5 Frames With the Nikon 70-210mm f/4 Series-E – By Simon King

I’ve been at home shooting with a mid-telephoto lens for quite a while now, with the majority of my images being made with the Leica 90mm f/2 APO, so taking the step up to a more standard telephoto length was only a matter of time. It’s untenable to use this kind of lens as an everyday setup on a Leica rangefinder, so I turned to my secondary film system, Nikon SLR’s. The 70-210mm Series-E was an obvious option as it seemed to have a great balance of image quality, reach, and cost. I picked up mine for around £50 in October 2019 and have used it extensively since then for all kinds of different applications.

The overall focal range is perfect for my everyday applications of street and documentary photography, and the longer lengths are ideal for candid portraiture and more abstract interpretations of scenes. I’ve used this lens with all kinds of films and it performs wonderfully, with very little flaring aside from in absolutely harsh direct light, excellent sharpness, and a very subtle telephoto “look” rendering to it.

I’ve said before that I think if you can tell what focal length an image was made with then it becomes a bit less about the photograph and a bit more about the photography. My best frames are the ones which simply fit perfectly, with everything where it needs to be. Misusing a longer lens can lead to an image feeling incomplete in the same way that misusing a wider length can leave images feeling that the actual photo is somewhere ‘inside’ the photo. Lenses must be the right tool for the job, and I’ve found this particular lens to be perfectly suited to nearly all of the jobs I applied it to. In India I shot with this lens alongside my rangefinder setup which had either a 50mm or a 90mm which I used for faster work, reacting to things that unfolded.

The 70-210 is a slower lens for me, as I still find a split prism more troublesome than a rangefinder. This means that when using it I identify the potential first, frame, and anticipate what could happen within my frame.

I like my photographs to be very precise, even when made imprecisely. 90mm is an immensely elegant solution for everyday use for me, but the reach of 210mm really takes things to the extreme. It’s almost the equivalent of a sniper vs a shotgun, but is not as simple as a tighter crop, especially on film. You still need to be very close to your subject in order to fill the frame – to fill the frame with a standing figure who is 6ft you need to be about 12m away. For someone sitting or a tighter (half) frame, the photographer needs to be 5m away.

I don’t often use the macro capability, which is available at 70mm, but when I absolutely need my subject to fill the frame then I know I can rely on it.

I mostly use this lens at f/4, its maximum aperture. The depth of field is nice, but it’s more the necessity for available light for me. f/4 is definitely a limitation, but the only time I’ve really struggled is when I was shooting an ISO 200 film in very low light. I had to hold my breath and shoot at a very low shutter speed in order to capture this portrait during a ceremony in Varanasi – and was very pleased with the outcome. In most other instances I reserve this lens for daylight use, or for use with high-speed films.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article! If you like the images here please consider checking out my Instagram. I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland.

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9 thoughts on “5 Frames With the Nikon 70-210mm f/4 Series-E – By Simon King”

  1. Hey simon, this was great! Excellent shots. I have a Vivitar 70-210 that came with my X700 at a garage sale. I kind of rolled my eyes when I saw it, thinking it was a silly lens and that I would never have a use for it. But I’ve realized how silly I was to think that, and I use it ALL the time! 210 really does take it to the next level. My only problem is just how bloody huge it is. Thanks for this!

  2. Hi Simon, I have hung onto the “D” equivalent of this lens. It is sharp, has quick focus and is world’s lighter than the new 70 – 200 beast of a lens. The 20mm F4 is an outstanding lens favored much by the late Galen Rowell. Granted, he was a landscape photographer but it may be useful to you under the right conditions. Another outstanding legacy lens is the 28/2.8 Nikkor. I love the Nikon system from its staying true to the F mount. Thank you for your always thoughtful and compelling contributions. Louis.

  3. Srinidhi Aithal

    The series E lenses are really underrated for what they cost. I use the 50mm and 28mm series E lenses and they they produce some stellar images. Loved the first two images especially, with the dreamy look

  4. That’s an interesting idea, that you ideally shouldn’t be able to tell what focal length a picture was taken with. I’m not sure it can be an absolute rule — I enjoy landscapes and townscapes that clearly exploit the compressing effect of a long lens, and I love the drama of a real wide-angle — but I certainly can think of favourite examples where I can’t tell or it simply doesn’t matter.

    I’m curious to know if you use the full zoom range or use it mainly at 210. Like Nick, I have a 70-210 that I acquired by accident, but I’ve not yet actually used it. You’ve given me an idea!

    1. Oh, absolutely – I think when it comes to the real extremes in then you can’t avoid noticing that something was shot wide, standard, or long; but if the most obvious, or “best” thing about an image is the focal length used then it’s probably more of a showcase/advert than an image with any substance beyond that. I think people tend to obsess about that sort of thing, and study images to really figure out elements that ultimately don’t matter t the essence of the content of the image.

      I use the full range, but it definitely sees most of its use at or near 210. In an emergency I’ll smash it to 70mm if I need to, but when I have it on my camera I’m normally looking for opportunities that will work at the longer distance.

      1. ‘…if the most obvious, or “best” thing about an image is the focal length used then it’s probably more of a showcase/advert than an image with any substance…’

        Yes! And let’s extend that to anything that over-emphasizes any characteristic of the equipment at the expense of the subject. I can’t be the only one who rolls eyes and scrolls on when confronted with yet another shot made purely to prompt me to marvel at the author’s ownership of an f/zero lens. Most of my lenses go to f/2 but I’ve discovered I’m a big fan of f/4 – just as well if I’m going to try out that accidental 70-210.

  5. When I started shooting film with Nikon SLRs I was looking for a telephoto zoom that would complement my existing lenses. Someone in the r/Nikon subreddit sent me a link to the following comprehensive review of the Series E lenses and I was sold on this 70-210mm f/4 lens. https://matthewdurrphotography.com/2012/07/20/nikons-series-e-primes-compared/ I found a copy for about $70 USD and I’ve been very happy with it. Some of my favorite portraits have been taken with this lens and I have used it for landscape work when on vacation. I consider it small enough and light enough to carry in my camera bag when traveling. I have never wished for a different telphoto zoom. I have used it on my Nikon FE2 and adapted to my Fuji X-E2 mirrorless digital. This lens definitely is a great value and punches above it’s price point.

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