Stumpy Goes to Ottawa: The Nikon AF-S 105mm f/2.8 VR Micro

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's a quick, stable, and available.

The Long Version: There are certain lenses that earn nicknames. Canon has The Brick, Olympus has the Big Tuna and Little Tuna, Sonica-Minolty has the Beercan, and we all have the Bigma. I don't usually name my lenses, even for my internal monolog - I think of them by their focal length - but I took a long look at the Nikon AF-S 105VR Micro lens on my D700, and thought: "Stumpy". So help me, I haven't been able to get it out of my head since then. Like the rest of this review, it's meant with affection, no matter how it sounds.

Physically, the 105mm f/2.8 is big: its length isn't that remarkable, but it's got massive girth on its side. It's also heavy, but considering its weight-to-volume ratio, it doesn't seem as heavy as it is - I had to put it on the kitchen scale before I believed that it actually was double the weight of the little 85mm f/1.8. The boxy-petal lens hood adds to its impression of volume, but I really like the aesthetics of the combination. On a DX or DXXX series camera, Stumpy looks big but balances well. On a DXX or DXXXX series, the smaller body might look better with the new micro-micro, the 85mm f/3.5 DX. I was able to play with one of them on a D300s as soon as they reached the store shelves - actually, slightly before that - and while it's a nice lens, it's not a replacement for Stumpy.

What I'm having a hard time deciding is what other lens, exactly, that the 105 f/2.8vr would replace. While Photozone and SLRGear disagree with each other, I'm going to side with the side that thinks that the 85mm f/1.8 is sharper. I'll also say that the VR makes a difference, giving more consistently sharp results overall. So compared to the lens that's half as expensive, it gains image stabilization in exchange for one-and-a-bit stops of light, and possibly loses peak sharpness. Incidentally, it's also twice as heavy and about a billion times the cubic volume.

Some people will look to Stumpy for portrait photography, but it's fifth out of four in my top recommendations for that particular task. Depending on the camera body and the working distance, for FX I'd be looking at the 85/1.4, 105/2.0 DC, or 135/2.0 DC as the top pick, with the 85/1.8 trailing behind as the budget choice. (For cameras that need motorized lenses to focus, the 50/1.4 AF-S is about the only reasonable choice. But since I'm writing from the perspective of a full-frame camera, DX lenses are really outside of the comparison.)

All of those lenses will allow shallower depth of field and/or more control over the blur than Stumpy will. What Stumpy does offer is image stabilization, but that's not enough to ensure critical sharpness in the fuzzy-ears school of portraiture. Vibration Reduction isn't a universal replacement for tripods.

Since controlling the exact placement of the plane of focus is also absolutely critical for macro photography, camera shake isn't nearly as detrimental to sharpness as good old-fashioned front-to-back sway. Yes, the 105 micro's VR will help run-and-gun close-up shots a little, but not as much as a twin or ring flash - and run-and-gun is an inherently bad way to get great photos. So when someone really cares about macro photography, Stumpy is never my first suggestion. The Nikkor 200/4, or the Sigma 180/3.5 and 150/2.8 all come before it, because there's no such thing as too much working distance for macros. The only exception is for doing copy-work, in which case you should look at the 60mm AF-S or AF-D lenses first.

So Stumpy isn't my first choice for portraits, although the focal length seems perfect, and it's not my first choice for macros, despite being capable of 1:1 reproduction. This must be seeming like a pretty grim review for a lens that I've already said that I like. The key to resolving this discrepancy is that while it may not be the best at either - or even in the top three or four lenses to use - it's because the others are more highly specialized. I probably wouldn't want the 200/4 Micro lens for taking portraits, and I definitely wouldn't get a decent macro shot with one of the exotic Defocus Control lenses. The 105VR is pretty good at both tasks in exchange for not being the best at either.

So I've come to think of Stumpy as a general purpose walk-around lens, and as that, it's one of the best that Nikon makes for full-frame cameras. It's a contest that it wins almost by default. No, it doesn't have the flexibility of a zoom, but the 24-70 is too heavy and expensive, and the lighter/cheaper 24-120 sucks. The 18-35 is cheap but unremarkable; 17-35 shares its useful range but is heavy and expensive; the 14-24 has the latter two traits and awesome optics without having the practical near-normal focal length.

The story for primes is not much better; anything wider than 35mm has excessive 'character', and anything longer would benefit from image stabilization, which only Stumpy has. The photo of the clock tower was handheld at 1/13 of a second, taken before sunrise on three hours' sleep; either of those should rule out a sharp image, but Stumpy pulled it off. I shot it at iso800 f/2.8; with my 85/1.8 I would have been at iso3200/2.0. That photo also would have worked, but even on a D700, there are tradeoffs to boosting the sensitivity that high. It also would have lost the cool flutter in the flag.

