Nikon 55mm f/2.8 AIS Micro-Nikkor
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November 14, 2011
by Andrew Alexander
First announced way back 1979 as an AI lens, the Nikon 55mm ƒ/2.8 AIS Micro-Nikkor was released a year later in 1980 in the AIS mount. It has long been considered one of the sharpest macro lenses, so when a reader offered up a mint condition copy of the lens to test, we couldn't help but take him up on it.
The lens construction is fairly simple: 6 elements in 5 groups. The close-range correction focusing system is employed to produce very precise manual focusing results. Interestingly, the lens is still available in Nikon's current catalogue, though you may not find it on many store shelves.
At close ranges (less than 1:10 reproduction ratio) the amount of light that reaches the sensor is reduced. Most modern Nikon cameras can compensate in aperture-priority mode (if they have the aperture coupling ring) by increasing the shutter speed; otherwise, this is incumbent on the user either by research or trial and error. The following table shows the approximate amount of light loss at the various reproduction ratios:
|Reproduction Ratio||Exposure Factor||Light loss in f-stops|
When mounted on a DX sensor body, the lens will provide an effective field of view of around 82mm. The lens is full-frame (35mm) compatible, takes 52mm filters, and is available now for around $450.
Unfortunately, we don't have a test for our analyzer software that operates at macro distance: in fact, our testing would take place well outside of macro range. That said, the lens produces very sharp results. Mounted on the sub-frame D300s, the lens is excellent indeed: wide open at ƒ/2.8, the lens exhibits excellent central sharpness, with traces of corner softness. This corner softness goes away by ƒ/4, and by ƒ/5.6 it's as sharp as sharp gets. Technically, diffraction limiting begins to set in by ƒ/8, but your eyes won't notice it until ƒ/22, where a generalized softness is present in images produced with that aperture (just over 2 blur units). It's possible to stop down to ƒ/32 (or greater, depending on your focus distance), but here you'll get even more softness in your images.
On the full-frame D3x, the 55mm doesn't achieve the tack-sharp quality we saw on the D300s, but the results are still very impressive. The corners at ƒ/2.8 are a bit more obviously soft, but the performance trend is the same - your sharpest results will be obtained at ƒ/8. However, you'd be hard-pressed to notice a difference between ƒ/8 and ƒ/11. Fully stopped-down performance is good at ƒ/16, fair at ƒ/22, and best avoided at ƒ/32.
The 55mm ƒ/2.8 AF-S has excellent resistance to chromatic aberration, with its ''worst'' results coming on a sub-frame DX sensor body at ƒ/2.8. However its worst results are better than the majority of lenses out there, so this really isn't something you need to worry about. On the D3x sensor the amount of detectable CA is so small as to be irrelevant.
Corner shading isn't noteworthy on the sub-frame D300s, but it is more prominent on the full-frame D3x. Even in this case, at ƒ/2.8, light falloff is just a half-stop darker in the corners than the center. At any other aperture setting, corner shading is negligible.
The 55mm ƒ/2.8 AIS is nicely optimized to show almost no distortion. On a DX body the results are negligible: on a full-frame camera body the corners show some extremely light barrel distortion in the corners: less than +0.1%.
The 55mm AIS Micro-Nikkor is a manual focus lens. The front element does not rotate during focusing.
The 55mm ƒ/2.8 AF-S is Nikon's shortest focal-length macro lens. It features a half-size reproduction ratio of 0.5x (1:2), and a minimum close-focusing distance of 25cm (just over 10 inches). With the PK-13 lens adapter it's possible to achieve full-size (1.0x, 1:1) reproduction.
Build Quality and Handling
The all-metal 55mm ƒ/2.8 AIS Micro-Nikkor lens has a very solid and well-built feel, common to Nikon lenses of this vintage. It uses an etched distance scale, which offers scales in both metric and imperial measurements, as well as a magnification ratio both for the lens itself and with the lens and a PK-13 adapter. The lens uses an aperture composed of seven straight blades. Also present on the lens are depth-of-field indicators for ƒ/11, ƒ/22 and ƒ/32, and an infrared index. Of course, being an AIS lens, there is an aperture ring.
The focus ring is very nicely damped for smooth turning, with just the right amount of resistance to keep your focus point in place when doing critical focus operations. The lens ends in hard stops when reaching close-focus and infinity. The 5/8'' wide focus ring, composed of a ridged soft rubber, turns a whopping 340 degrees across its entire range, allowing for accurate fine-tuning. As the lens is focused towards its close-focusing distance, there is some significant lens extension: the lens gets 1 1/4'' longer.
The lens does not includes the HN-3 hood, which adds a further 1/2'' to the length of the lens. The hood is a screw-on circular type, and probably isn't really needed for macro work given the front element is so deeply recessed at short focus distances. The lens takes 52mm filters, and will rotate during focusing.
