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The Printing Nikkors for Close-Up Work

Michael Erlewine

The Printing Nikkors for Close-Up Work

Since the term apochromatic has no standard definition, various ideas of what is apochromatic exist. Finding apochromatic (APO) lenses that are really outstanding is difficult. By now, most of us know that the three new Zeiss APO lenses (135mm, 55mm, 85mm) are corrected apochromatically to a high standard, but finding lenses of similar quality (as to APO) is difficult without delving into the various industrial lenses, lenses designed for enlarger work or for various film-scanning operations.

One good set of APO lenses are what are called the “Printing Nikkors,” a series of four Nikon industrial lenses designed for or use in film transfer (copy) machines, making accurate copies of 35mm cinema films and the like. These machines cost upward of $100,000, and the lenses individually cost (I am told) some $12,000 each. They are very highly corrected. To achieve this, chromatic aberration is corrected not only for the red, green, and blue range of the visible spectrum, but for the entire wavelength range (400 ~ 800nm).

These four Printing Nikkors were each designed for a particular usable magnification range. Of the four Printing Nikkors (75mm, 95mm, 105mm, and 150mm), I have managed to find three of them, being the 95mm, 105mm, and 150mm. Here is a list along with what reproduction range they were designed for, and the general range suggested for use.

75mm = 1/4x (usable 1/6X ~ 1/3X)

95mm = 1/5x (usable 1/3X ~ 1/1/5X)

105mm = 1x (usable 1/1.5X ~ 1.5X)

150mm = 1x (usable 1/4X ~4X)

I don’t use the Printing Nikkors for macro or higher magnifications, but primarily for close-up photography. This particular Printing Nikkor, the 150mm is of no use to me mounted directly on my Nikon D810 camera. Rather, it needs a bellows, and I generally use the Nikkor PB-4 for that. Since I mostly use this particular lens for focus stacking, the bellows works well for the close-up range.

As a quick sidebar, to take advantage of the available focus-stacking software (I use Zerene Stacker), there are three main ways to stack focus and they produce different results, so it is important to use the most efficient method if you can. I give them here, starting with the best solution on down to the least efficient. The ranking is in terms of avoiding unwanted artifacts in your resulting stacked images:

(1) The best way to stack is on a bellows, by fixing (locking) the lens to the front standard (so it does not move), and then focus with the rear standard on which sits the camera body (and sensor). So, we fix the lens, and only move the camera to focus.

(2) The second best way to stack photos (and easiest) is by turning the focus barrel of the lens itself. This is why it can be important to purchase a lens with the longest focus throw you can get. For example, the famous Coastal Optics 60mm APO f/4 forensic lens (which is highly corrected) only has a focus throw of about 210-degrees, way too small (IMO) for stacking photos. You really have to use it mounted on a camera, mounted on a focus rail, and that is not good. On the other hand, the legendary Voigtlander 125mm f/2.5 APO-Lanthar Macro lens has a focus through of some 610-degrees. What a difference!

(3) And lastly (and worst-ly) is to mount the camera-body and lens on a focus rail and move the whole combination to focus. This is not recommended, but I still have to often revert to it.

(4) And there is the concern that spherical objects are the hardest to stack because you must take even smaller incremental layers with spheres, since there is no flat surface. To capture a sphere without artifacts takes some very fine increment-steps to stack properly.

The above choices (themselves) each involve problems of their own, of course. Not all lenses will work well on a bellows, not all lenses have a decent focus throw, and the third option of using a focus rail should be avoided, if possible. These three options were first explained to me by Rik Littlefield, the author of Zerene Stacker, the focus-stacking software that I find to be the best for my work.

I must say that my choice of flowers here is not ideal. In my experience the color yellow (and red, for that matter) are not as easy to capture correctly compared to the greens and blues. But this is what I have in the studio, so I am using it.

Here are three different images, the first two images are stacked images shot with the Printing Nikkor 150mm wide open (f/2.8), and one at its narrowest aperture (f/11). The third image is a non-stacked traditional one-shot photo at f/11. My thoughts?

