Nikon 105mm f/2.8 Lens Review

What is It?

The 105mm f/2.8 S VR is Nikon’s first macro lens for the Z-mount, thus was largely anticipated. It’s also one of the few telephoto options on the mount at the moment, so not just close-up users are interested in it. 

The 105mm Micro-Nikkor has had a long, storied history. The f/2.8 version dates all the way back to a 1983 AI-S lens. Autofocus got added in 1990, and AF-S in 2006. One complaint about the AF-S version was that it wasn’t quite as good as the previous versions optically, though it was still quite a good lens (foreshadowing performance section, below). While not quite as popular as the 55/60mm Micro-Nikkors, the 105mm is well established as a go-to closeup lens for many Nikon users.

The new Z-mount version comes in the S-line regalia: solid weather proofing and build quality, and includes a few things we typically don’t find in US$1000 lenses from Nikon: an LED focus information display, an L-Fn button, VR, and more. 

Optically, the new S lens is somewhat different than the last F-mount version, and more complex. The F-mount was 14 elements in 12 groups with 1 ED element, the new Z-mount version is 16 elements in 11 groups with 1 aspherical and 3 ED elements. While there are similarities in the two designs, it's clear that the Nikkor engineers were looking for ways to improve performance. The published MTF values show a "sharper" lens across a broader set of parameters, and the difference isn't subtle. 

Besides the changes in optical design, the 105mm f/2.8 S gets ARNEO coating in addition to Nano coating. As I've written before, these types of coatings address different shortcomings of air-to-glass transmission, and it's nice to see Nikon using their full arsenal of current technology. The front element, which is ever so slightly convex, is also given a fluorine coating to help it slough off water and other things.

As with most macro lenses from Nikon, the minimum aperture is f/32, not f/16 or f/22. The aperture diaphragm is 9 rounded blades. 

Focus distance has changed slightly, too, with the new minimum focus distance being 0.29m instead of 0.314m (that's right near one foot). I wouldn't read too much into this: at close macro distances most lenses use a hybrid optical approach that impacts focal length rather than using a full focus pull (to keep the lens from extending too much during focus). Nikon just adjusted their approach slightly, and the difference isn't meaningful in practical terms.

If you were hoping to save the size of the FTZ adapter, you won't. The new lens is 140mm long (versus 116mm of the F-mount version). However, it will save you the weight of the FTZ adapter, and then some. Nikon paid close attention to weight and we've dropped 120g in the process (plus the FTZ weight), so the new lens comes in at 22.2 ounces instead of 26.5 (plus FTZ). And yes, you can feel that difference, particularly since the older lens on the FTZ puts the added weight farther forward. 

Focus is handled by a stepping motor, and you have a switch on the lens to force the lens to stay in the macro range (0.29 to 0.5m). Internal focusing is used; the lens does not extend as you get to macro distances. 

The 105mm f/2.8 S has lens-based image stabilization (VR in Nikon's vernacular), which provides about 4.5 stops CIPA level of stabilization in regular work (CIPA does not currently have a macro test; but macro work would get less stabilization). VR is controlled by the camera body, not the lens (no lens switch).

I was a little disappointed that there's not an option for a tripod collar with this lens. It's bordering on the size where I would have liked that option. We do get a 62mm filter ring up front, which means the lens is easily compatible with some of Nikon's older macro accessories, including the film scanning and close-up flash options. 

The Nikon 105mm macro has to compete against solid macro lenses from others. The Canon 100mm f/2.8L is US$400 more expensive, though it has an optional tripod collar and a spherical aberration control. The Sony 90mm f/2.8G is US$100 more expensive (though at times has been discounted). Both the Canon and the Sony are excellent performers, so the question is whether the lower-priced Nikkor can hold up against them (see the performance section below for more).

One aspect that comes up with macro lenses is that as magnification increases, effective aperture also increases. The formula is EffectiveF = MarkedF * (1+Magnification). This results in the following effective apertures on the 105mm f/2.8 S:

  • 1.5m to infinity: f/2.8
  • 0.7m to 1.5m: f/3.0
  • 0.5m to 0.7m:f/3.2
  • 0.4m to 0.5m: f/3.3
  • 0.35m to 0.4m:: f/3.5
  • 0.33m to 0.35m: f/3.8
  • 0.32m to 0.33m: f/4
  • 0.31m to 0.32m: f/4.2
  • 0.29m to 0.31m: f/4.5

Working distance for this lens is about 5.25" (133mm), but remember that the lens hood sticks out almost 3" from the front of the lens. For some subjects I found myself having to take the lens hood off to get light to the subject (looking for a product to make? How about a lens hood for the 105mm that has front LED lighting directed to working distance? ;~).

The 105mm f/2.8 S comes with an HB-99 lens hood and a wrapping cloth, is made in Thailand, and sells for US$1000. 

Source of reviewed lens: purchased via NPS PP

Nikon’s Web page for the lens

How’s it Handle?

I'm a little undecided about the non-functional knurled "ring" at the very front of the lens. The natural instinct when you feel that texture with your hand when looking through the viewfinder is to try twisting it, but that's not it's purpose. One thing I've complained about with prior Z-mount Nikkors is that the materials Nikon is using on the outer shell can be slippery, which makes it difficult to twist the lens on and off the mount (you can't really do it via the rings, as they rotate on you). With this new grippy area you can hold the front of the lens securely as you twist it on and off the mount. I would have liked that Nikon make that front grip area more distinct in feel from the focus ring, though. If you're just using your fingertips, you can't distinguish between the grip portion and the focus ring. 

bythom 105mm disp

I'm still not a fan of the DISP window that has to be turned on manually and which only stays lit for a brief time, but at least on the 105mm it also can tell you the magnification ratio (above I'm between 1:3 and 1:3.5), which is something that some macro photographers often like (or need) to know. 

The focus limiter switch will be a little controversial: your choices are a narrow macro range (0.29-0.5m) or Full. I can understand the macro range setting, as when you're working up close with small subjects, you don't want the lens hunting out into long focus distances. What I don't understand is why the switch doesn't also have a 1m-infinity setting for when you use it as a regular telephoto lens. In low light, particularly with the Z5 and Z50, I've encountered situations where this lens will hunt for focus. I'd want to force it to focus only in the longer distance range if I could.

Speaking of a Z50, the 105mm f/2.8 S is about as big and heavy a lens I'd normally want to use on such a small, light body. It's not terribly out of balance, surprisingly, but I'd judge it to be getting near the point where I wouldn't want to pick up the camera just by the right hand grip. 

How’s it Perform?

Focus: If there’s a weak point to this lens, it might be focus performance. I write “might” because this is really difficult to evaluate fairly. For general non-macro use the lens focus is typically fast and sure, as you’d expect. One of the things that happens in macro range, though, is that you often have a lot of lower contrast in your subjects, and you’re also moving the focus in very small increments. The lens also seems to generally focus slower when in the macro range. If you’re handholding, you also might not be at a constant distance. Most of the time the 105mm is really good at speed to focus lock, even with high magnification, but in some very close work I sometimes encountered slide-to-focus and need-to-hunt-once things happening with a few subjects. I don’t believe there’s a real problem here, but my impression is that my Sony 90mm snapped to focus a little faster in the same high magnification situations.

A tough subject to focus on (both in terms of contrast and color). The camera has pushed focus ever so slightly back from where I wanted it (center of central flower). I've kept the aperture wide open here (and in other examples) to emphasize how tight the DOF is at 1:1 or near 1:1 ratios.

Sharpness: Nikon’s published MTF chart looks exceptionally good for a lens at maximum aperture. As it turns out, for general use the lens is near peak performance at f/2.8. You can get a bit more sharpness out of it at f/4, but it’s not a big change. I’d judge the lens to excellent in the center and DX frame edge at all non-diffracted apertures, the corners still very good. The corners never quite match the center until diffraction sets in, but that’s a fairly standard result. What isn’t standard is how good the corners start and how well they retain integrity to the center throughout the aperture range.

