And a bargain at that?
My pro shooter friend Kit Laughlin said this was the best lens made by Nikon today – super sharp, great colour depth, lovely bokeh. And it only cost a little more than $500. Hard to believe.
These are my main uses for this kind of lens. Macro (Micro in Nikon speak) is for getting right up close to things, and portrait is about sharp focus on the subject and creamy bokeh in the background. Plus capturing natural skin tones, and doing so in all kinds of availabe light.
Choosing a macro lens
The portrait part is reasonably straightforward, although most pros say 75 to 135mm is the optimum range. Macro is a bit more tricky: if you want to shoot insects, you really need 150 – 200mm in focal length. Anything less will have a very short working distance at 1:1 magnification, which will scare the tiny critters away before you catch them.
Even when shooting still objects like coins, it pays to keep your distance and pay attention to the camera angle - see how the coin is sharp at the top but not at the bottom? That's why a tripod is really useful for this kind of work - you can line everything up and get real close without shaking.
It makes you wonder why Nikon released a 40mm micro lens recently. In general, the lower the focal length of the lens, the lower the cost, so a 40mm macro is cheaper than a 60mm macro which is cheaper than the 105mm lens (the Nikon 105 is close to $1,000 in price). For obvious reasons, the shorter focal length lenses are also smaller and lighter.
Should you opt for VR or OS or IS? For normal shooting, you don’t really need VR this side of 150mm if your technique is solid. For portraits and close-up work like product shots, you’ll probably use a tripod so again there's no need for VR. In short, it's not really an issue, and it tends to add bulk and cost to any lens. The added complexity can also detract from sharpness.
Too many options to choose from
This is a truly crowded field: here are most of the current options:
AF Micro-NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8D
AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED
AF-S DX Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/3.5G ED VR
AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4 G
AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED
AF-DC Nikkor 135mm f/2D (one of the oldest Nikkors still in production)
AF-S VR-Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8G ED-IF
Tamron 60mm f/2.0
Tamron 90mm f/2.8
Tamron SP 180mm F/3.5 Macro Di LD [IF]
Tamron 70-200 SP AF f/2.8 Di LD (IF) Macro
Sigma 70mm F2.8 EX DG Macro
Sigma 85mm F1.4 EX DG HSM
Sigma 105mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM Macro $1400
Sigma 150mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM APO $1600
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO Macro HSM II
Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 APO DG Macro(Motorized)
Getting to a Shortlist
Next to quality, my most important selection criterion is price since I don’t use this kind of lens a lot and don’t want to spend much more than $500. That sure narrows the field.
AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED $550
AF-S DX Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/3.5G ED VR $500
Tamron 60mm f/2.0 $400
Tamron 90mm f/2.8 <$400
Sigma 70mm F2.8 EX DG Macro $500
Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 APO DG Macro(Motorized) $210
The Nikon 85mm and the Tamron 60mm are DX lenses, the others FX. The Nikon 85mm is longer and slower at f/3.5 but it has VR going for it. It looks like the standout bargain here but the reviews aren’t exactly gushing – good value but not the best glass in the class. That kind of thing.
The Tamron 60mm gets terrific reviews for IQ and is faster at f/2.0, and the price is lower at $400. The only problem is the clunky AF motor Tamron has stuck inton this lens, a frequent problem with older Tamron lenses - the new 70-300mm with the USD drive is a very different proposition. If you don't rely on the AF too much, it's probably the standout bargain here.
I owned a copy of Tamron’s 90mm f/2.8 a while back. It produced lovely images but was too short to get really close to tiny critters, better for portraits. It’s not an IF lens and has a long plastic extension tube, which can be awkward. Again, the AF is a clunky affair, and hunts a lot. Great value if those things don’t matter much.
The Sigma 70mm gets terrific reviews for IQ and sharpness but it has no HSM (inbuilt motor) so it won’t AF on the D5100. If you have a D7000 or D90 or D80, this is a lens worth checking out as well since it will look like a 105 on those bodies – possibly a bargain 105.
I also owned a Sigma 70-300 once and sold it because it has no VR (there is a newer, dearer version that does). On the long tele end (150-300mm), VR is really useful. You can switch it to macro in the 200-300 range but 1:2 magnification is the limit here. Still, with that long reach you can get plenty close to tiny things.
The Sigma is surprisingly sharp and produces very true colours, but again the extension tube is long and plasticky, and the AF slow and noisy. Still, if you’re on a tight budget, you’ll get 2 lenses in one for a bit over $200. Nothing wrong with that.
The Nikon 60mm f/2.8 gets a perfect score
I ended up buying this lens, because the reviews are a lensmaker’s dream (see links at the end of this post).
- Fred Miranda – 10 out of 10
- Adorama user reviews – 5 out of 5
- Amazon user reviews – 5 out of 5
- Photozone only gives it 4 out 5 but I’ve never seen a lens score better than 4 on that site.
The lens has a lot going for it on paper:
- The price is close to the budget
- The lens is compact and an IF design, so it stays compact and filters are no problem
- It employs Nano Crystal coating for reducing flare and optimising contrast
- It’s equipped with a fast Silent Wave AF motor
- Manual override is immediate.
Photozone points out that the lens hood might get in the way of essential light in close-up work, where the subject distance to the front lens is as little as 5 cm maximum magnification. The hood is 4cm in length, and that doesn’t leave much room.
The lens delivers very sharp images with excellent detail. As always, just click on the images to see larger files.
Sharpness is very even across the range of apertures I tend to use, from f/2.8 to f/8. There is no visible distortion of any kind and I rarely saw chromatic abberation (colour fringing). Vignetting (light fall-off in the corners) is not an issue on a DX body (the tests say it it's noticable on FX bodies - this is an FX lens).
Handling, construction and build
It's a solid lens of modest proportions - it weighs 425g and is 7.3 x 9cm in size. The lens has 9 diaphragm blades, 2 aspherical elements, one ED glass element, nano crystal coating and super integrated coating. It has a distance scale and even a Depth Of Field Scale. It's plastic but it looks and feels like a quality lens.
The focus ring is almost an inch wide, is well weighted and low-geared, so manual focus is easy. There's the usual switch for AF and MF, but you can overide AF at any time. There are no handling isues, with the autofocus fast and reliable even close-up. There's no focus lock to limit hunting, and the lens doesn't need one. The lens balances well on the smallish but solid body of the D5100.
This is a quality lens at an attractive price, no doubt about it. Whether it's worth grabbing depends on your needs. I've been cheating and getting great images of flowers and people using Nikon's 55-300mm kit zoom. Creamy bokeh is no problem zoomed out but you're shooting at f/5 or f/5.6, and you're standing a lot further back. Speed is no longer as critical as it once was with cameras like the D5100, but f/2.8 is nice to have on tap.
The next two images were taken with a Nikon D5000 and the 55-300mm f/3.5-5.6 G. The first one is as sharp as a tack, and the second one shows the colours and the kind of bokeh we treasure.
Regarding the 60mm f/2.8 Micro, I'm in two minds about it. I haven't had a chance to do serious portraits work as yet, and I don't tend to do a lot of that. Nor do I do a lot of macro work, apart from product shots for articles like these. The shot below doesn't really qualify as a portrait, but it shows the lens struggling for once (with the background).
A few reviews that might help you decide: