Nikkor Macro Comparison


After shooting macro photography for two years with a "poor man's" setup (i.e. a 50mm lens and extension tubes), I finally decided it was time to buy a dedicated macro. I settled on two so that I could compare and choose the one that best suits my needs. I purchased the Nikkor 105mm f/4 along with the pn-11 extension tube as well as a Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 along with the pk-13 extension tube.

Why these two? For two reasons: build quality and reputation. Most places on the internet describe these two lenses as being among Nikon's best at macro-photography. And both have metal housings, and were built to outlast camera bodies, including the seemingly disposable DSLRs. I was about to buy a couple of AF lenses, but I've never been a fan of the plastic bodies of modern lenses, and AF is pointless when shooting fast, moving things in the world of micro-photography (micro is Nikon's way of saying "Macro").




  Nikkor 50mm MKII f/1.8  with Extension Tubes
 Nikkor 55mm AI f/3.5 with pk-13
 Nikkor 105mm AIS f/4 with pn-11
 Build
  • This "poor man's" macro set up is is all metal and very light.
  • The only catch is you have to work with stop-down metering if you're using this on a D200+ body. In other words the viewfinder will darken the more you stop down the lens.
  • On a lower end body like the D40/x it's wholly a non-metering lens as there's no coupling or advanced metering system with the lower end cameras.
  • There are no exposed threads when pushed to its closest focusing range (real close to 1:1).


  • This lens with the pk-13 is a joy to use. Like the "poor man's" setup it is all metal and very light. Unlike the poor man's macro this combination meters properly with a D200+ body, which means the iris stays open at all times till you release the shutter. In other words the viewfinder doesn't darken at all at any of the f/stops.
  • Oddly it's also lighter than my "poor man's" macro setup.
  • When pushed to it's closest focusing range (1:2 or 1:1) the threads of the housing become exposed.
  • This lens is all metal, and heavy. For the type of macro work I do it's impractical, unless I approach bees and moving things with a sit and wait approach. There's a reason why the pn-11 has a tripod mount.
  • The lens has a locking pin, which is great if you don't want the focus slipping. I suppose this also plays into the sit and wait approach of macro photography I just described.
  • The pn-11 allows this lens to meter properly on a D200+ body, which means the viewfinder doesn't darken as you stop it down.
  • It has a built in hood.
  • When pushed to it's closest focusing range (1:2 or 1:1) the threads of the housing are not exposed. There's a casing covered in felt that covers the threads.

 Optical
  • Wide open it's soft. This can work for some macro shots if you nail the insect, bee, or butterfly within the shallow DOF--you get sharpness, as well as CA, with the benefit of a beautiful background.
  • Backgrounds, however, can be distracting, if they're busy, and nasty if the lens is stopped down.
  • Stopped down it's sharp between f/5.6-f/8, however it's still softer than the 55.
  • Colors are nice and punchy when  this lens is stopped down.
  • Sharp. There is nothing else that need be said. There's a reason why many people consider this to be one of Nikon's sharpest lenses. At f/3.5 it's sharper than my 50mm f/1.8 at f/4. I could not see any CA present.
  • This lens probably out-resolves my D700 sensor. I've managed to capture the threads/grooves on the metal mount of my 20-35mm f/2.8--if you can't see them with your eyes, trust me, they're there.
  • Backgrounds can get distracting when this lens is stopped down. Wide open, however, it's fairly nice and smooth.
  • Colors are very punchy from the get go.

  • It's sharp, but nowhere near as sharp as the 55 f/3.5 wide open. It's sharper than my 50mm "poor man's" setup. Stopped down it does sharpen some, but not to the extent that the 55 f/3.5 demonstrates.
  • Due to its length the background is creamy, even when this lens is stopped down. This is a big plus for this lens, though due to its weight it would be difficult to get a flying insect, unless you use the sit and wait approach.
  • I couldn't see any CA, though I'm sure when pushed to extreme scenarios it'll show up.
  • Colors are a bit muted compared to the other lenses. This is a downside, as it means spending more time in post to bring the colors out of images.

