Why I Love the Nikon E Series (AKA Really Cheap) Lenses

At a time when the digital photography world was buzzing with new gear announcements, I managed to fall in love with some of Nikon’s very old and cheap lenses, the E Series lenses. My experience with these lenses taught me a great lesson: it is really not about the gear. It is rather about being creative with what gear we already have, despite how limited and incapable we might think of it. This was a great inspiration to me, especially with my nagging habit of lusting after the latest and greatest gear announcements. The fact that I’m writing this article goes to show that I still struggle with GAS (gear acquisition syndrome), but for a change, this is a case about some of the cheapest lenses available.

This guest post was contributed by Samer Rizk. See more of Samer’s work at his 500px page.

Nikon E Series Lenses (1)

I’m a Nikon shooter at heart and will use my Nikon gear for planned shoots, especially hired / paid ones. For everything else, I decided to go mirrorless. I sold a Nikon D300 for a Sony A7 and combined the latter with a bunch of Nikon E Series lenses. The E Series lenses are a group of manual lenses that Nikon originally designed as budget lenses to complement their compact film bodies.

Nikon E Series Lenses (2)

Their key strength is the somewhat decent optical performance that comes in a compact size and light-weight package. Assuming the photographer knows what the lenses are being used for; they are capable of performing well and have their own sweet spots.

Nikon E Series Lenses (3) Nikon E Series Lenses (4)

I had already owned the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 and the 35mm f/2.5 Series E, which I used with a Nikon FE2 and briefly with my Nikon DSLRs. When I bought the Sony A7, I added the Nikkor 28mm f/2.8, 100mm f/2.8, and the 75-150mm f/3.5. I happily paid in the range of $45-$60 US for each of the lenses, except for the 100mm f/2.8, which cost a little more. For the purpose of this article, I’d like if we just think of the Sony A7 as a digital back for the Nikon E Series lenses, with a retro appeal to the whole setup.

Nikon E Series Lenses (5) Nikon E Series Lenses (6)

Obviously, what I like best about the E Series lenses is their compact size and light weight, especially when combined with a mirrorless body. This helped me carry my camera bag literary all the time. It’s true I lose a bit in the optical quality department, and maybe more significantly I give up autofocus, yet this is far outweighed by the fact that I have a full frame setup with me all the time and one that meets my photography needs. I was never able to do so with my otherwise advanced DSLR system, mainly due to the bulk and weight burdens. The lack of autofocus as I’ll discuss later did actually help me slow down my photography, which improved my thought process.

Nikon E Series Lenses (7) Nikon E Series Lenses (8)

I will typically carry the 28mm, the 35mm or the 50mm combined with the 75-150mm. Sometimes I will have two primes along with the zoom; the 50mm is the smallest of the bunch and carrying it is usually a no-brainer. All factors aside, the weight of my typical setup is comparable to that of the body only of any of the DSLR bodies I owned. Another great advantage about this setup is how it goes unnoticed when shooting around people, unlike my DSLR system which is rather intimidating.

Nikon E Series Lenses (9) Nikon E Series Lenses (10)

Lack of autofocus in my now everyday camera was yet another influential factor on my photography thought process; it helped me slow down in a way reminiscent of film photography. I learned how to appreciate quality over quantity and will now visualize and seek a shot better than I did before. I will shoot fewer pictures and still appreciate the outcome, even when I think I could have done better. Previously, I would shoot a ton of pictures and feel lost through the selection and editing process.

Nikon E Series Lenses (11) Nikon E Series Lenses (12)

Having mentioned film photography, these E Series lenses will produce digital images with a unique character and feel to them. This is probably the case with many of the old film lenses. I personally think this can sometimes be interesting and unique, especially by today’s otherwise digital terms. They certainly lack the micro-contrast of Nikon’s recent DSLR lenses for example. Also the 50mm in particular shows a slight warm effect in pictures.

Nikon E Series Lenses (13) Nikon E Series Lenses (14)

So far I’ve owned the 75-150mm f/3.5 AiS E Series lens for a lot less time than I have my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 AF-S VR. However on average, I’ve used the smaller lens a lot more than I have the bigger one, with the latter costing me thirty times more than the former. Not to mention the number of times I was tempted to upgrade to the newer Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II. Having said so, I must mention that my E Series lenses have actually produced some of my photography work that I’m proud of. Gear should not really hold anyone back from producing good results. A limited camera setup, that is often used, is more rewarding than an advanced system that is seldom used. After-all, limiting oneself is a good way to foster creativity. I’ve since been focusing on finding ways to shoot more often and getting the best and most use out of what I already have.

Nikon E Series Lenses (15) Nikon E Series Lenses (16)

All pictures presented were shot with the Nikon E Series lenses with some captured on film.

Nikon E Series Lenses (17) Nikon E Series Lenses (18)

Comments

  1. 1
    ) mark
    July 30, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    One thing to mention is that the A7 has a full frame sensor. That alone will increase the sharpness and other tonal values of the image. An interesting comparison would be a 50 mm e series and one of today’s top-of-the-line 50 mm.

    • 2
      ) Bruce
      July 30, 2014 at 12:49 pm

      One of the sharpest lenses I own is the Nikkor-S 50mm f1.4 lens that came with my 1969 built Nikon F. It still goes on either my Nikon or Sony bodies (via an adapter ring) from time to time when appropriate.

  2. 3
    ) Geoff
    July 30, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    Great article. Also if one is willing to spend a tiny bit more I personably believe the Nikon 105mm AI-s f2.5 is the greatest lens ever made for portrait. Small, light, perfect skin tones, and beautiful clean rendering.

    • 18
      ) Jano
      July 31, 2014 at 3:39 am

      Geoff, have you tried the 100mm f2.8 before? I haven’t tried the 105mm Ai-S but to be honest, I can’t imagine it being worth the additional weight and price. My 100mm f2.8 produces wonderful portraits, has great color and is tack sharp wide open on my D7000. I paid 50 € so it was a great deal.
      The build quality is insanely good for a so-called “budget” lens and with an equivalent AOV of 150mm at f2.8 at that size… wow! (Check out the size here, the 105mm should be quite a bit bigger: https://flic.kr/p/ofFY1E)
      Only downside it the loss of contrast in backlit scenes.

      • 19
        ) Geoff
        July 31, 2014 at 4:56 am

        I have, and while good, I just don’t think the images pop as much as with the 105 2.5. Stopped down to f5.6 they are almost the same, but at lower apertures I much prefer the look from the 105.

        • 27
          ) Jano
          July 31, 2014 at 7:20 am

          Thanks, I’ll have to find one and try it out some time.

  3. 4
    ) vitalishe
    July 30, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    Compact size with a full frame body is the best combination for everyday use.
    Size does make a difference indeed. Oftentimes it’s the difference between taking the shot and not bothering taking the camera out.
    Still the question remains, why E-series?
    Clearly, E-series can be used with good results and it is dirt cheap.
    But if one spends ~$1500 on the body, the right question should be what is the most balanced choice of lenses to get? (Size, IQ, and price all being part of equation)

  4. 5
    ) Adam
    July 30, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    Thanks for the post! Love it. What adaptor are you using? I think I’ll try this out. I shoot a lot with my old Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 via OM adaptor with my Olympus E-P3. What FF options do you have that you can get an adaptor for Nikon E-series lenses? Thanks! Fun post:)

    • 20
      ) samer RIZK
      July 31, 2014 at 6:35 am

      Thanks Adam. I’m using a Fotga AIS adapter from ebay. Sony’s A7 series cameras are pretty much the only affordable mirrorless FF options. Cheers, samer

  5. 6
    ) Smarten Up
    July 30, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    I own the series E 28mm, 50mm and 75-150mm, and have also made many of my best (film) shots with these.

    Have used them on my Nikon D60 a bit but since they were not autofocus, or auto exposure….??

    What a mistake, as you write–slow down and think about what you want.

    Back in the day, I taught students this sequence to follow:

    -frame (including crop in/out, lens (zoom??) choice, or use your feet)

    -focus (on what point, or points? Need more, or less DoF?)

    -take an exposure reading (is aperture important for DoF or lack of DoF? or is shutter speed?)

    -wind shutter, check focus, brace camera with palm under, right hand on side with release, push camera towards forehead/eyepiece, breath in and then out, recheck focus, squeeze the shutter release gently.

