Lenses (Manual Focus)

Nikkor Optics + Specialized

I am gradually becoming somewhat of a lens connoisseur,  with vintage all-metal manual focus lenses fast becoming my preference. Classic MF lenses, with well-dampened focus rings, truly create a more intimate photographic experience, and they (almost without exception) offer superior build quality, focus throw, and results than do today’s plasticky AF lenses. In general, manual lenses bring with them the highest-quality optics (especially at mid-ranges).

While I appreciate the legendary “Zeiss quality” in many manual lenses; the trouble is their finest optics are often too heavy for casual hiking. [Bringing three 800-1000g (1.5 – 2 lb.) lenses in a pouch can be a drag.] For this reason, the classic Nikkor AI-S (and pre-AI) glass are often preferable in the field, especially because they also reverse for extreme macro. Nikkor AI-S lenses are, therefore, the best value for the money, offering excellent quality, while being very light, and with the versatility of being able to reverse to boot. However, I don’t like the rubber focus rings. My Voigtländer glass is essentially the same quality as my Zeiss glass, both brands being manufactured Cosina of Japan. However, Voigtländer lenses tend to be lighter and easier to carry—and thus offer the best of both worlds: quality, but not too heavy.

Collecting vintage manual glass has become a hobby of mine, and this will probably be the fastest-growing “gear page” I have as a result. While I appreciate that Nikon still makes AI-S lenses, my hope is (as Nikon’s new mantra appears to be raising the bar across the board) for Nikon to introduce a new line of MF lenses … bringing back the class of all-metal construction but with today’s modern optics. That said, here are the MF lenses I have thus far:

Zeiss 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar T* ZF.2

The Finest Short Telephoto Prime

This hefty gem one of the finest short-tele primes ever made, if not the finest. It is the classic old Zeiss design (all-metal/glass), with almost zero plastic components. This Classic Zeiss lens has now been replaced by the “Milvus” version, which is ugly IMO, has a rubber focus ring, as well as a plastic lens hood. Optically, however, the two are identical and the all-metal construction of this Classic design will stand the test of time. I purchased this Zeiss lens as an investment into a great era gone by. Optically, it remains the sharpest, cleanest-rendering lens of its time, with 270° of focus-throw for precision, and it still bests anything in its class today with its fine micro-contrast and rendering of detail. Said the late Michael Reichmann, “It’s the finest lens that I’ve ever experienced.” This lens is a treat to use and I recommend it highly. However, at 920 g (2 lb), it competes with the lens below (which has the benefit of being ½-lb lighter as well as a 1:1 macro reproduction ratio), so I don’t actually use the Zeiss that much. Fortunately, I have found that its greatest purpose, for me, to be either dedicated butterfly/flower photography, at greater than 1:4 (mostly for focus stacks @ f/2.0-f/4.0), or for portraiture. The Classic Zeiss 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar T* is a truly sublime choice for both.

Find on eBay: Zeiss 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar T* ZF.2

Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar Macro SL

The Connoisseur's Macro Lens

This is my go-to standard macro choice. This lens is over 15 years old, it is a collector’s item, and is highly-sought-after by macro connoisseurs who desire the very best in lens-rendering characteristics. The Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar is coveted for its subtle color rendering, its very low chromatic aberration, and for producing a “3D-effect” in comparison to modern macros. Its greatest use is for macro focus-stacking, because it has 620° of focus throw, which is more than triple the precision of today’s AF macro lenses. The Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 also makes a great short-telephoto. Manufactured by Cosina (who also makes Zeiss lenses), the “CV” (Cosina- Voigtländer) has an interesting history behind it. If you’re serious about your macro work, and especially if you like to stack in the field, I highly-recommend this lens over today’s commercial macro options.

Find on Ebay: Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 APO-Lanthar Macro

Voigtländer Nokton 58mm f/1.4 SL II S

Honoring Nikon's Pre-AI Lenses

The old Nikkor pre-AI lenses were Nikon’s best glass. Their all-metal, scalloped focus rings radiated class and quality. While I enjoy my Nikkor AI-S lenses, when Voigtländer came out with the Nokton 58mm, here was a chance to own a truly classy optic, with all the benefits of modern glass—and yet have an instrument made to the highest, old time Nikkor, all-metal standards. I therefore replaced my Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-S with the Nokton 58mm f/1.4 SL II S, which is possibly the best-value ~50mm-ish lens available today. Better still, with its Nikon-friendly 52mm front thread element, when I implement the Nikon BR-2A Adapter, this lens reverses to achieve ~1.1x magnification as a macro lens. I also use the Nikon BR-3 Adapter to act as a lens hood when doing so. (Check out my blog post on reverse-macro photography for more information on using this lens for macro work.)

