Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G ED IF AF-S VR Review


Nikon updates another classic. Did they get it right again?

 

Lens Formula
14 elements in 12 groups; 1 ED and 1 Nano crystal coated element.
Other Features
VRII, AF-S (internal, silent wave) focus.
Size and Weight
About 5 " long, 25.4 ounces (720g).
Price
US$899

 

The Basics

Things happen slowly in Nikkor-land. The 105mm Micro-Nikkor first appeared in 1984, was updated to autofocus in 1990, and got D-ness in 1993. Another thirteen years passed before Nikon finally revisited the design with digital and current technologies in mind, and this time they changed everything.

Yes, I mean everything.

While at the gross level (105mm, f/2.8, macro capability) it looks pretty much the same as its predecessor, the new design appears to be new in every respect. To wit:

  • A 14/12 element optical design replaces the old 10/9.
  • ED glass and nano-coating have been added.
  • AF-S focus motor was added.
  • VRII was added.
  • The focal length versus magnification points seem to have changed a bit, too.

In short, throw out everything you knew about the old lens (which was a superb performer optically), and start over.

On a film body of FX bodies such as the D3, the field of view is 19.4 degrees horizontal, 13 degrees vertical, and 23.2 diagonal. On most current DSLRs with the reduced sensor size those numbers change to 12.8 degrees horizontal, 8.6 vertical, and 15.4 degrees diagonal. This would be considered a moderate telephoto on film bodies, and a slightly longish telephoto on DSLR bodies.

The new 105mm Micro-Nikkor, like the old, gets to 1:1 (and does so without any visible lens extension). The closest focusing distance is 1 foot (0.314m). Since the lens has a 62mm filter size, Nikon's 5T and 6T close-up lenses fit nicely onto this lens, which, together, will get you down to a 9.6" (24.3cm) focus distance (note that this puts your subject within 4" of the front of the lens, though.

As with all AF-S and VR lenses, only the most recent Nikon bodies are fully compatible:

  • Full compatibility: D40, D40x, D50, D70, D70s, D80, D100, D200, D1 series, D2 series, N65, N75, N80, F100, F5, and F6
  • AF-S but no VR: N70, N90, N90s, F4
  • No AF-S and no VR: all film bodies older than N90 (e.g. N8008, N6006), plus the N50, N55, and N60 bodies.

Handling

This is a somewhat bulky lens for its short length, but not in such a way that it becomes an issue. The lens barrel flares out quickly from the mounting flange to a wider size that stays constant for the rest of its length. The focus collar at the front is quite wide and has a very nice feel for an AF lens, making it easy to either tweak the AF or manually focus the lens.

On the left side of the lens (from the camera back) are three switches:

  • M/A - M: Controls whether the lens is in autofocus mode with manual override (M/A) or manual focus only mode (M).
  • Full - Infinity to 0.5m: Controls whether the lens will focus throughout its range (Full) or only in the "far" range (Inf-0.5m).
  • VR On -- VR Off: Turns the vibration reduction system on (On) and off (Off).

The focus limiting (second switch) isn't exactly what I want. I'd prefer a three-way option that also allowed me hold focus only in the "macro zone." In practice, I didn't find this to be limiting (pardon the pun), but still, I think there was a minor focus performance gain to be had that Nikon ignored. I suspect that Nikon simply thinks that you should use manual focus for macro. As people tend to use this lens either for real macro work or as a moderate telephoto, and we can only set AF to optimize for one of those aspects, it seems incomplete, though. The choice of 1.6 feet (0.5m) for near cutoff also seems a little close, but perhaps Nikon knows something about timing needs for moving internal focus elements and this is indeed the "sweet spot."

VR aficionados may note the lack of a second switch (used for Active versus Normal VR). VR doesn't always require it, as the basic VR system recognizes the type of motion automatically. VR shouldn't be used when on a locked down tripod, and remember that there are constraints on VR (AF-ON doesn't trigger it, and it is inactive while internal flashes are recycling). Panning detection is also done automatically. In short, your only choice is to turn VR on or off, and other than one caveat, that's a pretty simple decision.

