Classic Lens Review: Nikon 105mm f/2.5 NIKKOR-P

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Few camera lenses helped to define a brand name more than Nikon’s NIKKOR 105mm f/2.5. Produced from 1959 to 2005, this portrait lens underwent five updates during the course of its production run, including a complete makeover, in 1977. Considered by many photographers to be one of the sweetest portrait lenses ever made, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn it was the very lens used by Steve McCurry when he photographed the legendary “Afghan Girl” cover for National Geographic magazine.

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2020

Based on Nikon’s 10.5cm f/2.5 NIKKOR-P, the 105mm f/2.5 NIKKOR (5 elements in 3 groups, Sonnar-type) was designed by Zenzi Wakimoto, in 1949, as a fast Leica screw-mount telephoto lens for Nikon’s post-war Nikon S-series rangefinder camera. At the time of its release, it was the fastest lens in the 100mm focal range.

With a minimum focus of about 3.5' and a maximum aperture of a moderately wide (by today’s standards) f/2.5, the 105mm NIKKOR-P renders subjects equally well in black-and-white, as well as color.

In addition to switching from Nikon’s original F-mount to a newer Auto Indexing (AI and AI-s) lens mount, a 1970s makeover included a refined optical design (5 elements in 4 groups, Xenotar-type), multi-coatings, a sleeker form factor, and a built-in retractable lens shade, which IMHO is far more convenient to use than the original snap-on shade. Image quality at close-focusing distances is slightly finer in the newer-generation design, but few will dismiss the original design as “lacking.” Fittingly, the person responsible for redesigning the new 105s optical formula was a student of Zenzi Wakimoto—Yoshiyuki Shimizu.

Nikon’s 105mm f/2.5 NIKKOR-P, a lens known for its bokeh before most people even knew bokeh had a name, produces sharp detail with soft feathered falloff fore and aft of the subject. Once stopped down to about f/8, it is also wonderfully sharp.

The 105mm f/2.5 NIKKOR-P used to illustrate this post is a second-generation standard F-mount lens that, according to the serial number, was manufactured sometime between 1971-73. It was the last non-AI/AI-s lens in the 105 f/2.5 series. Designed for use with the pre-mid-’70s Nikon F and F2, beginning with the Nikon F3, FM, and FE-series cameras, older lenses could be used by releasing a small silver tab located near the top of the lens mount. Once released, you can use pre-AI/AI-s lenses, but only in manual and aperture-priority metering modes.

A 1966 Nikon FTn with the very same 105mm f/2.5 NIKKOR-P used to take the photographs that accompany this classic lens review.

The 105mm f/2.5 NIKKOR-P is an easy lens to adapt to mirrorless cameras. The photographs taken to illustrate this post were captured with two cameras—a Sony a7R III (color images) and a Leica M10 Monochrom (black-and-white images) using Novoflex lens adapters.

On a personal note—it was quite amusing to shoot with cameras that cost thousands of dollars and a lens that set me back maybe $79 at the B&H Used Department. And the lens holds its own with both of these 40-plus megapixel cameras.

The ’70s-vintage 105mm f/2.5 NIKKOR-P used in this classic lens review was adapted to a Sony a7R III (left) for the color images and a Leica M10 Monochrom (right) for the black-and-white images.

Something that’s reassuring about 105mm f/2.5 NIKKORs is that, regardless of whether you are shooting with an older or newer lens, though there are differences in the way each version renders the scene, most people agree they are all wonderful to use.

The size (2.6 x 3") and weight (15.3 oz) make the 105mm f/2.5 NIKKOR a popular travel, biking, and hiking lens for pros and enthusiasts alike.

What makes them special is that, unlike many modern lenses, which are designed to match the resolving power of 30, 40, 50, and 60MP imaging sensors, 105 NIKKORs are forgiving to skin tones similar to the way 1950s- or ’60s-vintage medium-format film cameras render skin tones—sharp but lovingly forgiving.

Nikon 105mm f/2.5 NIKKOR portrait lenses, regardless of vintage, have a unique visual signature that lends itself to a number of photographic applications.

NIKKOR 105mm f/2.5 lenses typically display a slight vignette when wide open until about 5/5.6, where it becomes a non-issue. For portraits, the sweet spot is between f/5.6 and f/8, like many NIKKOR lenses of this vintage. Other specs for the 105mm f/2.5 NIKKOR-P include size (2.6 x 3"), weight (15.3 oz) and filter size (52mm). Included with the lens were front and rear caps, a bubble case, and an HS-2 lens hood.

A Nikon FTn (1966) with a 105mm f/2.5 NIKKOR-P. The lens was a solid performer when it was introduced back in 1959 and is considered a gold standard among portrait shooters to this very day.
A Nikon FTn (1966) with a 105mm f/2.5 NIKKOR-P. The lens was a solid performer when it was introduced in 1959 and is considered a gold standard among portrait shooters to this very day.

