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Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 AI-S – Now, then and always? – By Clifton Dowell

August 26, 2022

A 30-year-old, hand-me-down Nikon lens recently bit the dust and I decided to replace it. Surprisingly, the exact model I was replacing is still available today. Try doing that with a computer component or a phone charger. But Nikon’s F mount is classic and virtually all the manual focus lenses manufactured by the company today are still AI-S lenses – a standard that first hit the market in the early 1980s. (The exceptions are a few specialty lenses.)

AI-S lenses improved upon the original 1977 auto indexing (AI) lens design and allowed the camera to control the aperture, making it possible to shoot in fully automatic, aperture priority and shutter priority modes. For an in-depth discussion of the development of Nikon lenses from someone much more knowledgeable, please see: “Understanding old Nikon lenses: AI, AI-S, AF and AF-S.”

The current AI-S Nikkor lineup

My new lens is the Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8, but it is in good company among a number of AI-S lenses listed on the Nikon USA products page and available from retailers. In mid-2022, the non-specialty manual focus lineup seems to be:

  • NIKKOR 20mm f/2.8
  • NIKKOR 24mm f/2.8
  • NIKKOR 28mm f/2.8
  • NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4
  • NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4
  • NIKKOR 50mm f/1.2
  • Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8
  • Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8

An 85mm seems notably absent from the line, but Ken Rockwell’s site reports that the 85mm f/1.4 was discontinued in 2005 due to lagging sales against the similarly priced autofocus version, while an f/2 model was last manufactured in 1995.

Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8: A lens worth replacing

Over the last two years I’ve been building a Sony E-mount lens set to go with my Sony A7 Mark III, so it may seem odd to buy a new manual focus lens that requires an adaptor. But as a macro lens — or in Nikon lingo, MICRO lens — my now-deceased 55mm Nikkor had earned its place on my day hikes and trips to botanical gardens. For macro work, manual focus is the way to go.

The lens was very flexible: nearly perfect as a normal lens and nearly perfect up close. I’ve owned a new 90mm autofocus lens. It was great up close but I felt that it lacked character otherwise. It was also bigger, though not necessarily heavier, due to plastic construction.

When I pulled the new Nikkor out of the oh-so-familiar golden Nikon box and felt the welcome heft, I decided to do something different before moving it to my Sony bag. I wanted to mark the occasion with film and — I don’t know – to celebrate the fact that not every damn thing has to change all the damn time.

Which takes us from my newest lens to my first camera. I decided that the inaugural voyage of the new Nikkor lens should take place on one of the oldest ships in the fleet.

Nikon FG: A camera worth keeping

On Christmas morning in 1983 I was lucky enough to receive a Nikon FG 35mm SLR, along with the kit lens, a Series E 50mm f/1.8. It was a complete surprise then and surprises me still. The gift from my parents seemed oddly extravagant. The kit retailed for around $200 in 1983, which is the equivalent of around $595 today. I hadn’t asked for it and wasn’t involved with photography in any way.

So there I was, mildly puzzled, with a camera I wouldn’t grow into for many years.

But when I did grow into it, I grew into it big time. It sparked an enduring interest in photography that eventually moved me into the darkroom and on to medium format.

College trip to Clemson University.

After owning my FG for more than 70 percent of my life, I’m emotionally attached to it and use it on occasions that seem poignant or significant to me, such as driving my youngest son to visit his college for the first time in 2020. (Nikon FG SLR and Nikkor Series E 50mm f/1.8 kit lens from 1983.)

And although I’ve ended up using medium format for most of my film work, I still reach for the FG on special occasions – around the holidays, say, when I’m at my leisure and perhaps feeling a bit nostalgic.

And why not? By my calculation, I’ve owned the camera for 70 percent of my life. It has been to Europe and back. It has survived lake outings, midnight hikes in New York City, days at the beach, boozy college parties and extended use by camera-hungry toddlers.

Over four decades it has never missed a beat. It has never needed a repair or been in for servicing.

In the field

Over nearly four decades of risky outings, my Nikon FG has never needed a repair or been in for servicing. Seen in the second photo is the second lens I ever owned, a Sigma Mini-Wide II 28mm f/2.8.

That’s not bad for a model that’s nowhere near classic status in the Nikon universe. And I’m not the only admirer.

Not a ‘classic,’ but still…

The FG is one of 16 SLRs listed among the non-classic “best of the rest” by Nikkor Club Quarterly, a magazine originally published by the Nikkor Club and preserved today on the Nikon website.

The magazine describes these as the cameras that were “born and manufactured as a reflection of the need of the time or as an ambitious trial in the creation of a new camera age” only to vanish into the night, “almost without a trace.”

The “need” of the early 80s was to simplify the mechanism that stopped down the aperture, allowing for fully programmatic – rather than aperture priority – shooting. The FG was the first Nikon SLR to offer a full program mode and only the second with auto-exposure. It featured fully programmed AE, aperture priority, shutter priority and TTL flash control, while also providing manual settings via shutter speed and exposure compensation dials.

And, of course, Nikon had already paved the way for nimble control of the aperture by computer chip with the upgrade to AI-S lenses a bit earlier.

Which all seems like ancient history now, except for the fact that I just bought a brand-new AI-S lens that I hope to use far into the future. And the fact that my FG is going strong.

Prada Broadway (2002)

My FG was in hand during a 3 a.m. walk in New York City 20 years ago. On Broadway, I came upon the most impressive store window I’ve ever seen. I asked a taxi driver what store it was and he told me Prada, surprised that I didn’t already know.

