Nikon Nikkor 105mm F/2.5 – Nikon’s Most Famous Portrait Lens

Nikon Nikkor 105mm F/2.5 – Nikon’s Most Famous Portrait Lens

2200 1238 James Tocchio

We’re back with another noteworthy lens, and this one’s a real legend for Nikon photographers of a certain age. 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, you say? I don’t blame you. 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 105mm 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 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 you 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 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 focus on the lens.

Build quality is simply stunning. Many old-timey shooters cite the 105/2.5 as the lens that definitively secured Nikon’s reputation for making world-class lenses, and when holding it in the hand it’s easy to see why. From the milled mount to the glorious chunk of glass that is the front element, every part of the lens has been designed and assembled to an impeccable standard. I don’t want to keep yammering on about it, so trust me. In all of its various iterations, the 105/2.5 is a gorgeous piece of work.

I say “various iterations” because in its forty-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.

lenses

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). This retention of a common mount (from the manual focus days right up to yesterday) is 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, or a body that controls aperture selection, like the FA, 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.

There are special circumstances within that very general framework, of course. The Nikon Nikkormat EL, for example, can use pre-AI or AI lenses. If you’re looking for a 105 and need some help, ask in the comments below. One of the CP dudes or a friendly reader will surely get back to you.

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.

In addition to mount evolution, there were myriad other changes implemented throughout the lens’ lifecycle. 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, the older version is in no way sub-standard. 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 better than its contemporary competition.

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 some 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. But the Nikkor 105mm F/2.5 is the kind of lens that makes effortlessly dreamy images every time the shutter’s released.

No problem.

Images from this lens are sharper than a Ginsu knife, with incredible subject isolation and beautifully rendered colors. This combination of superlatives create a no-compromise situation that’s really rare in vintage photography. 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.

Nikon Nikkor 105 F 2.5 Lens Review 12

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 35mm film or full-frame digital camera, details come through with unbelievable clarity and depth-of-field falls away in an organic, gradual way that’s impossible to replicate with lesser lenses on smaller formats. 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.

The longer-than-standard focal length makes interesting images, especially when used by a photographer who’s more accustomed to 35mm or 50mm shooting. In landscapes and cityscapes especially, the lens produces a compressing effect in which the background and foreground are rendered as if the distances between them is lessened. In city streets especially, the effect is interesting.

In normal shooting situations the lens won’t produce 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 does show a proclivity for light fall-off (vignetting) when shot wide open. Stop it down and this 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 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.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of CP. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic cameras and the most advanced digital machines. In addition to his work on CP, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
35 comments
  • Nice review

  • The Ai version is always in my bag.

  • Randle P. McMurphy March 29, 2016 at 11:34 am

    After sold my old Nikon film gear 15 years ago I came to a point
    were I didn´t take any private pictures any more.
    No idea how to explain – the digital workflow at work was nothing
    I wanted to continue in my free time.
    That changed of of the sudden while running into a cheap offer at Ebay
    were I bought a Nikon F4 for almost nothing.
    First I remembered was I didn´t want any autofocus lens for that and so
    I was looking for some of these old-fasioned Nikkor AI glas.
    Second “accident” happened while winning a auction with some Nikon FE
    and some AI`d Nikkors build in 1959 (Nikkor Q 3,5/135 and Nikkor H 2,0/50).
    Never touched anything that compared to this amazing craftmanship !
    Next hunt was on for the legendary Nikkor 2,5/105 and now I own
    the first Nikkor P 2,5/105 Sonnar type and Nikkor P 2,5/105 Gauss type too.
    The Gauss type offers a much better grip and seems to handle easier to focus
    in situations were you have to be fast or miss the picture.
    What to say – it´s a joy to take pictures with this sort of glass and the way
    of rendering is just outstanding !
    I prefer them over any autofocus lens Nikon build after that period.

    If you ever have the chance to test a Nikkor AIs 2,0/135 at a Nikon FX camera
    just try and be sure you hide your wallet – for me it´s the best of the best portrait
    lens Nikon ever build and a joy to use it on location or street shots !

