It shouldn’t come to surprise anyone when I say I love the 100mm focal length on APS-C cameras. What should be an awkward length too long for “typical” portraits (usual range is 85-135 on 35mm camera), but too short for a long telephoto (those start around 180-200mm)–becomes an “up close and personal” portrait lens useful in separating subjects from a crowd, or emphasizing certain features of people. With a stop-and-a-third slower maximum aperture than my 105mm f/1.8 AI-s, the degree of separation on the 100mm f/2.8 E is somewhat less, and the “pop” starts to fade away (shallow depth of field is an aspect of photography I love to employ). Also, in low light and at max aperture, it can be a bummer to still have to either slow the shutter speeds (risking motion blur) to stay at low ISOs, or to raise the ISOs (resulting in more noise) to keep the shutter speed high. When shooting conditions go south, compromises have to be made. So be it.
Regardless, the 100mm f/2.8 E has to have redeeming qualities, right? You bet. I do like this lens very much, for reasons detailed below–so much so, I’m not particularly sure which lens (the 105mm or 100mm E) I enjoy the best overall. There’ll be a section discussing that near the end, but let’s get onto the meat-and-potatoes!
Full Name: Nikon 100mm 1:2.8 Series-E (note, lacks the Nikkor designation)
Dimensions: 2.25 inches/57.5mm long, 2.5 inches/62.5mm in diameter, with a weight of 7.6 ounces/215 grams. Note: though not as light as either the 50mm E or 35mm E, the 100mm E really isn’t a lens that adds real-world weight to any camera, from a DSLR to a compact mirrorless.
Close Focus: Marked at 3.5 feet/1 meter, but you can get a little closer. Though not a macro lens, you can get tight framing for large flowers. On m4/3 you can “get a little closer” due to the larger crop ratio
Miscellaneous: 7 straight-bladed aperture stopping down to f/22, 52mm filter thread, metal mount. When shot on an APS-C camera, the field of view in 35mm terms is 150mm (up-close-and-personal portrait length), and on m4/3 the field of view is 200mm (long telephoto).
One characteristic I will now be taking into consideration for lens reviews is a made-up term observed in the 50mm f/1.8 E, “shootability”. Defined in Matthew Durr’s short list of personal photography terms, shootability is a characteristic of a lens and/or camera that measures the amount of ease, efficiency, and enjoyment in the operation of said lens/camera. Typically lenses that are lightweight (check), are compact (check two), focus easily and smoothly with a solid aperture control (check three), and have more admirable optical qualities than bad (check four) will have a high shootability rating. With all four categories met, the 100mm E (along with most of the Series-E lenses) has a high rate of shootability on any camera–the smaller camera the better.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt when cost is taken into consideration (not a pillar of shootability), as most of the Series-E lenses can be had at a bargain compared to their Nikkor AI-s counterpart. After some careful hunting on eBay, I found my copy for about $80/€63. The most comparable lens (Nikon Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 AI-s), goes on the market for about $180/€142–over twice the price and weight (15 ounces/425 grams) of the 100mm E.
Aesthetically, the 100mm E looks great with any black camera, even more so than the 50mm E with its faux chrome grab ring. For future reference, there are two versions of almost all the Series-E lenses. The first version (this lens) sports an all-black body with a plastic (yet firm) grab ring. The second version–made to look more like the AI-s Nikkors–has a faux-chrome grab ring, and sometimes the ribs on the focus ring are changed. Optically, both versions of these lenses are the same, and in the real world the faux-chrome ring isn’t missed. If anything, the bright ring is annoying as it reflects more sunlight, not a good thing when the camera is always close to the face!
I’m positive the 100mm E is the one “sleeper-hit” lens I set out to find in the Series-E line-up. In most all respects, the lens performs great, mainly in its uniform sharpness. Other areas, such as flare control and the character of the bokeh, leave some to be desired. That said, at $80/€63, the 100mm E is a stunning lens for the price once shootability is combined with its optical performance. I recommend it highly to APS-C cameras as well as m4/3 cameras (especially those with IBIS) thanks to the great central sharpness. If that isn’t enough for you, take a look at all the detailed information below.
Though sharpness is supposed to be only a small component in a lens’ performance, many feel it is the deciding factor between a good or bad optic. I personally fall somewhere in the middle. I love seeing pixel-level sharpness (especially with a 24MP sensor), but it isn’t terribly important that all my shots are sharp when viewing at 100% on screen. With that in mind, I have tested the 100mm E to be useably sharp in its entire aperture range, but noticeably sharp from f/4-16. In the 5-stop range both detail and contrast are great–moving outwards into the optimum aperture is like going from really sharp to razor sharp.
