My Favorite New Lens Just Happens to Be Over 50 Years Old
In today’s article, I’ll talk about a surprising new/old addition to my lens collection.
I, as they say, am blind as a bat. This might be a strange admission for someone who literally makes their living by seeing things. But I’ve been staring through thick Coke bottle lenses ever since I struggled to see the blackboard in the first grade, and my spectacle dependency has only increased with age.
Thankfully, I live in an age of autofocus. I may be an all manual kind of guy when it comes to settings, but when it comes to making sure my images are in focus, I am more than happy to cede power to technology.
I also like things wide. On most of my shoots, a 50mm focal length is about as long a lens as I will take out of my bag. Whether doing an environmental portrait or a closeup, I’ve always gravitated towards the wider end of the range. In fact, I just recently sold off my last remaining 85mm prime, not due to poor quality, but because it had spent the better half of the last decade alternating between the bottom of my bag and the optional overflow lens case, seeing very little gametime in between.
This decision had nothing to do with any technical failure of the lens or a fundamental problem with that focal length. Many would say that 85mm is the ideal focal length for portraits, which is why I bought the lens in the first place. But, as with most opinions in photography, my choice of the lens had to do more with me then it did with the lens itself. To borrow a phrase from my beloved “Seinfeld,” I am a “close talker.”
I don’t like to shout. And by “shout,” I mean I rarely like to address someone not standing within an arm’s reach. This is partly due to my introverted nature and partly due to my losing my voice for an extended period a few years back and now finding it difficult to project my voice for very long without quickly finding myself unable to speak at all.
So, when I go in to shoot a closeup of a subject with a wider lens, it allows me to carry on a conversation with them and engage them in a way that allows me to elicit the desired response, all while not throwing out my voice.
With all that preamble and the title of this article, you’d be excused for assuming that the new favorite lens I was referring to would be yet another with a focal length closer to zero than to 100mm. But, in fact, my new favorite lens is the Nikkor 105mm F/2.5 PC Non-AI Manual Focus Lens.
So, the story of how exactly I got around to regularly shooting with a lens made in 1969 in 2020 is a bit of a journey in itself. Like most stories that take place in 2020, this one concerns the ongoing pandemic. One of the only ways I’ve been able to maintain my sanity during the statewide stay-at-home orders here in California is to start taking daily walks around my neighborhood every afternoon.
With a few potential destinations open, an afternoon walk is one of the few regular activities one can have at the moment. But, while I live in a large city, my particular neighborhood is relatively quiet and less than scenic. This is great for an old man like myself who likes quiet nights at home, but does make it less than ideal for a shutterbug looking for something to shoot.
So, to keep things interesting, I’ve been using each new day as a chance to experiment. Sometimes, it’s deciding to only shoot one focal length for a week. Sometimes, it’s pulling an old camera off the shelf I haven’t used in decades just to see if it still works. Sometimes, it’s sticking to black and white square frames for the day.
Other times, it’s spending the afternoon actively in search of color. None of these images are intended for my portfolio, but they do offer an opportunity to practice new ways of seeing the world and often generate new tricks that I am then able to apply to real-world commercial assignments.
One afternoon, having gotten caught in the endless loop of YouTube hype videos for the latest and greatest photo gear, I landed on one touting the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 105mm f/1.4E ED Lens. Not sure exactly what appealed to me, whether it be genuine interest or simply gear acquisition syndrome, but I quickly found myself wanting to try it out. So, I rented one for the week and set about using it as my creative challenge for the next few days.
A number of things immediately jumped out at me. First and foremost, that lens is the bee’s knees. That means it’s pretty awesome for those of you not as hip as myself.
It handles beautifully on my Nikon DSLR bodies, focuses quickly, and is sharp as a tack. At 2.17 pounds, it’s definitely not built to be a walkaround lens. But it would be a joy to have with me in the studio. If I were independently wealthy, there’s a good chance I would have that lens in my kit right now.
Sadly, I am not independently wealthy. So, at the end of the rental term, I packaged the lens back up and sent it home. But, while I couldn’t really justify spending roughly $2,100 to purchase a 105mm, especially considering the rather rude way in which I had neglected even the 85mm for the past decade, I did find myself being surprised by just how much I had enjoyed the focal length.
Knowing myself well enough to realize that it’s unlikely that a 105mm prime would supplant the 24-70mm I use daily for my professional work, I couldn’t justify the expense of buying the new one.
