When I first went looking for a macro lens, I had no idea what I was getting into. I purchased it as an afterthought; a few years ago I took my regular trip to the monthly Pasadena Camera Show, stopped by their bargain table on the way out, and bought a ratty Pre-AI Micro Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 with some caked-on gunk on the front element for about thirty bucks. I cleaned off the gunk, mounted it onto my mirrorless camera, and took a couple of test shots just to see if it worked.
Four years and hundreds if not thousands of shots later, I’m still not sure of what I’ve gotten myself into. This particular Nikon Micro Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 was supposed to be a stopgap until I got a better macro lens, but it’s still here. It’s taken nearly every single product shot I’ve ever made for my article on this site and it remains perpetually mounted to one of my cameras, forever ready to shoot. It’s practically a fact of life for me at this point, but one that baffles me every day.
The only explanation is that the Micro Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 is it’s own kind of paradox. The lens is old, yet the images look startlingly new. It’s slow, yet more capable than most of my other lenses. It’s made to specialize in one sort of photo, but it’s useful for so much more than that.
The story of the Micro Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 starts right at the beginning of Nikon’s SLR journey. Being that the SLR format was practically made for macro shooting owing to its through-the-lens viewing and ability to preview depth-of-field, the Nikon F became the perfect platform to showcase Nikon’s macro lens-making chops. Early efforts were shaky, involving an adapted 5cm f/3.5 Micro Nikkor from the Nikon rangefinder lens roster and another rather arcane preset aperture lens developed specifically for the F.
Quickly these were refined and simplified into 1963’s Micro Nikkor-P 55mm f/3.5. The lens featured a five elements in three groups design, and boasted a native reproduction ratio of 1:2, which could be improved to a true macro ratio of 1:1 through the use of the matching M1 extension ring. The lens was a hit with the Nikon F faithful and became an essential piece of gear for any Nikon SLR user in the 1960s.
The 1970s ushered in a new era for Nikon with the Nikon F2, and with it came a litany of small improvements to the Nikkor lens lineup. The 55mm f/3.5 underwent a particularly significant shift – the optical design was revamped, now being comprised of five elements in four groups. Further enhancement came by way of an improved optical coating and an ergonomically improved knurled focusing ring. It was to be the last hurrah of the classic 55mm f/3.5, but it turned out to be a pretty loud hurrah.
Functionally this lens was impressive for its day. It boasted an extended aperture range of f/3.5 to f/32, and a double-helicoid focusing system that took you straight from infinity to 1:2 through a couple twists of its sizable focusing ring (and further to 1:1 with the mentioned extension ring). Versatility and ease-of-use was the name of the game for this lens, as well as portability, owing to the light weight of its miniscule lens elements.
Today, the lens holds up beautifully. The all-metal construction of a pre-AI lens like this one is really something to behold. It protects its innards well owing to its deep, recessed focusing helicoid. It also weighs a refreshingly small amount, especially when compared to old school pre-AI behemoths like the Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 or Nikkor-P 135mm f/2.8. Like with most Nikon Pre-AI lenses, one gets the feeling that this lens could last forever.
But all of this makes sense. Of course the Micro Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 is simple, robust, and unassuming – it’s a pre-AI Nikon lens. This should surprise no one. What’s really surprising (and on occasion, frightening) is just how good this lens is, not just at its job, but at absolutely everything.
As a Macro Lens
On paper, this lens should not have aged well. Lenses were quite good in the ’60s and ’70s, but today we often forgive these lenses’ technical shortcomings by labeling them “vintage” and “characterful.” Pre-Ai lenses are notorious for this. My beloved Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 softens up considerably wide-open, and my Sonnar-pattern Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 often makes me work around its long minimum focusing distance. The Micro Nikkor 55mm f/3.5, however, shows almost none of these instances of “character.” It’s an astonishingly simple lens, and yet the images it makes are, technically, nearly flawless.
Sharpness and resolution of the Micro Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 are its signature strong suits. At f/3.5 it’s quite sharp with a hint of some chromatic aberration and coma, but becomes blindingly sharp when closed down anywhere past that aperture. When combined with the exceptional resolving power of this lens, which is optimized for macro shooting, it makes for some of the sharpest images one can expose on 35mm film. The extremely close minimum focusing distance also reveals something quite remarkable for a macro lens – this sharpness and resolution remains remarkably consistent throughout the focusing range, peaking out at the 1:10 reproduction range.
