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Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 Review

April 6, 2016

This is the lens produced from 1969-1979.  It’s a hard-core pre-AI model, and was tested on the D5000, which Nikon specifically states is incompatible with this camera.  Guess they never tried it.

 

Did you know that this was the lens used to film the battle cruiser in the opening scene of the original Star Wars movie?  George Lucas was after the maximum quality he could get, and he got it. They moved the lens over the model of the ship on a motor-driven slide, instead of moving the ship past the lens.  It was filmed by Richard Edlund, who also created the opening scene for Star Trek, where the starship Enterprise whizzes past, and he worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark as well.  Richard got several Oscars in his career, and was always a big fan of Nikon.

 

Nikon built this lens with supreme mechanical precision; it works as well today as it did when it was brand new.

 

The MTF50 measurements presented below, being produced from a 12MP camera, don’t look as high as more modern high-resolution sensors.  The problem is, though, that the lens won’t fit on those cameras.

  

 Focus

 

As smooth as smooth can be, but totally manual.  I actually dropped this lens onto a granite boulder when I was on a hike in the 80’s, but it still works perfectly.  A moment etched into my memory.  Not many lenses would have survived that treatment.

 

A word about the D5000 here.  They have an “electronic range finder focus" manual focus scale in addition to the “idiot dot” focus confirmation.  Ironically, the premium range finder focus scale is unavailable while using this manual-focus lens, and all you get is the idiot dot.  How’s that for a camera design?

 

The lens focuses from infinity to half-life-size, but it can focus down to life-size if you use the PK-3 ring that it comes with.

 

This is probably the most premium focus scale ever produced on a non-cinema lens, since precision and accuracy were what this lens design was all about.

 

55mm f/3.5 Micro-Nikkor on D5000

 

55mm Micro-Nikkor in full regalia on PB-4 bellows

 

Check out this shot.  That’s the PB-4 bellows with the lens reverse-mounted for maximum sharpness when going beyond life-size.  I got this equipment back in the day when figuring out exposure for slides would put hair on your chest.

 

This shows the following:

BR-2 ring to mount the lens in reverse, using the 52mm filter threads.  The lens is sharper reverse-mounted when using magnifications beyond life-size.

BR-3 ring mounted on the rear of the lens to permit keeping a 52mm filter over the lens, in addition to protecting the rear portion of the lens and acting as a lens hood.

BR-4 ring to keep the lens opened at maximum aperture until you take the shot.

AR-4 release (one cable fits into the BR-4, the other cable threads onto the camera shutter release (e.g. Nikon F2 shutter) to coordinate stopping the lens down prior to tripping the shutter.

PB-4 bellows, which features tilt-shift controls and of course holds the slide-copy and film strip attachment up front.  It also has click-stops to hold the camera either horizontal or vertical. (Slide copy attachment not shown).

 

I have separate attachments to mount flashes up front on the bellows, but it’s typically easier to just use a card and bounce flash from the camera-mounted flash.

 

Resolution Testing

 

These tests were done using a Nikon D5000 (12 MP) with unsharpened RAW format.

 

Resolution is a 2-dimensional thing.  The tests that follow show you how resolution varies throughout the frame.

 

Also, the sagittal direction is really, really good.  The meridional direction isn’t as good, but is still better than most lenses.

 

I use a (free!) program called MTF Mapper from here to measure lens resolution.  The download site also has files for printing out the resolution targets (mine are A0 size on heavy glossy paper (‘satin’ finish seems to work just as well), dry-mounted onto a board).  This program is covered in more detail in my MTF Mapper Cliff’s Notes article. The software is comparable to ‘Imatest’ in the quality of the MTF measurements, and it uses the “slanted edge” technology similar to ‘Imatest’, also. I can’t thank the author of MTF Mapper, Frans van den Bergh, enough.  Visit his site and give him the praise he deserves.

 

The chart design used for resolution tests orients all of the little black squares to be ‘slanted’ but they’re generally aligned in meridional and sagittal (think spokes on a wheel) directions to correlate better with the usual MTF plots you’re familiar with.  There’s often a dramatic difference in sharpness between these two directions, and the chart photographs show it clearly.

 

If you spot some small islands of resolution peaks/dips in the following charts, you can safely ignore them.  Visually imperceptible variations in the surface of the resolution chart can show up rather dramatically in the plots, because the analysis software is exquisitely sensitive.

 

What the resolution target looks like.  Mine is mounted ‘upside down’.

 

Finally, I’m getting around to some actual resolution results.

 

 

Tests were done with “Live View” manual focus at maximum magnification and IR remote. I use the “best of 10 shots”; not every shot gets the same resolution results.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The corners aren’t good until f/5.6, but the center is terrific at all apertures until a little beyond f/16.

 

You don’t want to use f/16 or beyond if resolution is important to you.  Diffraction kills sharpness.  I didn’t bother to measure, although this lens lets you set the aperture all the way down to f/32.

 

The resolution of this lens is wonderful.  It’s easy to see why it was Big Man On Campus during its time.  It’s amazing how well this lens measures up today, considering the limited tools and materials available to lens designers in the 60’s and 70’s.

 

Conclusions

 

If you don’t mind slowing down your pace a bit, this lens can produce images second to none.  It’s a shame that the lens mount doesn’t permit being mounted on the latest Nikons.

 

Back in the day, Nikon engineers seemed to be more fanatical about close-up photography.  I bet most of you have never even seen the PB-4 bellows and its really cool attachments.

 

The next time you watch the first Star Wars movie, think about the lenses that shot it.

 

 

 

Sample Pictures

 

 

Protea flower, high magnification, 55mm reverse-mounted on PB-4

 

 

Whole protea flower, f/8

 

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