My Favorite New Lens Just Happens to Be Over 50 Years Old

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.

Believe it or not, the white balance of this image is correct. Warm orange light courtesy of California wildfire tinted sky. Oh, 2020.

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. 

Cropped in to show detail.

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.

Crop for detail.

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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30 Comments

Deleted Account's picture

It's really a fantastic lens. I used the AI-S for the longest time and I picked up the non-AI version when I got a Z camera since the FTZ doesn't have any aperture tab to get damaged by non-AI lenses. Strangely enough I find myself preferring the images from the non-AI to the more popular AI-S. Maybe it's a difference in coatings? I'm not sure what to attribute it to (not the most technical person), but I find the images from the non-AI just to have a more life-like quality to them. It does make me wish that all of these manufacturers would take the optical designs of some of these older lenses and update them with AF since not all of us need f/1.4 or brighter lenses all of the time. Maybe they could release it as a "Vintage" line or something. I suppose the market probably isn't large enough to support that, though. :/

Matt Williams's picture

The earlier 105/2.5 lenses (non-AI and some AI) were a Sonnar derivative design. They revised them and so some AI and all AI-S are a double Gauss (Planar) derivative.

And there are certainly different coatings, too.

Deleted Account's picture

As you work your way through the vintage glass YouTubers, you'll discover the cinematographers have insane skill levels.

And yeah, vintage glass is awesome.

sam w's picture

lots of awesome vintage lenses.

Minolta Rokkor lenses used to be overlooked by the crowds, but are starting to get into the price range that suggests people have noticed that people have noticed these lenses.

people with M43 cameras have the luxury of getting access to C-mount lenses, which is a whole different bag of crisps.

Timothy Gasper's picture

This is an excellent lens. I had one myself and loved it. Had to sell all my equipment though decades ago when I got back from Vietnam. Got incredible shots from it. Now I have more than I need and I replaced this lens with the 105mm f2 DC lens and have no need for another one. This one is sharp as a tack. Very nice photos with that beautiful lens. Keep shooting.

Ken Hunt's picture

The 105 2.5 is a great lens still have mine from 1972.

Tommy Lyles's picture

My Leitz Wetzlar 5cm Summarit was built in 1956 - 10 years before I was born! There is nothing else that I own that I would expect to, not only work, but to function perfectly after 62 years. What’s equally amazing is that this lens isn’t rare. There are plenty to be had on online marketplaces - and in good condition.

Deleted Account's picture

And the prices are eye watering.

Deleted Account's picture

Value is subjective.

You can purchase a Schneider (which is every bit as good) for 1/20 of the price.

Nikkor, Canon, Pentax and Konica glass are all great value and superb. Vintage Zeiss glass is excellent and decent value.

Leica is always overvalued. For the same price as the lens you claim is worth it, I can get a brand new Zeiss Loxia, which is better value.

michael candee's picture

That lens was a classic in it's day. Glad to see it being re-discovered.. Sharp as a tack and great bokeh, (before bokeh was even a word)!!!!!

Scott McDonald's picture

The Nikon 105mm f2.5 is a superb portrait lens (I used one for this shot of my baby boy a month ago)...I've been vintage lens fan for quite a while now. My collection will attest to this! For professional work, the AF will take the day, especially for active subjects but, for the enthusiast or hobby photographer, vintage is like driving a manual transmission sports car vs auto (at least for me). They're just plain old fun!

Nigel Voak's picture

I have been using with a couple of old Nikon shift lenses for architecture.

They are still very good and a very economic way to have total control over key stoning in camera without software correction.

Jan Holler's picture

Write about the manual Nikkor 105mm without even mentioning that this lens (or this line of lenses) made Nikon famous. Please search the Internet with '105mm ai-s' or '105mm afghan girl' and you'll find e.g.:

"Nikon Nikkor 105mm F/2.5 – Nikon’s Most Famous Portrait Lens"
https://casualphotophile.com/2015/07/08/noteworthy-lenses-nikon-nikkor-1...

You discovered a lens which already is famous. A little bit of research should be done before writing such an article.

Malcolm Wright's picture

There's no harm in drawing everyone's attention to a famous classic every now and again. Just look at Disney who used to have a 7 year re-release cycle for its famous animated films, it didn't do them any harm and brought a lot of joy to a newer audience, who would never have heard of them otherwise.
If you don't know what to search the internet for, in the first place, you might never discover these gems.

Jan Holler's picture

That is not what I meant. Is this some form of deliberate misunderstanding? I suggested to do a research before writing about something and not to not write again about it.