Two side notes: there is some field curvature with the lens, but isn’t noticeable in real-world shooting. Also, the 100mm E suffers from a bit of focus shift starting right at f/4 affecting all other apertures. This applies only to DSLR shooters, as the critical focus point at all other apertures is different from wide-open (the aperture you use to focus). Try focusing with the depth of field preview button held down for more accurate results.
See what I mean on sharpness with the following 100% (meaning, clicking on them won’t make them bigger) center crops by aperture:
Starting wide-open, there is sufficient detail to render most all scenes as appearing “sharp”. The only things keeping detail from being perceived as very sharp is the lowered contrast due to veiling haze, common in all fast aperture lenses. At f/4, contrast gets a huge bump, as does sharpness (though it isn’t razor sharp, yet). The difference between sharpness from f/5.6-8 isn’t too large in real-world shooting, but if you must, absolute critical detail is reached at f/8. Contrast also peaks at this aperture, so there. At f/11, sharpness-and-contrast-robbing diffraction can be seen, but ignored. By f/16, the diffraction becomes more noticeable, but all the detail and much of the contrast still remains. Finally at f/22 the amount of visible detail and contrast is about equal to wide-open. The 100mm E at optimum is just as sharp as the 35mm f/2.5 E at its optimum, but has more contrast than the 35.
Now, onto some 100% corner crops by aperture:
Thankfully, the corners show a similar story. Wide-open, there is detail (with no smearing), but it is mostly hidden by some vignetting and the veiling haze. At f/4 contrast and sharpness improves noticeably. There is a big bump both in sharpness and contrast at f/5.6, an improvement to a “very sharp” degree. By f/8, contrast has again peaked, and corners are a bit sharper. At f/11, there is no real difference in sharpness, but contrast has decreased. From f/16-22 diffraction has set in, further lowering sharpness and contrast, but at f/22, the corners are better than at wide-open.
Despite peaking at a relatively “slow” f/8 aperture (compared to some of my other fast primes, such as the f/5.6-peaking-180mm f/2.8), both sharpness AND contrast across the frame peak at a very high degree. Unfortunately the corners never quite get up to the center sharpness levels, but they are almost as good. Used for its intended purpose (very long portrait lens on APS-C, long telephoto on m4/3), the corners don’t really matter anyway, as they’ll probably be out of focus. All this said, for critical work, stay in the aperture range of f/5.6-11. Do note that the resolving power at f/2.8 is more than useable for general photography.
Sharpness at Infinity
What better target to focus at infinity than the moon on a clear night? In the following 100% crops, the f/8 optimum aperture is maintained out to the infinity focus distance (both the center and corners are essentially the same).
Though I wouldn’t use this lens to shoot the moon–these crops are way too small to be useful–rest assured the lens is still very sharp as the focus distance increases.
Just for a bit of fun, it’s neat to see how much you can push the sharpness in post-processing with the pixel density of a 24MP sensor:
Sharpness at Macro
As noted, the 100mm E isn’t a designated macro lens. That said, when you can only take one lens with you out shooting, close-focus performance is an important characteristic to take into consideration. A good sign here, sharpness and contrast peaks across the frame again at f/8.
In other words, no matter the focus distance, the 100mm E is a consistent performer. For optimum results, always stop it down to f/8. For a real-world macro shot, scroll down to the end of the “bokeh” section.
“Bokeh” is an artistic term of Japanese origin for the character of anything in the image that is not in focus. Typically, smooth bokeh, where out of focus objects and highlights seem to “melt” into the background, is favorable. In regards to the 100mm E, I would rate bokeh overall as “very good”, especially in the f/2.8-4 range. First, let’s take a look at bokeh smoothness.
Some tighter crops (NOT 100%) by aperture:
For the best-looking foregrounds and backgrounds, f/2.8 is THE aperture to shoot at (not only because of the shallow depth of field) due to the super-smooth backgrounds, as well as pretty smooth close foregrounds (foregrounds close to the depth if field are unfortunately distracting with some doubling). As the aperture is stopped down, the backgrounds are always smooth (the “important” bokeh). With regards to the foregrounds at each subsequent aperture, both close foregrounds and near-depth of field foregrounds are in varying stages of doubling, lending to a distracting appearance. That said, the only real problem is near-DoF foregrounds at f/4 that exhibit a large amount of doubling. The “very good” rating applies here, as with a lens like this used for its intended purpose (long portrait on APS-C or long telephoto on m4/3), there will most likely not be anything in the foregrounds anyway. With most lenses, out of focus areas in the foreground cause an optical illusion to make our eyes try to bring it into focus (and hence should be avoided).