Owing to the simplicity and compactness of its lens elements, this lens also exhibits high contrast and an unbelievable color rendition. Colors are rich and vivid, yet contain none of the hyper-real colors we often receive from more modern multi-coated lenses. Colors all look natural, and the heavier contrast ensures that these colors pop off the image as they should. I rarely, if ever, have to do any kind of color correction on any image made with this lens because the colors are naturally great.
But if there’s one attribute that macro lenses strive for, it’s flat-field performance. I won’t get into the sordid details of the subject, but in a nutshell, lenses optimized for flat-field performance feature less field curvature, and therefore render a flatter (and more accurate) plane of focus than other general purpose photographic lenses. This is important especially at extremely short focusing distances as we want the subject we focus on to, well, be in focus. The Micro Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 excels precisely in this category. It’s extremely well-corrected for field curvature at extremely short distances, which makes the lens perfect for its intended use, macro photography. Shuffling through the aperture range reveals accurate, but beautiful representations of the lens’ depth-of-field characteristics, and the lens remains wonderfully controllable at every f-stop, again important for discerning macro shooters.
As a Standard Lens
The big trick with the 55mm Micro Nikkor, and indeed all macro lenses of a standard focal length, is its ability to function effectively as both a macro lens and a standard lens. The 55mm macro is a lens type that’s made for people who want to make macro photos occasionally (or often) but who don’t want to spend big bucks on a dedicated lens for macro-only shooting, or for users who need to be able to shoot macro shots and then quickly shift to standard photos without removing and replacing a lens. In this way, the 55mm Micro Nikkor excels.
Correction for flat-field performance at closer focusing ranges can hinder corner performance at normal focusing ranges. We’ve already mentioned that this lens has excellent flat-field performance close up, but does it maintain this quality when shot as a standard 55mm lens?
This aspect of the lens’ performance is usually touted as one of the main drawbacks of the Micro Nikkor 55mm f/3.5. And this makes sense. After all, it’s an old speciality lens and should exhibit some kind of weakness. But in my experience, I never felt that the lens let me down at standard focusing ranges. In fact, I love using it as a standard lens. If the scene requires absolute sharpness and resolution with deep depth-of-field then you better believe I’m busting the Micro Nikkor out. It technically outperforms all of my other Nikkor lenses (and most other lenses I’ve tested for this site), and I can trust it to render a scene accurately.
If there is a weakness of the Micro Nikkor 55mm f/3.5, it would have to be its slower maximum aperture which, if we’re being honest, is a moot point. f/3.5 sounds slow, but I’ve found that its maximum aperture is more than capable for general photography, and hits exactly the right amount of depth-of-field for my taste. The slight chromatic aberration of the lens wide-open at close range might also irk some shooters, but the lens retains its high contrast, resolution, and great color rendition even at its maximum aperture. Still other macro shooters may cry foul because this lens needs an extension ring to reach true 1:1 reproduction, which is a valid concern, but I can’t think of a time where I didn’t have time to simply switch it out. Maybe I’m just not that hardcore, but then again, I do write for a site with the word “Casual” in the name.
If you really need an improvement on the Micro Nikkor 55mm f/3.5, there’s always the later and even more legendary Micro Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 AI lens. It’s faster, features an updated lens formula and coatings, and even corrected the (slight) flat-field correction problem at standard focusing distances. It’s a fantastic lens, and definitely an improvement on the older model. That said, it also costs two to three times more than the one I’m reviewing.
Much of the benefit of the Micro Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 lies in the fact that it’s so cheap. With a going price of around $50, it’s the most bang-for-my-buck lens I’ve ever purchased. Again, it’s taken nearly every single product photo I’ve ever made for the site, and will probably take even more of them. In terms of raw performance, it reminds me of the ungodly expensive Leica Summicron V3 I tested a while ago, and yet it’s cheaper than even the cheapo Nikon Series E 50mm f/1.8, and more capable than either of those lenses in every category except lens speed. It should be touted as a truly classic Nikon lens, but it often doesn’t even figure in the conversation. It’s an unglamorous, old, slow specialty lens and will likely always be perceived that way, even though it’s capable of so much more.
I kind of like it that way. It means that the humble Micro Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 will forever be the most enigmatic lens in my bag. After years of shooting with it I know what it does, how to use it, and how it works, yet it still manages to surprise and confound me at every turn. Oh well. Some things will always remain a mystery. In this case, maybe it’s better that way.
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Great review of a great lens.