Shooting at f/2.8 gives some control over the depth of field, and has a gentle transition from in-to-out. It's hard to say much about this; as I mentioned in my review of the 85/1.8, out-of-focus areas aren't something I see often in my photographs, and I'm not the most attuned to evaluating its appearance. So to make up for that, the next image is also shot wide-open, in this case at f/3.0. Apparently it's common for internal-focusing macro lenses to have their aperture gets narrower at closer focusing distances. At 1:1, Stumpy is at f/4.5; the non-IF 85PC-e is f/4.2 at 1:2 magnification. However, the Sigma 180/3.5 and 150/2.8 retain their widest apertures throughout their magnification ranges, as does my Olympus 50/2.0. The 105/2.8 stops being an f/2.8 lens when it's nine feet from its subject, goes to f/3.2 at two feet, giving 1/4 magnification, and f/3.5 at half-life-sized.

This is the same tower from two photos ago, only this time I've focused on the fence just a few feet from the camera. Comparing the two images gives a little better idea of OOF rendering in a fairly tough setup. The lowest white disk is the clock, and it really does get dimmer at the edges. The triangle of yellow-orange above it are three windows that are lit by tungsten bulbs. Overall I would say that there's nothing to complain about here, and it might actually be doing a really good job. What I do notice is the vignetting: wide open, at whatever aperture that may be, it's fairly prominent. "Closed/Fermé" shows it clearly, and I can spot wide-open shots by their tumbnails in Lightroom.

This exceptional photo was taken facing away from Parliament Hill, with the early-morning sun still low in the sky and just out of the viewfinder at the top-left. I've cropped it to show only the lower-right quarter of the frame so that we can get a better look at Stumpy's flare characteristics. The shooting aperture was f/5.6 (iso200, 1/2000s) and only the default adjustments have been applied in Lightroom. I can't honestly say that the lens flares more easily than others, but when it does, it isn't pretty. With some wide lenses it can add an artistic flair, but with Stumpy, not so much.

On the long list of things that I'm not, a sports and action photographer is pretty high up there. Stumpy's autofocus is quick enough for street snapshots, but I haven't evaluated it for AF tracking with moving subjects, and probably never will. Compared to other macro lenses that I own of have used, I would put the 105's AF speed up in the top third; certainly better than average, and not significantly different from the 85/1.8. When I'm shooting with Stumpy, I don't need to make any extra allowances for it, and it doesn't frustrate me, which is increasingly the way I measure performance. On my D700, it's not as quick as the new Canon 100/2.8L IS on a 7D, but that's the fastest-focusing macro lens that I've ever seen. Not that fast autofocus or image stabilization are important for a macro lens, but they're great for a walk-around lens.

When I planned my day trip to Ottawa, I knew that I would be starting and ending in complete city-level darkness. Image stabilization would be very important, and Stumpy's Vibration Reduction let me hand-hold the camera down to about 1/15. That's about three stops, with good technique, which isn't as far away from Nikon's claimed performance as I would expect. (The MB-D10 might also have helped.) I also knew that the close-focus inabilities of the 85/1.8 would frustrate me during a day of shooting bilingual signs, making the 105VR a perfect choice. It's still heavier than I'd like, and after twelve hours I was getting tired of carrying it, but that's part of the inherent penalty of a full-frame sensor.

There were a couple of reasons to take Stumpy to Ottawa, and writing this review was one of them. A better reason was to test my ability to do medium-haul road trips, which is something that I plan on doing a couple of times a year. Six to ten hours overnight on the Greyhound, a day in a particular locale, and then back home that night. Packing the right gear into my T2 bag is as important as an iPod and a comfy pair of shoes - capability, complexity, and weight all have to be considered. For Ottawa, I carried Stumpy, my 50/1.8, SX20IS, and PCM-D50 audio recorder; far too much weight, especially considering that I was carrying a second set of batteries for each device. Next time I won't need the Canon camera - I used it for the gear shots here, as well as for sneaking photos in no-camera zones - but I might also consider using the 35/2 instead of the 50/1.8 and bringing the lighter 85/1.8 instead of Stumpy. The deciding factor would likely be the amount of daylight I have. With Ottawa, I arrived two hours before sunrise, and that was usable shooting time that I would have lost without the VR. Hopefully Nikon will invent In-Body stabilization some day, but for now, this is my best choice.

It might seem like I'm still on the fence about this lens, and to some extent, I am. It's an excellent lens, but it's not the best at anything; it has a useful capability that's unavailable in smaller lenses and/or shorter focal lengths, but it only compensates for Nikon deliberately crippling its cameras in order to leverage a lens technology that's only ten years old. I like Stumpy, and enjoy using it. It's great for general duty, and will often do a good enough job that I won't take the time to switch to my 85/2.8 or 180/3.5 when I need quick close-up photos. It suits my personal photography better than any other lens that I own, so it's usually the one that I reach for when I won't be far from home. I like it, I enjoy it, but when someone says to me, "Matthew, I need a lens for ________", Stumpy probably won't be the first one I suggest. But if you can't think of anything in particular that you need it for, and like short telephotos, the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR Micro is a great lens to have.

Instead of littering this with self-referential links, here's some of the other relevant stuff I've reviewed: Nikon 50/1.8, 85/1.8, and 85/2.8PC-e, Sigma 180mm and 150mm, Olympus 50mm f/2, Canon SX20IS, Sony PCM-D50 (case), and T2 messenger bag. For more photos, including some larger versions of these ones, you can use the tag Ottawa on my other blog.


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