Now let’s look at how the 100mm E handles out-of-focus highlights, by aperture. The following are 100% crops, and the object used was a sparkled decoration to get as many point sources of light as possible:
Keeping again in the “very good” range, highlights from f/2.8-5.6 range from exceptionally smooth to smooth, with little to no obvious outlines, and even coloring throughout the highlight. As the aperture is stopped down further, outlines become more and more noticeable, and artifacts inside the highlight begin to get prevalent. At f/22 the highlights look pretty awful. Then again, who takes portraits (or any shot where bokeh matters) at f/22? In the range where it counts, bokeh highlights are great. Even at f/8 (optimum sharpness and contrast throughout the frame), the highlights would only be distracting if you printed REALLY big, think 12×18 or more.
The following uncropped “real-world” shot demonstrates a few things this review has covered, the close-focus ability, the smoothness of the backgrounds, and the handling of (many) bokeh highlights:
A form of chromatic abberation (a type of distortion where certain colors do not hit the image sensor at the same convergence point), purple fringing is typically seen in fast lenses at their wider apertures when shooting scenes of high contrast, such as branches against sky. Though purple fringing can be cleaned up very well in post processing nowadays (see my detailed post on that here), it is still an important point to take in consideration if one either doesn’t have the time to post process, or has purple objects in the frame that does not want to be desaturated. To assess purple fringing, I used this scene of high contrast:
Have to shoot a scene of high contrast? Don’t do it wide open with the 100mm E, plain and simple. However, if f/2.8 is needed for some reason, the purple fringing can mostly be edited out, leaving behind a grey haze (not as noticeable as the fringing, at least):
Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration
Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration (also known as “bokeh fringing”) is another form of aberration that is mainly prevalent on large aperture lenses in areas that are out-of-focus (hence the bokeh designation). A lens that suffers from LoCA has objects in the background tinged with green, while objects in the foreground are tinged with purple. Stopping down a lens only marginally helps in reducing LoCA’s, as all stopping down really does in most instances is bring more objects into focus (anything out of focus will still have the aberration). Usually the purple hue on foreground objects is of a different hue than purple fringing, so foreground LoCA can be very difficult to remove in post-processing. Fortunately, Lightroom 4 also has a dedicated aberration slider for the green hue, so at least foreground LoCA’s can be removed easily. If you take a look again at the “fixed” image for purple fringing in the last point, you can see very easily that the branch in the upper left has purple LoCA left over, while the branches to the left and right have heavy green LoCA. I must point out that purple fringing is technically a form of LoCA, but is often treated and thought of as a separate fault in lenses (hence my adherence with the norm). Anyways, here is a minute’s worth attempt at fixing these other aberrations:
One of the cost-cutting measures for the Series-E lenses was to only single-coat the lenses. Lenses that are single-coated tend to not have very good flare control due to many internal lens reflections. Nikon eventually started to give multi-coating to some of the later Series-E’s, but many only got the single treatment. My copy of the 100mm E is more than likely single coated. There are many internal reflections when a bright source of light is near the frame, but not as many (nor the angle needed for them to show up) as in the 50mm E. In this short handheld video (yes, it’s shaky) you can see all the reflections that may hinder an image if the sun (or a bright source of light) is in or near the frame. The following was shot in black and white to make seeing the flare easier against the blue sky:
You can see in the video many reflections are prominent, as is contrast-destroying veiling flare. An example of how veiling flare can affect a photograph can be seen in this real-world shot with the 100mm E:
Flare control is the only truly awful area this lens performs in. However, it isn’t as bad as the 50mm E, so take it as you like.
Vignetting is the look of darkened corners as a result of shooting near the wide open aperture (sometimes photographers add vignetting in post processing for effect). Another result of the “sweet-spot” advantage, most full-frame lenses tend to have little to no vignetting problems when used on an APS-C or smaller sensor (m4/3, 1 inch sensors, etc.). The 100mm E is no exception here, vignetting even wide-open is negligible in field use. Part of this is due to the very gradual vignetting characteristic of this lens, where there is no harsh cutoff between where the darkening starts and where it ends.
One of the many advantages to using a prime lens over a zoom, distortion is usually well-corrected (save for wide-angles). Distortion with the 100mm E is negligible pincushion. Though not needed, for those who would like to set up a lens profile, a distortion correction of -1 in the lens corrections module fixes any and all distortion.