    • I’m happy to hear you’ve found some gear that helps you really love shooting again!

      • Randle P. McMurphy March 30, 2016 at 7:49 am

        Thank you James,
        I am not the opinion that better gear makes better pictures
        but catching a image is also catching a memorie
        and your equipment and the joy to use it is always a part of it.

  • Thanks for the review of this outstanding lens. My dad gave me his AI-S version in 1999 when I switched from the old Canon FD system to Nikon. Although I love my other Nikkor lenses, this is my favorite. I believe it can compete favorably with much more expensive lenses from the likes of Leitz, Zeiss, etc. I use it not only for portraits but for landscapes as well. It does color in a way that is natural but not clinical. it has its own indescribable “look.” This my forever lens.

  • I just want to add that this lens also does not have excessive contrast, which helps a lot with our sometimes harsh New Mexico light.

  • In the mid 90’s I needed a new SLR and bought a Nikon FM2n with 50mm Series E lens at a camera show. Someone encouraged me to buy a 105mm f2.5 AI lens from the same dealer, which I did. For some reason I never used it. I recently dug it out and shot a couple of test rolls with it. I can’t believe I neglected it so long, it really is a fantastic lens. I can’t get over how sharp it is. It’s great for portraits but I’ve also been using it to shoot stone carvings on buildings that are too high up to shoot with 35 or 50mm lens. I’ve started taking it to baseball games. One great thing about using this lens on FM2n is the FM2n’s maximum shutter speed of 1/4000 means you shoot wide open even with 400 ASA film. I’m looking forward to shooting a lot more with it in the future.

  • Ah, the Nikkor 105. Sweet lens! Another trip down memory lane. Back in the film days when I walked to school in the snow and bought candy for a nickel, we didn’t use zooms for some reason. The standard PJ gear was the 105/2.5 paired with the 180/2.8, another awesome lens.

  • James, you are an amazing writer. Before stumbling across your article, I just purchased the scalloped 105mm 2.5 lens. I am eager to mount it to the body of my Nikon D3300.

  • Oh James! You just gave me the motivation to hunt this lens and complete my Nikon set up… I’m already in love with the Nikkor 50/1.2, love the Nikkor 28/2.8, still waiting for the Meyer-Görlitz Trioplan 35+/3.5 and Oprema Jena 75/1.5 to arrive, but in all this line-up a 105mm would perfectly have it’s place!! Either on my Nikon FE (if I’m not wrong it’s one of the few cameras taking pre-AI, AI and AIs lenses?) or the FM3a…. GAS attack, ha ha ha!! 🙂 🙂

    • You’re going to love it, and I can’t wait to see what you do with it. Your IG feed is always a treat.

      • Thanks! 🙂 As soon as I find a good deal I’ll try it out! What price range for an AI or AIs would you consider to be a reasonable one?

        • AI, anything under $200 is fair. We have a few like new examples of the AIs version with the built in lens hood listed in the shop right now.

          • Ordered the one you had!! And with the Patreon discount it brings the AIs lens under 200$! 😉 Can’t wait to try it out 🙂

  • Love you page!! I just purchase the Nikon Nikkor 105 F2.5 Telephoto Lens Non Ai (Fmount)- F32 version, Got the F mount adapter for my Sony A7rii, and if what I read is correct, the optics are going to be on par with the AI or AiS? Really excited to try this lens!! I am hoping I don’t have to do any modifications to the lens to mount it to the F mount adapter, if so please let me know, thanks again!!!

    • You won’t have to modify the lens to adapt it to the Sony. Those adapters don’t have any indexing mechanisms, so you’re good! And yes, you’ll love the image quality. In any form the 105mm is fantastic.

  • Thanks so much for the quick response, I m hooked on Legacy glass! , have the Helios 44, Canon Fd 28 2.8 , Nikkor 50 1.4 Ai and Vivitar 70-150 3.8. I find myself really loving the vintage glass, and using my native af glass a lot less!

