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Nikon AF-n Nikkor 28-85mm f/3.5-4.5. get it used here
This early AF lens was my favorite midrange zoom until the autofocus became sticky. I replaced it with the 24-85 AFS. I can't be sure if it's just the luck of sample-to-sample variation or a truth valid for all lenses, but this old lens for me and my F100 is much better than any of the newer and similar 24-120, 24-85 f/2.8-4, 28-70 f/3.5-4.5 or 28-105 lenses I have tried and reviewed. The only lens that came close was the cheap $90 28-80.
What makes this ordinary lens so special? Simple: It's almost as sharp as the Nikkor AI-s manual focus fixed-focal length lenses it replaces, especially wide open where I often need to use it. It also autofocuses very accurately on my F100 without any of the sharpness-robbing errors I see with many of the newer designs. Therefore I actually get all the sharpness of which this lens is capable, unlike the others that may test well in some magazine's lab, but not focus quite right in the field on your AF camera.
It's a little larger and heavier (I measure 510g or 18 oz.) than the newer lenses. I suspect that's how it gets its superior performance; it's always easy to make a good lens if you don't have to make it small. It also doesn't try to do too much with a mere 3:1 zoom range. All else being equal, one always looses performance as one attempts to design a lens with a wider zoom range or smaller size.
This lens is no longer made today, although I see some still listing it for sale. It is the same glass as the manual focus 28-85/3.5-4.5 AI-s, but the macro operation is a little different.
There are two AF versions. The original AF version (1986-1990) had a nasty thin hard plastic focus ring. The one I have and review here, the AF-n (1990-1999), has a wider rubberized focus ring. They are all the same inside.
It takes 62mm filters in its plastic threaded front.
It has fifteen elements in eleven groups.
It has a seven-bladed diaphragm stopping down to f/22 to f/28, depending on focal length setting.
It focuses to 2.8 feet at all focal lengths. It gets to 10" in the manually-focused macro mode only at 28mm. This does allow some fun photos not possible otherwise.
It takes an HB-1 hood I've never used.
Its 2.8" (71mm) around by 3.5" (89mm) long and weighs 19 oz (540g).
AF speed is about average to a little slower than average. One full turn of the AF screw focuses the lens from infinity to 15.'
There is no vignetting if used with a Nikon filter. It will vignette at 28mm with a thicker filter like a Tiffen or B&W. It works OK with 67mm filters and step-up ring, and of course works great with 77mm filters and a step-up ring. At 85mm none of this is a problem.
It has the typical well-behaved distortion you expect with a zoom: barrel distortion at 28mm, neutral at 50mm, some pincushion at 70mm and stronger pincushion at 85mm. It has simple, low order distortion easy to correct with the "spherize" and "pinch" filters in Photoshop.
It is pretty sharp at all apertures and focal lengths; just about as sharp as my fixed lenses. The only gotcha is some softness in the corners at 28mm wider than f/8, but I can handle that as its only flaw. It is uncanny how bad the other zooms look compared to this one at full aperture, which is where I usually am shooting with Velvia. This is really good performance.
It has no significant light falloff wide open at any focal length, better than most fixed focal length lenses. On the other hand, it needs this because most fixed lenses are much faster, and by f/4, where you often need to shoot, the fixed lenses are already stopped down a good deal. This is the way lenses ought to be, and this is one of the few that is.
If you really ask for it you will get a green ghost or two if you put the sun in your image. It's pretty good about flare and ghosts. I never use a hood and don't need it. Then again I'm careful to use my hand if the sun is shining on the front of the lens.
For you cold weather buffs it autofocuses just fine at zero degrees Fahrenheit, but the zoom ring freezes stuck.
The macro mode requires pressing a button and moving the zoom ring past 28mm. In the macro mode you are in manual focus, regardless of what camera you have. Macro mode only works at 28mm.
This is your lens if you want great sharpness in a zoom at a cheap price used. Otherwise, go for the new 24-85AFS. This lens is what usually sat on my F100 until I wore it out. It's sad that all the other zooms I've tried except the 24-85AFS miss the sharpness target someplace in their ranges, just as often as not caused by inducing autofocus system errors.
You can get these cheap used, about $125 - $200.
I've not tried the AF 35-70mm f/2.8 or huge AF-S 28 - 70 mm zoom. They are probably better, and four to ten times more expensive. Either is way too big for me to want to use, even if it were free, just to get a single stop of extra speed.
In December 2004 I saw one still new, with an asking price of $499.95 (!) at the Ritz Camera Outlet in Las Vegas at (702) 896-4271 (ask for Sean) complete with box and warranty!