Lens review: The Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro

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In what appears to be a hideously enormous oversight on my part, I seem to have neglected to review what is ostensibly my most used lens: the Nikon AFS 60mm f2.8 G Micro-Nikkor. As you might expect, I use this lens for the majority of my commercial watch photography. I prefer it over the 85 PCE for images that require high magnification, as this lens natively reaches 1:1 magnification on its own; thus requiring fewer extension tubes to reach even smaller levels of frame coverage.

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Nitro Experiment One

Before we start talking about the lens specifically, I would like to debunk some myths about macro vs micro photography: both have to do with the reproduction ratio created by the lens on the imaging medium; it is format independent. Simply, macro refers to 1:1 or greater magnification (i.e. a 20mm wide object in reality would be 20mm or wider when projected on the sensor plane); whereas micro refers to magnification slightly less than this but more than would be encountered during normal photography – ‘close focus’ might perhaps be a more accurate term. Almost nobody seems to get this right online, even the manufacturers; ‘macro’ mode almost never yields 1:1 magnification, and there aren’t that many lenses that achieve this natively. (I suppose Carl Zeiss gets away with it by sounding German and putting a ‘k’ in Makro-Planar – these are 1:2 lenses.)

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Water on slate

The 60/2.8 G replaces its predecessor, the 60/2.8 D, both of which are 1:1 lenses; unlike its predecessor, it reaches 1:1 through internal focusing alone, and the lens doesn’t extend – the front element on the G is a lot closer to the front of the barrel, and as a result, offers greater working distance at a given magnification than the D (which has a very heavily recessed front element). The lens has been completely redesigned with a new optical formula; it’s a 12/9 design with aspherical and ED elements, as well as Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coating. It also has a silent wave motor, but no focus distance limiter (oddly, the older version did have this). Focusing is fast and silent, but occasionally the lens does get ‘lost’ – if you’re say at the near focus limit and point it a subject at infinity, then sometimes it can hunt and fail to find focus. A quick tweak of the focusing ring solves this. One thing I have noticed with all of the Nikon SWM macro lenses is that they appear to be very ‘nervous’ when focusing at close distances; they’ll chatter and hunt and rack back and forth slightly. This could be because I’ve got the camera in AF-C most of the time, but it doesn’t really make sense given that everything is static – camera on tripod, inanimate subject. Still, I haven’t noticed any focusing errors, even on the D800E; in fact, this lens is the only one I’ve got that doesn’t require AF fine tune correction on any of my cameras.

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Cigar

I also owned the previous version of this lens, and the difference mechanically is night and day; optically, somewhat less so, but the newer version is clearly better. (I suspect part of the reason why the G appears sharper is simply because it can focus more accurately without any of the backlash inherent to screwdriver-focusing lenses.) The biggest difference in optics between the two version are seen in off-center performance – specifically to do with CA – and bokeh. The new lens has very little lateral chromatic aberration; you have to be shooting something very, very contrasty and bright to excite it. For most subjects and shooting conditions, you probably won’t see any lateral CA at all. Longitudinal CA is a different matter – whilst again better than the old lens (and much better than the 105/2.8 VR), longitudinal chromatic aberration is still visible, as are traces of spherochromatism. It’s not a disaster, but it does mean that some work has to be done in postprocessing to remove traces of this – especially on say, white metal watches. On the bokeh front, the new lens has a 9-bladed, perfectly round aperture diaphragm that makes for very smooth out of focus areas; amongst the best I’ve seen, actually – though at normal distances, a 60/2.8 will not yield a huge amount of separation.

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Alphabet pasta

It’s worth noting that the lens’ maximum effective aperture at 1:1 is about f4.8; this isn’t because it’s a variable-aperture lens, but rather because additional magnification always results in some light loss. The Nikon lenses and bodies are the only combination that reports this correctly – not that it matters, because the meter takes care of any necessary exposure adjustments anyway. I suppose it might be important if you were to calculate flash exposure with guide numbers, but I can’t think of anybody who still does that.

On the subject of flash, shooting into the light yields no problems at all; the Nano-coated element is clearly doing its job when it comes to suppressing flare. (I use partial backlight quite often to clean out backgrounds or help define the texture in watch dials.) Macro-and micro-contrast are both very good, improving slightly on stopping down. I feel this lens has a bit more microcontrast ‘bite’ than overall global macro-contrast; this isn’t a bad thing at all as it helps to extend dynamic range somewhat.

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Breguet La Tradition

I actually don’t have much to say about resolution and optics: what do you expect? It’s a macro lens. There’s almost zero distortion or field curvature, and nothing funny going on with the focal plane. Sharpness is already excellent at f2.8, though with the D800E you’ll probably have to go to f4 or f5.6 to hit peak resolving power across the frame. Note that diffraction softening will set in by around f13 or so with the D800E; I try not to go past f16 unless I absolutely have no choice. That said, you can get away with f22 on the 12MP FX cameras if you need to.

Something I’ve been asked in the past is why I don’t use the 105/2.8 VR instead for greater working distance; the answer is that for the kind of work I do, the 60 actually holds several advantages. Firstly, I don’t need as many extension tubes to achieve higher magnifications*; secondly, the lens itself has much lower chromatic aberration than the 105 – lateral is fairly well controlled on both, but longitudinal is ugly on the 105 – and requires a lot of work to fix afterwards. Finally, there’s the issue of depth of field: for any given aperture, you’ll get more with the shorter focal length**. And given that you’re already challenged to find enough as it is, I’ll take any advantage I can get.

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Who could resist a steak like that?

*The more mounts you put between your optics and your camera, the higher the chance of something going out of plane.

**A longer focal length does not mean that you can stop down more before diffraction sets in; that’s a property of the sensor’s pixel pitch, not the lens.

Of course, for those situations when I really need to manipulate depth of field, there’s the 85/2.8 PCE Micro – note it’s a Micro lens, because it only reaches 1:2 – and its full array of movements. That – and an accompanying piece on the Scheimpflug effect and how to properly use a tilt-shift lens – will be the subject of another article.

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Girard-Perregaux F1-047

For the work I typically do with macro lenses – watches and food – the pairing of 60/2.8 G and 85/2.8 PCE is usually more than sufficient to deal with any possible scenario. If you shoot bugs, or want the lens to do double-duty for portraits, the 105 is probably a better choice; that’s not to say that the 60 can’t do the job; it just won’t give you the working distance or depth of field control you’d like to have. (The optics remain similarly excellent at longer distances – you could quite happily use this as a long normal lens if you didn’t mind the slowish f2.8 aperture; it out resolves all of the ‘regular’ 50 1.4s and 1.8s I’ve used, especially in the corners.) Perhaps the most telling fact I can leave you with is that of all of the lenses I own, it’s the one that’s been with me the longest. MT

The Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro is available here from B&H and Amazon.

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