  • Nice article, James. I love my AI 105. But I’d like to remind you that retention of a common mount is not exclusive to Nikon. Pentax continues using their K-mount, even on their newest FF DSLR. With an adaptor, one can mount numerous M42 screw-mount lenses, as well. On digital bodies, it’s simple to get an exposure reading–just set the aperture, press the green button and shoot. I love shooting those old Taks on digital and film.

  • The Nikon 105mm F2.5 is a superb lens for portraiture. I use the pre-AI version on a plain prism F and an F2 Photomic. This earlier version, like the rarer 85mm f1.8 H, can be utilised two ways: shot stopped down, say f4-5.6, its sharp. Wide open there’s a softening that’s particularly good with ladies over 40. I have experimented with pieces of old tights and stockings fitted to the lens hood with elastic bands. Also, borrowing a trick from the Leitz 90mm F2.2 Thambar lens of pre-WW2, I’ve glued a small coin to the centre of a skylight filter and this too achieves a softening of the image. Nikon produced an eyewateringly expensive 135mm F2 DC lens that could have the sharpness reduced. My two tricks saved me the expense and enlivened my portraiture no-end!

  • i like these revieuws thanks a lot iam not much of a writter i can only say from haveing a 105 mm f2,5 ai and ai its stil very good in the digital time

  • Dear James, my father owns a Nikkor 105mm f2.5 bought in 1982 with a seiral number in the 930xxx. I own a simple Canon DSLR (a 100d, maybe going to upgrade to a 80D, but still no ful lframe). Do you know if these can be compatible? THis lense looks terrybly exiting! He also got a Nikon FE serie E 50mm f1.8 – it also looks good.

    Please tell me these are compatible with an adaptor?? Thanks!!

  • Thank you Sir, for a great write up on a great lens. I have recently developed a bit of an obsession regarding early Nikkors, in the past few weeks i have aquired 3 versions of the 105(2.5) an Ais , a “P-C scolloped focus ring version, and a 1959 10.5cm version, the 10.5 version having the sonnar configuration, all 3 perform superbly on the “DF” my favourite being the 10.5, its sharp right to the edges , and seems to work better with my useage. i am now on a quest for the 135mm nikkors from the same period , its simply astounding how after all these years these lenses perform so well on modern digital cameras. They may be edged out on ultimate performance by the latest crop of lenses from Nikon ,but in my view , they make up for minor discrepencies in character, and modern lenses dont seem to render colours so well, maybe all the corrections and coatings to correct flare and CA,s Coma etc , sacrifices the colours a bit .

  • Adriel Putra Winata April 21, 2018 at 12:05 am

    My dad gave me this lens (the Ai-S version) several years ago, when I started to shoot with my D7100. It turns out that this is the only thing he didn’t sell when making a jump from film to digital era. When I first asked him why he never sold this lens many years ago when he bought a D70s, he said that this lens is too good to be sold. I, of course, didn’t quite understand him at first since D70s cannot electronically set up a manual non cpu lens like this one. But, since a D7100 can setup non cpu lens with full matrix metering, I went on to try this lens. Being the second lens in the 100mm range I got, I was skeptical at first. But man, I was wrong. This lens shot wide open is dreamy and produced beautiful bokeh. Like, I can’t believe that I was holding a lens that is even older than me many many years and can still produce beautiful images.

    I’m not a professional photographer. I’m even still in high school right now. I took many photos during school events, and this lens really really shines. I think this lens is what sparked my interest in prime lenses and 100mm range lenses. I now own 3 lenses in the 100mm range, one of them being this lens and the other 105mm f2 DC.

    Can’t wait to mount this lens on my dad’s D810, or on a D500 someday when I already have enough money to buy that camera 🙂

  • The Nikkor 2,5/105 AIs was one of my first lenses I bought for my Nikon F3 HP (used) in a local shop here.
    I always had the discussion with a colleague who prefers the Nikkor AF 1,8/85 (which really is a fine lens) !
    Nowadays I have a little the tendency to pick a 135mm or a ultrafast 50mm for my portrait work…..

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of CP. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic cameras and the most advanced digital machines. In addition to his work on CP, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio