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Nikkor 105mm f/2.5

Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 P and AI-S
Weights: 13oz and 15oz
Optics: 5 elements in 3 groups and 5 elements in 4 groups
Aperture blades: 6 and 7
Filter Sizes: 52mm
Over time some lenses develop a legendary status and the Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 has. Steve McCurry's famous Afghan Girl potograph is attributed to this lens. First producted in SLR mount in 1959 the Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 saw 46 years of production. Needless to say there a few of these lenses available on the used market. There have been many small and large external changes to the lens over the years of production, and one major change to the optical formula. The following is based on the best of my resarch ability. Originally carried over from the rangefinder version, the earlier Nikkor 105mm f/2.5mm lenses were a sonnar based formula, while the later changed to double gauss based xenotar formula, apparently to improve close up performance as this was a popular portrait lens. In reality the xenotar formula was cheaper to produce and is sharper towards the edges. They also went from 9 aperture blades to six, then to seven rounded blades finally ending with seven straight blades in the ai-s version.

What's strange is that you can find near identical looking Nikkor-P 105mm f/2.5 lenses with different optical formulas, because the P is short for Pente; refering to the number of elements. Despite the large change both versions contain five elements thus the P designation. The only way to tell what is what is the rear element, the sonnar version's is considerably smaller.

Nikkor-P 105mm 2.5 sonnar on the left and AI-S on the right.

Having owned and used both versions I'd agree with the general consensus that the old sonnar version has something special for portraits, while the newer version is technically better. I've found that to be especially true at f/4 where the large real element version snaps into play with incredible sharpness and contrast. The older version just doesn't seem to make that leap. All settings equal the AI-S version allows in just a touch more light at equal apertures, and a third of a stop wide open. Neither are particularly impressive wide open, but in many ways that's ideal for portraits.

Nikkor-P 105mm f/2.5 sonnar version wide open

Sony A7, Nikkor-P 105mm f/2.5 @ 1/1600 f/2.5 ISO 100

Nikkor-P 105mm f/2.5 sonnar version wide open 

Sony A7, Nikkor-P 105mm f/2.5 @ 1/1250 f/2.5 ISO 100

Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 at f/4 on the demanding Sony NEX-7

Sony NEX-7, Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 AIS @ 1/1000 f/4 ISO 100

100% unsharpened crop at f/4 is impressive.

Sony NEX-7, Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 AIS @ 1/1000 f/4 ISO 100

A nice clear day for some boring tests at infinity, on a tripod, remote release and electronic front curtain on the Sony A7. Color is quite different between the two lenses, no surprise considering the older sonnar version is single coated while the later has multi-coating.

Sony A7, Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 AIS @ 1/5000 f/2.5 ISO 100

100% center crop with no sharpening, AIS on the left and older P on the right at f/2.5

Sony A7, Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 @ 1/5000 f/2.5 ISO 100

A crop of the right edges. It's not decentering as the left edge shows the same. AIS on the left, Sonnar on the right

Sony A7, Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 @ 1/5000 f/2.5 ISO 100

Same as before but at f/4,  the contrast of the AIS version picks up on the left.

Sony A7, Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 @ 1/12500 f/4 ISO 100

At f4

Sony A7, Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 @ 1/12500 f/4 ISO 100

Now at closer distances.

Sony A7, Nikkor-P 105mm f/2.5 @ 1/3200 f/2.5 ISO 100

Sony A7, Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 AIS @ 1/1600 f/2.5 ISO 100

Sony A7, Nikkor-P 105mm f/2.5 @ 1/1600 f/2.5 ISO 100

The AIS is just so slightly sharper wide open up close, but the critical transition away from what's in focus is more pleasant on the sonnar version.

At f/4 the AIS has the classic Nikon sharp yet somehow rounded detail look that seems to be their signature.

Sony NEX-7, Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 AIS @ 1/800 f/4 ISO 100

100% crop

The older version simply has a nice look for portraits.

Sony A7 Nikkor-P 105mm f/2.5 @ 1/160 f/2.5 ISO 100

Nikkor-P 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 AI-S
Build: 9/10  Nothing bet metal and glass. Period. Lacks the built in lens hood of the AI-S. Build: 10/10 Solid build quality with a built in lens hood. What a shame they don't make them like this anymore.
Handling: 8/10 Focusing on pre AI-S lenses is a little too stiff for my taste, but the longer focus throw is nice. Handling: 8/10 Focusing is less damped than earlier versions but it could use the longer focus throw.
Performance: 6/10 Far from absolute perfection, especially on the edges, but it has a special look and is well suited to limited tasks. Performance: 7/10 Sharpness, saturation and contrast are a step ahead of the older version, but at similar apertures it
doesn't actually offer much more than the Nikon 75-150mm f/3.5
Value: 8/10 Prices vary widely depending on condition. A well used copy below $100 makes this a great value. Value: 7/10 In general you'll pay more for the AI-S version, good copies going around $200. The older AI or P version can be a good buy.
Overall: 7/10 A very nice portrait lens that doesn't excel at much else. Overall: 8/10 It's a well built lens that's almost the perfect size, sharp stopped down.
Practicality for kayaking: 4/10 In nearly every way the AI-S version is better suited for shooting whitewater kayaking. Practicality for kayaking: 6/10 Good if you need the speed, if not the 75-150 makes more sense.

Both of these lenses can produce stunning images. While the older sonnar design is more suited for portraits, the AI-S version has the nifty built in hood and better overall performance, but bokeh is nothing special. It's a great performer, but oddly enough not that far ahead of the cult 75-150mm f/3.5 Series E, which can be had for a quarter the cost but is of course, a bit slower.

Other links:
Curse than six bladed aperture and boring six point star. Solution? The rare nine aperure blade version.

Sony A7 Nikkor-P 105mm f/2.5

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