My first thought is that I have to learn to better master the color yellow. Second, I feel this lens is very unforgiving, perhaps even a little aggressive or “forensic,” as in: what you see is what you get. And thirdly, I continue to wrestle with the question of to-stack-or-not-to-stack at all.

The traditional one-shot photo is not bad. Why bother to stack, when stacking means artifacts of one kind or another (visible or not to the average viewer) will be present?

It seems to me that the three new Zeiss APOs are not, well, so “forensic,” and have a softer feel to them. The bottom line is that I have to learn to better use the Printing Nikkors or….. just stick with the Zeiss APOs.

Now, the industrial enlarger-lens, the El Nikkor APO 105mm, does not seem to have a “forensic” look. This is not to mention that maneuvering a large lens like the Printing Nikkor 150mm, mounted on a bellows, mounted on a quick-release clamp, in the field is no easy trick.




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Very interesting! Thanks for the write-up about Printing Niks.


Michael, have you ever used/evaluated the Stack Shot for your work?

I may have missed such a write-up as I can't keep up with everything here, so a link would be welcome if you have one.



One more question:  Have you ever used the Zeiss S-Orthoplanar?

It is an EL but reported to be "legendarily" sharp.

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I have thought about StackShot, for sure. Yet I don’t do enough true macro work to need it. Most of my work is close-up and a long focus throw seems to be enough, with the occasional rail or bellows for those lenses that require it. It is ironical that each of us probably has a point where we draw the line with technology. My hand on the focus ring, focus rail, bellows is pretty ingrained. I can feel the vibrations die away from each mirror-up press, while I wait to make that second press. For me the process is very much a part of the result and, to a degree, determines it, if only because I like it and that keeps me going.


We each have a process and that in my case is meditative and comforting. If I wanted to do more dragonfly eyes (macro), then I might need such a device, but then the dragonfly would be dead and that is not so appealing to me.


And of course StackShot does not know when to narrow the steps for objects that are spherical, etc., or to speed up what there is really nothing much to stack for in a space.


There are literally hundreds of enlarger lenses that perhaps need to be explored and many, many bargains to be found for the dedicated experimenter with these lenses. I have only scratched the surface and (I hate this analogy) reached for the low-hanging fruit, the best known examples of these industrial lenses. The Printing Nikkors are very, very well corrected and also very flat. If they have a major fault for my work, it is just the lack of character. They are a blank slate and that, sometimes, is too harsh in my opinion. They are copy lenses, pure and simple.


The El Nikkor 105mm APO lens is also very sharp and well corrected, but it has a lot of character. Some might like it, some not. I happen to like it.


I don’t have the Zeiss S-Orthoplanar, but I do have the Zeiss S-Planer 74mm f/4 lens, which is also very well corrected. And I have other industrial lenses I am still tinkering with. Like a Rodenstock Scitex S3 89mm, and so on. 

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And of course StackShot does not know when to narrow the steps for objects that are spherical, etc., or to speed up what there is really nothing much to stack for in a space.

Which neatly sums up why I have never gone down this route.


For the stuff I do I also prefer the adaptability of manual operation. As well focus peaking in my mirrorless cameras has made that operation so much quicker and easier.

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Guest nfoto


Andrea: funny you should mention the S-Orthoplanar. I once salvaged one from a wrecked repro machine. Tested it for UV and it wasn't that great so put it away. Now, I may need to find it again as it has relocated itself somewhere in the lens house. Or I have forgotten its location.


Michael: great presentation of some obviously great lenses.

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These Printing Nikkor lenses are very flat, but also very well corrected. This alone is hard to find in lenses, at least to this degree. But any magic in the use of these lenses will have to come from the photographer. They don’t have a “random acts of magic” generator in them like the CRT-Nikkor or the Ell Nikkor APO 105mm apparently have, where you get unexpected results, some of which are a gift, etc.


However, using the new Zeiss lenses, I struggle with stacking them with many layers, stacking them with just one or two shots, or simply getting better at traditional one-shot photos. It would be ironic if I find that after all this stacking I end up discovering the elegance of one-shot photos. I am getting close to that with the Zeiss Otus APOs and one shot at f/16. One-shot photography certainly helps with the development of composition, etc.


