Nikon Micro Nikkor 55mm F/3.5 Macro / Standard Lens Review

Nikon Micro Nikkor 55mm F/3.5 Macro / Standard Lens Review

2560 1438 Josh Solomon

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.

Brief History

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.

Final Thoughts

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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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
23 comments
  • Great review of a great lens.

  • Dear Josh,
    thank you so much for this wonderful article about my favorite Nikkor lens. Your words could be mine. After use for so many years it is magic as ever. This beautiful 55er and my F-301/N2000 is my lonely island gear.
    Best wishes

  • I have both the early version, from 1963, and the newer formula version from 1973, both with their appropriate extension tubes as well as a later PK-13 to use on my older film SLRs. They’re both fantastic lenses but in the digital era I never really appreciated them. I have been taking the 1963 version with me when I take landscape photos to get photos of things around me that I find. On one occasion I used it to take a landscape photo, just because. I was shocked by just how sharp the image was using my Z6. The photo was taken at a beach that was made up of small shells so it had a lot of texture and you could make out tiny details everywhere. It was actually too sharp and the image felt gritty as a result. For cityscapes it might be ideal. I’ll have to give that a try.

  • Thanks for the write-up on this remarkable lens. When I bought a Nikon F in 1970, I purchased this lens as my standard lens. In 1984, I replaced it with the AiS version (f/2.8.) In 2000, I transitioned from Nikon SLR’s to Leica M. I sold off all my Nikon equipment except for a Nikon F2 (eyelevel) and the micro-Nikkor AiS lens. It still gets regular use. I’d never part with it. The macro world is interesting. Most of my work is B&W documentary w/some street stufff tossed in, and the micro-Nikkor complements the Leica.

    • haha I did the same thing. I have been shooting nikons since the early 2000s having used an d2xs, f5, fm2 and f2a mostly and a bunch of ais lenses. I have since sold all my lenses to invest in my leica m system. (m4, m4-2 and lenses) except for three my 105 1.8 ais, 28 f2.8 ais, and my trusty 55 f2.8 ais. I still have my fm2 for personal use. I use my f2 and 55mm with students in a photography project I always do for my high school class. I have found leica still cant beat nikon portrait lenses like the 105 and 135. The rangefinder just does not allow it. But like you said I would agree the 55 complements my Summicron 50 m I use.

  • I’m impressed by your willingness to purchase a “ratty” lens with “caked-on gunk”.

  • Sound review; have been waiting for this. I have an the ai version on my F2. It is lived on the camera since I got it a year ago. I love the flat field performance and find using it to shoot urban environments just perfect. Lines are always straight, and the incredible d.o.f allows foreground to background sharpness. One of my favorites next to the 105/f2.5.

    • Avatar
      Stefan Staudenmaier February 10, 2020 at 3:51 pm

      I really have a hard time to say this (because I own both optical formula of the famous 105 too)
      but when it comes to my most favorite portrait lens I would always prefer the 2,8 or 3,5/135 first.

      Specially the Nikkor Q 3,5/135 is such a awesome an inexpensive lens with a great performance
      that it perfectly fit together with the Nikkor Q 3,5/55 Micro.

  • I too have this lens and a set of extension rings . I shoot it on my Nikon d850 . I mostly have used it for small wildflowers and the micro insects that get upon them .
    What I didn’t see written within your article is it’s rendering. This lens seems to have a great 3d rendering. I also have the Sigma 180mm f/2.8 macro dg Ex hsm lens . It seems to flatten the image (macro) to where it seems lifeless. This lens has something special to it .
    With that being said many of the old Nikkor non ai lenses had some special character to their images .
    The Nikkor O f/2 35mm (I think it’s an O) shot wide open of small wildflowers gives some of the most dreamy pictures and beautiful colors .
    Thanks for this inspiring article.

  • Avatar
    Stefan Staudenmaier February 10, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    I own several copies of the Pre-AI and AI Version
    and the funny thing is I run into the Nikkor P 3,5/55
    just on accident searching for a extreme sharp
    standard lens for studio portraits.
    Some describe the bokeh of the Nikkor as not more
    than average but I can’t help myself I just love how it
    renders everything.
    On high resolution film or with „beasts“ like the Nikon D800
    the results are still stunning !

  • Cool review, thanks. I have a pre-AI version of this lens that at some point in its lifetime has been transformed into an AI version, presumably by Nikon via their AI modification service. I think referred to as “AI’d” by some.

  • I have an AI version of this lens and it is a true gem. I can mount it to any of my Nikon bodies and just go all day with it.

