Lenses (Manual Focus)

Zeiss Optics + Specialized

For nature hikes, my preference is using manual-focus glass for wide-, close-, and mid-range use. Truly precise manual-focus (MF) lenses, with well-dampened focus rings, create a more intimate photographic experience, and they (almost without exception) offer superior build quality, focus throw, and results, than do most of today’s plasticky AF lenses.

Zeiss lenses are the finest MF optics available in the Nikon mount. While the newer Otus optics are the epitome of this, they are too heavy and fragile for long nature hikes in rough terrain. They also have poor reproduction ratios. While the new Milvus optics are excellent also, aesthetically I prefer the ‘Classic’ Zeiss lenses, with their all-metal construction, over the newer ‘Milvus’ version, with their cheap ‘rubber-bands’ for focus rings. Classic Zeiss glass not only perform at a superb level, they provide an inner satisfaction to implement and own.

For similar reasons, I prefer MF lenses for my macro work as well. The legendary Voigtländer APO Lanthar Macro is my go-to lens for standard macro in the field, up to 1:1, with all of the Zeiss lenses I own reversing to become ‘super-macro’ lenses in the field. However, I have recently added the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro for high-mag field use and no longer need to reverse lenses for this type of macro work.

Here is my MF lens lineup today:

Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Lanthar Macro SL

The Connoisseur's Macro Lens

This is a terrific lens for artistic macro imagery in the field, despite being over 15 years old. It is a collector’s item for this reason and is highly-sought-after by macro connoisseurs, due to its very subtle color rendering, its very low chromatic aberration, and for its ability to produce a “3D-effect” in its images compared to today’s modern ‘plastic macros.’ For this reason, the Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 APO-Macro makes a particularly great short-telephoto lens as well. The “CV” (Cosina- Voigtländer) 125mm has an interesting history behind it for those who’d like to learn more about this special lens. If you’re serious about your macro work, and especially if you like to hand stack in the field—and if you enjoy sublime bokeh & subtle color transitions—give this lens a try and you won’t be disappointed.

Find on Ebay: Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 APO-Lanthar Macro

Voigtländer 58mm f/1.4 Nokton SL II-S

The Best Value in the 50-58mm Range

The 50-something focal length (50mm, 55mm, 58mm) has always been the general choice of most photographers for creating intimate portraiture, and there are so many options that it’s hard to know where to begin. While not necessarily ‘the best’ 50-something lens available, the Voigtländer 58mm f/1.4 Nokton is arguably the best value. It is fairly sharp wide-open, it offers smooth bokeh, and its being made of all-metal precision construction amplifies this lens as a great option among many, making it a true joy to use.

Find @ Voigtländer: Voigtländer 58mm f/1.4 Nokton SL II-S

Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5x Ultra Macro

The Best Über Field Macro

This unique and special lens was introduced by Venus Optics right about when I finished my blog post on “The Ultimate Super-Macro Field Lens.” While this specialty lens isn’t an all-around macro, it is simply the best most versatile high-mag macro option I’ve tried, especially for the field. Its compact size + razor-sharp optics make it an invaluable field tool. Surprisingly, it’s even sharper than all my Zeiss lenses, when reversed, and it also out-performs Canon’s legendary MPE-65mm lens as well.

Find @ Venus Optics: Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5x Ultra Macro

Zeiss 25mm F2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2

The Most Useful Wide on Earth

There are two “Classic Zeiss Distagon T* 25mm lenses”: the f/2.8 and the f/2.0. Almost every “lens rating site” will discredit the f/2.8 version and laud the f/2.0 … for the simple reason the f/2 has better “corner sharpness.” What the review sites don’t tell you is, while the f/2.8 version may be weaker in the corners, it is just as good in the center. More importantly, the 2.8 version has a 1:2 reproduction ratio (compared to a 1:6 reproduction ratio in the f/2), as well as a 6.69″ minimum focusing distance (compared to a 9.84″ MFD in the f/2). Finally, the 2.8 version has 330° of focus throw, for precision-focus, compared to 120° of focus throw in the f/2. The takeaway is this: if you’re a pure landscape shooter, then yes, the f/2 version is the superior choice. However, if you’re a multi-dimensional wildlife shooter, particularly if you’re into macro (close-but-wide perspectives of flowers/insects), then you don’t care about ‘corner sharpness,’ as much as intimate proximity. In this respect, the f/2.8 version will be the clear choice for you … as it was for me … where the field curvature + corner softness actually enhance the overall image presentation.

This lens can also be reversed to achieve 2.7x magnification as a super-macro lens.

Find on eBay: Zeiss Distagon T* 25mm F2.8 ZF.2

Zeiss 21mm F2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2

With this lens, I have replaced the last of my old Nikkor AI-S manual-focus lenses with Zeiss ‘Classic’ MF equivalents. The reason I have dropped the older Nikkor MF AI-S glass for equivalent Zeiss MF glass is both due to superior image quality as well as more flexibility that I get with the Zeiss. For example, the old 20mm Nikkor AI-S allowed me to come up to 9.84″ (for only .12x magnification), while this 21mm Zeiss Classic allows me to come up to 8.66″ (for .2x magnification)—producing superior resolution, color, and contrast the process. I do miss the lighter-weight of the Nikkor AI-S lenses while hiking; however, the superior image quality + added versatility I get back from these Zeiss MF upgrades is more than worth the trade-off.

This lens can also be reversed to achieve 3.9x magnification as a super-macro lens.

Find on eBay: Zeiss Distagon T* 21mm F2.8 ZF.2

Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2

The Finest Ultra-Wide-Angle Prime

This is the first Zeiss lens I bought. Almost immediately, with the traditional Zeiss design (all-metal/glass), I realized the classic Zeiss Distagon T* 15mm f/2.8 lens was an investment into a great era gone by. Optically, it has been the sharpest, cleanest-rendering wide-angle lens for many years, and it remains a benchmark in resolution and micro-contrast in its class, even today. The 15mm focal length is wider than I normally prefer to go, but I do use it for my work as an investigator, photographing the interior/exterior scenes of accidents and/or crimes. It also offers an advantage as a landscape lens, when you “just can’t get enough in,” with the extra bonus of a 9.9″ close-focusing distance for creating unique perspectives. The quality of its rendering, the micro-contrast it captures, and its incredible resistance to flare (for a lens this wide), all put the Zeiss Distagon T* 15mm in a league of its own.

Find on eBay: Zeiss Distagon T* 15mm f/2.8 ZF.2