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Ross Hoddinott
Nature photographer

With the launch of the NIKKOR Z-series 105mm f/2.8 VR S macro lens, renowned macro photographer and Nikon ambassador alumnus Ross Hoddinott reveals his first-test verdict and the benefits of going mirrorless.

Growing up on a six-acre Cornish farm, Ross Hoddinott developed a passion for the natural world that soon progressed into capturing it on camera. Aged 12, he won the junior flora and fauna category in the BBC Countryfile competition with a dragonfly close-up and five years later was named Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year. He turned pro at 18 to become one of the UK’s best known landscape, wildlife and macro photographers and today splits his time between agency and client commissions, running workshops (lockdowns permitting) and writing, with a revised edition of his best-selling Digital Macro & Close-up Photography just out, along with his first ebook, The Essential Guide To Filters For Landscape Photography.

A Nikon aficionado since he bought a second-hand F801S at 16, Ross started using the mirrorless Z system when the Z 7 came out – so who better to take the brand new Z-series 105mm macro lens for a test drive? Read on for his expert view and to find out why he’s embracing mirrorless after a lifetime of DSLR photography.

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After spending your career using DSLRs, why are you now embracing Nikon’s mirrorless system?

There are a lot of advantages for me, not least that the mirrorless system is far lighter – and when you spend a lot of time outdoors hiking to locations with everything in your backpack, that’s really important. Ultimately, it’s all about the optics for me. The jump to the Z system was the chance to tap into a more optimised system incorporating all the latest technology, with the most incredible edge-to-edge detail and beautiful resolution. And of course you can still use all your existing F-mount NIKKORS via the FTZ adapter and retain spot on image quality.

The silent shooting you get with mirrorless can also be very helpful. Insects generally react more to movement than sound, and I tend to shoot them very early on or into the evening when they are virtually inactive, but if I’m following them during the day, or I want to photograph other more easily disturbed wildlife, it’s obviously useful to be able to minimise the amount of noise you’re creating.

Has it been an easy transition?

When the Z 7 first came out, I had it on loan for a few weeks to see what the new system felt like, and it couldn’t have been easier. The button layouts and menus are largely the same, so if you’re already used to Nikon cameras the Z system is very intuitive, which makes switching really straightforward. My only hesitation about buying the Z 7 was having just one card slot, when I’d been used to having two for such a long time in my DSLRs. But, to be truthful, I’ve never even needed to use a second card slot – nothing has ever corrupted – and of course when I think back to where I started out with film cameras, I didn’t have two rolls of film in any of them. Having said all that, I’ve recently moved onto the Z 7II, so I’m back in my dual card-slot comfort zone!

So what’s in your kitbag at the moment?

While I’ve been waiting for the macro Z lenses to be released, I’ve been operating a sort of hybrid system. My D850 and F-mount lenses, including the 200mm f/4 and the 105mm f/2.8 Micro primes, have been basically reserved for my close-up work, while I’ve been using the Z 7II for landscapes, along with the Z-system 14-30mm f/4 S, 24-70mm f/4 S and 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR zooms. But with the Z macro lenses now coming on stream, I’m intending to switch fully to mirrorless cameras and add a second Z 7II as back-up instead of the D850.

I’m also interested in trying the 100-400mm S when it comes out that I have seen on the roadmap. It could be great for birds and mammal photography as well as orchids and large insects. Currently the longest lens in my kit is my F-mount 500mm f/5.6 PF, but I’m a big fan of zooms. It can be really advantageous to be able to change perspective without moving your feet – it’s not always possible to get physically closer, especially with wildlife.

Do you see a difference in quality between the two lens systems?

I’m not the sort of photographer who really obsesses about my cameras and my lenses, but I do want the very best results, and I’ve certainly never had any complaints with my F-mounts. For macro work where there’s no leeway for error, my 200mm is bitingly sharp, even when I’m using it with the FTZ adapter. The 105mm is a really lovely focal length for insect photography, with the narrow angle of view giving you more control over the look of the background. It’s also ideal for portraits and compact enough to use handheld, so it’s very versatile.

That said, I’ve been exceptionally happy with the Z lenses I’ve used so far – all the latest developments in lens construction make them so much more compact and lightweight, as well as giving you incredible images. A big surprise for me has been the 24-200mm, which a pro photographer friend recommended after trying it out. It’s not one of the more expensive zooms and probably not one you would associate with professional use, but it’s lightweight, manoeuvrable and very impressive, especially for the price point.

You’ve already had a sneak preview of the new NIKKOR Z pro macro lens, the 105mm f/2.8 S – what’s your verdict?

I only got to try it out for a couple of hours very early one morning a couple of weeks ago on a shoot with Nikon School’s Training Manager, Neil Freeman, and that was enough for me to put in an order. But I’ve been shooting with Nikon macro lenses for many years now and I’ve never used one that hasn’t been optically excellent, so I’m not really surprised that this is a great lens, too.

My first impressions were really positive. It handles well – it’s slightly shorter than the F-mount 105mm and weighs a little less, but it still feels like a substantial piece of kit. The 0.29m minimum focus distance means you can get even closer to your subject, and there’s a focus limiter switch to prevent the lens from hunting at high magnification, so you can lock onto your target more quickly. The bokeh is excellent, producing aesthetically pleasing results that help create standout close-ups.

Focusing is also excellent – very quick, very precise. When I’ve got my camera on the tripod I usually focus manually for that extra bit of precision, whereas shooting handheld I’ll rely more on the autofocus. I didn’t encounter any issues in either situation. Even though I was shooting at quite a high ISO as the light was so flat, the sharpness and detail were spot-on. It clearly is that little bit sharper than the F-mount version, as you’d expect from a brand new lens series.

The design is neat, with a top-level digital display showing reproduction ratio, aperture or focusing distance – you select what you want to see using the DISP button at the side. This also enables you to set the aperture you want on the lens itself, which is really handy. It’s certainly going to accelerate my transition to completely mirrorless shooting.

Watch Ross' first impressions on the new NIKKOR Z MC 105mm f/2.8, as we challenged him to take extraordinary wildlife close-ups in the early hours of the morning with Nikon School’s Neil Freeman.