    That was the set of rules, meant to be broken/altered, once you understood the reasons for the sequence.

    So, less autofocus, less auto exposure, think and feel more.

    Thanks for the reminders!

  6. 7
    ) Ethan
    July 30, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    Neat idea. I am often hesitant to bring my full frame for fun shooting because of weight and not wanting it to get damaged (the lenses especially). Your solution offers full frame, light weight, digital, relatively low cost and pretty good performance. Thank you for sharing.

  7. 8
    ) Joel
    July 30, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    Great shots! I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments about these lenses, and all the Ais lenses. Most of them are crack sharp (a few notable exceptions) and have buckets of contrast by f4. I love to carry a 35 and a 100 for a perfect lightweight and flexible kit.

    • 21
      ) samer RIZK
      July 31, 2014 at 6:41 am

      Thanks, f4 is certainly a safe aperture with the E Series prime lenses; in terms of the IQ and nailing the focus.

  8. 9
    ) Art
    July 30, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    Thanks for a great article; I remember when Nikon introduced the E-series lens (shows how old I am)everyone who was using the Nikkor lenses at the time thought they were rubbish because they used “PLASTIC” in their construction. But they were a decent choice for us that did not have a lot of money, needed a compact lightweight lens set, and were not happy with the quality of third party lenses being offered at the time. These lenses proved very capable performers with surprisingly good uniform image quality. Some of Nikon latest innovations such as NIC were incorporated in these lenses and overall their optical quality was generally above average as compared to other third party lenses offered at the time. In fact many of the series E lenses are a replica of the more famed Nikkor optics. In some cases, they may have even a slightly better design.
    In the late 70’s I needed a good reliable travel camera and lens set that was compact and light. I was in the Navy at the time and stationed on submarines and with storage space being really limited when we deployed I decided on and bought a Nikon FM with the 28mm 2.8 E, 50mm 1.8 E, and the 75-150 3.5 E which fit nicely in my bunk pan. This was a rugged compact set that produced great images and was light enough to carry around all day when we hit liberty ports. I eventually added the 36-72 3.5 E and the 135 2.8 to my lens arsenal and replaced the FM with the FM2n and used these quite frequently until I retired from the navy which was when digital started to take over from film. In fact I still own these lenses and the FM2n (also have an FA) and use them a couple of times a year when I want to shoot film. I really never considered using them on digital cameras but since reading your article maybe I should try them out on my DF.
    Regards
    Art

    • 11
      ) David
      July 30, 2014 at 4:07 pm

      An interesting set of camera/lenses that closely matches what I purchased years ago: Nikon FM, 28mm/f2.8, 50mm/f1.8, and 80-200mm/f4 (all AI/AIS rather than E-series, though). I still use the 28mm and 80-200mm manual focus lenses on my Nikon D700 and get very good results.

    • 22
      ) samer RIZK
      July 31, 2014 at 6:45 am

      Thanks Art for sharing your own experience..

  9. 10
    ) Alfred
    July 30, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    Thank you for your article and insight on the touch of auto focus and made me realize that I myself was doing the same in regards to taking some many pictures and forgot to think first and so I just started going back to manual focus and taking my time. Thank you again.

    • 34
      ) samer RIZK
      August 1, 2014 at 12:53 pm

      Thanks Alfred for your kind words..

  10. July 30, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    Great post and great photos! I see the lens character you are referring to in your captures. My favourite lens is still (and maybe always will be) the Ai-S 50mm f/1.2. While not an E-series lens, the manual focus and “magic character” aspects of the lens makes me want to shoot with it all the time. I seriously wish I had enough money to grab some of Nikon’s still-produced Ai-S manual focus lenses.

    -Brian

    • 23
      ) samer RIZK
      July 31, 2014 at 6:48 am

      Thanks Brian, I really wanted to get the Ai-S 50mm f1.2 at some point, but eventually decided to keep my everyday kit as cheap, light, and compact as possible.

      • July 31, 2014 at 7:44 am

        I hear you there! My setup isn’t at all light, and it certainly doesn’t fit in my pocket. All your images look fantastic — “cheap” lenses or not. That’s all that really matters. I think you’ve touched on something I have noted to myself many times in the past: that inexpensive lenses, which lack all the goodies that accompany today’s so-called optical advancements, have something else going for them: magic.

        Happy photographing!

        -Brian

  11. Profile photo of Rick Keller
    13
    ) Rick Keller
    July 30, 2014 at 7:11 pm

    Hello Samer,

    Thank you for your article. I really enjoyed it. As other commentators have mentioned above, I too, appreciate your thoughts and experiences with your set of E series lenses. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of these lenses performance. And your photographs are splendid!

    More importantly, your philosophy and emphasis on creativity in photography and your interest in taking a deliberate approach to getting the shot is admirable and is to be commended in the highest possible terms, especially in this maddening age of gear acquisition that has, quite frankly, run out of control.

    Personally, I own the 50mm f/1.8 E and 100 f/2.8 E, as well as a slew of the more rugged and professional Ais lenses. Before I permanently dumped digital in favor of film, I used these lenses on both my digital SLR and 35mm film SLRs. I love these lenses! As you and others have wisely pointed out, the image quality with E Series lenses is superb.

    My personal favorite is the 100mm f/2.8 E, which is by far the lightest (215 grams!) and most compact short telephoto that has ever been manufactured. In the hands of a skilled, experienced, and talented photographer, this image can deliver stunning image quality (sharpness, contrast, and color rendition). Here is a sample photograph made with the 100mm f/2.8 E on a digital camera:

    http://ilovetheoutdoors.zenfolio.com/p448647963/h1bfe344f#h1741ea73

    This photograph, taken in the midst of a sandstorm at sunset in Death Valley, is indicative of this particular lens’ performance: excellent sharpness and contrast.

    Although I don’t photograph with these lenses as often as I once did, for the aspiring photographer who is on a budget, loves manual focus, and strongly favors a lightweight and compact set-up, by and large E series lenses (and nearly all of Ai/Ais lenses) are a great way to get started and potentially flourish in the art of photography. :-)

    Samer, thank you again for posting your insights and excellent work!

    Cheers!

    Rick

    • 24
      ) samer RIZK
      July 31, 2014 at 6:50 am

      Thanks a lot Rick for your feedback and kind words..

  12. 14
    ) Tomas
    July 30, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    Gentlemens,
    I’m stunned with this article!
    I’ve spent. The last two hours reading about this lenses. The 50mm f/1.8 and the 100mm f/2.8 are simply wonderful, art pieces. I really want to put my hands on them, learn more and shoot in manual focus.
    At this time I own a D5100. Unfortunately I can’t unleash the power of these lenses….I was planing to upgrade towards a d7100….but if I do that I would be staying in DX format. Currently I have 4 af-s g DX lenses: 10-24, 35, 18-55 (kit) and the 55-200. I really like to shoot landscapes, street shots and some wildlife. I don’t do any video. I’m thinking on buying a d700 (at the same price of a brand new d7100) and take advantage of these lenses as we’ll….I could even buy the 105mm f/2.8 ais micro. The problem is that I need to sell all my stuff and the d700 is way bulkier than the d7100.
    Any thoughts?

    • 15
      ) Mike Davern
      July 30, 2014 at 10:31 pm

      The D7100 is an excellent upgrade from your 5100. That keeps you in the DX world but that camera should be able to keep you in good stead for a long time. Then save for the Sony A7. Its full frame and lightweight and can take advantage of the lens mentioned in this article. It would be a great complement to your D7100. I own both as well as a new D810 so I live in three lens worlds. However, even with the D810 (which I am still driving with a learner’s permit), I expect that I will do most of my day to day shooting with the Sony A7. Of course, if you wait long enough maybe Nikon will finally come out with a mirrorless worth buying….

    • 25
      ) samer RIZK
      July 31, 2014 at 6:58 am

      Hi Tomas, I really love the E Series lenses best with a mirrorless body (very light and compact).. thank you for your feedback.. cheers, samer

  13. 16
    ) David Jenkins
    July 30, 2014 at 11:31 pm

    Great post,
    Good to be reminded of the strength of those lenses, my 28 f/2.8 severed for a long time as my main lens on the FM, FM2 and FE2, I used it for a whole year recording daily events for a building project. Only thing that happened was the FM2, got a dent on the finder housing.
    After all the lenses have come and gone, I’ve still kept the 50mm f/1.8

    Always a pleasure to take a tour down memory lane

  14. 17
    ) nex
    July 30, 2014 at 11:55 pm

    hi, what lens do you use for photos no 12, 13 and 17? I love the bokeh…

    • 26
      ) samer RIZK
      July 31, 2014 at 7:00 am

      Hi,
      12 –> 75-150mm
      13 –> 50mm
      17 –> 35mm

      cheers,
      samer

  15. 29
    ) Mark
    July 31, 2014 at 9:17 am

    Hi Samer,
    Great article and lovely photos. I have the 28mm and the 75-150mm and love them as well as a range of Nikon Manual Focus lenses like the 50mm f/1.2 Ai (~$300), 85mm f/1.8 (a converted K type – free) and the 180mm f/2.8 (Again I think about $300).
    I love the colour and characteristics of these lenses, the colour rendition on the 28mm on landscape shots is something , I don’t know why but it seems to make the sky more vibrant than the 24mm f/2.8 Ai-S, but I like the colder colours more and I can understand that’s not for everyone or every scene.
    The 75-150mm I find vignetting can be an issue, sometimes it is fine and can be artistic even, but sometimes it can be an issue. Similarly on the 28mm, but not as much. Do you find this issue on the 100mm?
    I am starting to become quite attracted to the 35mm focal length for portrait and people shots, what do you think of this lens in the ‘E’ lineup?
    Thanks again for a wonderful post.

    • 32
      ) samer RIZK
      August 1, 2014 at 12:50 pm

      Thanks Mark,

      The vignetting is not really an issue for me but then again it depends on each one’s use for the lenses. Picture #5 above was shot with the 100mm f2.8 wide open and it has some vignetting which I like (can’t remember though whether this vignetting was purely inherit or enhanced in post). In any case I wouldn’t really expect the best optical performance out of these E Series lenses.

      I like the 35mm of this group mainly for being a 35mm and for its close focusing distance. It has decent sharpness at f4 or f5.6, and it is not that great with flare…

      If I get fussy with performance I will use my 24-70mm Nikon or 28mm f1.8G; but I will take flare most of the time over carrying my DSLR setup for everyday use.

      Cheers,
      samer

  16. 30
    ) André Berlinck
    July 31, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    Thanks Nassin.Obrigado Samer Rizk. I really enjoy reading the blog and after reading this post I picked up a Nikkor 50mm 1.4 that was in my museum of antique cameras and put on my D600. The result was beautiful! I loved moving the ring of Fstop manually. It was a great discovery. Thanks my day! Congratulations for the photos. They are beautiful! This is my made ​​here in Brazil with 50mm.
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/27317774@N02/14794914191/

  17. Profile photo of Muhammad Omer
    31
    ) Muhammad Omer
    August 1, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    I did not niko had such cheap lenses in its arsenal. Where did you buy these? Ebay or used stuff markets?

    • 33
      ) samer RIZK
      August 1, 2014 at 12:52 pm

      Hi, yes most were bought on Ebay.. cheers..

  18. 35
    ) Jesse
    August 2, 2014 at 3:11 am

    Any experience with an 500mm AIS lens on a dslr body?
    I’m wondering if that would be a neat match or just go for a tamron 150-600?

  19. 36
    ) Carl Chiulli
    August 8, 2014 at 10:31 pm

    What is exceptional about this post is the high quality of these shots, beautiful images.

    The point about ordinary lenses making extraordinary photos is well illustrated.

    • 37
      ) samer RIZK
      August 12, 2014 at 8:45 am

      Thank you Carl for your kind words..

  20. 38
    ) Jenny
    September 20, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    thank you for the post!

    Normally Sony A7 would allow you to zoom in on viewfinder by pressing C2 button, to magnify an area to fine tune focus adjustment. I got the Fotga adapter like you did, but the magnifying focus doesn’t work?

    This is the model of the adapter: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B009GFXIAE/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o03_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    When I press the button, it says “Invalid because lens not attached. Attach the lens correctly”. Is this function not working with all adapters or just this Fotga one?

    • 39
      ) Jenny
      September 20, 2014 at 6:12 pm

      nevermind, figured it out :) it was C1 button or can be customized.

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