Tuesday, January 10, 2017

3 "Must-Have" Nikon AI-s Lenses

Once again I will be away on a trip. I should return at the end of this month, so AmateurNikon will be back with new articles in early February. Take care!


Another comparative review for today - they are quite popular, I've come to notice; see ultra-wide angle lenses for DX, 3 super zooms, 3 budget macros for DX, and 5 budget normal primes.Today's article will be slightly different than those above, in that the focus will not be on scope (e.g. super zooms, macros, etc) but on type.
Today's article compares 3 "must-have" Nikkor AI-s lenses for your Nikon camera.

A couple of caveats and disclaimers:
  1. "must-have" is a relative term. There are no "must-have" lenses, as it all boils down to your personal needs and situation.
  2. If you're an entry-level (and DX) user, AIs lenses means no metering. Additionally, your camera's smaller viewfinder makes manual focus harder.
AI-s lenses (like this beauty) are usually characterized by excellent build quality

So, now we got this out of the way, let's begin.


The lenses I picked for this list are:
  1. Nikon Nikkor AI-s 50mm f/1.2
  2. Nikon micro-Nikkor AI-s 55mm f/2.8
  3. Nikon Nikkor AI-s 105mm f/1.8

Let's take a quick look at the pros and cons, then I'll give you an overview and my observations, including thoughts on whether you should consider these lenses (and why).

Nikon Nikkor AI-s 50mm f/1.2
+ large maximum aperture, excellent for low light or subject isolation
+ brilliant optically, incredibly sharp from f/2 and smaller, beautiful bokeh
+ unique lens; nothing like it in Nikon's selection

The bokeh of the 50mm f/1.2 is too good to be true!

- manual focus and f/1.2 can frustrate you. Split-screen highly recommended
- expensive (it's an awesome investment, though)
- large front element susceptible to damage/dirt. Use hood or high-quality filter

Nikon micro-Nikkor AI-s 55mm f/2.8
+ stunning optically, already wide-open, especially in close distance (it's a macro, what did you expect?)
+ cheap, small, light - the perfect expendable macro lens for "danger zone" missions (e.g. near sand, water, etc.)
+ great manual-focus feedback allows for precision when focusing

Sharp enough for you? The 55mm f/2.8 is so sharp, it produces artifacts (if you're not careful with your settings)!

- susceptible to aperture blade damage (mostly oil); check before using, then return if needed
- working distance isn't ideal for bugs
- optical quality deteriorates a bit when focused on infinity (in other words, not a general-purpose lens, and definitely not an astrophotography lens)

Nikon Nikkor AI-s 105mm f/1.8
+ like most AI-s lenses, it's built like a tank. Very sturdy and reliable
+ the manual-focus feel needs to be experienced to be believed. Incredibly smooth yet precise
+ optically almost flawless, with only one observation (read below)

I've gotten some great results on film with the 105mm f/1.8

- there is falloff that goes away by f/4 - irrelevant for portraiture (which is the main application for this lens)
- it's built like a tank, it weighs as much: heavy for its size
- prices can be high, even used.


Let's clarify one more thing - come to think of it, this could be the third disclaimer point: If you're simply looking for a great lens to take pictures with, you don't need any of these lenses. Get a modern autofocus equivalent (quick suggestions: Nikon Nikkor 50mm AF f/1.8, Nikon micro-Nikkor AF-S 60mm f/2.8, Nikon Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.8) and you're all set. They're more-or-less the same thing, and easier to use.

But photography as art is different than photography as a technical endeavor. In art, we don't always do what's easy; we do what is inspiring. And let me tell you, few things are more inspiring than shooting with one of these lenses.

The 50mm f/1.2 is a unique lens, there is nothing like it in Nikon's lineup. Realize that, although it's a manual-focus AI-s lens, it's still available for sale as new. Needless to say, if you're remotely into investing in lenses, collector's items, etc, buy one two right now. Once Nikon stops making them (eventually they will) their value will skyrocket. I've got two myself, one that I use and one in its box, unopened.

The micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 is exactly the opposite story: it's not a collector's item, nor will it ever be; it's not unique in any immediately apparent way, and you can find other good, cheap macro lenses for your Nikon camera. So, what's the deal? Two things: a) its low price makes it a very attractive solution when you need an expendable lens (and not the great but overpriced 105mm AF-S) ;b) I can't measure it (as you know AmateurNikon is about experience, not diagrams) but having tried dozens of macro lenses, I've never seen a sharper one. There, I said it. The micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 always gives me a biting-sharp, high-microcontrast image that I can't seem to get from other lenses. We're splitting hairs perhaps, but that's my personal experience and the reason I'm still using this although I own modern (and excellent) macro lenses, such as the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 OS.

Finally, the 105mm f/1.8 is a lens that, perhaps curiously, has become relevant again in the era of the  new Nikon Nikkor AF-S 105mm f/1.4. The 105mm f/1.8 Ai-s isn't a cheap lens, but it's a heck of a lot cheaper than the modern version (which of course has autofocus, is a bit faster, and based on a quick test in my local shop, seems to be one of the sharpest things Nikon has ever made). But if you want a faster-than-f/2 105mm lens and can't afford the new one, this old workhorse can offer you some pretty stunning portraits.

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