Lenses (Manual Focus)

Nikkor Optics + Specialized

I am gradually becoming somewhat of a ‘lensman,’ as vintage manual focus lenses are my preference. They truly create a more intimate photographic experience, they (almost without exception) have a far more satisfying build quality and focus throw, and manual lenses generally produce 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 too heavy for casual hiking. For this reason, I much prefer bringing classic Nikkor AI-S MF glass with me in the field. Nikkor AI-S lenses are, by far, the best value for the money, offering excellent quality, while being very light, and they are extremely versatile to boot. My Zeiss lenses I either use solo (for pleasure) or for my ‘day job’ profession as a casualty investigator. I actually use both Nikkor and Zeiss lenses as an investigator for forensic imagery (though I use AF lenses for surveillance).

Collecting vintage manual glass is fast becoming a hobby of mine, and this will probably be the fastest-growing “gear page” I have, among the 12 separate entries. Here are the 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 is being replaced by the “Milvus” version, which is ugly IMO, has a rubber focus ring, and a plastic lens hood. Optically, however, the two are identical and the all-metal construction of the Classic design will stand the test of time. I purchased this Classic Zeiss lens as an investment into a great era gone by. Optically, it was 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 micro-contrast and fine rendering of detail. Said the late Michael Reichmann, “It’s the finest lens that I’ve ever experienced.” It is a treat to use and I recommend it highly. However, this competes with the lens above (which has the benefit of AF), and the lens below (which has the benefit of 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 macro choice in the field. This lens is over 15 years old, it is a collector’s item, and it is highly-sought-after by macro connoisseurs who desire the very best in macro lens-rendering characteristics. The Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar is coveted for its much more subtle color rendering, its very low chromatic aberration, and for producing a “3D-effect,” etc. 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. It also makes a great short-telephoto. This sublime 1:1 macro lens, manufactured by Cosina (who also makes Zeiss Otus lenses) has an interesting history behind it. If you’re serious about your macro work, I highly-recommend this lens over today’s plasticky commercial macro options.

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

Nikkor AI-S 50mm f/1.2

Nikon's Jewel

The Nikkor AI-S 50mm f/1.2 is a throwback to Nikon’s film days. It’s Nikon’s fastest lens (f/1.2) and is known for being soft in the corners but razor-sharp in the center. It actually out-performs every other modern Nikon 50mm AF lens. While some people complain that it’s soft in the corners, this is actually a desirable characteristic for portrait or (when reversed) macro. Gradual blurring toward the edges is only bad for landscapes; for macro and portraiture this is an enhancement to the bokeh effect. Indeed, the late Michael Reichmann called this lens “Nikon’s Jewell” for this reason and Photography Life did as well. When I implement the BR-2A Adapter, this lens reverses to achieve 1.1x magnification as a macro lens when reversed on my D810/D850, and it achieves ~1.7x magnification when reversed on my D500 (due to the crop factor). I use the 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 @ Nikon: Nikkor AI-S 50mm f/1.2