2.20.2015

Meanwhile, back on the factory floor...

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.


Right....

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!

20 comments:

Mike said...

Old lenses can be pretty darn good! I'm shooting a Minolta 90mm M-Rokkor (Leica M mount) on a Sony A7II and it's amazing wide open. Got it for just $215 on a KEH sale!

sbimson said...

Canon 50mm 1.5 LTM in M-mount is a tiny and brilliant little lens. It's built like a gem and while soft wide open it really sharpens up by f2. They can be had for about $350.

Ray said...

I received the 50mm f/1.4 AIS and 105mm f/2.5 AIS as gifts from my cousin who was semi pro in the 80s. The 50mm I loved - there was something about the colours and it's softer rendering wide open.

The 105mm I tried to like after reading and heArimg so many stories (color/out of focus rendering) about it but it never grew on me. For portraits I'm married to the 85mm f/1.4D on my D800

Is it the longer length or something else that draws you to the 105mm over the 85mm?

James Weekes said...

That lens is the only real reason that I miss having a Nikon. The one I had had the old metallic focusing collar and a noticeable bubble in the front element. It was a dream.

I agree that starting with less "snappy contrast" is better. Very hard to remove contrast, very easy to add.

Anonymous said...

Nikon's 85 mm f/1.8 AF-D lens (not the current generation AF-S but the one before). I've had mine for many, many years - and it'd be the very last lens I would ever sell or give up.
Ken

Anonymous said...

I find it a whole lot of fun to search out and try some of the old classics... I think my favorite so far is the Micro Nikkor 55mm 2.8... what a beautiful rendering! I love it! So far the one 105 that I have tried (one of the older sonnar types) wasn't terribly impressive. But, I want to find an ais version with the better coatings and especially for the built in hood. I really enjoy your posts, Kirk, as no doubt so many others do. Thanks!

Racecar said...

My favourite portrait lens is the tried-and-true Canon 100mm f/2.0. For group shots, it's the lowly Canon 50mm f/1.8. Both are very well behaved and produce beautifully sharp images right out of the box. Recently, when I pulled the 50mm out of the bag and attached it to the camera, the guy sincerely asked me "Where is the lens?" It was so tiny. I suppose the more ostentatious 70mm-200mm f/2.8 I had been using was what he expected. But actually the 50mm produced some of the best group photos that he chose to keep. As I recall, I only used the 70-200 for one sequence of shots, then stuck it back in the bag. I gravitated more toward the 100mm f/2.0 and the 50mm f/1.8 during this particular shoot. Not very impressive looking lenses, and rather inexpensive, but real workhorses.

amolitor said...

Nikon's cheapest cameras have the same pixel pitch as the D800 models. And yet, oddly, you don't need a magic lens on them...

Also, at a raw resolution level, even moderate film from say 1990 had more "pixels" than either. And you don't need magic lenses on my FE2 either.

Paul Perton said...

Nikon AI 50 f1.4, 28 f2.8 and my own 105 f2.5. All bought 2nd hand, all delivering fantastic modelling, contrast and tones on my D700 and 800e. I keep looking at the doubtless fantastic 24-70 in my cupboard and wishing I could work up the same level of enthusiasm.

John F. Opie said...

I picked up an ancient and battered Leica 180 f 3.4 APO Telyt-R for less than $200 off eBay. Oh my. Sharp and works beautifully on my EM with focus peaking.

Hugh said...

Olympus OM Zuiko manual 21mm, 24mm, 28mm and 50mm macro lenses on a 5D3.

All of them combined cheaper and better than the L zoom they replaced.

Also 50mm, 105mm and 200 mm Pentax Super Multicoated Takumars on the same camera.. and on the OMD EM5 as well.

TMJ said...

85mm F1.9 Pentax Super-Takumar, M42mm.

Anonymous said...

I have a 85 2.0 AI. Tested vs an 85 1.8 AF-D it is just as sharp if not sharper, once you stop it down a stop. It has a kind smoother sharpness that doesn't look harsh at 100 percent. This was tested on a 12 mp APS-C Nikon D300. It was also clearly sharper in my tests vs a 20 1.7 m43 (which usually gets very good result in various lens tests) shot with a Panasonic GF.
The 85 2.0 is a beautifully compact and light weight lens. It was a workhorse for me when I was a young PJ in the 80s. Some samples has a faint squeaking sound when focusing. Look out for those. Otherwise a wonderful feeling of mechanical precision.
BTW I also have the 105 2.5 - a legend.
PerL

Mike Peters said...

My favorite oldie but goodies, some that I've had for ages, and a few new to me are...

Nikon 55 3.5 chrome Micro which is far sharper than anything I've used in the macro range.

Nikon 105 2.5 P lense, older than yours, a different lens formula, and still great

Canon FD 135 f2, which I've been using on my m4/3 cameras for a few years is amazing wide open and bitingly sharp at 2.5 and smaller, and gives me a 270mm equivalent

And before I got native lenses for my m4/3 cameras, I shot with FD Canon 24 f2 and 50 1.4 lenses which were also really great.

All of these lenses are like you say, sharp but not crunchy. I wonder if the software works behind the scenes to make native lenses more crunchy than they really are, even in raw. Hard to tell these days, but older lenses seem different.

Alan Fairley said...

I have stopped lugging my 24-70mm on the D800E and am shooting the 35mm f2 AIS and 28mm f2 AIS. I love the way the two wides render, I don't know how to describe it except to say they add some kind of aura to the images, plus they resolve plenty of detail. Focus can be a little tricky to absolutely nail - that sensor is a lot less forgiving than Kodacrome 64 was - so I often will refocus and shoot a second frame on static subjects.

Gary said...

The 55/2.8 micro nikkor- the close focus is nice but I really like it because of its handling -- easy to grip the focus ring and adjust the aperture because of its extra length compared to other 50/55 lenses-- and its deeply recessed front element (the front of the lens becomes the BEST LENS HOOD EVER). The contrast and color and sharpened are outstanding on my D700 and D4.

Tom Williams said...

I have the 105mm f/2.5 Ai and still use it on my D800. It's great. And, if I'm in a situation where I'm going to focus manually anyway, I much prefer a non-AF lens because of the lack of slop in the focusing ring.

Anonymous said...

This Df rocks:

28/2.8 AIS, one of the best manual Nikon wide angles

45p Yes, the tiny pancake introduced with the FM3a. Manual focus but with a chip, a century old Tessar design, yet somehow interesting.

105/2.5, but of course

Full frame, all manual focus on a camera you can use both hands at the same time to do things with. All the joy of driving a stick shift.

Steve Mack said...

Nikon E Series 50mm f/1.8. It's a light plastic lens (HORRORS!), but everywhere I look online gives it top reviews. I've got one on a Nikon FM2n, and this kit looks to be a winner for me. (I only ever use 50mm lenses anyway, but...)

With best regards,

Stephen

Mitch said...

Fascinating post. A lifetime ago in 1980 I started my career with a Nikon 85/2 and 35/2. And just a couple of days ago I began seeking out a used 85/2 as I was interested, for some B+W work, just what you are describing: a smoothness and, well, kindness of tonal range.

Huh. What's old is new again.