  • I have the f/2.8 version of this lens. It gets a lot of use as it’s a great walk around lens!

  • Nice and detailed review! I´ve been looking for this lens for what you describe here, ability to shoot macro and standard at a low price.
    I´ve been following an italian photographer who uses this lens, a Nikon F and Tri-x and he claims that this Nikkor is one of the best lenses for sharpness and straight lines.
    I totally reccommend looking at his work, http://www.instagram.com/renatorepetto (he is the one from the “400TX project”)

    • Avatar
      Stefan Staudenmaier February 11, 2020 at 1:59 pm

      I don’t want to poop on your parade and I had this discussion
      with some Leica Gearheads years ago
      (who spend thousands instead hundreds of bucks)
      to use a insanely sharp lens with a low resolution film
      makes no sense to me
      You should honor this quality with a Illford Pan f or Kodak Ektar !

  • So, another lens I need to add to my kit. Every shooter should have at least one macro. Although I prefer a 105 to help control the background.

  • Great article again Josh, nice shots too. Often, just using the same lens over and over is a very good idea. The reason is that you master it, you know what it is good at, what your workarounds will be (if any), and any weaknesses it has and adjust accordingly. I’d shoot a couple of rolls a month for several months on the same lens. Some folks, even pros, only use one lens, ever, and they get better shots with it than most of us who chop and change all the time. This particular lens is a good go-to lens, a worthy choice for anyone, of course, it’s a Nikkor. facebook.com/groups/thenikongroup
    Mind if I advertise my hobbyist group here? 😂

  • Speaking of this lens I just got one delivered in the mail at my office today. Ai with the diamond ridged focusing grip between 1974-75.

  • I have three Micro-Nikkors, a non-AI 55mm 3.5, an autofocus 55mm 2.8, and a 105mm A.I. f:4. It’s hard to find fault with any of them. Now, that said… I’m leaning in the direction of thinking that the 105 f:4 is probably the sharpest piece of glass Nikon ever hung on a camera. Most media seems to run out of snap before the lens does. That’s saying something, considering that the 1st gen. 55mm 2.8 autofocus is pretty dang snappy itself. And, that takes us to the non-A.I. 55 3.5 which was purchased used from an estate sale. For cheap. Like, 30 bucks. It’s currently on a bellows with a slide attachment for copying transparencies which seems a bit redundant at first, considering I have a neato image scanner with a film scan capacity which does top notch work, yet the 55mm seems to be edgier… if that’s a word. Either way, I like ’em all and they have a home with me forever. That 55 2.8 got apprehended by my daughter who seemed ready to wear it out, to the point that I had to scour another off e-bay for her, so as to get mine back. Interesting story behind that 55mm 2.8 autofocus… it had originally been purchased by the camera shop I worked for, to be used for copy work on a stand with a 1960s vintage Nikon F which had shaky high speeds due to some corrosion and wear on a cam in the shutter speed mechanism but in that application it never saw a shutter speed higher than 1/60. That lens and the old Nikon got a workout for several years and the lens paid for itself many times over (the old Nikon F was mine, supplied for the purpose of its having a reason to be). Then, when digital photography began doing its level best to put film out of business, we found the camera shop which was geared towards film to be a bit redundant and was having trouble breaking even. Sadly, the shop closed, hardly able to make the last payroll… in lieu of my last paycheck I agreed to accept a wad of Efke 35mm film (who remembers Efke?) and that 55mm 2.8 autofocus micro lens, which by the way will focus to 1-1. It’s hard to believe that was nearly 30 years ago… and the lens was new technology then. Good review of the old 55mm Micro-Nikkor which still holds its own with the best of them.

  • Just a great article! Starting in 1974 through 2004 that little non-ai 55mm f3.5 on a Nikon Ftn and a Nikon PFC copy stand gave me all the slides I needed, shot out of old books, to teach architecture. I never had to use the M1 extension ring, and using a flatbed scanner would have broken the spines of those old books. Even now on my Z6 I will not get rid of that lens, nor the non-ai 50mm f1.4 for its great bokeh, nor the non-ai PC 35mm f2.8. I will admit to using a Voigtlander 15mm f4.5 LTM and a Zeiss 25mm f2 ZF.2 on the Z6, but mainly all the old Nikkor glass is still perfect in 2020, at least up to 24MP, which is all I have hard drive space for.

  • I just bought a Nikkormat FT3 on Easy that came with this lens. I’m happy to hear that it’s such a great lens. Thanks for the review.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon