Film Photography

35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Zoom Nikkor

In action on my Nikon N2000. Fujifilm Provia 400X (expired)

The 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Zoom Nikkor was a lens of its time. By the mid 1980s, more and more amateurs were buying SLRs and the major camera manufacturers were building more entry-level cameras to oblige them. The industry noticed how amateurs liked zoom lenses for the casual photography they were likely to do.

Major manufacturers designed inexpensive short zooms — 28-80mm and 35-70mm were popular — to put in the kit with their lower-line SLR bodies. This lens came in 1984, Nikon’s first inexpensive short zoom. The lens was popular enough that Nikon made it for 21 years.

This lens is small and light. Nikon made it with a lot of plastic to keep its weight and cost down — the mount is plastic, as is most of the body. Nikon purists recoiled in horror, and then retreated to their built-like-a-tank Nikkor primes. But amateurs were pleased enough with the lens, especially since it was an Ai-s lens, which enabled Program mode on their cameras. It also has a macro mode, making this lens kind of a Swiss Army knife.

Optically, the lens has eight elements in seven groups. It noticeably vignettes wide open, but that reduces the narrower your aperture and the deeper your zoom. This lens also delivers barrel distortion, which is barely perceptible at 70mm but obvious and strong at 35mm. Thankfully, with modern digital workflows that’s quickly remedied in Photoshop. Here’s an image straight off the scanner that shows the distortion. I didn’t keep notes on this roll, but I probably shot this at or close to 35mm.

Nikon N2000, Kodak Ektar

But like I said, a couple of clicks in Photoshop and the distortion disappears.

Entrance to our cabin
Nikon N2000, Kodak Ektar

This lens has plenty of detractors, most notably Ken Rockwell, who puts it on his list of the 10 worst Nikon lenses. He points readers toward a couple other 35-70mm Nikkors with better performance. But in the eight or nine years I’ve owned this lens I’ve used it a lot, and I’ve always been very happy with its sharpness, color rendition, and contrast. Correcting barrel distortion in post-processing is the only downer I experience with this lens.

Everything else is upside. The lens is tight. Controls are smooth. They don’t have the luxurious heft of my Nikon primes, but I don’t care about that when I’m in the world making images. It handles easily and focuses fast. What more could I want?

A short zoom like this is perfect for subjects that are moderately far away to moderately close. For the kind of photography I do, largely images of the built environment, that keeps me from needing to step into the road as much to frame my subject. I made this image on a road trip along US 40 as I surveyed the stunning homes on that road in Casey, Illinois. I was able to make this image from the sidewalk across the street by zooming in just a little. With a 50mm prime, I would have had to walk out into the street.

Main Street, Casey, IL
Nikon F2AS, Fujicolor 200

The 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Zoom Nikkor isn’t exactly a bokeh monster, but you do get a blurred background when the light, aperture, and shutter speed are right.

Coffee and Macbook
Nikon N2000, Kodak Ektar

Sharpness is good to very good, but never outstanding. Even on this expired slide film, the lens delivers gobs of detail.

The Depot
Nikon N2000, expired Fujifilm Provia 400X

Because of this lens’s small size, light weight, and versatility, I travel with it a lot. This is My Old Kentucky Home in Bardstown, Kentucky.

My Old Kentucky Home
Nikon FA, Arista.EDU 200

I’m a big fan of moving in close with my camera, and it’s wonderful that this general-purpose lens’s macro mode lets me do that.

Purple crock
Nikon F3, Kodak Gold 400 expired 1/08

Here’s one more image in macro mode, just because I like macro so much. I’ve never had any issues with flaring or ghosting when I’ve used this lens, by the way.

Produce
Nikon FA, expired Kroger 200 at EI 100

I shoot a lot of color film with this lens, but it does great work in black and white, too.

0 mph
Nikon Nikkormat EL, Foma Fomapan 100

Because of its smallish maximum aperture, you need faster films in low light. I shot Kodak T-Max P3200 here — I shot most of this roll inside, but made a few photos outside because that was the film I had in the camera.

7th & Wabash, Terre Haute
Nikon FA, Kodak T-Max P3200, HC-110 Dilution B

Now I’m just showing you some images that I liked seeing again as I put this post together. I’ve made hundreds of images with this lens and have plenty of keepers from it.

SoBro homes
Nikon F2AS, Kodak Tri-X expired 2006
Heating the coals
Nikon F3, Kodak Gold 400 expired 1/08
Holly on the holly trees
Nikon FA, Agfa Vista 200
Downtown Bardstown
Nikon FA, Agfa Vista 200
Corner Wine Bar
Nikon F2AS, Fujicolor 200

The measure of a lens is whether it delivers the results you want. I can think of all kinds of photographers who would never use a lens like this 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Zoom Nikkor. But I walk around and photograph the things I find interesting, and a light and small short zoom like this is often just the right tool. It is sharp and contrasty enough, it mounts to every manual-focus Nikon SLR body I own, and it keeps me from needing to step out into traffic to photograph the built environment around me. To get these things, I’m willing to post-process images I made at the wide end of this lens to correct barrel distortion, when it’s noticeable.

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18 thoughts on “35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Zoom Nikkor

  1. P says:

    This lens has made a lot of excellent images for you. You say its sharpness is “never outstanding,” but in many of your photos I’d say it’s pretty close. For those who don’t like to mess with the geometry of their images in software (I’m included in that group), I can see why this lens wouldn’t be at the top of their list, but otherwise it looks like a great choice to me.

    I love the light, shadow, and texture in the “Purple crock” image.

    • I don’t love having to correct distortion, either. But this lens is inexpensive used and works fine for my purposes otherwise, and so I put up with it! Thanks for the compliment on the one image!

      • P says:

        I’m a bit it of a purist, so I tend not to do anything in software that can’t be done in a darkroom. That would obviously include fixing geometry issues. Modern software has made it so easy to do, though, that it’s always tempting.

        You shared some great photos in this post, but probably my favorite image of yours made with this lens is this one:

        https://flic.kr/p/2e1P6Rc

        I’d say nine times out of ten the photos Flickr selects for “Explore” aren’t at all worthwhile, but this one absolutely is. They got it right for once. It’s a truly beautiful image that makes you feel like you’re walking through a field two-hundred years in the past, when things were much simpler and people’s focus was on nature and what was real instead of all the distractions and fake nonsense of today. I think the lab under-developed this roll a bit, but that certainly didn’t keep this particular exposure from being something special!

  2. Beautiful colours on the Farmer’s Bank picture Jim. I really wish I’d stocked up on a load of the Agfa Vista Plus 200 when it was available for £1 a roll here in the UK a few years ago. I bought quite a lot, but I should have bought more and have none left now. The wisdom of hindsight, eh?

    • A blogger I know in the UK decided to go all digital and offered me his entire stock, 50 rolls, of Poundland AV+200 at cost plus shipping. Aw heck yes! It’s all gone now but man, were those good times while they lasted.

  3. Andy Umbo says:

    Really a nice set of pictures, and a great example of how useful these lenses are. I’m really sold on 85mm for portraits, and use the 35mm wide angle all the time, so I owned a 35-85 Tamron one time, that wasn’t much bigger than a normal. I used to go on trips just with that lens, and rarely felt I needed more!

  4. A wonderful take on a much-maligned lens, Jim — and your photos (some great ones, btw) let the lens speak for itself. You’ve actually changed my mind about considering one of these.

    Funny, but it seems to be the Nikonisti who are most eager to criticize some of their favorite brand’s products — and often they are wrong. The Nikon FG has a terrible reputation, and yet I like it far, far better than the FE. Having read a lot of stuff online, I came to the conclusion that most of the people who poo-poo the FG haven’t actually used one. Reading your review, I’m thinking the same may be true of the 35-70. Plenty of words saying it’s crappy, but you’ve got photos showing that it isn’t.

    Thanks for sticking up for the underdog — and steering us bargain hunters to a great lens!

    Aaron

    • Thank you for sharing your very useful comparison review. Thanks to Google Translate, we all speak Swedish now! :-) I’m blown away by how much larger the fixed f/3.5 zoom is than the f/3.3-4.5! And I’m shocked by the f/3.5’s performance. Except for less barrel distortion, in every other way this is the inferior lens.

      • Haha, great! I think that when you compare stuff like this you have to look at it from it’s intended use. We’re talking about 40+ years old equipment, it was never intended for 20MP pixel-peeping. Put them on an F body and run a roll of your favourite film stock through it. I doubt you’ll see any difference. That’s how I like to use them. That said, the 3.5 has one thing over the 3.3-4.5 and that’s contrast when stopped down, but it’s not enough for me. I’ll keep the “cheap plastic thingy” on.

  5. Good thoughts here, Jim. I used a few zooms in my younger (cheaper) days because they came with the cameras I bought and I’m sure there are times when they’re a bit helpful, like when the photographer must remain stationary. I don’t tend to shoot much that way these days and would side with Rockwell, I usually just use the manual zoom function built into my legs. As I am often shooting unmetered bodies at sunny-8 I don’t think I would trust a zoom that didn’t have fixed f/stops through the whole focal length. If it works for you then that’s fine and obviously the results here speak for themselves. I’m sure it was a nifty piece of tech in its day…

    • Oh yes, these variable-aperture zooms are not the right choice when using your eyes/brain as a light meter. You can only guess at what aperture you’re working with!

  6. Jim, I used one of these on my F3 for several years; no complaints at all. Your self-portrait shows above the f/3.3-4.5 lens. I recall 2 versions, a manual focus and AF.

    • I mistyped 3.3 as 3.5 throughout the review. I corrected it.

      I especially enjoy this lens on my N2000 and FA, making for a light and easy kit. Last time I used my N2000 the last few frames came out blank, making me wonder if the shutter has failed. I need to test it to see. Would be a shame if so. I really like that camera.

  7. This blog reminded me I have an AF Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 that I haven’t used for quite some time. I believe it’s optically the same as it’s manual focus predecessor and to be fair it has given me some very nice images in the past. It’s now on my F801s ready for new adventures.

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