Legendary items. Twists and curves in history make some items rise to the top and come out as legends. It is not said, though, that legends are always what we want them to be. For plenty of legendary items, it’s true when they say “don’t meet your childhood heroes”.
So when you read up on something that is repeatedly crowned a legend, it’s a good moment to become a bit a cynic. Is it really? People easily praise what others praise, to avoid looking like a fool. So at times, all the praise is nothing but an echo-chamber. How can you determine what’s what?
Try for yourself. With that in mind, the lens in question was my first manual focus Nikkor. The Nikkor 105mm f/2.5. Is it legend because of folklore, or does it merit its status? Was it really as good as I kept reading everywhere?
TL;DR: No. It’s even better, and deserves to be called a legend.
A minuscule bit of history
I’m not going to tell the history of this lens. Nikon themselves did so in a much nicer way that I’d ever could in their series A thousand and one nights.
There are many who state this lens was part of the reason why Nikon rose to become one of the large Japanese manufacterers. I don’t know; I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a lens that drove their sales, but I have no data and no recollection as I wasn’t born yet.
And the Afghan Girl photo would be made with it. Yes, that extremely famous portrait. But the qualities of that portrait are down to the skills of Steve McCurry, not the lens he used. So while it showcases what can be done with the lens when used by somebody who knows what he’s doing, let’s not credit the lens with this success.
If you want more details on this lens, this article has a very complete overview of the changes over time, and this article is a well-written review. I just try to summarise my (subjective) findings on this lens. It’s not a real review, more a declaration of love.
My experiences with the legend
My personal history: I’ve had two of these. One, as mentioned above, was the very first manual focus Nikkor I laid my hands on. It is a relatively early sample, dating back to probably 1973 or 1974 somewhere: a Nikkor-P 105mm f/2.5, which has been AI-converted. The other, bought a lot later out of curiosity, was a much later AiS model, with built-in hood (shown above). Both are the same optical design, both behaving very similar but with some subtle differences in detail.
Out of these two, I still have the older one.
How good is it?
I know I said it was very good already. But what is ‘good’? Which definition do we want to apply here? Is it a good autofocus lens? No, it’s horrible at autofocus. How good is it at f/1.4? Unmeasurably poor. Does it have enough resolution for today’s sensor? Mostly yes, actually. On a D810, which isn’t exactly low-res.
That last question is apparently very, very important to many. I never quite got the importance of it beyond academic discussion. But, to those who think a lens has no bigger task than resolving pixels, the 105mm f/2.5 has no significant issues there. At least, eye-balling results and pixelpeeping results, I fail to see shortcomings. As I said before, I cannot be bothered to shoot test charts.
Good, seriously now. Yes, you will have focus this lens manually, and yes, there are lenses out there with a wider aperture that may rival many of the optical qualities of this lens. But this lens is pretty small, sturdy built, uses 52mm filters, and above all: it is very affordable. It can be found second-hand at very reasonable prices. There are plenty around, so it’s not a search for a needle in the haystack either. It’s accessible, durable, very high quality. It’s not some exotic.
One of the key strengths of this lens is the way it renders. In my view, there are a couple aspects to that.
The older lenses typically aren’t as contrasty as modern lenses, and tend to give slightly more muted colours, where modern lenses offer a more saturated result. For portraits, high contrast and saturated colours wouldn’t be high on my agenda. So strike 1 for the older lens, but of course it’s a matter of taste.
A second aspect is the way it renders the out of focus parts (yes, I know it’s called ‘bokeh’, but that term is used wrong too often, so I stick with more verbose description). In general, the out of focus parts are pretty smooth, but there are lenses who are a bit better. Instead, there is a very nice, smooth transition from in-focus to out-of-focus; the fall-off is very gradual. In the right light, this gives a real sense of depth to the image, and it avoids any kind of nervousness in the image.
Plus, it performs very well from wide open on, and this is somewhat surprising for a lens this age. Typically, older lenses have optical issues wide open (which aren’t bad necessarily, by the way), but this one delivers straight up. Consider this photo below, and a crop from the very same photo. This is shot at f/2.5 with a Nikon D810. If this isn’t enough detail, you’ve got other problems.
In short: it captures plenty of detail, delivers smooth backgrounds with a very pleasant gradual drop-off from sharp to smooth. Optically, it leaves very little to be desired.
Add to that the relative small size and fair prices. What’s not to like?
For those using it with film, it shares the filtersize (52mm) with most Nikkor prime lenses of that age, which is convenient too.
So why did I have two of them? And when I decided to sell one, what drove the decision?
The reason to get the second one was again curiosity. The older sample has older coatings. The newer coatings should improve contrast at wide apertures, and help with glare and flare. So, would newer be better?
In a number of ways, the newer lens indeed showed slightly better contrast at the widest apertures, and handled strong lightsources in the frame marginally better. The built-in hood is a very nice feature, something I’d wish more lenses would have. The clip-on hood on the old lens is nowhere near as userfriendly. And the newer lens is lighter, yet still feels perfectly solid.
In a number of ways, the newer lens wasn’t better, though. It looks like the shape of the aperture blades is different. I know: this sentence is over-the-top geeky. But it showed in photos shot at medium apertures (f/4-5.6). In the out-of-focus parts, the hexagonal shape of the aperture was more visible. As a result, the out-of-focus part looks a bit less silky-smooth. Second, the focus-ring had less resistance and less throw, so focussing precisely was harder. Tactile, the older lens is nicer to use.
Yes, I am nitpicking in a very nerdy way. But I bought the second one to compare, and this is what I found between my two samples.
So, coming to selling one, it wasn’t that hard a choice for me. The older one is just smoother – to operate, and in the results. The newer one was sold, and pretty much at the same price I bought it for. These lenses keep their value.
But…..it’s a portrait lens
Ah, yes. It is a portrait lens. Yet, every image used in this article does not really qualify as a portrait at all. For simple reasons: I’m a poor people-photographer. Really no good at it. Plus, the portraits I do have tend to be personal photos, not for the whole of the internet to enjoy. So no portraits here.
It’s not like you can only shoot portraits with a portrait lens anyway. The focal length is pretty versatile, a short telelens, good for details, for creating more intimate scenes with a clear point of attention.
As for the classical perception that 85mm is the perfect focal length for portraits: it’s a preference, not a rule. Some people prefer a tad wider, some a bit longer. I definitely belong to those who prefer a bit longer than 85mm focal length.
This is a lens I don’t want to be without. While I have an extremely nice macro-lens with near identical specifications, there is something about this lens that makes me use it more often than that macro-lens.
It’s a legendary lens, not by virtue of being exclusive, elusive, highly particular or downright unobtainable. It’s a legend for performance, usability and dependability. Maybe not the sexiest of adjectives, but the performance lifts it above the crowd. Get one.