Lenses

Nikkor Optics + Specialized

Nikkor optics are the finest in the world for wildlife photography. While I am collecting a stable of lenses, for various purposes, when I am hiking in the field I prefer to carry 2 cameras and between 0 and 4 additional lenses, based on what I am after, and due to weight considerations. For my field lens choices, I operate by The Rule of Doubles, selecting prime focal lengths roughly-double to the focal length of the lens before it. (E.g., 15mm, 28mm, 50mm, 100mm, etc.) Please note, I do not use zooms. I use primes, only, because they render and perform better than zooms. Others may disagree, but that is my credo.

The only auto-focus lens I own is the 300mm f/2.8 VR II. Every other lens I own is manual focus. (I will create a blog article explaining why at a later date.) Also, while I appreciate Zeiss quality, their optics are too heavy for casual hiking, and I much prefer to bring classic Nikkor AI-S MF glass. Nikkor AI-S lenses are, by far, the best value for the money, offering excellent quality, being light weight, and being extremely versatile to boot. My Zeiss lenses I either use solo or for my ‘day job’ profession as a casualty investigator.

That said, this is an interesting time, as Nikon is currently updating all of its ‘G’ auto-focus lenses (mechanical diaphragm) to ‘E‘ versions (electromagnetic diaphragm), with a corresponding upgrade in glass quality. At certain focal lengths, I will be adding certain Nikkor E generation AF lenses, over the next 1-2 years, purchasing between 3-5 key focal lengths, as they come out, where said focal lengths suit me for specific, non-macro applications. (These will be for street/portraiture purposes, not nature hikes, except for one or two super-telephoto ‘FL ED’ lenses, as time/finances permit.)

For macro, however (which is my primary interest), my Voigtländer 125mm  Apo is my mainstay, to which I supplement with Nikkor’s lenses, which allow me to reverse-mount, to achieve greater-than-1:1 macro magnification, inversely-proportional to their focal lengths. Their manual aperture control remains available, even when reversed. I will be making strategic Zeiss insertions into this macro/MF lineup as well. That said, here is my current lens stable:

Nikkor AF-S 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II

The Most Versatile Tool I Own

This lens is a fantastic instrument. What makes this lens so great is, with my 2 bodies (and a 2x extender), I have the option of shooting at 300mm, 450mm, 600mm, or 900mm, depending on which body I choose (the D810 or D500), and depending on whether or not I want to add the 2x TC III. The lens is very heavy, and it’s not much fun to bring, but the sharpness, color, and bokeh transference are uplifting to witness—and make the effort more than worthwhile, after you come home from a long day in the field. Photography Life wrote a great review on this lens. Although I expect Nikon will upgrade this ‘G’ lens to an ‘E’ FL ED version within the next year, the G 300mm version I have will remain a great tool.

See @ Nikon: Nikkor AF-S 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II

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

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

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, like its big brother above, is a throwback to Nikon’s film days. 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 BR-2A Adapter, this lens reverses to achieve 2.1x magnification as a macro lens when reversed on my D810/D850, and it achieves ~3.2x magnification when reversed on my D500 (due to the crop factor). I use the 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 when reversed on my D810/D850, and it achieves ~5.2x magnification when reversed on my D500 (due to the crop factor). 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 is being 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 today. 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 this lens in a league of its own.

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

Nikkor AF-S 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED (FishEye)

A Creative Wildcard

See @ Nikon: Nikkor AF-S 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED