Ahh…back to writing another lens review. It feels like it’s been ages since I wrote my last one back in January. Though I can attribute most of this delay to a lack of free time, another part of it is due to the fact that old man winter decided to hang on a little past his welcome this year. As a macro lens, the Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8 AI-s has a penchant for taking close-ups of flowers and what-not—with plant life just now starting to come back to life, the photographic subjects are slowly increasing.
But the neat thing about a macro lens is that they tend to be well-corrected at all focus distances. Combined with its fast f/2.8 maximum aperture, the 105mm micro might be a strong performer for landscapes, portraits, or even sports. The question is, can it deliver outside its forte of close-focusing? Let’s find out!
Full Name: Nikon Micro-Nikkor 105mm 1:2.8 AI-s
Dimensions: 3.29 inches/83.5mm in length, 2.62 inches/66.5mm in diameter, with a moderately heavy weight of 18.1 ounces/515 grams. This is 6 ounces/170 grams heavier than the camera itself, but most of the lens is the focus ring so it balances nicely in the left hand.
Close-Focus: marked at 1.34 feet/.41 meters. This produces a 1:2 magnification ratio (or, half life-size). By using the dedicated PN-11 extension tube, “true” macro can be obtained through a maximum 1:.88 magnification ratio (or, 1.14x life-size). This is very, very close. Use a tripod when shooting with the PN-11.
Average Online Price: $350 for mint, $200 for beater. Interestingly, Nikon still sells this lens brand new in 2013 for $800(!).
Miscellaneous: 7 straight-bladed aperture stopping down to f/32, Nikon’s Close Range Correction (CRC, or, floating elements), focus drag screw, reproduction ratio markings for both the “normal” lens and the lens with the PN-11 extension tube, depth-of-field markings for f/16 and f/32, infrared focusing dot, standard 52mm metal filter thread, HS-14 metal hood, metal mount
In typical list form, let’s take a look at my four pillars of shootability:
- Small size? Not exactly. Compared to other, faster 105mms, the 105mm micro is a bit longer, but less wide. Compared to the 100mm f/2.8 E, it’s pretty huge. Of course, none of those lenses focus as close as this macro, which gets even bigger as you approach macro focusing ranges. Don’t forget about the length added with the necessary hood.
- Light Weight? Strike two. With the hood the 105mm micro is even heavier than the 105mm f/1.8 AI-s. Again, all the extra glass and metal needed to extend the focus range adds to this lens.
- Smooth Operation? Absolutely! Though the focus is super damped, it also is buttery smooth throughout the range. The addition of a focus drag screw helps tremendously when on a tripod. This ensures the focus position doesn’t change when moving around the camera. As with most AI-s lenses, mounting is smooth and the aperture clicks into each stop with authority.
- Generally favorable optical performance? Quite more than “generally”. There isn’t much bad or even mediocre to say about the 105mm micro.
What can I say, I just love the 105mm focal length. The 105mm micro is the third prime I’ve used in this focal range, and in many ways it performs the best of the three. In terms of pure technical rendering, it wins hands down. Some odd bokeh at certain focus distances and a problem with flare keep it from true top-tier performance, but as a whole, the 105mm micro performs as a stunning macro and a great all-around telephoto at a surprisingly reasonable price.
Starting out with 100% center crops, I can see that this lens–like most every AI-s lens, suffers from spherical aberration wide-open. The lowered contrast and haze improves at f/4, but true gains in fine detail are apparent starting at f/5.6. For all practical purposes, f/5.6 provides plenty of detail. For those who are extremely picky, f/8 gives just a tad more detail and contrast, the former only visible at 300%. Important for macro shooters, diffraction noticeably sets in by around f/22, and at f/32 detail is truly soft and low-contrast. However, the depth-of-field advantages at these extremely small apertures may outweigh any sharpness concerns, so pick your poison. I personally never find myself going beyond f/16—since I do not have a ring-flash, subjects either move through crawling (bug) or swaying (wind). Now, onto the image peripheries.
What’s interesting to note about these 100% corner crops is how similar they are to to the center. Besides some exposure difference due to vignetting, corners look almost the same, peaking in detail and contrast again at f/8. If anything, corners are just a hair softer than the center, but it’s a difference that takes a lot of flipping back-and-forth at 300% magnification. At normal focus distances, the 105mm micro can truly be sharp corner-to-corner at f/8. Since f/8 also happens to provide a pretty good amount of depth-of-field at macro, this is even more of a good thing. With regards to field curvature, the 105mm micro—like many macro lenses—reproduces a completely flat field of focus. When I look back at my 100% center/corner crops, the respective opposite corners and centers were just as sharp. Refocusing was not needed. Finally, this lens exhibits very little, if any, focus shift. What little I could find happened in-between f/4 and f/5.6. Even then, the difference is minuscule.