Oh, you want to know about that caveat, do you? The exact words in the Nikon manual say "As the reproduction ratio increases from 1/30x [sic], the effects of vibration reduction gradually decrease." In other literature, Nikon has flat out said to turn off VR for macro use. What's the real answer? The manual is correct, basically. The closer you focus, the less VR has an impact on the final image. At 1:1 (the closest focus distance), it may not impart any benefit (it didn't seem to in the testing conditions I could create). So do you turn VR off when working in macro? If you're pressed up towards the limits of focus, I'd say yes--you're wasting battery life and potentially making it more difficult to hit a focus point. But if you're focused out beyond two or three feet (~.7m+), it probably makes sense to leave it on, as you'll get some benefit (though not the four stops Nikon claims for the system unless you're focusing far further out into the scene).

The lens does have one DOF marking on it (for f/32!). The manual cops out on the subject: "so little is in focus that it may be better to check the depth of field table." Right. Sorry, Nikon (and Canon and others who are skimping on DOF markings on lenses), but you can do better than that.

On the plus side, besides the focus markings, the lens has reproduction markings. If you needed to shoot something 1:2 or 1:5, you can simple set that mark on the focus scale and then move the camera forward and backward until the subject is in focus. A nice touch.

The focus ring rotation goes quite some distance: from near focus to infinity is a turn of almost 270 degrees. That usually involves moving my hand position to do manually, but on the other hand it shows just how flexible the focus point placement can be with this lens: it's almost like having one of the old manual focus lenses back, as you actually have the ability to turn the ring in ways to move the focus point by very small increments. That's very useful for macro work, and even useful when the lens is being used for general purposes.

One final bit about handling: without the HB-38 hood in place, the front element is very much vulnerable, as the curve at the center comes awful close to the edge point of the filter rings. Unlike the 60mm, there's no clear indent back to the front element from the rings. Use the hood or risk hitting things with the front element when in macro mode.

This lens is solidly built and feels good in the hand, but it'll make your camera bit front heavy if mounted on something light like the D50. You get a big, deep lens hood with the lens, as well as the usual pinch-removal cap. You also get a carrying pouch.

Performance

Short version: exactly what you expect. Good optically, fast focusing, and the VR works quite well at normal focusing distances.

Let me step away for a moment and address a question that I keep getting. One person expressed it like this: "when are you going to take Nikon to task for this being a variable aperture lens?"

I have news for you: all of the fixed focal length Micro-Nikkors aren't actually fixed focal length. In order to keep from being enormously long when focused at 1:1 magnification, Nikon (as well as many other macro makers) plays with the optical formula in order to keep from having an ever telescoping lens barrel. In macro work, you wouldn't want that, anyway, as a lens barrel that telescoped significantly to get to 1:1 would reduce working distance and potentially start hitting things in your scene at close working distances. Thus, at 1:1, this lens becomes about f/4.8 and does not extend even a millimeter. The aperture loss is actually a bit less dramatic at lower magnifications and the non-extension is very much welcome for macro use.

Autofocus is very fast and secure at normal focus distances, but a bit jittery at macro distances. I don't see that as a problem, frankly. At macro distances you should be focusing manually and have the camera on a secure platform if you want precise focus. The lens is certainly usable in autofocus at 1:1, but you're asking an awful lot of any focus system to get precise focus at that level of close up. You'd better not have a moving subject or any wind in the scene, and the camera itself better be on a support system that simply doesn't move.

As I've already noted, the VR works perfectly fine at normal focus distances, but its performance degrades as you move very close to your subject. This, coupled with the AF jitter at really close distances, will almost compel you to go manual to get consistent results. I don't find that to be a problem. Macro work is precise and slow if you're doing it right. On the other hand, VR did seem to help improve results even in some moderately close macro work (1:3 or so), so I probably wouldn't turn it off until you're truly pushing the limits of the lens' focus or on a tripod.

Linear distortion is next to non-existent, measuring perhaps .3% (pincushion) in my testing. Safely ignored.

On the digital bodies I didn't see any vignetting (there might be some on a film body, but I didn't do a full set of tests with film using this lens; I didn't see anything significant in cursory examination of slides).

Optically, this lens did a bit less well than I expected. But I expected perfect, because the predecessor was wickedly sharp from center to corner across the full frame, even wide open. This iteration has a teeny bit of edge softness wide open, and that is completely gone by f/8. In the central area, it's very sharp right up until diffraction starts to rear its head. At the far edges wide open, the results are very good, perhaps even excellent, but don't quite match the center. Frankly, with both telephoto and macro lenses in natural landscapes, I prefer a little bit of softness towards the edges (those that are doing flat field copying work, such as art reproduction, might disagree). Overall, I don't rank the corner softness as being worth worrying about, though as I said, I was expecting perfect.