Photo of the Printing Nikkor 150mm APO lens.


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Great post, Michael. I have duly promoted this to an article on our system so that it gets more attention from search engines and more prominence on Fotozones. 


I encourage all our members to consider contributing articles and read-worthy posts like this. 

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Guest Colin-M


Thanks for this Michael.


Long term visitors here will alread have seen much of your excellent close-up work, but its great to understand some of the thought processes that go it it. In addition to the lenses you've told us about, it is fascinating to be reminded of some of he gotcha's when Stacking.


...there are three main ways to stack focus and they produce different results, 

>  so it is important to use the most efficient method if you can...


It is worth doing a separate article to expand on this? I see Alan added some related comments here


In addition to areas of the subject with spherical surfaces, are there any other special considerations? For example transparent areas (e.g. insect wings) bright specular points from reflections etc

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Colin: Of course there are lots of things to be aware of. I will think about putting together a brief guide to some of the main ones. Thanks for the suggestion.

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Guest bjornthun


Some newer lenses for mirrorless cameras have implemented focusing-by-wire. The Olympus Zuiko Digital 2/50 for 43 mount gives you two full turns, that is 720 degrees turn, from infinity down to 0.5x magnification. The Olympus M.Zuiko 2.8/60 will give you six full turns, that is 6x360 degrees, from infinity down to 1x magnification. This is parallelled only by the Leica 2.8/100 Apo-Macro-Elmarit.

Focus-by-wire lenses allow this, since they can accelerat the AF motor, according to how fast the focusing ring is turned. Turn the focusing ring slowly, and you get an amazing focusing throw.

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Yes, my Leica Elmarit 100mm APO Macro has about 720 or so as a focus throw. The Voigtlander 125mm APO-Lanthar has over 600-degrees, but these lenses are an exception. We don't need that much, but we need more that we find with Micro-Nikkors like the 60mm f/2.8. Those really have to go an a focus rail, which is not the best way of stacking. 

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Guest nfoto


You move the position of the entrance pupil and thereby the perspective, I surmise.

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      I’m not sure what you will get out of these, but you can take a look. Meanwhile, I continue checking out these interesting (to me) lenses, the Printing Nikkors.


    • By Greg Drawbaugh
      I had some nice cloudy bright sky after a light rain fall, so I decided I might attempt to get some flower photos using the in camera, focus stacking ability of the latest Olympus cameras.  Red always gives me problems, so I decided I would tackle it first.  This are all five-shot, hand-held focus stacks with some work in Lightroom, F5.0 at 1:50 sec

    • By Michael Erlewine
      I can read the various MTF and other lens-testing charts, but they are only as meaningful in my work as I can implement them in the studio or field. In other words, I am not much of a lens tester myself, except though actually using the lens for my own work. I am certain that any given lens reaches greatest resolution at a certain f/stop, just as the experts tell us. No doubt. However, what I really want to know is about what kind of curve the particular lens creates from its widest to its narrowest aperture and how does that curve affect my particular work. That’s the curve I actually use. In other words, is it “sharp” wide-open or does that sharpness start a couple of stops later, and how long is that sharpness maintained? What kind of curve do we have, sharp or gentle?
      As someone who stacks focus, I don’t stack focus at the same aperture that I use for taking a traditional single-shot photo. With a one-shot photo I tend to, of course, push the aperture higher (narrower) to get as much depth-of-field as I feel I need for a particular shot, which often is as much as I can get without degradation of the image through diffraction. Yet when I stack focus, I don’t worry about using a narrower aperture to get my depth of field, but rather I use focus stacking to create the apparent depth of field.
      So, for focus stacking I want a single aperture on the lens-curve that marks the point of greatest resolution for that lens. In summary, I don’t try to stack with narrow apertures, but almost always with a single aperture for the lens that is considered its peak-resolution, what commonly is called “sharpness,” although that is a rather nebulous term. That way every increment of the stacked layers has maximum resolution and therefore the resulting stacked images shares that too.
      Not to be confusing, but sometimes I stack not at the point (aperture) of greatest resolution, but just a little higher (narrower) if I am trying to create a little additional faux micro-contrast for that image. I take advantage of the greater depth-of-field obtained at a narrower aperture and record the additional depth-of-field as if it were greater acutance – micro-contrast. I am still undecided whether this actually helps, but it is a concept I am playing with. Normally I stack at the aperture that the testers (or my eyes) tell me has the most resolution for that lens and leave it go at that. The point here is that I come up with my own idea of what aperture curve will work for the job at hand, i.e. what I can get away with.
      All photographs IMO are impressions, our own mental and psychological impressions of what we see out in the world, given the caveat that much of what we see, our impressions, come not from the outside, but from our own mind and approach. Because focus stacking is a form of lossy sampling, a stacked photo is almost an impression of an impression, so to speak. I don’t easily fall into believing that what I am photographing out there in the world has a reality greater than my own impressions and approach. Let’s take the recent Zeiss 135mm APO as an example, and the following are just my thoughts on how I use this lens for close-up photography.
      The Zeiss 135mm is sharp wide-open, so I don’t have to add a couple of f/stops to achieve better resolution. With this lens wide-open, I get a depth-of-field (DOF) that is razor sharp. With that ultra-thin slice of DOF, I can literally paint focus, layer by layer, until I create what we could call a block of focus that represents what I want in that image to be sharp and in-focus. Because the lens is fast and wide open, whatever I don’t layer-paint is automatically blurred or part of the bokeh of the image. Note that this is the opposite of much traditional advice for focus stackers, i.e. that we push the lens as high as we can without suffering too much diffraction and then stack. I am going against tradition here because I like the results better. Now, back to the Zeiss APO 135mm lens.
      With traditional one-shot photos, when I am not stacking, I find that from the Zeiss 135 APO I can get usable resolution and acutance all the way to up to something like f/13, which is a long way. Yes, by then I am recording diffraction that bothers me (and way before that), but I often can get by with it. If I don’t need peak sharpness for the particular subject, I can shoot at f/16 and inject some little bit of needed clarity or contrast in post. Beyond f/16 I am getting too much diffraction and image-degradation to venture there.
      Since I am primarily a close-up photographer (rather than a macro photographer), much less a micro-photographer, the lack of extreme detail at f/16 with the Zeiss 135mm APO is often acceptable, diffraction and all. In fact, I have an ongoing battle going on within me whether to do a lot less stacking and a lot more taking single-shot traditional photos.
      I am also experimenting with what I call “short-stacks,” where I take two or three shots that capture the particular areas in a photo I want to be in high-focus and stack that. I find that with these new Zeiss APO lenses do actually work much better than I would have guessed for short stacks. Years ago, when I was first starting out with focus-stacking, I did short stacks because I was lazy, and the results were that I had way too many artifacts in the final images.
      But with, as I have mentioned in many articles now, these three new Zeiss APO lenses (135mm, 55mm, 85mm), this short-stack technique seems to work out very well indeed. And I don’t even stack them in the ordinary way. Yes, I use Zerene Stacker with short stacks, but when retouching I have a different approach. Ordinarily, I retouch artifacts only, but with the short-stack approach I tend to just paint in from each of the layers just the main part that layer has in perfect focus, kind of in a whole-cloth sort of way. Most of us used to this in Photoshop. I do have to pay attention to where these layers overlap, but I have been surprised how successful that has been.
      Here is a little tableau I have put together. I will have to show a larger view at another time, but I am focusing on the two-dollar bill, but have included some burlap (pleated) so that it rises up and we can see how much depth-of-field is available at the higher apertures. Perhaps some of you reading this will have suggestions for what kinds of objects I could additionally include.
      These shots are not about color, but about resolution, diffraction, and depth-of-field. I notice that I can get away with f/11 (see the copper tacks), but with f/16 it is more iffy (but often still usable) for close-up, but not for macro. Lately my internal mantra seems to be “I always seem to go for high resolution,” but am interested more in acuity (micro-contrast) in post. And I only do all of this with APO lenses, for the most part.
      Your thoughts? Are these kind of images useful to anyone by myself?

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