The combo: A field report

After attaching the new lens, I put batteries in the camera, loaded a roll of Kodak T-MAX 100, and headed out to the botanical gardens at a nearby university.

I also attached the original black and yellow Nikon neck strap, which isn’t holding up as well as the camera but still looks sharp despite its shabbiness.

It would be untrue to say the experience shooting macro in the gardens was stellar. The advantage of using the Sony A7iii for macro work is that you can hold it low and compose your images looking down on the flipped up back monitor, electronically enlarging the view for precise focus. That’s a convenience that’s hard to match using an SLR’s viewfinder.

But taking less technical photographs while walking around was as pleasant as ever, and not everything is low to the ground. The camera felt just right, and I ended up with a few negatives I like.

But, of course, the photos were never really the point. The point was simply taking a moment in a busy world to celebrate a 40-year-old lens design that has never been bested, and a 40-year-old camera that is still doing exactly what it was engineered to do.

Blotched Leaf, 2022

An image made with the new Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 lens on a 1983 Nikon FG SLR. (T-MAX 100 in T-MAX developer, f/8 at 1/60th of a second)

Clifton Dowell lives in Durham, North Carolina, USA. More of his work can be found at cliftondowell.com and on Instagram at @clifton_dowell

More information about the history of Nikon cameras and Nikkor lenses can be found at Nikon.com

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18 Comments

  • Reply
    thorsten wulff
    August 26, 2022 at 10:29 am

    Absolutely agree, Clifton. The 55 is one of my favorites, too.

  • Reply
    Paul
    August 26, 2022 at 1:30 pm

    Wonderful!!

  • Reply
    CP93
    August 26, 2022 at 3:47 pm

    My 55 Micro (along with my 24 and my beloved 105 f/2.5), still get used on my 70s Nikkormat. “Never gonna give you up,” etc.

    • Reply
      Clifton Dowell
      August 26, 2022 at 4:04 pm

      I’ve been sorta eyeballing the 24mm… It’s very tempting!

      • Reply
        CP93
        August 26, 2022 at 9:09 pm

        I was looking for a 28 at the time and this 24 AIS turned up in the used counter of the store. Turns out I’m a sucker for wide angles. (I’m loving the 9mm f.2.8 zero-d Laowa on my Canon M6.)

  • Reply
    Dan Castelli
    August 27, 2022 at 1:47 am

    About 30 years ago I sold off all my Nikon gear. I replaced it with a 1964 Leica M2. I’ve still got the M2. BUT, I kept a Nikon FE2 & the 55mm micro-Nikkor (Ai) and the PK extension tube. Your article made me dig out the micro lens. It needs a long overdue CLA (almost impossible to focus because of the hardened lube.) I’m sending it out next week and start using it. I like industrial gear close-up in black & white.
    The tale of your FG deserves it’s own article!
    Thanks for the post!

    • Reply
      Clifton Dowell
      August 27, 2022 at 2:53 am

      I usually regret selling stuff. I sold off all my Bronco SQ-Ai kit years ago and have slowly been buying everything back (right now I’m checking KEH every night for the 40mm). Last weekend, I thought my FG had finally developed a problem because the film door wouldn’t pop open. With 24 hours I realized that I had put the new diopter I bought on upside-down and it was blocking the door. Crisis averted, thankfully. Still… might be good to have one of those FM3A SLRs in a drawer as a backup :).

    • Reply
      Peter
      August 28, 2022 at 10:54 pm

      I love the fact that this camera has been with you since the beginning. Each camera has it’s quirks, and yours, I’m sure, is unique. I own several Nikons, but I’m not the original owner. Reading your piece makes me wish I was. Thanks.

  • Reply
    Markus Hainz
    August 28, 2022 at 8:26 am

    Cool article. The FG is definately one of those “under the radar” SLRs as everyone only seems to rate the FM and FE. I picked one up about 5 years ago for about 10 bucks and absolutely love it.

    • Reply
      Clifton Dowell
      August 28, 2022 at 2:20 pm

      The FG crowd is a small club alright. I see them for $20 all the time. Glad you grabbed one. Also glad you enjoyed the write up. Thanks!

  • Reply
    Nick Howe
    August 28, 2022 at 12:14 pm

    Clifton ..yes I have the 55 Micro in my FM2 N..versatile dynamic and sharp …oddly enough got it for the Sony to dapple in a little close up work …nice article..

    • Reply
      Clifton Dowell
      August 28, 2022 at 3:30 pm

      When I bought a Sony A7iii, the ability to adapt all sorts of lenses to it (without translating the focal length to a smaller sensor) was the winning factor. I’ve been working on an approach that combines the Sony, my medium format Bronica lenses, and a tilt-shift adapter. Seems like the sky is the limit. So I guess the question is why was I out with my FG and a Series E 50mm pancake yesterday? Old habits, I guess…

  • Reply
    Gil Aegerter
    August 28, 2022 at 3:10 pm

    I have two working 55mm f2.8 lenses and two that have been sitting on my desk awaiting repair for a couple of years. Maybe I’ll get around to them this winter.

    • Reply
      Clifton Dowell
      August 28, 2022 at 3:34 pm

      I took a focus-frozen 105mm to the local repair guy, but he had no luck. He said the aluminum rings tend to ‘bind’ on those lenses. I don’t have the expertise to know if that assessment is right or not. I’d love to hear about the experience of others with that issue.

  • Reply
    Ed
    September 2, 2022 at 6:12 pm

    I acquired the 55mm micro Nikkor and the F2A in 1977. What a wonderful combination. I kept them for 20 years. There is a saying in photography, “Never sell a good lens.” So true. Can you hear me kicking myself?

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