We’re back with another noteworthy lens, and this one’s a real legend for Nikon photographers of a certain age. Yes, if you were shooting film during the 1960s or in any of the subsequent three decades, you’ll likely have heard of this lens, owned this lens, loved this lens, or coveted this lens. It’s Nikon’s Nikkor 105mm F/2.5, and it’s one of the best mid-telephoto and portrait lenses in the world.
Sound hyperbolic? I don’t blame you for thinking so. But it’s the truth. This is a lens that found a home in nearly every professional Nikon photographer’s bag for close to fifty years. Steve McCurry used it to shoot what is arguably one of the most recognizable images of the 20th century. His shot, Afghan Girl, was famously featured as the cover image on the June 1985 issue of National Geographic Magazine.
That’s right. This lens is pretty much famous.
So let’s take a closer look. What is it about this lens that makes photographers gaze longingly through the mists of time? Why is it so spectacular? And how is it suited to today’s era of mirror-less cameras and DSLRs?
I’ll spare our good readers the rather boring story of how I managed to find this lens in the musty basement of a New England saltbox. I’ll skip the part where an ancient, craggy man told me of his outlandish, 1960s era adventures with a Nikon F SLR, and the way he almost forcibly demanded that I buy the Nikkor in question. And I think I should also pass over the part where I purchased the lens for a single dollar bill.
Instead, let’s just get to the review.
Build quality is simply stunning. Many old-timey shooters cite the 105/2.5 as the lens that finally gave Nikkor a reputation for making world-class lenses, and when holding it in the hand it’s tough to argue otherwise. From the milled mount to the glorious chunk of glass that is the front element, every part of the lens has been designed and built to an impeccable standard. I don’t want to keep yammering on about it, so just trust me. In all of its various iterations, the 105/2.5 is a gorgeous piece of work.
But what do I mean by “various iterations”? Well, in its 40-plus years of continued production the 105/2.5 saw quite a few revisions. That might throw some would-be owners into a tailspin of uncertainty and confusion. Don’t let it. Every version of the 105/2.5 makes amazing images, there are just a handful of small, specific differences that may determine which version you choose to buy.
To start, let’s talk about compatibility of Pre-AI, AI and AIs lenses with various camera setups. If you’re unsure of the fundamental differences between Pre-AI, AI, and AIs lenses, a little reading will help.
The condensed version goes something like this: Nikon’s F mount has been in continuous production since it was introduced with the original F in 1959. As camera technology changed and improved, rather than scrap the F mount and start over with an entirely new mount, Nikon continually updated its F mount. While newer F mount lenses worked best with newer F mount cameras, the retention of the basic mount meant there would always be backward and forward compatibility (with some minor caveats). To illustrate the point, just last year we were able to easily use a Nikkor lens from 1980 on one of the newest Nikon DSLRs, the D610. That’s pretty unique in the world of photography, and it’s super-nice of Nikon to respect their customers and their legacy in our current era of toss-away tech.
As it pertains to the 105/2.5 the compatibility question surrounding Pre-AI, AI, and AIs lenses isn’t as scary as it might at first seem. The 105/2.5 was offered in all three configurations, so with minimal thought we’re able to quickly suss out which lens is right for any specific application. If you’re shooting a Nikon DSLR or a Nikon film SLR made after 1977 it’s best to hunt for an AI or AIs version, as this will allow full functionality with your machine. If you’re shooting a Nikon SLR made prior to 1977 you can include Pre-AI versions in your search. These older models tend to be less expensive, which is helpful to those on a budget, and in the case of the Nikkor 105, they’re just as capable as their newer descendants.
Compatibility issues melt away instantly when shooting today’s crop of mirror-less cameras. Mounted via an adapter to a mirror-less camera, all these lenses will be functionally indistinguishable. If you’re one of the many mirror-less lovers who can’t get enough of legacy glass (and we don’t blame you), simply find the model you like best at the best available price, mount it, and shoot.
More than just mount compatibility, there were myriad other changes implemented throughout the lifecycle of the 105/2.5. The most notable of these occurred in the 1970s, when the lens underwent its first and only optical redesign. This began with the implementation of multi-coating. On older style lenses this was designated by the letter “C” following “Nikkor-P”. Later AI and AIs lenses would drop the indicator, as advanced Nikkor coatings had become standard across the range. This change helped improve color balance, reduced flares and ghosting, and quelled chromatic aberration.
The next big change came when the lens’ optical formula switched from a Sonnar-type consisting of five elements in three groups, to a Xenotar-type consisting of five elements in four groups. This helped correct a number of undesirable optical aberrations including spherical aberration and coma.
I’d understand if some readers assumed, given these last few paragraphs, that the Pre-AI version is to be avoided. On paper, it would appear that way. But it’s just not the case. While the 105/2.5 was indeed improved over time, I’d like to make it clear that the older version is in no way sub-standard. Yes, even with its older optical formula stemming from the pre-NISC era, the original 105/2.5 is among the best mid-telephotos in the world. Is it better than the AI and AIs versions? No, but it’s quite possibly better than anything else on offer.
But why is it so amazing? Because it feels incredible and makes gorgeous images.