At macro distances, the picture changes ever so slightly. While the overall impression is the same—excellent wide open and out to the DX frame edge—I see a bit more improvement in the center that can be had from stopping down. It's subtle, but I think that f/8 is where you want to be for maximum central MTF. The corners at macro distance show that this lens is probably not what Nikon used to call CRC (completely flat field). Corners are still very good wide open at macro distances, but there's a clear gain to be had from stopping down.

Overall, there's little difference in this lens regardless of focus distance (e.g. macro or infinity), but just enough to perhaps adjust your aperture use slightly. It's rare to find a macro lens that is so tightly designed to hold over both 1:1 and long distance work, and the 105mm f/2.8 S is about the best I've seen in this regard. A slightly casual user wouldn't have to think about aperture or focus distance use at all. It's only the "must have optimal results" photographer that's going to pay close attention to apertures at different focus distances. 

bythom nikon 105mm sample cu

No correction for noise here so as to show how fine a detail is being rendered at close distances. On more than one of my macro lenses, those hairs on the stems don't get rendered nearly as well.

Chromatic Aberration: Low. Even with no corrections applied. Surprisingly, not a lot of longitudinal CA, either. What little there is does tend to color the bokeh highlight edges, but as I note below, that’s not particularly noticeable.

Linear Distortion: Also low (less than 1%). A small amount of barrel distortion is present and correctible. 

Vignetting: At close up distances, vignetting is well controlled, indeed down to the level I call ignorable at pretty much all apertures. There's a small benefit to closing down a stop, but I'm not particularly tempted by that. At infinity, however, the situation is different. Wide open shows a frame that darkens quickly outside the DX boundary and at about 2EV in the corners. Stopping down to f/4 improves the situation to near my ignorable point, and you still get improvements at f/5.6 and f/8. It's only at f/8 that the extreme corners show little exposure clipping.

Flare: Probably the worse trait of the lens. In frame lighting can produce colored spots showing a clear prismatic effect, though this is very sensitive to position of the light source. Sun stars are very pronounced from f/16 to minimum aperture, but in a few cases (large light sources) I see clear color flaring between the spokes. 

Bokeh: Some minor onion skin with a colored edge band, though neither call much attention to themselves. Very clear cats eye impacts as you move past the DX frame. VR active can add busyness to the mid-far bokeh, a common trait particularly with telephoto lenses. Use the lens without VR and keep out of focus specular highlights out of the corners of the frame and the overall bokeh impact is very pleasing. This is doubly true of macro focus distances. 

Compared to the F-mount version: Probably less difference than we've seen in other Z-mount lenses, but I'd still tend to say that the Z-mount version is somewhat better at maximum aperture. 

Final Words

Yes, I like it. A lot. The Z-mount version is a better macro lens than the 105mm f/2.8G, and returns more to Nikon’s original close-up “snap” than that most recent F-mount lens. Even outside of macro the lens performs quite well. It’s a very usable portrait lens (as long as you don’t mind seeing subjects’ pores ;~). So it will also serve well as a general purpose telephoto. 

If you're considering the 50mm and 105mm macro trying to figure out which to get, I'd say the 105mm is clearly the better lens and the one that would be in my bag. Not that the 50mm is a slouch (review coming soon), but the 105mm has that S label on it, and it shows in almost every aspect of the optics. 

Surprisingly, Nikon isn’t over-the-top in their pricing of this lens, either. US$1000 is a very good price for this excellent lens. Indeed, not only is the price low for Nikon, but the 105mm f/2.8 S completely holds up against the Canon and Sony competition. I liked the Sony enough to give it a Highly Recommended, so you’re probably wondering where the Nikkor stands:

Highly Recommended (2021, 2022)

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