But, because I’m on the obsessive-compulsive side, I stood very little chance of not at least looking for options, all of which eventually brought me to KEH’s website one night in search of used gear. For the price of a nice dinner out, back when there were still open restaurants in town to eat at, I suddenly found myself the proud owner of a 105mm lens produced sometime during the Nixon administration.
To be fair, I didn’t have super high expectations for it. The purchase was attractive for two main reasons. One, purchasing it costs about the same as the weekly rental of the new one, so it was hardly going to break the bank. Secondly, whereas the new autofocus f/1.4 came in at 985 grams, this old school manual lens came in at a far more walkabout friendly 435 grams.
Lengthwise, it was not quite as long as the already small Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 when mounted to my Z 6 via the FTZ adapter. Seeing as though the Z 6 with the fast 50mm has become my go-to for my afternoon walkabouts, this new option would provide a longer focal length while maintaining an even more petite physical profile.
Now, those of you who were paying attention earlier in this story might be asking the logical question. How the heck can Mr. Magoo actually use an old manual focus lens in the first place? Well, as it turns out, with focus peaking available through the EVF, the Nikon Z system does the whole manual focus thing pretty darn well. I’ve even set up my movie record button to automatically punch into 100% when shooting stills, which allows me to quickly zoom in to obtain critical focus when necessary.
I’ll admit that prior to owning the Z 6, the idea of manually focusing any camera would have sent me into a cold sweat. Even if something looked in focus through the viewfinder of my DSLR, I simply don’t trust my vision enough that it will still appear to be in focus once I see the final file. But now, with the focus peaking plus punching in method combined with the manual lenses, I feel confident that my focus is right where I want it.
This is not to say, of course, that I now prefer the manual focus to autofocus. Were we talking about a work assignment where my subjects are constantly moving models, I would still choose autofocus almost every time. But when I’m not in a rush and shooting for fun, or even if it is a work assignment like a posed portrait where the subject is relatively stationary, I now have a great deal more confidence that I would be able to nail the shot.
With my initial fears of how I was going to be able to accurately focus out of the way, I suddenly found even more in the 105mm F/2.5 PC Non-AI lens to love. Besides the lighter weight and less pronounced presence when walking the street, I’ve found myself really enjoying the process of focusing itself. I’m not the one to try and explain the science behind it, but, for me at least, I find the racking focus significantly easier to do with older film lenses compared to the newer autofocus lenses.
My friend tried to explain to me that it has to do with the 180-degree focus ring as opposed to the focus-by-wire infinite focus ring in newer lenses. The infinite focus ring allows newer lenses to autofocus more quickly, but when manually focusing them, it is difficult to always maintain your sense of where you are within your rack.
The older manual focus lenses, on the other hand, were built to be slowly turned by hand, and they have both the friction and more eased response that allows you to settle into your focus more gradually. Again, this could just be subjective. But this lens, with its large pronounced metallic focus ring, has been a breeze to use in the field.
In the realm of a negative that is sometimes positive, the older lenses are obviously not going to be as laser-sharp as the newer native Z mount glass. If they were, Nikon’s R&D department would have some explaining to do. I only own two Z mount lenses so far, but both are amazingly sharp. Depending on the application, however, there can be such a thing as too sharp.
Sometimes, for artistic reasons, you want a less modern look, and slapping on an older lens can often offer just that little subtle change that can make a difference. This 105mm seems to have just the right amount of midtone contrast for certain occasions and is a nice change of pace. Of course, that’s not to say that the lens isn’t still as sharp as a tack.
Without a question, this lens isn’t for everyone. As much as I enjoy manually focusing with it, sometimes you just don’t have the time for manual focus. And, of course, without the focus assists built into the Z 6, I’m not sure I would trust my own focusing ability quite as much.
Also, while the focal length and small size have proven the lens quite useful in an incognito street shooting situation, to use it for my portraits would require me to stand back a bit depending on what size I want the subject to be in the frame.
This may or may not be for you. Like I said earlier, I don’t like to shout. Then again, with everyone now forced to stand at least six feet apart at all times, a bit of additional reach might actually be beneficial. I haven’t used this in the studio yet, but I am definitely looking forward to trying it out.
Truthfully, the fact that I’m so anxious in the first place to mix this in with my existing high-end glass should tell you all you need to know about how happy I am with the purchase. It’s actually sent me into a little mini-buying binge in search of quality vintage glass.
While no buying binge is necessarily a good thing, the low cost of these vintage lenses makes it one photographic activity you can splurge on without completely breaking the bank. And mixed in with a healthy amount of newer glass, filling in a few holes in your lens lineup with a bit of the old school turns out to be a decidedly enjoyable way to go.
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