GEAR REVIEW - NIKKOR 180mm f/2.8 AF-N ED
The Nikon Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 AF-N ED was introduced in 1988 and was manufactured up until 1993, when it was superseded by the AF-D version. The "D" model communicated distance information to the camera for increased exposure accuracy, which is particularly important for i-TTL flash. It is still made today, twenty years after its launch, although is long overdue an overhaul to include VR, me thinks!
I made the jump from the excellent manual focus Ai-s version a few months ago as I found myself shooting toddlers more than anything else of late and trying to adjust aperture and focus on a moving target when using manual flash just isn't happening. For posed work with subjects that can keep their bum parked for a photo, the Ai-s version is fine. In many ways I do miss the feel of that solid metal body and well dampened focus barrel. However, I LOVE the flexibility that the auto focus delivers and if a baby moves closer to the flash, I just have to flick the aperture dial on the camera to compensate, whilst the AF tracks. It's made life so much easier!
The lens is surprisingly compact and lightweight, despite being of solid construction. Not as tough as the older Ai-s version but still, for a lens that is well over 20 years old, my copy is still going strong today. It comes with its own in-built hood, which helps counter flare and minimize ghosting. Shoot this directly into the Sun and watch the contrast vanish from your image, as I discovered shooting squirrels in Canada. Optically the lens is lovely and sharp, even wide open. It does suffer with a lot of blue fringing though in high contrast conditions, although this is easily corrected in Photoshop and not something to worry about.
While not lightning fast, focus speed is decent enough on the D800, with infinity to close focus taking approximately 1 second. While the 105mm f/2.8 VR does it in half this time, I can certainly live with a second to lock onto a subject. The lens keeps up with toddlers running towards you, making it fine for outdoor use when the kids scurry about. In my limited studio space, I tend to reserve the 180mm for head and shoulder shots, which works out pretty well due to its minimum focusing distance of 1.5 meters.
An odd quirk of this lens is the A/M switch located on the barrel. If for some reason you want to use manual focus, you have to switch from A to M on the lens and also disengage the focus motor on the camera body. This may be an annoying feature for some but, since I don't want to manual focus anyway, its no big whoop to me.
One thing that is a little unnerving at first, to me at least, is the fact there is no rear optic on the lens. In one way this is a bonus, as there is no risk of scratching it accidentally or dust getting stuck on it and ruining your images. On the flip side though, there is nothing stopping dust working itself side the lens, save for the aperture blades, so always keep the rear lens cap on when not in use.
To me, this lens is like the poor man's 80-200 AF-D "new", minus any back focus issues which that lens is unfortunately known to suffer with at the longer end. I prefer to shoot as long as I can to give nice compression and separate subject from background in most cases and so the 180mm focal length and wide aperture make it ideal for me. Secondhand copies can be had for about £300 with the AF-D generally going upwards of £350. Not bad considering this lens still retails for £700. It is excellent bang for buck and a worthwhile addition to any camera bag.
It would be nice though if the "powers that be" at Nikon GHQ decided to revamp this beautiful lens to include Vibration Reduction and an AF-S motor, as it's woefully overdue an update. If you're on a limited budget and want a superbly sharp, fast focusing lens which is going to give you great image quality, then the 180mm f/2.8 AF-N certainly ticks a lot of boxes. I for one adore this lens. I just wish my studio was big enough to facilitate using it more often.
The lack of VR I sometimes find a small issue in non flash situations both indoors and outside but, hand held blur can be avoided by good technique or the use of a tripod or monopod. Due to an essential tremor in my hands I find the latter works very well, especially as my monopod gets me down to toddler head height!