Now let’s hit the old recap.
Pros and Cons
- Solid build quality and functionality (smooth focus and aperture control) despite the plastic construction. A metal mount and filter threads are nice additions.
- Shootability is through the roof, almost as much so as the 50mm E
- Surprisingly useful 150mm equivalent field of view on APS-C with good depth of field control (200mm long telephoto on m4/3)
- Useably sharp wide open, with a contrasty and tack-sharp peak at f/8 all over the frame and at all focus distances. Detail at f/22 is still “okay”. Field curvature not a problem.
- Great background bokeh at all apertures, with out-of-focus highlights rendered great from f/2.8-5.6
- Purple fringing essentially gone at f/4. Other longitudinal chromatic aberrations are easy to remove.
- Negligible vignetting
- Negligible distortion
- As fast as any professional 70-200 f/2.8 zoom, but much lighter, cheaper, and compact. The 100mm probably has more light transmission too due to having fewer elements.
- Holds its own against the Nikon 105mm f/1.8 AI-s, see section below
- Plastic lenses do not have the same feel as a metal lens
- Sharpness in the corners doesn’t quite get up to the level of the center (almost there, though).
- Focus shift affects all apertures past f/2.8 (applies only to SLR shooters)
- Foreground bokeh at most apertures is busy, and out-of-focus highlights past f/5.6 become distracting
- Purple fringing wide open is bad and difficult to correct completely
- Flare is AWFUL, but not as bad as the 50mm E
- Manual focus, in case you had forgotten
BONUS: Compared to the 105mm f/1.8 AI-s
It has now come to the time of the review where I have to think about which lens I really like the most. Before I do that, let’s get some base spec comparisons out of the way. All stats will be presented with the Nikkor first, Series-E second:
Current Market Price: N-$500-550, E-$80-100
Max. Aperture: N-f/1.8, E-f/2.8
Weight: N-20 ounces, E-7.6 ounces
Dimensions: N-3.1×3.5 inches, E-2.25×2.5 inches
Close Focus: Same, about 1 meter
Build: N-All metal, E-Mostly (high-quality) plastic
The difference in depth of field from f/1.8 to f/2.8 goes from objects in the background being blurry at f/2.8…
…to being completely unrecognizable at /1.8:
But the big surprise comes at sharpness at f/2.8, here in these 100% crops (I redid the 105mm tests with the better chart):
Sharpness between the two lenses is very much comparable. Contrast is noticeably better with the 105mm, and detail is a tad better as well, but the 100mm still looks great by comparison. However, the 105mm noticeably beats the 100mm at f/4, peaking in both contrast and sharpness by f/5.6. Here are two 100% crops at each respective lens’ optimum aperture:
At each lens’ optimum aperture, detail and contrast is tack-sharp. However, the edge (a small one at that) still goes to the 105mm in both contrast and sharpness. In real world shooting this would mean that a higher shutter speed can be achieved with a lower ISO at optimum aperture with the 105mm than the 100mm, key when adapting lenses with a camera without in-body image stabilization.
Other areas the 105mm performs much better in is flare control, smoother foreground bokeh, and the feel of shooting with a chunk of cold, hard metal.
As far as comparing these two lenses for which one is “better”? It’s a difficult proposition, to say the least. Whereas the 105mm f/1.8 has better mechanical/optical qualities in every regard (ranging from a little to a lot better), and has better depth of field control–the 100mm E holds its own with about ~85% of the performance of the Nikkor at 1/5th the price and about a 1/3rd the weight. Tack that onto the aforementioned higher shootability, and you do the math.
Taken by itself, the 100mm E is a stunning performer in nearly every respect. The only area the lens never excels in is in flare control, a problem that could possibly be mitigated by the use of a lens hood (though, that would take away much of the compactness of any kit). At about half the price of the comparable Nikkor version (105mm f/2.5 AI-s), and less than 1/5th the price of its suped-up bigger brother (105mm f/1.8 AI-s), the 100mm E is an affordable piece of kit which should belong in every photographers bag for another “go out there and shoot” lens just like the 50mm in the same series. If you want to get into the 150mm field of view for portraiture (see HERE for a great example) for APS-C cameras, or the 200mm long telephoto field of view on m4/3 cameras, head to your favorite online auction house and go for it!
Whew, you all still with me? That post sure was a dooesy. Hope it was informative and interesting, nonetheless. Comments and criticisms appreciated, and as always, have a great day guys and gals. :D