In addition to the optional lens hood, Nikon produces a whole array of add-ons for this lens: filters, bellows, adapter rings, extension tubes, and even a slide copier.
Nikon 60mm ƒ/2.8D AF-S Micro Nikkor ~$550It's not really a contest between the older 55mm AIS and newer 60mm AF-S - the newer lens is sharper and offers about the same performance for CA tolerance and distortion. However, lens shading is much more dramatic with the newer AF-S, and was much better controlled with the 55mm AIS. However, the newer lens adds some useful features such as autofocus and full 1.0x macro magnification.
Sigma 70mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG Macro ~$430
The Sigma 70mm ƒ/2.8 Macro is one of the sharpest lenses we've ever tested, starting out tack-sharp at ƒ/2.8 and holding it through to about ƒ/11. CA and distortion are also very good, on par with the Nikon, and there are better results for light falloff. The lens has a longer minimum focus distance, giving you a bit more range from your subject, and is slightly cheaper, too.
Sigma 50mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG Macro ~$250
The other Sigma macro in the same range is also very good, about as sharp as the Nikon and comparable in other areas as well.
Tamron 90mm ƒ/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 SP AF ~$460
While significantly longer than the Nikon 60mm, it's worth considering the Tamron. It's not as sharp as the Nikon wide open, but stopped down even to ƒ/4 it offers very good results. Results for CA, corner shading and distortion are also excellent.
In its own right, the Nikon 55mm ƒ/2.8 AIS is an excellent lens, providing excellent results for sharpness, corner shading, tolerance to CA and almost no distortion. The build quality is second to none - this is one of those ''they don't build them like they used to'' kind of lenses. Manual focusing is very nice, with a huge focusing range of 340 degrees.
This isn't the best lens for shooting small moving critters: to get your 1:2 reproduction ratio, you'll be very close indeed. For those, the 105mm ƒ/2.8 VR is a better option. For dedicated macro work, sometimes it's not necessary to have all the latest bells and whistles, and the 55mm ƒ/2.8 AIS is an excellent example of that.
The VFA target should give you a good idea of sharpness in the center and corners, as well as some idea of the extent of barrel or pincushion distortion and chromatic aberration, while the Still Life subject may help in judging contrast and color. We shoot both images using the default JPEG settings and manual white balance of our test bodies, so the images should be quite consistent from lens to lens.
As appropriate, we shoot these with both full-frame and sub-frame bodies, at a range of focal lengths, and at both maximum aperture and ƒ/8. For the ''VFA'' target (the viewfinder accuracy target from Imaging Resource), we also provide sample crops from the center and upper-left corner of each shot, so you can quickly get a sense of relative sharpness, without having to download and inspect the full-res images. To avoid space limitations with the layout of our review pages, indexes to the test shots launch in separate windows.
Nikon 55mm f/2.8 AIS Micro-Nikkor User Reviews
9 out of 10 points and recommended by Airy (15 reviews)Very good allrounder, no obvious flawsMore flare-sensitive than recent lenses.
I mostly use it (via Novoflex adapter) on an OM-D now, where it acts the 1:1, 110mm equivalent. On full frame : sharpness wide open is good, but it has less contrast than recent 50mm lenses, especially when bright lights are in the frame. On the other hand, CA is very low and there are few artifacts when shooting, e.g., shiny metal pieces at macro or even distant settings.reviewed April 26th, 2015
Bottom line : a very good allrounder if macro or close-up is a frequent use case.
10 out of 10 points and recommended by dhale001 (6 reviews)Small, unmatched sharpness, versatile.None
In 1986 I got an inspection contract on a four lane 6,030' long bridge. In addition to primary services I provided, the year long contract required that I photograph many parts of the bridge structural components. I became a professional photographer over night.reviewed December 23rd, 2011
I did not own a 35mm camera.
I bought a Nikkor 55mm Micro 1:2.8 as my first lens purchase with a Nikon F3. I included an extension ring and 2x multiplier. For several years it was the only lens I owned.
Over the years, the camera and lens have been to many countries, tops of 14,000 ' peaks, and jungles as my only lens. It has never required a repair.
The 55mm 1:2.8 is still my favorite lens today, even though I have the AF-S Micro 60mm 1:2.8, and the AF-S Micro 105mm 1:2.8.
The Nikon D7000 I have now meters with the 55mm Micro. Hurrah!!!
9 out of 10 points and recommended by RD Teasley (1 reviews)Small and tack sharp when stopped down
This lens is not quite as sharp as the Nikkor 105 f2.8 ais lens but it is darned close. I purchased mine slightly used in the early 90's and use it almost daily for copy work. It performs well on my Nikon D2X and Nikon D700. I almost never use this lens at f stops wider than f8 and always with a sturdy tripod. My copy is a little finicky in focusing. The focus appears to jump or skip just a little at certain focusing distances.reviewed December 13th, 2011 (purchased for $100)