A Fairly Modern Copy of the Timeless Nikon 105mm f2.5 ai Lens.
Here is where I'll lose a huge swath of photographers whose focus is on landscapes and street photographer versus portraiture and detail work. If you are one of the lucky VSL reader who just got your hands on a new/old Nikon D700 (or D3, D3x or D800 of any flavor....) you might be wondering about which lenses to pair with your new and wonderful camera. Especially if the Nikon world is new to you...
Yesterday I made the argument that the first lens most people should consider would be the 24-120mm f4.0 VR zoom lens. It's wide focal length range, high sharpness over most of the frame, and its very good image stabilization make it a really good all around choice for such a wide variety of situations that I think it doesn't require much deep thought to appreciate its value. But what comes next?
Well, a prudent business person could probably stop at the 24-120mm zoom and get most of his or her work done without having to invest another cent in lenses but I know most of us aren't wired specifically for practicality; and that the lure of the lenses isstrong with most of us (myself included). It's a hold over from our training in the craft of photography to consider that there is one perfect tool for just about every assignment. And there is the pervasive propaganda that tells us a "true professional" should own all the focal lengths available, from wide-to-telephoto, just in case one client in a hundred need that 8mm fisheye perspective (that we never do....).
So, even if we have a trinity of zoom lenses that cover us from 14mm to 200mm we seem to always rush to "backfill" crucial focal lengths with single focal length prime lenses. I'm not going to fight the idea that some specialty glass is a good match for some people's chosen niche in professional photography but I do have opinions about which ones I acquire.
If I owned nothing in Nikon other than the D700 and the 24-120mm zoom lens then my very next purchase would be a very clean, last generation (there have been at least five) Ais version, Nikon 105mm f2.5 lens. It's the ultimate Nikon classic and is responsible for more great (and famous) portraits done in the 1960's-1990's than any other slightly long focal length (with the exception, maybe, of the Hasselblad 150mm f4.0 Sonnar).
At a little over double the focal length of a normal lens the 105mm is just about the perfect perspective for medium-to-tight headshots and for any image that would benefit from a bit of compression. It's also a master lens when it comes to controlling out of focus backgrounds while delivering delicious bokeh.
On a D800 you can notice that the 105 is just a tad soft wide open but on the lower resolution D700 even f2.5 is a perfectly usable aperture setting. I shoot with mine mostly at f4.0 to f5.6, where it is very, very sharp, and when using the focus confirmation dot I've had no problems with front or back focus.
The last two 105mm f2.5 copies I've picked up were the most recent, Ais version and cost me $125 and $160. There are much newer Nikon lenses that are in this focal length and are autofocus. I've also purchased a good 105mm f2.8 AFD macro lens but the regular 105mm seems like it's more of a match for portraits. It's a little lower in contrast which is more flattering for most subjects. But make no mistake, shot at f4.0 and contrast-adjusted in post processing the f2.5 model can deliver bitingly sharp results. I recommend it both for its optical performance and its low price on the used market.
As someone pointed out earlier, all of these older Nikon manual focus lenses were built to professional standards. Just because they lack convenience features (AF) is no reason to overlook them as part of a low cost/high performance kit.
Of course none of this appreciation for portrait lengths will resonate with wide angle shooters but it's where my interests lie.
I have a third recommendation which is actually a wide angle focal length but I'm saving that for the next post. Go buy a 105mm f2.5 Ais. You won't be sorry, If you are I'll be interested in taking it off your hands. I can never have too many....
Just saw the prices for good Ais versions. Settling around $250. Still worth every penny....