See @ Voigtländer: Nokton 58mm f/1.4 SL II S

Zoom-Nikkor 28-50mm f/3.5 AI-S

The Ultimate Versatile Field Lens

This is the cheapest lens I own, in both price, quality images, and construction. That said, while it may not be the same quality as my others, it defines itself through versatility and by being light-weight. In fact,  I describe this lens as “The Ultimate Super-Macro Field Lens” in a dedicated blog post, because of how versatile this little lens is. While not the same exquisite quality as the others, it is more than acceptable, and I find myself grateful when I am going on an expedition and need to use my hands, for collecting, with photography as an afterthought. Properly-oriented, it allows me to get wide shots, to standard prime, and to a 1:4 macro—mode. Even better, when I implement the Nikon BR-2A Adapter, this zoom lens reverses to achieve between 1x to 3x magnification. I use the Nikon BR-3 Adapter acts as a lens hood when doing so. In short, this lens can handle just about anything in the field all by itself. True, when I need the very best images possible, then I don’t bring this optic. However, if I only want to bring one lens to do everything, this is the lens I bring.

Find on Ebay: Zoom-Nikkor 28-50mm f/3.5 AI-S

Nikkor AI-S 28mm f/2.8

The 'Approachable' Lens

There is a lot more to the Nikon AI-S f/2.8 28mm lens than meets the eye. It, too, is a throwback to Nikon’s film days—yet Nikon still makes them today. Not only are the optics as good as any modern lens, but what makes this lens so unique is how close you can get with it, properly-oriented, which is why Nikkor lensman, Kouichi Ohshita, wrote a passage about it in Nikon’s Thousand and One Nights series. The MFD is 8.4″ (21 cm) and its reproduction ratio is ~1:4. Its moderately-wide angle, plus its close approach, with the addition of its reproduction ratio create an intimacy that few lenses can rival. Further, at only 8 oz (250 g), the 28mm AI-S is a joy to carry compared to other options at this focal length. Even better, when I implement the Nikon BR-2A Adapter, this lens reverses to achieve 2.1x magnification. I use the Nikon BR-3 Adapter acts as a lens hood when doing so. (Check out my blog post on reverse-macro photography for more information on using this lens for macro work.)

See @ Nikon: Nikkor AI-S 28mm f/2.8

Nikkor AI-S 20mm f/2.8

The Most Useful Wide I Have

It is impossible to describe how valuable this little lens is. As with the above-two lenses, this is also a throwback to Nikon’s film days. It is very similar to the 28mm, but just a little wider (for when I need that), and just a little closer when reverse-mounted as a macro (when I need that). I prefer the landscape images at this focal length to any other. As with the 28mm, above, it too is very light which makes it a great hiking companion compared to some of the behemoth wides out there today. Even better, when I implement the BR-2A Adapter, this lens reverses to achieve 3.4x magnification as a macro lens. As with the other AI-S primes, I use the BR-3 Adapter to act as a lens hood when doing so. However, where the above 2 lenses can adapt to reverse-macro imagery with just these two adapters, this one (because of its 62mm front filter) requires the additional BR-5 Adapter in order to reverse-mount. (Check out my blog post on reverse-macro photography for more information on using this lens for macro work.)

See @ Nikon: Nikkor AI-S 20mm f/2.8

Zeiss Distagon T* 15mm f/2.8 ZF.2

The Finest Ultra-Wide-Angle Prime

This is one of the finest ultra-wide lenses ever made, if not the finest. It is the classic old Zeiss design (all-metal/glass), with almost zero plastic components. This version has been replaced by the “Milvus” version, which is ugly IMO, has a rubber focus ring, and a plastic lens hood. I purchased this Classic Zeiss lens as an investment into a great era gone by. Optically, it was the sharpest, cleanest-rendering wide-angle lens, for years, and it still bests most lenses ultra-wides today, particularly in resolution and micro-contrast. The 15mm focal length is wider than I normally prefer to go, but I do use it for my work a lot, photographing interior/exterior scenes of accidents and/or crimes. It also offers the occasional advantage as a landscape lens, esp. since it offers a 9.9″ close-focusing distance. The quality of rendering and the incredible resistance to flare (for a lens this wide) put the Zeiss Distagon T* 15mm in a league of its own.

Find on eBay: Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2