Lenses (Manual Focus)

Nikkor Optics + Specialized

For nature hikes, I much prefer to use manual-focus glass for wide- and mid-range use. Classic Nikkor MF lenses, with well-dampened focus rings, create a more intimate photographic experience for me, and they (almost without exception) offer superior build quality, focus throw, and results, than do most of today’s plasticky AF lenses.

Why not Zeiss lenses? Fair question. While I appreciate the legendary “Zeiss quality,” the trouble is Zeiss’ finest optics are too heavy and too fragile for serious nature hikes in rough terrain. For this reason, I got rid of all of my Zeiss glass, save one.  I do use the legendary Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 APO Lanthar Macro, manufactured by Cosina (who makes all of Zeiss’ lenses).

Other than that, classic Nikkor AI-S glass offer me the best of all possible worlds. Rugged, yet small, they fit conveniently into pouches, they are extremely light, and finally Nikkor AI-S lenses reverse for extreme macro use, giving me twice the options in each tiny, high-quality package. As far as I am concerned, Nikkor AI-S lenses offer the best bang-for-the-buck. As with my AF lenses, I subscribe to “The Rule of Doubles” with my MF glass as well. Here are the primary focal lengths I utilize:

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

Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 AI-S

As sharp as sharp gets ...

This lens is from a Nikon era gone by … or is it? Nope, Nikon still makes this macro-imaging gem, which is bitingly-sharp, across the frame, with astounding color rendition. Perhaps the best commentary as to this lens’ sharpness comes from Coin Imaging.com, who reports, “This lens shows some of the highest sharpness and resolution numbers in the 1:4 to 1:1 magnification range that I have ever measured.” I use this lens a lot for flowers and small animals on nature hikes—as well as for evidentiary photography as an investigator.

See @ Nikon: Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 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 the 28mm AI-S in Nikon’s Thousand and One Nights series. The MFD of this lens is only 8.4″ (21 cm) and its reproduction ratio is ~1:4. Its moderately-wide angle, plus its close approach, 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 full reverse-macro blog post for more information on using this great little lens for extreme 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 landscape images at this focal length to any other. As with the 28mm, above, this lens is also 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 alone; this lens (because of its 62mm front filter) requires an additional BR-5 Adapter in order to reverse-mount. (Check out my full reverse-macro blog post 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


Sometimes I don’t feel like bringing all of my prime lenses with me in the field. This happens quite often, actually, especially in local hikes where I have already photographed most of the areas with my best prime lenses. When this his happens, the following Nikkor AI-S manual zoom lenses cover the range of my primes:

ZOOM-NIKKOR 28-85 f/3.5~4.5 AI-S

The Jack of All Trades

This lens is the winner of The Ultimate Super-Macro Field Lens showdown in my dedicated blog post, because of how versatile it is. Properly-oriented, it allows me to get wide shots, to standard prime, up to 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. As with the other AI-S lenses, I use the BR-3 Adapter to act as a lens hood when doing so. Like the 20mm AI-S, this one also requires the additional BR-5 Adapter in order to reverse-mount. What makes this lens so great, is it can handle just about anything in the field all by itself. When I only want to bring one lens to do everything, this is the lens I bring.

Find on Ebay: Zoom-Nikkor 28-85mm f/3.5~4.5 AI-S

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

The Versatile, Lightweight Dream

Similar to the lens above, the Nikkor 28-50mm AI-S is very versatile. While not quite as versatile as the lens above, it is lighter and has better ergonomics. As with the lens above, when I implement the Nikon BR-2A Adapter, this zoom lens reverses to achieve between 1x to 2.4x 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. I tend to use this for field investigations for my job, due to the small size/high flexibility.

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