Macro-Nikkor lenses

Nikon, and Nippon Kogaku before it changed name to Nikon, used to market the Multiphot, a complete photomacrographic system including a 4 by 5 inch body and bellows or an alternate configuration with two sets of bellows with 3-30 cm and 6-60 cm extension and Nikon F attachment, a vertical support and focuser for the bellows, and numerous accessories. Among the latter are four Macro-Nikkor lenses (which were also sold separately) with the following specifications:

From left to right: Macro-Nikkor 19 mm f/2.8, 35 mm f/4.5, 65 mm f/4.5, 12 cm f/6.3
  • 19 mm f/2.8, in RMS mount, optimized for 15x-40x according to Nikon Multiphot literature (optimal magnification indicated as 20x on the barrel), colour-coded with a white ring.
  • 35 mm f/4.5, in RMS mount, optimized for 8x-20x (indicated as 12x on the barrel), colour-coded with a light-blue ring.
  • 65 mm f/4.5, in M39 mount, optimized for 3.5x-10x (indicated as 5x on the barrel), colour-coded with a yellow ring.
  • 120 mm (actually marked as 12 cm) f/6.3, in M39 mount, optimized for 1.2x-4x (indicated as 1x on the barrel), colour-coded with a red ring.

Oddly, the two shortest focal lengths are engraved MacroNIKKOR on their barrels (no dash and no space between Macro and Nikkor), while the two longest focal lengths are engraved Macro-NIKKOR.

A first thing to note about these lenses is that they reach their maximum magnification only when used on the 60 cm Multiphot bellows, i.e., with a bellows extension much higher than normally available in macro bellows. A second thing to note is that these lenses were originally designed for use with large-format (4" by 5") film. This means that they produce an image circle more than three times the size necessary to cover a 24 by 36 mm sensor (i.e., more than six times the size of an APS-C sensor). In practice, this means that all Macro-Nikkors can be used with DSLRs at magnifications substantially lower than the ones specified by Nikon as the lower limit for each lens model. These lenses are very sharp and, unlike certain lenses for large-format cameras, can exceed the sensor resolution also when used with small-format DSLR cameras. In fact, the Nikon Multiphot system for which these lenses were designed was subsequently made available in two configurations, one with large bellows, 4" by 5" film back and a suitably large reflex box for focusing and framing, and the other with narrow bellows are a Nikon F male attachment for use with Nikon film SLRs.

The two longest focal lengths have an aperture preset ring with click-stops that limits the range of movement of the aperture ring. The latter is grease-damped and has no click-stops. It is also possible to set the preset ring to the end of its range and use only the aperture ring to set the aperture.

The aperture scale is graded in progressive units ranging from 1 to 6 or 7 (depending on lens model). Each unit corresponds to one diaphragm stop, so the 65 mm f/4.5 has an aperture ranging to nominal f/28 (at the 6 setting). Of course, in order to avoid a loss of resolution because of diffraction, the aperture should not be closed past the magnification-dependent values discussed here. It must be noted that the magnification ranges of the Macro-Nikkor 19 mm and 35 mm, even when used fully open, lie entirely within the region visibly affected by diffraction when used with a DX (APS-C) sensor of roughly 10 megapixels. For this reason, and having already equivalent lenses from the Zeiss Luminar, Canon Macro and other series, the Macro-Nikkor 19 mm and 35 mm are low on my list of priorities. The Macro-Nikkor 35 mm and 65 mm are marginally affected by diffraction already at f/4.5 (the 1 setting) and 7x, and detectably at f/5.6 (halfway between the 1 and 2 settings) and 8x. The Macro-Nikkor 12 cm, on the other hand, is limited by sensor resolution, rather than diffraction, throughout its magnification range at f/5.6 (the 1 setting), and can be stopped down to f/11 (the 3 setting) at 1.3x.

In practice, I prefer to set the preset ring of the 65 mm at 2 and the one of the 12 cm at 3, so that I will remember not to exceed these values in actual use.

The two models shown above are said (on other web sites, not by Nikon) to use a reversed Xenotar optical formula with 5 elements in 4 groups (this is similar to a double-Gauss, but with a divergent concavo-convex single element in place of the rear doublet). Having disassembled a 12 cm model, I can confirm that it has 5 elements in 4 groups, albeit not in a Xenotar scheme but with the doublet in the outermost position, and the aperture diaphragm behind the second front group. At least some versions of the Micro-Nikkor 55 mm f/3.5 AI and the rangefinder Micro-Nikkor 55 mm f/3.5 did use a Xenotar formula.

The rear elements of the two Macro-Nikkors are much wider than their front ones, and the front nodal point is displaced forward, in order to increase the working distance. The 65 mm is also quite long (between its front and rear element) for a lens of this focal length.

The Macro-Nikkor series marked Nippon Kogaku differs from the later series, marked Nikon, in simpler and less effective lens coatings and, at least in the two longest focal lengths, mechanical details of the barrel. The aperture preset ring has a finer, oblique cross-hatched pattern, while the Nikon series (illustrated above) has a coarser cross-hatching, perpendicular to the lens barrel, similar to the common pattern of Nikon rubber-coated focusing rings, albeit machined in metal.

38 mm-52 mm step-up adapter (top) and Nikon BR-15 adapter ring (bottom)

The filter mount of both lenses is an unusual 38 mm. Adapter rings for this size are unusual, but do exist (above picture, top).

In spite of the fact that none of the lenses supplied with the Multiphot has a Nikon F bayonet, the lens attachment at the front of the Multiphot bellows does have this attachment, and the Macro-Nikkors were attached to the Multiphot via a BR-15 M39 to Nikon adapter (for the M39 lenses) and an additional RMS to M39 adapter for the two RMS lenses. The BR-15 (above picture, bottom) is quite rare today, and may cost a substantial portion of the normal price of a Macro-Nikkor. There are, of course, cheap third-party M39 to Nikon adapters as alternatives, although not made as well as the original one.

See here and here for tests.