Real Life Review: Nikon AF-S Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G ED

Streets Of Myeongong 2016: Art Sculpture In The StreetStreets Of Myeongdong 2016: Art In The Street
Nikon D610, 60mm, f/2.8, 1/1600, ISO 100

There is quite a bit of confusion about the purpose and intended audience of the AF-S Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G ED (Abbreviated 60G in this article). They can be summarized as follow:

1. “It is too short and require you to get very close. This is not practical in many cases”

2. “The older D version performs quite well too and this is more expensive.”

3. “It is not as fast as the 50mm f/1.8 prime.”

These are valid concerns. The simple responses to these doubts are, in order:

1. Know Martin Parr? He used (or still uses) a short macro lens for his work. So does this food photographer who finds herself working in locations with little working distance. Just like how a kitchen has knives in different sizes for different tasks, there are scenarios that can be better approached with a shorter macro focal length.

2. I have not used the older lens, though Ming Thein says the new version is better. There is also some interesting information provided by the len’s designer, M. Wada: “In terms of optical performance, the lens was designed based on infinity. Distinct from the traditional micro lens, this lens is well-suited to distant landscape photography that requires an extremely high degree of resolution and also to portraits for which natural-looking bokeh texture is desirable.” Indeed, the 60G has a totally different optical formula compared to its predecessor. With two aspherical elements, one ED element, nano crystal coat and a nine-bladed aperture, I can’t help but feel that it should have been given a gold ring.

3. I will be comparing the 60G to the 50G when I examine image quality later, so we will see how the differences stack up. In summary – different enough for users with different photographic intentions and preferences.

Streets Of Myeongdong 2016: Time Inside A Café LookingSeoul 2016: Time In A Cafe
Nikon D610, 60mm, f/2.8, 1/1000, ISO 100

I am actually grateful that Nikon continues to update this high-performance general-purpose micro lens, as I have become a new convert after using it for 3 months. In fact, this has already replaced my trusty AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 G (abbreviated 50G in this article). Before I go into the review proper, some clarifications are necessary:

I am not going to review the 60G as a macro lens, but for general purpose and street photography on the FX format.

I also wish to emphasize that readers looking for charts and numbers should turn their internet search engines elsewhere. I do reviews based on real-life usage and taking pictures of stuff worth shooting. My hope is that a review based on real-life use in the field provides valuable information that charts and numbers produced in a boring laboratory cannot.

Streets Of Myeongong 2016: Light And Shadows In The StreetStreets Of Myeongdong 2016: Light And Shadows (1)
Nikon D610, 60mm, f/3.2, 1/1000, ISO 100

Build And Handling

The 60G certainly feels like a step ahead in built quality compared to the 28G, 50G, 85G and 18-35G. Weighing 425g, it still feels relatively compact. Although it is obviously heavier and bigger than the 185g 50G, in real-life usage I don’t feel a great difference swapping the 50G for the 60G on a D610 when it is hanging off my shoulder.

Autofocus

As a micro lens, the 60G obviously has more focus throw. It might hunt in extremely dim situations and fail to acquire an AF lock. This is not really a significant demerit of the 60G, since every other macro lens I have used pretty much behaved the same way. This is just something to bear in mind if you intend to go for some low-light shooting.

Streets Of Myeongdong 2016: A Stroll In The Colourful NightStreets Of Myeongdong 2016: Stroll In The Colourful Night
Nikon D610, 60mm, f/5.6, 1/60, ISO 1000

The focus motor of the 60G feels more stable and quieter than the Nikkor 28, 50 and 85 f/1.8 primes. For example, there is some clicking sound when focusing with the 50G. With the 60G, it feels and sounds like the internal elements are smoothly sliding into position. Unlike some other macro lenses, the 60G has no focus distance limiter. I doubt it is optimized for high-speed AF, though it still suffices for the few odd occasions I would put my D610 in 3D-tracking continuous AF.

Piranha Close-up 1Piranha Close-up
Nikon D610, 60mm, f/3, 1/160, ISO 6400

I have also used the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 VR macro (F004 model, abbreviated T90 in this article) extensively in the past. A noticeable advantage of the 60G over the T90 is that its AF accuracy is easily superior. The T90 has flaky AF when focusing on medium-to-distant subjects, resulting in a 50% miss rate. This occurs frequently enough that I was never able to confidently make any reliable conclusion of the T90’s optical performance at long distances – I never got enough usable samples I was satisfied with. No amount of AF fine-tune was able to correct this problem (Tamron’s TAP-in console has support for the newest iteration of the T90, so that might help to calibrate it properly. Just don’t blame me if it still doesn’t work. 😛 ). In comparison, the 60G’s AF is reliable and simply works as one would expect. Certainly a thumbs up for the 60G in real life practical use. After all if you can’t nail focus properly, the best optics are useless.

I do not use AF when doing close-up shots, preferring to use manual focus for superior control and accuracy. So I will not comment on AF accuracy in close-up distances.

Seoul 2016: Jajang Tteokbokki Spicy Hot Pot 2Seoul 2016: Jajang Tteokbokki Spicy Hot Pot 2
Nikon D610, 60mm, f/11, 1/60, ISO 720

Usage

As I mentioned in the introduction, I use the 60G primarily for street photography. The FOV on a 60mm is slightly more narrow compared to a 50mm, though the additional compression is not so much as to have a drastic impact on overall perspective. Although I lose some flexibility in tight situations, I gain more freedom in taking pictures without interrupting my subjects. There is definitely a subtle difference, and 60mm will not appeal to some street photographers. So it is important to be aware of your creative preferences.

Streets Of Myeongdong 2016: Waiting With The Shopping BagsStreets Of Myeongdong 2016: Waiting With The Shopping Bags
Nikon D610, 60mm, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO 2200

I also use the 60G for some causal food photography. The kind of food photography where I just walk into some random eatery, just me in my chair with the food from the kitchen on the table without any lighting arrangements or decoration. Amateur’s food photography with a DSLR instead of a phone, if you will. One advantage is that your food images are slightly less compressed compared to using a usual ~100mm macro lens. (I have seen images of some really, really thin wine bottles in a product shoot.) I do find it useful to pair the 60G with a wider lens for overhead and wider shots.

Seoul 2016: Jajang Tteokbokki NoodlesSeoul 2016: Jajang Tteokbokki Noodles
Nikon D610, 60mm, f/11, 1/60, ISO 2200

Image Quality

Let me start with the bad points. The 60G suffers from serious vignetting wide-open. This is the first lens I have used on any camera system where I notice light fall-off immediately when viewing an image on the camera’s rear LCD. The entire image is obviously more under-exposed than usual. To put this in a practical perspective, with the D610’s default metering you can literally see the exposure histogram under-expose by nearly a stop when you shoot at f/2.8. The effect is sufficient for you to adjust exposure compensation between +0.5 to +0.7 when shooting wide open to get accurate exposure if you want to get correct in-camera exposure without post-processing. One stop down to f/4 and the problem becomes nearly irrelevant.

Fortunately, light fall-off is pretty much the only significant complaint I have image-quality wise. Let us proceed to the good stuff now.

Streets Of Seoul 2016: Hongik And Sinchon 1Streets Of Seoul 2016: Hongik And Sinchon 1
Nikon D610, 60mm, f/5.6, 1/400, ISO 100

Like all macro lenses, the effective aperture of the 60G actually gets smaller as we focus to macro working ranges. For example with the T90, I never reached the maximum aperture of f/2.8 unless I was focusing on a subject significantly far away or at infinity. Even focusing on another person standing across a room could only get me as large as f/3.0 (unless it is a really big room ;)). The 60G reaches f/2.8 about 3 feet away. In actual use I have never gone lower than f/3.2. As an experiment I have tried focusing on an object about 1-1.5 inches away from the len’s front element, and the effective aperture went down to f/4. Turning the focus ring all the way could lower the effective aperture down to f/4.8, but I can’t comprehend how close the point of focus will be.

Streets Of Seoul 2016: A Snack By The RoadStreets Of Seoul 2016: A Snack By The Road
60mm, f/2.8, 1/400, ISO 100

The 60G handles longitudinal chromatic aberration quite well. I have used several fast prime lenses and all of them suffer from various degrees of LoCA, especially wide open. With the 60G, LoCA is very well controlled between macro to medium distances. Surprisingly, LoCA starts to peek out when you start focusing at longer distances up to infinity. I have made images with this lens where LoCA is totally invisible, and also made images where they managed to invade the picture in unexpected ways. In general, I don’t consider LoCA to be a problem, but advocate developing good post-processing habits of examining an image carefully.

Streets Of Seoul 2016: Sinchon And Hongik 7Streets Of Seoul 2016: Sinchon And Hongik 7
Nikon D610, 60mm, f/5.6, 1/400, ISO 100

In addition, the 60G’s level of spherochromatism control is in a whole new dimension of excellence for macro photography. Spherochromatism was quite visible with the T90 and a pain to correct. With the 60G, spherochromatism control is so good it is absent in many situations where I would expect it to show up, easily besting the T90 in this regard. Considering how damaging this class of aberration is and how much effort is required to fix it while minimising discoloured fringes, I am extremely happy with this aspect of the 60G’s performance.

Red Jellyfish In Blue WatersRed Jellyfish In Blue Water
Nikon D610, 60mm, f/3, 1/50, ISO 6400

I have not experienced any flare or ghosting issues with the 60G in real-life usage.

The 60G retains colour and contrast better than the 50G when a subject is illuminated by strong light, which is a very valuable optical quality. I also prefer colours coming from the 60G. This is difficult to articulate, but I simply have more latitude while performing colour-related post-processing operations on images produced by the 60G. The 50G’s colours feel a little “rough” in comparison. You are going to hear that word a few more times.

Seoul 2016: Pulling Trolley At The End Of The DaySeoul 2016: Pulling Trolley At Day’s End
Nikon D610, 60mm, f/5.6, 1/640, ISO 100

To describe image sharpness, let me compare the 60G to the 50G. The 50G is not a macro lens, so I am comparing image quality based on pictures taken from medium-to-infinite distances. Images produced by the 50G appear to have a “strong, harsh bite”. It creates results where I can see some strong bold edges, but subtle details seem to be “roughly” rendered. Images produced by the 60G do not have that occasional “bold edge” I see in the 50G. The rendering is more elegant, providing a clear, even description to both strong and subtle details. In general, I find the 60G elicits more details than the 50G.

Perhaps what I alluded earlier best describes the overall differences between the 50G and 60G. The 50G is “bold and harsh”. The 60G is “even and elegant”.

Recommendation

If you need a short macro lens, feel free to pick up the 60G without reservations. Just don’t use it when a longer focal length obviously offers the superior solution. 🙂 I may sound critical of the T90 in the performance comparisons above, but it is still the better tool for uses that benefit from its longer focal length. The 60G’s shorter focal length might pose some difficulty to your lighting setup. You lose lighting flexibility, but get a shorter working distance and a wider perspective.

Tiny Green ChrysanthemumsTiny Green Chrysanthemums
Nikon D610, 60mm, f/3.2, 1/60, ISO 500

Comparing the 60G and 50G for street photography is by far the more interesting discussion. The 60G may deliver better image quality, but the important criteria to consider is actually whether you prefer 50mm or 60mm. There is only a 10mm difference in focal length, but it does makes a difference and affects your shooting style. It does not matter that the 60G delivers a better image and has macro functionality. If your artistic vision works better at 50mm, stay at 50mm. Besides, the 50G is no slouch at image quality either and delivers slightly more shallow DOF when you need it. It is also cheaper and lighter. If you are really dissatisfied with the 50G and insists on 50mm, there are better-performing options from Sigma and Zeiss (as of this writing), though they are heavier and more expensive.

Streets Of Seoul 2016: Sinchon And Hongik 8Streets Of Seoul 2016: Sinchon And Hongik 8
Nikon D610, 60mm, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO 220

In my case, my preference for 60mm over 50mm is the primary pull factor. The improved image quality and macro functionality helps of course. 🙂 Whatever your decision, have fun! – WY

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