Have you ever had an opportunity to photograph with a 105mm f/2.5 NIKKOR lens? If so, tell us about your experiences in the Comments field, below—we’d love to hear your stories.

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Back in the late 1990s I was commissioned to produce the photographs for a Christian rock band's CD and album cover. They were a hectic bunch. Loaded four motor-driven Nikon F2 cameras each with their own 105mm f2.5 non-Ai lenses. I have five including the Micro AiS f2.8. The workflow was flawless. My assistant just kept handing me freshly loaded cameras seamlessly.  Beautiful imagery was produced.  Along with the 85mm s1.8 non Ai (! have two) they are my favored lenses of all time because, unlike the newly designed for digital, they have a certain character balance I depend on for my work. My favored recipe is a Bronica ETR bellows shade with a Nikon #1 Soft on a 105mm f2.5 non-Ai chrome barrel lens with Portra 160 rated and processed at 100 asa for my outdoor portraiture.  No stinking computer needed.  My Rb67 SD loaded the same way.  Bellows shade up front on the 180mm with the Nikon #1 Soft.  Perfect and reliable all the way.  They do for me what digital can't do. Nothing worse for me to do than sit at a computer.  I will be having a 105mm f2.5 modified to mount on my Pentax K1 mk 2 cameras very soon. That's how much I love my fleet of non-Ai chrome barreled lenses. 

Thank you for the interesting article Allan!

I’ve just bought a 105mm ai version (probably around 1978 from the serial number) - it’s not arrived yet, but really looking forward to using it with my D750. It’s wonderful that Nikon lets us use these classic lenses - it feels like a real connection to the past, even if we perhaps need to simulate the film characteristics of the time! 

... Or not simulate them. Sometimes 'in-between' works fine too! The key is enjoy whatever you're shooting with when you're out with a camera.

Well, I must say it’s very beautiful! The lens arrived yesterday and luckily is in a fantastic condition. 

Easy and precise to focus (maybe good to have the longer ai focus throw), the images are lovely straight out of the camera. It’s interesting to try different ‘films’, more to realise how much the film formulation played a part in the look and feel of an image...it’s still fun!

I believe that you will find that the photograph of the camera and the lens (above) is misidentified.  The camera is indeed the vnerable Nikon F, but the metering head isn't the FTn, it is the Photomic T.

The FTn was (is) a center weighted TTL metering system and the Photomic T averages across the most of the groundglass.  The battery cover on the FTn is located under the metering prism, and as in the photograph, the battery cover is on tgeh side of the metering prism in the Photomic T.

Admittedly, this is rather arcane information, but I have owned both the FTn and the Photomic T, and still have two operational 1960s vintage Nikon F bodies with working FTn metering prisms.

Stephen - I think you got me on this one - good all!

The good news is that the meter doesn't work and I usually use my '66 F with a standard prism.

The 105 2.5, the earlier 105 macro, the current 105 macro were and are among my all time favorite lenses. I still remember the first time I ever used my new 105 F:2.5. I was impressed right away but when I processed my film (I believe it was B+W Tmax) I could see from the wet negatives how amazing this lens was going to be. It is still my go to lens in the studio when I want to really bring a particular intimacy with the subject (usually food). Todays 105 macro is really nice because it allows up to 1:1 with no tube. I actually own two of them. 

Don't give these 105s up Al - these lenses are keepers!

(BTW I think you spell your name wrong... it's an 'a', not an 'e'...)

Oh, how I miss my Nikon 105, 2.5 MANUAL lens.  I had bought it used when I worked in a photo store (not too many of them around any more, sad) and my first nikon body was the FE2 with the MD-12 motordrive.  I thought I could take on the world with that combination!  The 105  was heavy, built to last until ever and I had the sharpest, most fine images with that lens.  I shot weddings for a number of years and the 105 came out for each and every portrait I had scheduled to take.  Never a bad image from the 105 and my clients loved the results.  Sadly, I traded it years ago in for an upgrade to newer equipment and to this day, with my D750, I still wish I had that 'old tank' of a lens to enjoy over and over again.  I loved to open the aperature all the way and simply look through the lens, lovely crafted optics, firm but smooth focus was simply always 'there'.

Dan,

You can buy used 105s by the pound - clean ones can be purchased for under $100.

I think I paid $79 for mine.

Life's short - buy another 105 and enjoy it!

Suggestions from where?

Hey Daniel,

These lenses are quite common having been produced for so many years. I suggest you regularly check the listings at the B&H Photo Used Department (they come & go frequently). You can also check on eBay. I've purchased camera gear at both outlets and though I've made out well both places, I always feel more comfortable when I buy at B&H because I know the item is guaranteed to be in good working condition. Guarantees aren't always as 'guaranteed' when purchased on eBay. Good luck!

Loved seeing this article about a lens that I've owned since 1970 or 71.  As I recall, it was one of the first multicoated lenses to come out.  I used it on a black Nikon F with Photomic FTn finder, just like the pictures here.  I probably would have sold it, but it was lost in my parents' house for over 15 years and I wasn't inclined to sell it after it turned up again.  The years it was lost included the entire span of time when Nikon was doing AI conversions, so this is my only old Nikon lens that is not AI.  In the meantime I had tried the later design and didn't like it because the quality went to pieces if you put it on extension tubes or bellows.  You can tell the later design is quite different, because the rear element is all the way back at the lens mount, while it's recessed in the Nikkor-P version.  Now I use this lens on Micro 4/3 cameras via a Metabones Nikon F adapter, and it gives me that different, sort of magical quality that you want from vintage glass on a digital camera.  I still have a working F2 body also, but have little occasion to use it, especially since the optics in the prism finder (plain prism with obligatory ding in the front surface) don't suit my aging eyes.

Chuck,

I only hope you, your Nikon F, and your 105 can grow old together.

Thanks for sharing.

that first color photo of the flowers (irises?) has some pretty busy bokeh. So I was skeptical, but the rest of the shots look pretty good.

Which kind of illustrates something about trends in photography. The last 10 years or so have been typified by an obsession with pea soup bokeh and shallow DOF. Which is a look, but not the only one.

On the other hand the older lenses seem to be gunning for that Ansel Adams landscape style where every single thing is perfectly sharp and in focus!

Personally I like adapated lenses because older glass was made differently than current lenses. The coatings were different, the glass itself maybe had lead or thorium in it, which they no longer do.
The best part though is being 'forced' to engage with your camera the old fashioned way. By focusing it.

You are correct on all counts Russell.

I view lenses as brushes - each has it's own brush marks and leaves a different impression.

That's one of the things I love about picture-taking.

Can this lens be used on a D750 or D7500?

Both the D750 and D7500 can accept this lens. However, the D7500 only allows for Manual Exposure Mode with the lens while the D750 offers both Aperture Priority and Manual Exposure Modes.

The 105mm Nikkor was a fantastic lens, and even early models could be converted to AI by anyone with moderate DIY skills, a set of jeweller's screwdrivers and a file. It performed far better than the 85mm f1.8, but for news photographers, being a bit wide is preferable to being a bit long, so it was often a 2nd choice. And the Nikkor 85mm f1.4... legendary.

I have found the performance of film lenses adapted to Leica or µ4/3rds to be variable. Some lense, especially faster ones, don't really shine as they did with film. Probably related to the angle of incidence on the sensor. OTOH, ancient screw-mount lenses can produce great results. Leading us to wonder why modern designs are so expensive. I'll leave the economists to explain that

I bought this lens in 1971 for my F2 and used it until last year when I gave my equipment to my nephew.  I never had a better lens, super sharp with great bokeh.  Built like a tank, too.  The only fault would have been the shade's spring mount, which popped off and fell into the Diamond Head volcanic cone.  I did not try to descend the cone to retrieve it (my bad).

The first thing I did when I purchased my 105 was to purchase a generic screw-in shade specifically because I remember how easily they fall off. So far the screw-in shade hasn't fallen into any active volcanos.

I have one in my collection and I love this lens.  In the day it was the goto portrait, fashion or beauty lens of choice and it’s performance holds up well on my a7Rii today.  It’s very close focus, forgiving wide open and tack sharp corner to corner at f4.  I started out on a FfTn and lusted after this lens as a young man but couldn’t afford it.  I’m amazed you can buy one for around $100 these days, money well spent.  Some day maybe I’ll pick a F4 body and get back into film.

This was the only lens I used with my Nikon Ftn in the 1970's--I loved it. It traveled with me through Europe for an entire year and I shot everything from landscape to portrait and street shots with it. I still have the lens and the camera. 

... A true believer. Fred is the real-deal!

My 2 favorite lenses back in the 90’s for my nature photography were the 105mm f/2.5 and the 500mm f/4 P IF-ED. The 105 gave me very sharp photos. I still have the 500mm f/4 P IF-ED and even though it’s manual focus it’s still and excellent lens. 

That's an interesting pair of optics. I never shot with the 500/f4 P IF-ED but i've seen pics taken with it - it's pretty darn impressive!

I have a 10.5 cm f/2.5 Nikkor in Contax RF mount, and would echo your comments on the general excellence of this lens. It is certainly right up there with the Zeiss 85 mm f/2 Sonnar in optical performance.

Nice article!  What’s the differences with the Nikon 105mm f/2.5 NIKKOR-P•C (with a “C”)? 

Good question. The 'C' stands for 'coatings'. The C version featured improved lens coatings. The C designation also indicated the switch from the original Sonnar design (5-elements, 3-groups) to a newer Gauss design (5-elements, 4-groups). The newer design reportedly renders a flatter plane-of-focus, which some people prefer for portraiture. Once stopped down past f/4-5.6 the differences are negligible and the resolving power of each of these lenses are comparable. Both versions are keepers!

Thank you very much! 

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