Sharpness at Infinity
Though macro lenses are typically thought of for situations when close-focusing is required, many are well-corrected throughout their entire focus range. To assess sharpness at infinity, I shot this clocktower late in the day so heat distortion did not rob any sharpness:
The 105mm micro puts on a good show here at infinity. The detail is uniformly sharp at f/8 across the image frame—you can easily make out the cracks in the wood! As before, if you stare really hard you can see that the corners are still slightly less sharp than the centers. But even here at 100%, the difference is trivial. Speaking of trivial, the only difference here of f/5.6 from f/8 at infinity is the decreased visibility of the cracks in the wood.
Sharpness at Macro
As a macro lens, the 105mm micro is not only expected to focus close, but to also provide stunningly sharp images at high magnification. In short, it does not disappoint.
So what about “beyond” macro? In this lens’ case, that calls for use with the PN-11 extension tube. Trying to compare shots at different apertures is nothing but trouble—factors such as vibrations, wind, subject movement, and slight misfocus all increase in intensity the closer any lens is focused. When at 1:.88 magnification, simply getting a sharp shot is a challenge on its own. Intuitively, since the 105mm micro is designed to perform at least a little better at close-focusing ranges, it’s best to try to use it right at 1:.88 to counter-act the loss in sharpness from an extension tube.
The thing is, the lens is so sharp to begin with, any decrease in sharpness from the PN-11 is difficult to spot!
When talking of the 105mm micro’s ability to resolve fine detail at all focus distances, it’s a no-brainer to give it high regards. However, possibly due to Nikon’s use of CRC (floating elements), this macro lens has noticeably more microcontrast in the macro range. It’s difficult to really explain how, but images focused up-close simply have more of a 3-D “pop” that makes editing a lot easier (i.e. not much needed!).
Also, in case you weren’t keeping track, the optimum aperture across-the-frame and at all focus distances is f/8. An extremely consistent performance in this regard. However, since it helps to stop down even more than f/8 in many macro shots, an optimum aperture of f/11 could have been better. You’ll be hard pressed to see any real difference in detail between f/5.6 and f/8 at all focus distances; if you don’t have enough light, or need those shutter speeds faster, f/5.6 still gives you fantastic detail.
So the 105mm micro obviously excels in rendering detail, but does that come at a cost to smooth bokeh?
I had my doubts with the 105mm micro at first with regards to how it may render out-of-focus fore- and backgrounds. It has two things going against it: a 7-bladed aperture (the AI-s lenses with 9 blades produce buttery bokeh) and its extremely technical rendering (many times lenses either are sharp and contrasty or have character, rarely both). Thankfully, the 105mm micro’s bokeh is generally pleasing. Click below for a larger image. Best bokeh smoothness is obtained wide-open, where all foregrounds and backgrounds seem to melt away—though the close backgrounds (2nd from left) are a bit busy by comparison. At f/4, close foregrounds begin to exhibit doubling. As the lens is stopped down further, backgrounds continue to stay smooth while both foregrounds go through various stages of busyness. Strangely, near foreground bokeh (far right) is pretty smooth at f/16. Stopped down further, everything begins to get into relative focus.
However, unlike most of the other lenses I have tested, the 105mm micro focuses much closer than this bokeh test shows. It is here that bokeh smoothness really shines; not only are most objects thrown WAY out of focus, they are also rendered even better than in the test. However, it all depends on the magnification factor as to just how much smoothness there is. The bokeh around a 1-inch flower is vastly different than shooting a row of tulips. Rest assured, from 1:10 all the way down to 1:2 magnification (or 1:.88 via PN-11), the aim will be to figure out the best way to get your subject in focus away from all the bokeh, rather than it melting into the background itself!
When analyzing out-of-focus highlights, the 105mm micro performs well, but still a little weaker than what I was expecting from a fast telephoto lens. Wide-open, highlights have semi-defined rings depending on the intensity of the light. F/4 is extremely smooth in every regard, while the aperture shape becomes visible at f/5.6. Starting at f/8, artifacts begin to fill the highlight and get progressively busier as the lens is stopped down.
As mentioned above, the rendering of out-of-focus highlights is still dependent on the focus distance. The closer, the better. But focused far off, highlights can be very distracting:
It can really take some trial-and-error to find which aperture/focus distance combinations work the best for overall smooth bokeh. However, the good news is you’ll find a lot more instances of creamy bokeh than busy backgrounds with the 105mm micro.