 Handling
  • Light. It's not as light as the 55m f/3.5 + pk-13. It is also a bit difficult to work with because if you need to change the "magnification factor" (i.e. the reproduction ratio) you need to add or take away extension tubes. This can get time consuming.
  • The front element is not recessed. If you get too close to a bee or a bug or a spider, it might get on it, or worse you'll brush up the element against a leaf or a petal (yes, I've done that).
  • You have get extremely close to your subject to get 1:1.
  • Light. It feels lighter than my "poor man's" setup. I'm not sure how or why, but my guess is the pk-13 is much lighter than my usual M2 + K1 combo.
  • The recessed element is bonus. You don't have to worry about the front element of this lens. You can rub up against petals, leafs, and bugs without worrying that something is going to get on it or scratch it. A well thought out design.
  • This lens give more working room between the lens and the subject at 1:1 than the "poor man's" setup.
  • Heavy and clunky are the best words to describe this lens.
  • It's front element isn't recessed as much as the 55. It doesn't have to be since this gives you the most working room between the lens and the subject at 1:1.
  • If you do have to get close, the lens hood can "recess" the front element even more.
  • Without a tripod or a mono-pod this lens would be very difficult to use for moving things--and all due to its weight.


 Opinion
  •  I've been using this setup for the past two years, and have taken some wonderful shots with it.
  • Its light weight allows me to track bees to some extent. The only drawback is it's difficult to tell what ratio you're on, and the viewfinder darkens the more the lens is stopped down.
  • Economically this is the best of the three.
  • 50mm AI lens--$60US
  • K1-K5 tubes--$20US
  • Amazing. I'm floored. This lens is so sharp wide open, and it's light, and goes 1:1 with only one tube. Having played with it a bit I know that it will be way more useful for my macro work than my "poor man's" setup and much easier to use than the 105mm f/4.
  • The only concern I have are the exposed threads of the lens. There's a chance the lubricant could get to places you wouldn't want to. I have been informed at a Flickr forum that this is a non-issue, but you just never know.
  • Optically this is the best of the three.
  • 55mm AI lens--$100US
  • PK-13 tube--$60-100US
  • If you work with non-moving macro subjects or you work with dangerous subjects or are allergic to bees and require more room between the lens and your subject this is a real nice lens to have--though I would highly recommend using a tripod to save your wrists.
  • Build wise this is probably the best of the three.
  • 105mm f/4 AIS--$260-400
  • PN-11 tube--$80-150
 


The following is a chart that shows the differences between these different tools for macro-photography. I kept my D700 on a tripod, and used the same spot in the center of my viewfinder (the little red focusing square makes for a good marker). I tried to get as close to 1:1 with the "poor man's" approach to match the other lenses.  I kept the WB at sunny, and worked manually with the camera's meter.

As I mentioned earlier both the 50 and the 55 produce punchy colors. The sky is a much richer blue. The sky color rendered by the 105 is more muted, less punchy. Sharpness-wise all three are similar @ f5.6, but it's in the background that they really differ. At f/5.6 the background of the 50mm "poor man's approach" is horrid! The 55's background is more pleasing, and the 105 more pleasing still.



   50mm with K1 + M2 extension tubes (the closest I could get to 1:1 with the "poor man's" setup.
 55m f/3.5 with pk-13 @ 1:1
 105mm f/4 with pn-11 @ 1:1
 f/1.8  
 n/a  n/a
 f/2.8  
 n/a  n/a
 f/3.5 & f/4
 
 
 
 f/5.6
 
 
 
 f/8  not taken
 
 


This is not the most scientific of tests. I'm just writing this up to show the differences between the "poor man's" approach to macro-photography and a dedicated approach. For my needs and for fast moving subjects the 55mm f/3.5 Micro Nikkor is the best. In terms of non-moving macro work or for keeping one's distance the 105mm f/4 AIS is top notch. The only downside is the colors are a bit more muted (i.e. toned down)--just compare the sky in the background @ f/5.6 and f/8. In terms of cost the "poor man's" approach is best. However, the trade off for going the cheapest route is reduced sharpness and nasty backgrounds. Having said that all of the macro work I currently have on my site was done with the "poor man's" approach to macro photography, so not all is lost. 

Conclusion:

The best bang for your buck is the 55 f/3.5. It's got the best of both worlds--sharpness and punchy colors. Unfortunately, it doesn't give you the working distance of the 105. However, it does give you more working distance than the 50mm + extension tubes approach, your viewfinder won't get dark, and it's lighter to boot.