Usability is excellent. The lens is perfectly balanced on a mirror-less camera or vintage film machine alike. In both Pre-AI and AIs versions, it’s weighty without being heavy (though later versions are heavier). Nikon managed to keep things exceptionally compact. When focused to infinity, it’s nearly as snub-nosed as certain 50mm lenses I’ve used. That’s pretty good.
Manual focus lenses need to feel truly fantastic when you spin that ring, and the 105 does not disappoint. Its focus throw is long and smooth, with the scalloped aluminum focus ring of the Pre-AI version being especially delightful to the touch. The rubberized focus ring of later models is perfectly acceptable as well, and some shooters will surely prefer it over the metal version (especially in cold climates). Focus distance is indicated in feet and meters, with minimum focus resolving at 3.5 feet. A focus scale is also included, allowing zone focusing when the situation demands.
The aperture ring controls six blades in the earlier version, seven in the later version, from F/2.5 down to F/22 (F/32 in some models). All versions click with the mechanical crispness that so many lenses strive for, yet fail to achieve. There’s a delightful precision to the actuation as the aperture ring slots into its detents. These solid clicks serve as a constant reminder that we’re shooting one of the finest lenses of the film era.
And while the stellar touch and exceptional build quality are great, it’d all be for naught if the lens made crummy pictures. Thankfully the Nikkor 105mm F/2.5’s reputation is well-deserved. This is the kind of lens that makes effortlessly dreamy images every time the shutter’s released, without question, but it’s difficult to pinpoint what makes this lens so incredible. Yes, it’s sharper than a Ginsu knife, can isolate subjects better than a supermax prison guard, and renders colors more beautifully than… than something that makes beautiful colors. I’ve run out of metaphors. It makes gorgeous colors. And I suppose it’s the combination of these superlatives that make the lens so legendary for vintage shooters. A no-compromise situation is rare in vintage photography, so when we find a lens that offers exceptional bokeh, sharpness, color, and contrast, all in a gorgeous physical package, that’s when the magic happens.
Shooting wide open let’s in enough light for relatively easy low-light shooting. While it’s not the fastest aperture in the world, F/2.5 is certainly quite good for a lens of this focal length. Natural and available light portraiture is no problem, and trying out some Golden Hour shots with a backlit subject are a must for any owner of this Nikkor.
Sharpness is exceptional, even shot wide open, though the corners of the frame do naturally fall off a bit. This is to be expected, and the later model 105/2.5s will resolve a bit better in the corners. Shooting at F/4 through F/8 yields shots that are as sharp as any I’ve seen from a vintage lens, with softness likely being the result of imprecise manual focusing rather than a fault of the lens.
With a full-frame camera, details come through in unbelievable clarity and depth-of-field falls away in an organic, gradual way that’s impossible to replicate with lesser lenses on smaller sensors. Subject isolation for portraiture is fantastic. Headshots are a particular strength, and shooting wide open creates some really respectable bokeh. While the quality of the blur is a subjective assessment, I think you’ll agree; this lens makes some dreamy blobs of blur. When stopped down the highlights can get a little too hexagonal with the Pre-AI version, so it’s difficult to call it perfect. Later models help keep those balls a bit more round. Color rendition is just amazing. The lens creates stunning colors with exceptional tonality right out of the camera. Play around a bit in post-processing and there’s no limit to the beautifully saturated images that a good photographer can make with this lens.
In normal shooting situations the lens will not produce double-lines, flares, or ghosts. It just won’t happen. Nikon built a retractable lens hood into the later versions of the 105/2.5. Earlier models used a snap-on or screw-on lens hood. That said, you won’t need it. In order to produce a flare I had to point the lens directly into the sun and fire away. And even then, the flares were well-handled.
The lens can show a proclivity for light fall-off (vignetting) when shot wide open. Stop it down and it resolves by F/5.6. For those who need to shoot wide open without light fall-off, try using the lens on a digital camera and correcting in post-processing. Doing so is easy and quick. For film users, the only way to mitigate the vignetting is to stop the aperture down a bit. If these film shooters are looking for subject isolation but can’t stand the vignetting, fear not; shooting at F/4 and even F/5.6 still yields remarkably shallow depth-of-field with close-up subjects.
Another option is to use the vignetting to your advantage. Frame a subject in the center of the shot and allow the fall-off to direct the viewer’s eye.
And if I’m really searching for another issue, I can find one with the Pre-AI version when I really scrutinize it against the newer lenses. While I stand by my claim that the Pre-AI version is a phenomenal lens, there’s no denying that the newer versions do a better job at controlling chromatic aberration (color-fringing). With Pre-AI models, shooting high contrast situations can certainly result in purple nonsense at the points of contrast, as seen in the shot below (in the water surrounding Cooper’s nose).
But that’s about it for worries. Aside from these small issues, shooting the Nikkor 105mm F/2.5 is nothing but pure pleasure. It’s a well-designed, well-made piece of glass that countless professional shooters relied upon for years. Back then, it earned its place in the annals of Nikon lore, and as the shooters of today rediscover the joys of legacy lenses and manual focus, it seems the 105/2.5 may have yet another chance to impress.
It’s a lens from which I expected little. An odd focal length, a not-so-fast aperture, and a $1.00 price tag. On the insistence of a stranger, I gave it a shot. After just a few sessions, it’s clear that I’ll never part with it. If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know, I’m not sure what will.