It is no secret that Nikon is starting to fall behind in the lens game, partly because competitors, such as Sigma and Tamron, have doubled down on quality and focused heavily on innovating, but also partly due to Nikon's seeming unwillingness to invest in new and updated, innovative designs. As the demands of modern sensors expand, so does the demand for sharp, high resolution glass. Nikon has several legendary lenses in their past, which with a modern facelift could become some of the most competitive lenses in today's market.
1. Nikon 180mm f/2.8D IF-ED
I want to want this lens, almost more than any other. It seems almost too good to be true at a glance. There is no other lens on the market that offers a similar view to a zoomed 70-200mm f/2.8 at a fraction of the size and price without sacrificing speed, but this little gem does it.
The first version of this lens was released in 1953 and continued to be updated every decade or so until 1993, when the latest version of the lens was released, making the design of this beast over two decades old. Age comes with some very unfortunate downsides that obliterate all the desire that I would naturally have had for this lens. Nikon, it's time to give this great lens a modern redesign; I'd be first in line to buy one if it had resolution comparable to today's most impressive lenses. I'd be even more impressed if you innovated on the design just a smidgen, perhaps enlarging it enough to reach f/2.4 and adding vibration reduction. Even if it doubled the price, I'd love a lens that gets a hint closer to the monstrous 200mm f/2.0 without forcing me to carry around that massive hunk of glass while shooting.
2. Nikon 135mm f/2.0 DC
Some consider this lens to be one of the best portrait lenses ever created; others consider it to be unusable and subpar. The truth is somewhere in the middle. It could be one of the most impressive lenses on the market today, however, if Nikon hadn't left the design to effectively rot away with time. If you agree that the 180mm above was certainly due for an update due to age alone, then the Nikon 135mm certainly is well past due. This lens was designed in 1990. 26 years ago, it was exceptional. It was an unquestionable master of its domain, but now, its time has past. The time has come to update the design of one of Nikon's most iconic portrait lenses to bring it up to modern standards. Most of all, it needs to be much sharper wide open, enjoy more accurate autofocus, and harness better control of chromatic aberration.
3. Nikon 20mm f2.8 AF-D
A fast, wide, full-frame 20mm prime at a sub-$700 price point? Sign me up! Except actually, don't. On paper, this lens is a gem. In reality, it leaves a lot to be desired. This lens has so much squandered potential that I can't believe Nikon hasn't updated it yet to revamp demand for it. Perhaps I shot with a lemon, but I had nothing but struggles with this lens ranging, from poor image quality to repeated trips to the shop despite a lack of harsh use. It could be great, but it isn't. Nikon, take "could," and transform it into "is."
4. Nikon 58mm f/1.4G
So far, this list has been largely dominated by old lenses long overdue for an update. The Nikon 58mm isn't old, however; it is one of Nikon's newer lenses that also represents an attempt at innovation that came temptingly close to the mark. I adore the 58mm focal length — that hint of having a bit more telephoto than a classic nifty-fifty, combined with it being almost perfectly in the middle between 35mm and 85mm makes 58mm quite appealing. Add in that this lens has some of the most impressive bokeh I've ever seen, and a potentially winning combination is born. There's only one problem: it's as soft as a baby's bottom when you shoot it wide open. A lens designed to create the best possible bokeh is unusable at f/1.4, where I'd most want to be using it to take advantage of that beautiful out-of-focus rendering. Nikon, you were close with this one — so close. Give it another whirl. It doesn't need Sigma ART-level resolution at f/1.4, but it needs to not be soft. Make this fix, and I'd be first in line for a 58mm f/1.4G II.
5. Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-D
When Nikon released their great 70-200mm F2.8 VR, it seems they completely forgot about its predecessor, which does make sense to a degree. Why would someone want the old version of one of Nikon's most gorgeous lenses? By maintaining both lenses, Nikon would certainly self-compete, so they logically left the 80-200mm design in the past. The only problem is that the 70-200mm comes in at twice the price, which places it well beyond the reach of many buyers. Nikon tried to address this problem by releasing the cheaper 70-200mm f/4G, but the loss in speed really doesn't cut it when third parties are offering fantastic f/2.8 telephoto zooms in the thousand-dollar price range. Nikon, you have a lens that was once one of the shining pinnacles of this market; update it, and return it to its former glory. With a little polish, innovation, and creativity, a newer version of this lens could retake command of the budget fast telephoto zoom niche.
This list is by no means complete, and Nikon isn't the only manufacturer who needs to reinvest in some of their more innovative lens designs that have started to grow a little long in the tooth (cough cough, Canon 85mm f/1.2L II, cough cough). What are some of your favorite lenses that need to find their way back to the front of the R&D queue?