The Nikon 105mm f2.5
I had a blast yesterday. I went to a big hotel in Austin, set up cool lights in a large room and made a big window with lots of greenery outside my background. Over the course of the day I made portraits of 16 people that will be used in the marketing of a legal services client. We've just now uploaded a web gallery to the client for their selection so I won't be posting any of the images here yet but I was so happy with the performance of one piece of gear that I wanted to write is blog post and talk about it.
I've really wanted to put the Nikon 105mm f2.5 lens I have through it's paces. How to best show off what the lens can do? Well, how about putting it on a high resolution body like a Nikon D810, sticking it on a good tripod and shooting in a mostly electronic flash lit environment (with plenty of backlighting aimed back toward camera) and then shooting this 1977 (or older) lens at or very near wide open. To make sure we're getting the highest performance for the whole chain we used the camera set to ISO 64 and carefully metered. The lens was focuses via live view at nearly 100% magnification.
The chanting around the photographic playground is that the new generation of high resolution cameras (36 to 50+ megapixels) will be a challenge to all but the greatest (read: most expensive) lenses. A second refrain of the wisdom of the web is that only the newest lenses, optimized for digital will play at the rarified levels required. The implication is that if one isn't shooting with a Zeiss Otus lens or a Sigma Art lens or one of the ruinously expensive Nikon lenses that the new cameras will handily exceed the capabilities of that crappy, last decade glass-tastrophy you've tried to cobble onto the front of the camera. Older lenses? We're counseled not to even consider them.
I came home and shoved the raw files into the computing machine and started looking at the files. Yes, there were some where the clients moved after I made my exacting focus but I was awake enough yesterday to realize what was happening in the moment and then re-check. We've got 25 or 30 keepers for each sitter. What made me sit up and take notice is that when I clicked onto a 100% view the level of detail was hanging in there even at the absolute pixel level. While the images don't have that astringent, clinical feeling of sharpness they have a warm, rounded but complete feeling of sharpness. The nicest thing is that there were no surprises. No soft spots. No veiling flare or chromatic aberration rearing its ugly, jittery outlines. Just wonderful performance is a classic way.
Many of my favorites were shot at f2.8 which is 1/3 of a stop from down open. Now, you know that most lenses clean up their acts by f 11 or so but a thirty-something year old lens wide open? And perfectly behaved? If you are shooting Nikon cameras and you haven't grabbed one of these lenses from KEH, or some other dealer in used gear, you might want to consider it. I paid a little over $100 for a clean copy.
But making this all about sharpness makes the evaluation of the lens incomplete. Another valuable attribute of the lens vis-a-vis more modern super lenses is the contrast rendering of the lens which is a bit lower by comparison. Just like sharpening where the current methodology encourages shooting at a lower sharpness setting and the doing sharpening in post an argument could be well made that having a lower overall contrast range delivers a host of benefits including: more dynamic range, more open shadows and a smoother transition through the tonal scale. While people demanding ultimate acutance might not want this a portrait photographer will find that the lower contrast in the highlights helps to diminish burned out highlights on skin tones and provides a wider range of tonal separations on skin tone.
Right now this lens, the Nikon 105mm f2.5 ais is my current, favorite portrait lens when used on a full frame camera. Not surprisingly, when I look at files from my time shooting with the Canon 1DS mk2 and the 5Dk2 the Canon 100mm f2.0 was my "go to" portrait lens....
We all have favorites. And it's okay for the favorites to change from time to time but I would be interested in hearing from people who've uncovered other obvious gems like the 105mm f2.5. Would you share your lucky discoveries in the comments? Thanks!