Once you've gone Nikon-Retro what is your second lens choice? What would you pair with your D700?

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 is
strong 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....


  1. Nikon 55mm f/2.8 AI-s Micro-Nikkor.

  2. That lens is almost enough to get me to buy a D700. I find the 100-105 focal length to be much more useful, for me, than 135. In anticipation of your next post on lenses for the D700 I would suggest that if one wanted to be a "purist" and only shoot fixed focal length lenses, the 105 and a 35 would cover a multitude of sins. This of course means that I probably need to shoot for a while with only a 50 :-).

  3. One of the lenses that made Nikon's bones. You really won't find a bad one. I use a 10.5cm (circa 1960, Pat. Pending) with a mirrorless camera. Wunnerful. But ya know, I'd still like one of those last gen AIS 105/2.5s - just cuz. Always wished my 150 Sonnar was a stop faster, but it is what it was. Oh, right - I'm one of those guys mentioned a few days ago who learned photography on color trans film.

    Great perspective Kirk.


  4. I still use my D700 that I bought new a few months after they came out, and I bought it with the 24-120.
    The second lens I fitted to the body was my old 105 f2.5, just to see if it actually worked.
    I was chuffed. I loved the look of that lens on film, and it's every bit as nice on the D700.
    I have since tried the 105 2.8 AF-S VR, but it is not just newer, it is also much larger and heavier. I gave that a miss.
    The 55 2.8 Micro is also a great lens for close up product shots, it that's your thing.
    Having never sold or given away any of my cameras or lenses means I get a head start on all the latecomers who start new trends ;)

  5. I'm a zoom guy, so I really don't identify with the love of prime lenses.
    But you said "I shoot with mine mostly at f4.0 to f5.6" which seems to
    put you right in the zoom range. Is the prime really that different?

  6. Front and/or back focus issues do occur with the 700 when one uses legacy manual focus lenses; had one, sent it back. Presume it’s a sample variation in allowable tolerances. But shimming to get it fixed not my preference; decided I much preferred an EVF. That issue, plus the rather archaic rear screen that was not very handy to determine whether focus was actually correct drove the decision to bail out. BTW focus was dead on with the autofocus 50mm Nikkor I happened to have. Will see how the entrance of Nikon onto the mirrorless scene will churn the R&D of others, from m43 to MF. Once Nikon and Canon enter the fray, there should be some interesting consequences.

  7. My choice? The 28mm f2.8 pre AI. Razor sharp, pre focusses brilliantly. I used it for years with an F2, motor drive and a large Metz flash for functions and PR jobs - never let me down once. Nowadays, it's a great street/landscape option and never far from my list of go-tos.

    The pre-AI 50 f1.4 and/or 105 f2.5 might be equally good, but for me, the 28 just edges them.

  8. I have a fondness for Nikon AIS lenses from my Nikon FM days. I am not going back there with my 'new" D700 however.

    As the other poster said, I don't get that confidence in manual focus with the D700's rear screen when chimping, so its AF for me.

    You can get an 85mm 1.8G or 85mm 1.4D for the same cash. My money would go there.

    Right now, however, I am looking at wide angles. Interested to know how Kirk is getting on with that Tokina wide zoom...

  9. As a more general lens I always recommend the 50 mm f1.8 (or equivalent) in any system. They are usually well made and low cost. And they're great for grab shots of kids indoors.

  10. A few years back when I decided to try full frame I bought a used D800 and two lenses -- the 24-120 for a modern zoom and a 105 AIS because I had fond memories from the film days. I later picked up a 105 "micro", which is not as sweet as the AIS but does a great job for table-top product and still life.

    The 800 and 24-120 are long gone, but I kept both 105s -- just in case. They may come in handy since you have me scouting for D700 bodies.

    BTW, I have used the 105 lenses on a Sony A7r and it's not the same, not near as sweet. At least to my eye. Apparently Nikon has the secret sauce. If I live long enough to see a Nikon mirrorless maybe I'll try that.

  11. That is one rabbit hole down which I shall not plunge. I bought into Olympus M4/3 (clearance sale EPL1) when you first went to Marfa and points west in — what was it, 2009? Followed on to Panasonic in a limited way (clearance sale G5). Skipped the Sony eras, but bought an Olympus EM5.2 following your definitive review naming it the state of the art in photography, circa 2015. Caught up in the swell of Nikon nostalgia, I charged up the batteries for my daughter’s abandoned D5100 (replaced by a D750) mounted the 18-200 VRII, and stepped out into the heat. Back into the dresser drawer it went.

    I realize that’s not the kind of camera you’be been writing about but the size and weight aren’t that far off. It’s not in the mini-cam class of D3XXX and D5XXX which followed. So much for nostalgia. In your hands the D700 is the tool of an artist. In mine, anything even nearing that size and weight is a slippery, sweat-stained accident just waiting for its opportunity. And you have taught well the value of a decent EVF.

  12. I have no need to go retro as I shot with a D700 for 3 years and have a drive full of files.
    My 2 most used lenses were the 50 1.4G and a 70-300. It was a good camera but I wouldn't go back

  13. I my best cowboy voice/tang voice......That sure is a pretty lens you have there Mr. Tuck. Has it seen much action?? :)
    The 85 f2 Al works fine for me although I enjoy the 105 as well. I'd show you a image of my 85 but don't know how. Besides it's seen a lot of action, but it's my action and I love it.



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