Over three weeks ago I ordered a used Nikon Nikkor-H 50mm F/2 lens off eBay. It came a few days later and I've spent enough time shooting with it that I feel like I can write up a little review. Since I shoot Canon, my only reason for purchasing this lens was to use it as a macro lens.
First things first though. I bought the lens for under $20 including S/H when they usually go for a bit more ($25-30). Upon receiving the lens, I checked it out thoroughly, and there is nothing at all wrong with it, so my calculated risk paid off.
The 52mm reversing ring is currently available on eBay for about $12, including shipping. Make sure you get the right mount though: one side will be a camera bayonet mount (Canon EOS for my Digital Rebel XT) and the other side will be a male 52mm filter thread. Just screw it on to the lenses filter threads (52mm is the most popular filter size for 50mm lenses) and attach it to your camera like a normal lens. Shooting takes a little more technique than usual, but more on that later.
The short version is I am very happy with my Nikkor-H 50mm f/2 for macro work. But, like any reversed lens for macro, it has a few limitations. If you have the money, you're generally better off getting a new dedicated macro lens. But, if you are financially impaired, I would say an old, AI (or pre-AI) Nikkor/Nikon lens is your best choice for a dedicated reversing lens.
Physical Description and Operation:
In the image at the top of the post you can see the Nikkor-H in full macro mode. Moving from left to right, there's the Nikon lens cap (since that end would normally go on the Nikon camera), the aperture wheel (going from f/2 to f/16 in full stops), the focus wheel (which doesn't really matter for macro work), a 52mm EOS reversing ring (more in a bit), and finally a Canon lens cap. This is how I store it, since I don't need the reversing ring for anything else.
The lens itself is from an earlier era, so almost all of it is metal. Compared to a Canon 50mm f/1.8 (see left and right, click for larger image) it is just about the same size and uses the same filter size (52mm). The Nikkor-H is slightly heavier and much more solid because of the metal construction. While I always felt like my Canon 50mm was on the edge of breaking when it was reversed mounted, I have no such concerns with the Nikkor. This thing is solid, and it better be, considering it is about as old as I am. Also, because the Nikkor-H was designed for old manual cameras, it has a lot more levers and other projections (don't hurt yourself!) and doesn't fit on newer Nikkon cameras.
Both lenses have similar optics and the primary distinction between the two is the newer Canon includes autofocus and auto-aperture while the Nikkor has manual everything. When reversed, the focus is generally useless anyway, so no auto-focus is not a problem. The ability to set the aperture on the barrel instead of the usual Canon aperture dance (unmount, put it on the right way, set aperture on body, hold DOF preview, remove and reverse) is very convenient and allows me to take better pictures because I can change the aperture instantly. It also is a big help in focusing because you can open up the aperture, get your focus, then stop down before you trigger the shutter.
Speaking of stopping down, the Nikkor-H has one feature that I didn't know about before I bought it: it has a lever on the mount that lets you momentarily open up the aperture. The lever is circled in the picture at left (click it to see it larger). Originally, this is how the camera body allowed the lens to be wide open when using the viewfinder and stopped down when shooting pictures. While a little awkward to reach, it conveniently lets you pop open the aperture to focus, then stop down right before you shoot. Very handy, and something an old Canon FD lens won't do (in fact, quite the opposite: FD lenses are stuck at one aperture unless you pull a lever).
One of the few advantages the Canon 50mm has over the Nikkor-H 50mm is a larger aperture range. The Canon can stop down to f/32 while the Nikkor can't go past f/16. This isn't too much of a problem unless you need extreme depth of field. On the plus side, the Nikkor has 6 aperture blades instead of the Canon's 5, so bokeh should look a little nicer.
The 52mm reversing ring screws onto the Nikkor 50mm f/16 nicely, but it doesn't stay very well; I sometimes unscrew it on accident when using the aperture control. Not a big deal, but something to keep in mind. Once on, the reversing ring acts as part of the lens and feels very solid (unlike the Canon 50mm, which has a lot of slop between the lens barrel and focus section). Reversing the lens also puts the aperture control conveniently at the end of the lens.
Shooting Macros with the Nikkor-H 50mm F/2:
I find the Nikkor-H 50mm f2 much more convenient to use than the Canon 50mm f1.8 II because I can open and close the aperture as needed to get focus without removing the lens. Optically, I've noticed no difference between the lenses, and both give me good shots. As is the case for most macro work, the final sharpness of the image is usually more of an issue of technique than the quality of the lens.
This is the usual process I go through to get a shot:
- Set the camera to aperture priority (Av) mode. This lets the camera meter determine the right shutter speed (my aperture display always says 0.0 because it doesn't detect a lens). Depending on the shot and lighting issues, I may use full manual mode to set the shutter speed myself.
- Open up the aperture to f/2 or f/2.8 to get focus. I'm almost always using a tripod on a stationary subject, so I use a wide aperture to make it easier to see the scene in the viewfinder and get focus.
- Stop down to my desired aperture and meter the scene. If necessary, I'll change the ISO to make sure I get a fast enough shutter speed. With macro shots, I need a higher shutter speed than I would generally use (even on a tripod) because a tiny motion of the camera or subject will be magnified into a large motion in the image.
- Wait until the right moment and press shutter release. Unless I've got a really high shutter speed, I'll use my homemade remote release. I'll usually use mirror lockup to keep the mirror from wiggling the camera on the tripod too.
- Check the histogram and shoot again. I'll often bracket exposures and even bracket apertures (take a range of shots with different apertures) to make sure I get a good shot.
There is one big disadvantage of the Nikkor-H 50mm f/2 (or any reversed lens): you cannot easily change the field of view. With a relatively fixed focus point (since the focus wheel doesn't work), you cannot easily move closer or farther from the subject, making it difficult to frame the subject. Yes, you can use extension tubes or bellows, but they don't help you zoom out past about 1:2 magnification. Sometimes I get frustrated when I want to include more in the image but physically can't. At that point, I switch to a non-macro lens and plan on cropping the image in post processing.
Conclusions and Future Plans:
For about $40 you can get an old Nikkor-H F/2 on eBay with a 52mm reversing ring. That, other than a tripod and remote release, is all that you need to start out doing macro shots. As far as I have noticed, the quality of the shots are similar (but probably not as good) as a true macro lens, the main difference is in the convenience of use. If you have more patience than money, this might be a great way to get started shooting macro photographs. But, if you have the money ($300+ for a decent macro lens), you might as well get a real macro lens and enjoy the convenience of it.
Personally, a 90-100mm macro lens is next on my list of hardware acquisitions, but it might be a year or so before I get one. For now, this $40 combination meets most of my needs.
If I need more magnification than 1:1, I have a cheap set of extension tubes ($15 on eBay, shipped) which gives me about 2:1 (2x) magnification. With the addition of a male-male macro coupler (two 52mm screw mounts on each side) and one or more step-up rings, my Nikkor-H can be reversed in front of my other lenses to get super-macro images (beyond 2:1). At some point I'll grab what I need on eBay and experiment with it. I'm also considering closeup lenses for my Canon 70-200 f/4 to see how well that works.
For now though, my Nikkor-H has joined my other lenses as just another tool for getting the best picture.
Here's a handy eBay search for the 50mm Nikkor lenses. Sadly, eBay has recently updated their editor kits and ruined some of the functionality. So, to really look for a Nikkor-H f/2, plug "Nikkor-H (50mm, 50) (f/2, f2 2)" in the search box and you'll get better results.