With its maximum aperture starting at a moderately-fast f/2.8, and with no ED elements, I knew the 105mm micro would have some problems with at least purple fringing wide-open. I guessed right, unfortunately, but it isn’t as bad as it could be. To asses aberrations, I shot these branches against an overexposed sky (by 2 stops):
As expected, wide-open shows an abundance of purple fringing, about 10 pixels wide. The longitudinal chromatic aberrations in the out-of-focus areas (tinged in magenta and green) are also quite prevalent at f/2.8. This is rather difficult to remove even in Lightroom 4, as what gets left behind is a a grey haze where the fringing used to be. Already at f/4, a marked improvement in aberration control is visible; both fringing and other LoCAs have decreased to a correctable degree. By f/5.6, most of the out-of-focus LoCAs go away, and what little purple fringing is left (1-2 pixels) is trivial to correct. At f/8, all aberrations are under control without the need for any correction.
You may want to watch out for certain high-key situations where purple fringing may create an entire “haze” over a subject. In the example portrait below at f/4, the light fringing all over his jacket is essentially impossible to remove without severely compromising natural colors:
Though this lens is multi-coated, flare artifacts when a strong light source enters the image are very pronounced, with reflections in both directions. Veiling flare becomes a problem here at the same time (it can be partially mitigated with some adjustments to contrast, though). However, the very deep lens hood keeps the front element shielded from any stray light—thereby keeping flare reflections to a minimum with a light source outside the frame. The following was shot in black and white to so the bluish reflections could stand out from the blue sky.
With a maximum aperture of only f/2.8, the 105mm micro displays very little vignetting even wide open:
Typical of a telephoto prime, the 105mm micro exhibits zero distortion:
Since this lens does not suffer any distortion problems, it is a prime candidate for reproducing architectural details:
Let’s hit the old recap:
Pros and Cons
- Built just like all the other AI-s lenses—the tough and tight construction of the proverbial tank—and operates extremely well
- Manual focus is geared perfectly at all focus distances.
- Though a specialized lens, the 105mm micro can be highly shootable with excellent balance in the hand, see cons
- Fine detail is resolved spectacularly well across the frame from f/5.6-11 at all focus distances, and gains excellent microcontrast in the macro focusing range
- Mostly smooth bokeh in both foregrounds and backgrounds, with out-of-focus areas rendered particularly pleasing in the macro range
- Out-of-focus highlights are generally smooth at the larger apertures, see cons
- Manageable chromatic aberrations at f/4 and smaller, completely gone by f/8
- Negligible vignetting
- Zero distortion
- Close 1:2 magnification without the extension tube is perfect for many macro subjects, and is about the upper limit of hand-holding
- Extremely good value compared to modern offerings
- Heavier and longer compared even to faster telephotos of the same focal length
- Detail wide-open is hidden due to spherical aberration, diffraction a major issue at f/32
- Takes some trial-and-error to find combinations of aperture/focus distance to get smooth bokeh
- Out-of-focus highlights, though generally smooth, can get distracting from f/8 and up (again, it still depends on the focus distance)
- Heavy chromatic aberrations wide-open in high-contrast areas that are difficult to correct
- Veiling flare and element reflections an issue with a strong light source in the frame
- Heavily damped focus makes action photography more difficult
- The use of the PN-11 extension tube requires a tripod for accurate results
- Manual-focus, in case you had forgotten
The Bottom Line
As a lens I have used extensively over the past 6 months for everything from product shots to typical macro photography (flowers/bugs/etc.), landscapes to street photography, the 105mm micro is a lens that has always delivered critical results when I need it (f/8), and photographs with a noticeable character when I don’t (f/2.8-4). At about a third the cost of Nikon’s newest autofocus macro (with features that really only contribute more to general photography), the 105mm micro is a true bargain that combines high performance with a low cost of entry. I can’t recommend this lens any higher for anyone looking for a solid manual-focus macro lens.
It’s a shame there isn’t a lens out there that combines the speed of my 105mm f/1.8 with the close-focus and clinical sharpness of this macro. Oh wait, there totally is! Unfortunately, affording a beast like that will take selling off a lot of other lenses (and then some…), so for now, it’s still a dream to chase.
That’s all for this (long-overdue) review guys and gals. Thanks for dropping by! Schoolwork is ramping up in intensity these last couple weeks of class, so I won’t be able to review the 85mm f/1.4 AI-s for a while. As everything, in time…in time…