The single most essential lens for most herp photographers is a good macro lens. While there are other ways of obtaining the magnification necessary to fill the frame with small herps, (extension tubes, diopters, teleconverters, etc.), all of these involve various compromises in image quality and/or convenience compared to using a real macro lens. Macro lenses are designed to produce high image quality when used for close-up pictures. They are well corrected for things like spherical aberration induced focus shift that can plague non-macro lenses when used with accessories to shoot close-ups. Despite the obvious advantages of macro lenses for herp photography all the current macro lenses suffer from one big disadvantage- they are fixed focal length lenses.
Gorum_110606_1920 by bgorum, on Flickr
If you shoot your macro pictures hand-held, then a fixed focal length lens is really not much of a disadvantage. After all it is quite easy to move forward or backwards a few inches to get the precise framing you need. However, if you shoot macros from a tripod working with a fixed focal length lens becomes a royal PITA. Moving the tripod forward or backwards just a few inches can completely change the perspective from which you are shooting as the tripod and camera go up and down over uneven ground in the field. One potential solution to this problem is to use a focusing rail between the tripod head and camera that allows one to shift the camera forward and backward while keeping the tripod stationary. A more elegant and convenient solution, in my opinion, is to use a zoom lens. For many years I used the Nikon 80-200 f2.8D with two-element diopters to shoot close-ups of herps. At its best that combo could produce incredibly beautiful, sharp close-ups. At its worst it produced close-ups that were back focused or slightly soft, all depending on the particular aperture, focal length, and focusing distance used.
If only somebody made a real macro lens that was also a zoom! It turns out somebody did. Nikon manufactured the 70-180 micro from 1997 until 2004. When the lens was current Nikon claimed it was the World’s only zoom macro lens. This was not quite true since Vivitar manufactured a 90-180 flat field macro zoom during the 1970’s that reached a maximum magnification of ½ life size, (typical for macro lenses back then), and is reputed to have been outstanding optically when used for close-ups, (at least by 1970’s standards). While the Vivitar is old enough to probably be of interest primarily to collectors of photographic equipment the Nikon 70-180 is modern enough to attract the attention of users. It features autofocus, though it is Nikon’s older version of autofocus that relies on the motor in the camera body, there is no motor in the lens. This means that Nikon’s entry-level bodies, like the D3100 and D5100, will not be able to autofocus the lens. This also means that you do not have full time manual focus override when the camera is set to AF as you would with an AF-S lens. This is not really a disadvantage though because this is a macro lens after all, and manual focus is usually the preferred way of working. Not only that, but also this lens is an absolute pleasure to focus manually. It has a relatively long focus throw and the focus is well damped. As a result it is easy to focus the 70-180 micro very precisely.
The lens features an aperture ring, so it can be used with older film bodies as well as the latest digital bodies. You could also use it with manual focus accessories like extension tubes if you were so inclined. The maximum aperture of the lens is f 4.5 at 70mm and it loses light as you zoom to eventually become f 5.6 at 180mm. This seems awfully slow when compared to other available macro lenses, and at infinity it is awfully slow. However when used for close-ups things change a bit. This is because the maximum aperture of the 70-180 micro remains the same regardless of focusing distance. Most other macro lenses lose light as they are focused up close. I used to own a Nikon 105mm f2.8D macro lens that was f2.8 at infinity, but had a maximum aperture of f5 at minimum focusing distance. So for close-ups the 70-180 is not much, if at all, slower than the competing macro lenses. The lens can be stopped down to f32 at 70mm or f38 at 180mm, (not that you would ever actually want to use those apertures).
The 70-180 micro features a nice, sturdy tripod collar that rotates through about 270 degrees. At least one online review faults the foot of the tripod collar for being too small to provide enough surface area for a really secure connection to a tripod. I’ve not experienced this problem with my lens, perhaps because the quick release plate I have attached mates tightly to the tripod foot and provides some addition surface area. Immediately in front of the tripod collar is the zoom ring and immediately in front of that is a focus range limit switch, (I never use it) and an auto/manual focus switch, (I do use this). What I like about having the auto/manual switch on the lens is that it allows me to leave my camera body always set to AF and chose auto or manual focus on the lens. Since all of my other lenses are AF-S and have full time manual focus available even when the camera is set to AF leaving the camera on AF all the time is my preferred way of working. The focusing ring is at the front of the lens, which is where I prefer it, but is the opposite of my newer zoom lenses, which have the zoom ring in the front. The lens accepts a bayonet hood on the front that can be reversed for storage. Because the front of the lens extends forward as it is focused the hood ends up becoming essentially useless at minimum focusing distance. The front lens element is even with the front of the hood at that point. The lens accepts 62mm filters and the filter ring does not rotate with either focus or zooming.
So how does the lens compare to other macro lenses for herp photography? Sweet from my perspective but let me qualify that. I like to shoot primarily in situ, from a tripod. The 70-180 excels at that. I can set the tripod up and easily get the precise framing I want just by zooming. The tripod collar also allows me to easily switch from vertical to horizontal without changing the axis of the camera as would if I had to flop the tripod head with a body mounted camera. I love both of these features! They make working in the field so much more pleasant. On the other hand, if your preference is to shoot posed pictures, handheld, there are far smaller, lighter, and cheaper options available. The tripod collar on the 70-180 also makes it a useful for use at night with a flash bracket, because you can easily rotate from vertical to horizontal while keeping your flash position the same for both. The down side is that you will be sloshing through the mud trying to keep calling frogs in focus with a bigger, heavier lens than you would have if you used, say a 105 micro.
Gorum_110726_4272 by bgorum, on Flickr
Another important consideration is working distance. Based on the focal length of the 70-180 micro, you might think it would make a good alternative to Nikon’s 200mm micro, or Sigma or Tamron’s 180mm macros for shooting wary lizards. However, you would be wrong. Let me explain. Back in the day most lenses focused closer by extending the lens elements further from the film plane by use of a focusing helicoid. For example, I used to own a manual focus Nikon 105mm f4 micro that reached a maximum magnification of ½ life size. It did this by extending the lens barrel 52.5 mm. If you wanted life size you had to add Nikon’s PN-11 extension tube, (which was also 52.5mm), for a grand total of 105mm of extension. This meant that at life size magnification the effective focal length of the lens was now 210mm! The lens also lost two stops of light at this magnification, so that it now had a maximum aperture of f8. This made for a very unwieldy package and most modern macro lenses no longer focus via extension alone, but use some internal focusing, (elements are repositioned relative to one another), to focus. The disadvantage of this is that the effective focal length of the lens becomes shorter as it is focused up close, which results in less working distance at any given magnification than you would have if the lens focused in the old fashion way. While virtually all current macro lenses use some internal focusing to focus closer the 70-180 seems to use even more than most. The result is that at maximum magnification (3/4 life size at 180mm) the effective focal length is nearly halved. The 70-180 micro actually provides slightly less working distance at ¾ life size than does the 105 f2.8d micro at the same magnification, (not sure how it compares to the new 105 vr micro, since I have not used that lens). I tend to think of the 70-180 micro as a great replacement for a 90mm or 105mm macro, but you’ll still need something longer for really wary lizards.
For many years, when I was shooting film, this short working distance kept me from buying the 70-180 micro. It wasn’t until I started using a DX format digital body that I thought the 70-180 micro became a really attractive option. This is because the smaller sensor in a DX camera requires less magnification to fill the frame and the lower the magnification is the closer the effective focal length becomes to what is marked on the lens. For the magnifications needed to photograph most herps on a DX body I find the lens provides adequate working distance. If I ever switch to an FX camera however, I may need to reconsider my choice of macro lenses.
So that leads us to the big question- how is it optically? Sweet! No qualifications here, at least not for close-up work. I’ve owned several of Nikon’s micro lenses, (55 f2.8, 105 f4, and 200 f4 manual focus and 105 f2.8 auto focus). While its kind of an apples to oranges comparison because I only ever used the fixed focal length lenses on film and only ever used the 70-180 on digital, my general impression is that for close-up and macro the 70-180 produces images that are at least as sharp as the others produced. On the 10 megapixel D200 the 70-180 is sharp from corner to corner at all focal lengths from wide open to f16. It seems to be best at f8-11. There is a noticeable drop in sharpness at f22, though it is still usable if you absolutely have to have that much depth of field. F22 requires a bit more sharpening in post than I like though, and the pictures start to get a certain “digital” look that I don’t care for. Past f22 the lens is just plain soft. The small aperture performance of the 70-180 micro is really quite a bit better than many other lenses I’ve owned, most of which seem to start showing the effects of diffraction at about one stop wider apertures than the 70-180 does. There is absolutely no focus shift with aperture on the 70-180 micro, an absolutely essential criterion for any macro lens. The one place where the sharpness of the 70-180 micro does suffer compared to some other lenses is at infinity. I rarely use the lens for this type of photos, but the few landscape shots I’ve taken with the lens show good sharpness, but nothing that would “knock your socks off”. My general impression is that both the 55 f2.8 and 105 f2.8 AF were sharper than the 70-180 at infinity. However, I think the 70-180 beats both the 105 f4 and 200 f4 manual focus micros at infinity.
The 70-180 does not seem too prone to flare, though for the sorts of pictures I shoot with it I would seldom expect flare to be an issue anyhow. Same with distortion, if it has any, it’s not relevant to the way I use it. I’m happy to report that I never have any problems with color fringing with this lens. Pretty impressive considering this lens was designed for film, not digital.
Is the 70-180 micro for everyone? No, but for a certain way of working it is indispensible. The lens is now discontinued and sells for more used than it cost new in 2004. Going prices for this lens on eBay are around $1500 and if you prefer a brick and mortar store KEH has one listed now in excellent condition for $1799. Or you could always try to pry mine from my cold, dead fingers! That’s currently the only way I’d give it up.
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Nice review. I always liked that lens and the old medical Nikkor, though I never owned Nikon (other than a Coolpix 950). I really think that a modern 70-200mm or 50-150mm that does 1:1 on the long end would benefit any of the camera makers or independents to have one in their line up. Tough that the internal focus reduces the working distance by so much. I think my Sigma 150mm must be closer to 120mm at 1:1, but I still get just over 7" working distance at the close focus.