Stuart Carver's picture

I found an old Helios 44-2 in a box in my Girlfriends classroom, it’s absolutely knackered but still takes a sharp shot, annoying that the focus ring comes off when you turn it though lol

Pavlos Manousiadis's picture

I believe it is an easy fix. Mine needed some internal screws to be tighten (after removing the front group). Try youtube, probably you will find a video how to fix it.

Stuart Carver's picture

Yeah im gonna have a play around one day, i quite enjoy the fun of shooting with it anyway:)

I just wish the world was back to normal so i could go back to some car boot sales and pick up a few more vintage lenses.

Geoff Miller's picture

I've been having some fun with my Grandfather's older 55mm f1.2 Nikkor lens. He had it AI'd so it will mount on any Nikon body. Portraits at f1.2 are a little soft, but look pretty cool.

Tom Reichner's picture

I can see how focus peaking would allow old MF lenses to be very useful. But I am curious about something .....

..... can you use the focus peaking feature while looking through the viewfinder? Or do you have to have the camera several inches away from your face in order to look at focus peaking on the rear screen?

The former would be GREAT! But the latter would be a total deal-breaker. I need to have the camera right up against my eyeballs to shoot the way I like to shoot.

Deleted Account's picture

With MILC's you can focus peak through the viewfinder. You can even punch in 1:1 in the viewfinder. The problem (at least on the Z7) that I've experienced with punching in 1:1 for critical focus, however, is that you lose sight of the overall framing.

Malcolm Wright's picture

I don't know how the Z7 handles 1:1 critical focusing, but on my Olympus the 2x digital teleconvertor works for focusing by just using a quarter of the megapixels on the sensor and electronically enlarges them in the viewfinder.
The raw file produced uses the whole sensor (jpeg uses just the quarter and can end up fuzzy when further enlarged). So cropping the raw file usually results in a sharper picture with good framing.
For example I have some photographs of a red kite in flight where on the jpeg not all the wings or the tail are even in the frame, but on the raw file the whole bird was captured with enough surroundings to crop to a good framing.
I hope the Z7 allows you to do something similar by saving in both raw and jpeg.

Deleted Account's picture

I'm not sure about the Olympus models, but the Z7 will take a photo of the entire frame if you actuate the shutter while you're zoomed in. My main problem is that WHILE I'm zoomed in to get critical focus, I literally can't see anything else going on in the frame, but if I zoom out to check that, I might lose critical focus by moving slightly. It would be nice if they could do a picture-in-picture within the EVF so that you can still see the entire frame while having a little window that is zoomed in to check critical focus. It's not really an issue when I'm working on a tripod and photographing an inanimate object, but it can become a bit of a pain in the ass if I'm handholding a telephoto lens and trying to nail manual focus on the eye of a model. Maybe there's just a setting that I haven't found for this...

Stuart Carver's picture

Yeah focus peaking works in the EVF, I can’t speak for others but on the Fuji it’s awesome, and sharpness is nailed every time with it.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Yes. You can use it through the EVF. Makes focusing really easy.

Troy Phillips's picture

I have this exact lens . Well not yours but mine , the Nikkor 105 f/2.5 p•c .
I have tested it side by side with the non ai 135 f/2.8 and the Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 ais . Two other phenomenal lenses. The images were basically indistinguishable. I struggled to tell which one is which . The images are great from the lens and it was my first non ai lens of many now . And the second of all my Nikkor manual focus lenses. I love the old Nikkors if you do your homework there are some phenomenal lenses. The 28mm f/2.8 ais and the 28mm f/2.0 non ai , the 35mm f/2.0 non ai ( absolutely phenomenal lens) and the 50mm f/1.4 non ai have been my most used the the 135mm f/2.8 . Now I’ve been using the Nikkor 400mm f/3.5 ais . This lens is legendary, hands down .
Get yourself some old Nippon/Nikkor/Nikon manual focus glass . Do your homework and you’ll end up with some killer lenses. And they are built like tanks .
Peace y’all

Jan Holler's picture

Very true. I got the line from 16mm up to 180mm. My first were the 28mm f/2.8 and the 50mm f/1.4 back in the 1980s. Some of them I bought just because I do like the mechanical artwork so much. Ironically the last was the 105mm f/2.5. I just couldn't find any copy for years (I do only buy locally from a friendly store).
The 180mm is a beautiful lens, optically and mechanically (I got the AF version of it as well). But what stands out is how small these lenses are compared to their modern siblings. And this is not just because of the AF motor.

Mark Smith's picture

The reason I read this, start to finish? So well written! Thanks, Christopher. My penchant for vintage lenses has led me to amass quite a collection. I love old Zeiss lenses mainly. The contax/zeiss 45mm f2 might just be my favorite, but it depends on the day.