Alley in Pisa, Italy

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The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM has a push/pull zoom mechanism instead of a zoom ring. Other lenses, like the Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 AF released in 1988 use this type of zoom too, but the lenses with a push/pull zoom are very rare (none among today Nikkor lenses, I believe).

This zoom seems ways more practical and it is especially much faster to move the front element instead of rotating the ring. The possible issues like the lens extending or collapsing when pointed to the sky or to the ground are solved by the tension ring¹.

Why is this not widespread on pro telephoto lenses? What are the drawbacks? Is the only reason to avoid to move/rotate the front element because of the air flow?


¹ In Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM, the tension ring is close to the focus ring, which makes it easy to move the wrong ring by mistake, but this particular issue is related to the lens itself and not the push/pull zoom mechanism, so it's out of scope of this question.

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Good answers are here already but they are missing the dust issue which tends to be sucked in when the lens has to extend and compress to zoom. –  Itai Dec 29 '11 at 14:53
    
Isn't it called a "pump zoom"? –  BBking May 20 at 23:45
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4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Not speaking for any company/lens designer, but I think it's a lot less practical now than it was in the manual focus days when one hand on one ring controlled both zoom and focus. The push/pull zoom was less precise than a rotating ring (it took some small force to move from any rest position, so overshooting was easy for critical composition), but managing everything from a single ring made life simpler overall.

But to extend the question a bit: why did push/pull focus fall from grace? After all, for a unit-focus lens (a lens where all of the elements/groups are in a fixed relationship with one another, and the whole assembly is moved toward or away from the film/sensor as a unit), that's all you need (and you can, if you wish, use push/pull focus alone on most rail-type view cameras). Two things make it impractical -- a lack of precision on the one hand, and the fact that lenses on small-format cameras don't tend to be unit-focus these days (internal focus, which is actually a sort of zoom, and corrective elements that float in relation to the rest are closer to the norm these days).

With focus largely outsourced to the camera, the more precise two-ring arrangement is a lot less annoying than it used to be (like on my old Minolta 35-70mm f/3.5MD). With focus control being mostly a matter of a button-push with the right hand, the left hand is free to concentrate on the zoom. With a ring, the only real annoyance is backlash -- there's usually a small but detectable "dead period" -- just the tiniest fraction of a degree -- when you reverse the direction you're rotating the ring. With a push/pull, on the other hand, there's usually some stuttering as you overcome the friction (the "tension ring"), so making fine adjustments after you've done the gross positioning is sometimes difficult and frustrating. You might think that really, really small adjustments aren't nearly as critical as a lot of people think they are (and I'd be inclined to agree with you), but as long as photographers are convinced that they have no pixels to waste at all, precision is going to win out over speed as long as the speed penalty isn't outrageous.

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Can you explain what "unit-focus" means? –  mattdm Dec 29 '11 at 14:09
    
@mattdm Sure -- editing... –  user2719 Dec 29 '11 at 14:11
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I've used both sorts and from a practical point, for me, I find using a ring is better than a slide.

When you have the camera to your face using a slide can make the camera move too much meaning you have to waste time pointing the camera back in the right direction. Whereas a ring gives you a smooth, accurate, and unhindered zoom allowing you to concentrate on getting the right framing.

The stiffer the slide the harder it is to use, but the easier the slide is to use the more problems you get in other areas.

It's probably a personal choice but I'm also guessing that because very few manufacturers make slide zooms now they've found out over the years that slides are less popular than rings.

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I own a push/pull lens (Canon EF100-400 f4.5-5.6L IS USM). Changes to focal length (zoom) are much, much, much faster with push/pull. By the time you wind your way through 300mm of focal length using a ring style adjuster, you have missed the shot. Let's face it, push/pull is more suitable for telephoto zooms where there is quite a difference between minimum and maximum focal lengths. I much prefer this style of mechanical interface for these type of lenses and so it is surprising and regrettable that they are becoming rare.

This is especially the case given that you can adjust focal length and focus without re-positioning your hand. Push-pull for focal length and turn for focus (brilliant). The only negative issue is that these type of lens mechanisms tend to attract more dust (inside the barrel) although after 4 years of use, I don't yet have that problem.

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Why do you say they attract more dust? A rotating zoom-ring design would have the lens extend and contract just as much - see for example the Canon 70-300L - the front extends a significant amount during zooming. –  crunch May 20 at 9:14
    
Because it has to be more aggressively vented in order to handle the rate at which you can displace volume with a push/pull type lens. This is documented (widespread) as a potential issue. –  Brad May 21 at 2:34
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I used to have a couple of older zooms that were push/pull models.

The biggest problem I had was when I was pointing almost directly up or down, and the lens would slide forward or back. Basically, gravity can be a problem.

Models with focus/zoom rings are less prone to that problem.

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Lens creep for zooms happens even when they're not push/pull, it just depends on the lens. –  John Cavan May 20 at 22:43
    
This is true. But for me, it was far worse with the push/pull models. (And nobody had mentioned it, so I I thought it'd be worth including.) –  SamC May 22 at 19:23
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