While the edges wide open may have a hint of softness to them, what isn't present is chromatic aberration. This lens seems to be spectacularly free of that pesky problem at all apertures and across the entire width.

Finally, the nine-diaphragm aperture blade makes for very good bokeh through most of the aperture range. What do I mean by most? Well, my sample seems to have a single blade that sticks slightly into the "circle" at about f/5.6, and at f/32 the ring is a little misshapen. But at the other apertures the circle is amazingly good for being made up of straight blades. I'd characterize the bokeh as good throughout, but just a little variable. Wide open, it's about as good as you get from a lens (see above photo), and the mid-range apertures are also quite good. It's just those two "bumps" that keep me from giving it a 100% endorsement.

Additional note: a lot of users of the previous version of this lens ask if they should sell their old one and buy the new. In a word, no. At least not if you're using the lens for macro work. If you're using it for regular telephoto work, then you have to judge whether the AF-S and VR are more useful than the very slight loss in optical quality in the new lens. The old lens was better optically than the new by a very slight margin.

Drawbacks

  • VR degrades with focus distance. If you were expecting VR hand holding at 1:1 you'll be disappointed.
  • Limited Focus Range Option. You can keep the lens from going into close focus, but you can't keep the lens from looking for long focus distances.

Positives

  • Nice performance overall. Personally, I find the lens everything I need at this focal length. The tiny bit of softness in the corners disappears quickly as you stop down, and isn't an issue for me to begin with. But no real distortion, chromatic aberration, or vignetting make up for what little shortcoming it does have. Fast AF response.
  • Solid build. Hefty without being troublesome. Big, excellent hood. Great focus ring and markings.

Bonus Coverage: Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Di

I've also been using a Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Di, the "classic" moderate macro lens for those on a limited budget. I'll cut to the chase: if you can give up the VR and AF-S and need to save money, the Tamron is the lens to get. I've tried pretty much everything in this range, and though the Tamron isn't a fast focusing lens, it is optically superb.

The longer version: 10/9 element construction with a 1 foot (.3m) close focus distance (sounds a bit like the old 105mm Micro-Nikkor!). The overall size is a bit smaller in both dimensions, and it takes 55mm filters as a result. The Tamron also weighs in at only 405g. The lens has an aperture ring (which would have to be locked at f/32 for most modern Nikon bodies). Note the huge indent to the front lens element (above photo): you still get a big hood with this lens, so loss of contrast from side lighting just ain't gonna happen.

Optically, this lens may match the Nikkor in this review in every respect, if not exceed it a bit in the corners wide open. But it focuses more slowly, hunts a bit more on AF at closer distances, doesn't have VR, and extends significantly in length during focus (almost two inches from infinity to 1:1). That last bit is the primary thing that bothers me about this lens, by the way--I don't like significant extension at the tight working distances of macro. A full/limit switch helps with the focus speed at normal distances. Manual focus is achieved by a pulling the focus ring backwards out of the AF position--you'll either like that or hate it. Personally, I like it. The build quality is less robust than the Nikkor, and has much more of a plastic feel. Still, it takes very nice images.

The big difference is this: for $400 less money, you give up VR, focus speed, and a bit of build quality from the Nikon 105mm. That's about it. The Tamron 90mm is the poor man's mid-range macro.

(No birds or insects were harmed in the creation of this review...)

 
Quick Evaluation

Highly recommended
; a great moderate macro performer gets a useful makeover.

features
performance
build
value*

*See the Bonus Coverage at the end of the main article for the reason why.


Table of Contents
Some Other Info

Initial review: 8/21/2006
Minor correction/comment: 1/22/2007
Older version comment: 8/15/2007
Added FX reference: 1/29/2008

Is the older version better?
A lot of people have written that the older (either AI-S or AF-D versions of the lens) are better optically. Maybe. For close-up work, I'd judge the older versions slightly better, and certainly the longer focus ring throw of the AI-S version is useful in macro work. Also, chromatic aberration seems a bit better controlled on the older versions. But I've not found enough optical difference to really worry about. The new VR version is a sharp, excellent lens overall, and the much faster autofocus and VR capabilities make it more useful for general use.


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