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Manual Focus Macro Classics — A Comparison

Not everybody has drunk the autofocus Koolaid, you know.  Some of us started out with manual focus gear and actually like it.  Call me anachronistic if it makes you feel better.  Heck, I don’t care.  When I first got serious about photography, one of the things I enjoyed most about the process was the feeling of being in control of the image I captured, and that control extended to focusing.  There’s something about turning over that responsibility to a machine that I’ve always felt somewhat uneasy about. And there have been situations, often occurring at exactly the wrong time, when my camera’s autofocus technology just decides to go nuts and not focus on anything exactly when I need it to be in focus the most.  So, I don’t care what people say and think — AF is still not totally trustworthy.  Enough of that, though.  This article is about a few macro lenses that just happen to be manual focus — lenses that are of such high quality that they continue to have a loyal following decades, in some cases, after they were manufactured.

The macro lenses I’ll compare here are the Vivitar Series 1 105mm f/2.5 (aka the “legendary” Kiron 105mm f/2.8), the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.5, the Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 pre-AI, and just to make things interesting, I’ve decided to toss a zoom into the mix, one that has a surprisingly good macro ratio of 1:1.55: the Tamron SP 60-300mm f/3.8-5.4.

Left to right: Vivitar 105mm f/2.5, Tamron 90mm f/2.5, Nikon 55mm f/3.5, Tamron 60-300mm f/3.8-5.4

The subject of the tests is an old Zippo lighter my father carried in Korea.

Old Zippo Lighter: “23rd Quartermasters Group, Korea, 1952-54″

I took pics of the lighter laying flat, and then cropped the centers and corners of the images — 100% crops in each case. Here are some decent close-ups taken with each lens at f/8, that will give you a pretty good idea of an image’s overall quality.

Vivitar 105mm f/2.5 @ f/8

Tamron 90mm f/2.5 @ f/8

Nikon 55mm f/3.5 Micro Nikkor @ f/8

Tamron SP 60-300mm f/3.8-5.4 @ f/8

The following images are pretty self-explanatory.  I shot them at four different aperture values: wide open, f/8, f/16, and f/32, then grouped them according to aperture value.  Center crops are first, followed by the corner crops. I don’t know why WordPress — the blogging software I use — does this, but in order to view the following images at 100%  value, you’ll have to click on one, which loads another window, and you’ll have to click on it again. This should give you a  100% crop of the original images.

The images speak for themselves, and don’t really require much in the way of analysis from me.  I will just make a few observations, though.  See if you don’t agree.

The Vivitar Series 1 105mm macro is a lens with a legendary reputation.  And it is a very sharp lens.  But as is shown here, in all eight tests shown, there is not one in which it is the best of the lot.  Even the Tamron 60-300 outperforms it in a couple of the tests.  The Tamron 90mm gets consistently high marks across the board, being bested by the Nikkor in only a few of the tests.  And the Nikkor, a lens that’s about 45 years old now, hangs tough throughout the test.  The big surprise has to be the Tamron zoom, though.  Its center sharpness was startlingly good — I mean, zooms aren’t supposed to have that sort of resolution, right?  Yes, its corner sharpness was dreadful at larger apertures, but it continued to improve, such that by f/32, the Tamron zoom was providing sharpness on par with the Tamron and Nikkor macros, even besting the fabled Vivitar.

Bottom line: all three macro lenses performed brilliantly, exhibiting excellent sharpness from center to corner up to about f/16.  Even the Tamron zoom, in a pinch and under the right sort of composition constraints, will do a credible job for macro work. One rather startling conclusion I’ve come to is this: if I had to shoot a scene at f/32, I would choose either the 55mm f/3.5 Micro Nikkor or the Tamron SP 60-300mm f/3.8-5.6 zoom. That’s right. At f/32, the Tamron zoom is an equivalent performer to the 55mm Micro Nikkor, outperforming the Vivitar and the Tamron 90mm macro in the center and corner images. I dunno about you, but I’d call this something of an upset. Still, while it’s a tough call because the Tamron SP 90mm macro and 55mm Micro Nikkor were neck and neck through most of the images, if I had to choose a winner, it would be the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.5. But if I had to choose the dark horse winner, it would absolutely be the Tamron SP 60-300mm f/3.8-5.4.

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