off with some 100% (meaning clicking on them will NOT make them bigger) crops from the center by focal length and aperture:
Wide open, there is plenty of detail, but contrast is relatively low due to veiling haze. Stopping down to only f/4 increases contrast noticeably to the point of it peaking at this aperture. At f/5.6 critical sharpness is reached, and contrast is about the same as f/4. Diffraction begins to take effect at f/11, taking a hit on sharpness and contrast at each f-stop. By f/32, detail and contrast is completely obliterated by diffraction. This kind of effect will be noticeable at the image level. Personally, apertures from f/3.5-11 have enough sharpness and contrast for me, but for critical work, stick to f/5.6-8.
At 100mm, performance is nearly identical at every f-stop to 75mm. The only exception is contrast peaking alongside sharpness at f/5.6.
Finally at 150mm we can (unfortunately) start to see some image degradation. Wide-open, detail is a bit less than that of 75-100mm, and it takes stopping down to f/8 to attain peak sharpness (contrast still peaks at f/5.6, though). At optimum f/8 it is just as sharp as 75-100mm at f/5.6. Stopped down further, diffraction still takes its toll on sharpness and contrast.
Now moving on to some corner crops by focal length and aperture:
At the wide end and wide open, detail and contrast is quite good (for corners, anyway), with no smearing of details. Just as with the centers at this focal length, contrast peaks only 1/3 stop down at f/4. At each subsequent f-stop, contrast slowly decreases as sharpness increases, peaking at f/11 (two stops difference from the center’s peak). Image-dulling diffraction sets in immediately at f/16. Detail and contrast is rendered terribly at f/32, though not as bad as the centers.
Following the same trend as the centers at 75mm-100mm, the corners here perform nearly identically at all apertures, save for contrast peaking at f/5.6.
Going to the telephoto end of the 75-150 E, performance takes a hit at the larger apertures. Wide-open there is some noticeable detail smearing which doesn’t go away until f/8. Contrast peaks at f/5.6 with this focal length, and optimum sharpness is attained at f/11. Diffraction still heavily affects image quality starting at f/22.
So, as far as general shooting recommendations go, shooting this lens wide-open at any focal length is just fine (save for corners at 150mm), with contrast peaking early on. Critical sharpness doesn’t take much stopping down to reach, often peaking at f/5.6 (f/8 for 150mm) in the centers. Unfortunately, at 75mm and 100mm, peak sharpness in the corners isn’t hit until f/11–two stops apart from the centers’ peak. A sort of compromise can be made at f/8, but there will be no such thing as across-the-frame sharpness with this lens. If this quality is important to you, look elsewhere. Of course, I’m not saying the 75-150 isn’t sharp–quite the contrary. For a zoom (which typically has less optical performance compared to primes), this lens does a great job, maintaining great overall sharpness at most apertures while keeping contrast up to a good degree as well.
I always need to add, sharpness never made a good photograph, and these tests are evaluating sharpness at the pixel level. Seeing sharpness (or lack-thereof) affect your images will not happen unless shooting at f/32 or doing some extreme cropping.
Sharpness at Infinity
To assess sharpness closest to the infinity focus distance, I shot this familiar clock-tower at all three focal lengths:
Let’s see if the optimum sharpness apertures carry over to infinity from normal focusing distances. The tests at 150mm had to be performed at a different time due to atmospheric conditions (heat mirages start becoming a problem at longer focal lengths):
At the infinity focus distance, optimum sharpness apertures are slightly varied from the test chart pictures, but are never more than a stop away. Gauging true sharpness at infinity on a summer day is very difficult to do on telephotos because of heat mirages. I tried redoing the 75mm and 100mm tests at the same time as the above 150mm tests. Due to the decreased magnification, finding contrast (hence, acquiring focus) in low light wasn’t accurate. And yes, the “one” is still missing from the clock for reasons unknown.
Sharpness at Macro
A defining feature of the 75-150 E is its pretty close focusing capabilities–one meter at all focal lengths. At 75mm that isn’t very close, but at 150mm, the 1:5 maximum reproduction ratio is nice for the times when you can’t bring a macro lens with you.
“Bokeh” is an artistic term of Japanese origin for the character of anything in the image that is not in focus. Typically, smooth bokeh, where out of focus objects and highlights seem to “melt” into the background, is favorable. Where it counts (out of focus backgrounds and highlights), bokeh is great at larger apertures. Since only the wider apertures are the areas bokeh will become noticeable (at normal focus distances), this is a great thing.
The following crops are taken from various focal lengths:
Performance with bokeh smoothness on the 75-150mm is very consistent–the backgrounds are always smooth and blurry while the foregrounds (the “non-important” bokeh) are generally busy with doubling at all apertures.
Now let’s take a look at how the lens handles bokeh highlights. To assess this I shot a de-focused sparkled decoration to get as many point sources of light as possible. Instead of showing you way too many pictures of circles, I’ll just make the comment that bokeh highlights are handled extremely well at all focal lengths, getting better as the length increases:
Overall I’m very pleased with the bokeh, just be sure to keep objects out of the foreground if possible.
A form of chromatic abberation (a type of distortion where certain colors do not hit the image sensor at the same convergence point), purple fringing is typically seen in fast lenses at their wider apertures when shooting scenes of high contrast, such as branches against sky. Though purple fringing can be cleaned up very well in post processing nowadays (see my detailed post on that here), it is still an important point to take in consideration if one either doesn’t have the time to post process, or has purple objects in the frame that does not want to be desaturated. To assess purple fringing, I used this scene of high contrast:
Wait…f/16??? No, no, no, that can’t be right. But…yes it is. There is good news, purple fringing even wide open isn’t heavy at only 4 pixels. It just takes stopping down all the way to f/16 to get rid of it all. At all apertures it is trivial to correct though:
As far as other longitudinal chromatic aberrations go (abbreviated LoCAs or known as “bokeh fringing”), foregrounds tinged in green are suspiciously absent. I’m not complaining! Backgrounds, however, do have some purple fringing–a different hue than typical purple fringing–left over even after that last correction. In this particular case, the LoCAs were extremely difficult to remove, I had to combine both a broad hue adjustment with the correction sliders as well as a heavy desaturation of the purple and magenta channel:
I’m tired of seeing branches…let’s move on. 🙂
In order to keep the cost of this lens in the consumer range (at the time of release), many of Nikon’s Series-E lenses only got single-coating on the lens elements. Single-coated lenses tend to be extremely flare prone whenever a bright source of light is near or in the frame. Unfortunately, I believe this lens has only single-coated elements. It’s pretty easy to see why:
There are two good notes here though, I didn’t notice contrast-robbing veiling flare in use with this lens. Also, stopping down to f/32 combined with the flare makes for some interesting sunstars:
Honestly, unless you are trying to do sunstars on bright points of light, keep them out of the frame if you can. The flare is just nasty on the 75-150 E.
Vignetting is the look of darkened corners as a result of shooting near the wide open aperture (sometimes photographers add vignetting in post processing for effect). Thanks to the “sweet-spot” advantage of using full-frame designed lenses on APS-C or smaller sensors, vignetting is a non-issue most of the time with the 75-150. There is only one instance where vignetting may become noticeable:
Thanks to the small zoom range of the 75-150 E, distortion is never a problem in real-world use. Straight lines are always straight, never curvy. For perfectionists, or those wanting to set up a lens profile: 75mm is completely flat, 100mm needs a -1 correction in the distortion slider, and 150mm needs a -2 correction for mild pincushion distortion.
Now let’s hit the old recap:
Pros and Cons
- Good build quality despite a noticeable use of plastic. The metal barrel, mount, and filter threads are nice.
- Operation is very smooth in all areas with good overall shootability, see cons
- Useful focal range suitable for portraits, a walk-around telephoto in good light, or even a quasi-macro lens when used at 150mm
- Great sharpness in a wide aperture range (usually peaking at f/5.6) with no corner smearing (except at 150mm)
- Relatively consistent performance at all focus distances
- Background bokeh and out-of-focus highlights are exceptionally smooth in all circumstances
- Purple fringing isn’t too heavy wide-open, see cons
- No veiling flare
- No real vignetting
- No distortion
- Faster than most superzooms with its constant f/3.5 aperture, see cons
- Plastic lenses don’t have the same feel as a stone-cold AI-s Nikkor
- Zooming ring is susceptible to heavy zoom creep, it depends on the copy
- Sharpness takes a small hit at 150mm, and is heavily degraded due to diffraction at small f-stops (more so than normal). Sharpness also doesn’t peak in the centers and corners at adjacent f-stops.
- Contrast doesn’t always peak alongside sharpness
- Foreground bokeh is always busy, bokeh highlights past f/8 become distracting
- Purple fringing remains until stopped down to f/16
- Terrible overall flare control
- The f/3.5 maximum aperture doesn’t give enough depth of field control especially considering faster primes in the focal range such as the 105mm f/1.8 AI-s
- Manual focus, in case you had forgotten
The Bottom Line
As it has turned out, I’ve ended up liking the little 75-150 E in many ways. Though it isn’t the fastest, sharpest, or most lightweight lens I’ve used, its pretty consistent and low-frills performance makes shooting a breeze–especially considering I can treat it as two primes in one. I can definitely see this lens having a place while traveling to keep the lens bag light. Paired up with a fast 50 and a wide-angle, this jack-of-all-trades lens is capable of many shots. Just don’t expect it to be a master of any one art. That’s not the point of zooms. They are all about convenience. 🙂
Here are just a few more sample images taken with this lens and the NEX-7. For more, see my first impressions of the lens.
That’s all for this review guys and gals, will hit the 36-72 f/3.5 E next, an interesting little 2x zoom that seems so far to be doing just fine. 🙂
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