Nikon's Manual-Focus Lenses


One of the more interesting VDSLR-related sidebar stories has been the "rediscovery" of manual-focus lenses among VDSLR shooters. Most manufacturers long ago pulled the plug on manual focus lens R&D in order to concentrate their energies into improving AF technologies. And then video came along and lo and behold, all of these AF speed queens turned out to be less than ideal, not to mention too noisy, for shooting anything other than stills.

For Nikon VDSLR shooters in particular, this has resulted in renewed interest in previous generation manual-focus Nikkor lenses, which as it turns out, are still very much in production.

Though greatly scaled back, production of many manual-focus Nikkor optics has continued in short runs since the advent of AF and AF-S Nikkor lenses, and as a result, Nikon has been able to quickly reboot its manufacturing schedule of a series of classic manual-focus Nikkors including the Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 AI-S, Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 AI-S, Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 AI-S, Nikkor 35mm f/1.4 AI-S, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AI-S and Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-S. All of these lenses are currently in production and in stock, with the exception of the Nikkor 35mm f/1.4, which is expected to be back in circulation in October.

Along with focus tracking that actually stops at infinity, manual focus lenses are also quieter than AF optics, which tend to be noisy even when switched into MF mode. There's also the tactile experience of shooting with manual-focus lenses, which in the case of the Nikkors, have a far more solid feel about them than most AF lenses thanks to their all alloy, zero-plastic construction. Each of these lenses is also fast, with f-stops ranging from f/2.8 (20mm, 24mm and 28mm) through f/1.4 (35mm and 50mm), as well as the truly speedy 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor.

Nikon's manual-focus Nikkors include a
20mm f/2.8 AI-S, 24mm f/2.8 AI-S, 28mm f/2.8 AI-S,
35mm f/1.4 AI-S, 50mm f/1.4 AI-S and 50mm f/1.2 AI-S.

Video shooters will appreciate the fast apertures afforded by these MF Nikkors, which enables shooters to make good use of selective focusing. Our intredpid  Nikon rep, David Edelstein, was kind enough to drop off one of the "new" 50mm f/1.2 Nikkors for a test drive, and as the stills we shot demonstrate, these lenses are capable of capturing wonderful still and video imagery. (Camera: Nikon D300s)

Shooting wide open with Nikon's 50mm f/1.2 AI-S allows
for interesting handheld shooting on
rainy nights and bright, sunny days alike.

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Great insight.  Don't forget the using MF lenses on video cameras.  Cameras such as the JVC PRO-HD as well as the new 1/3" Panasonic and Sony HD cameras have removable lenses and with an Nikon to JVC bayonet adapter one can use a 80-200 35mm  zoom for FANTASTIC wildlife video work that is insainly sharp.  There is a 7x multiplication factor in comparison to using a 35mm negative vs a 1/3" CCD/Cmos chip... so a great way to go for wildlife video as well in adition to using on your DSLR for stills and video.

Copyediting: it should be "lo and behold" in that first paragraph.

Anonymous wrote:

Copyediting: it should be "lo and behold" in that first paragraph.

In the words of our illustrious editor, "We stand corrected" and asked that I convey his thanks to you for your vigilance and attention to detail.

Anonymous wrote:

Copyediting: it should be "lo and behold" in that first paragraph.

Indeed. Sometimes the obvious ones just blow by, compounded by the fact that I'm a one-man band here. Thank you for giving it the old eyeball.

I recently bought at Nikon D700 after years of shooting with Canon gear and found myself quite entranced by the opportunities offered by the outstanding manual focus lenses available in the F mount.  Over the last few months I've acquired eight AI-s and AI MF lenses, including a number you mention and recently took a trip to the Netherlands with ONLY MF lenses.  

I had great fun and have been wonderfully rewarded by what these lenses can do on a full frame camera with such outstanding low light performance, as well as a great viewfinder.  I've been so captivated by these lenses, in fact, that I initiated a couple of discussions on a great photography website, Fred Miranda.  Here is a link to a conversation about Nikon's manual focus lenses, with contributions from folks who have collected such lenses over the decades and still enjoy shooting with them.  You and your fans may wish to check it out... 



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More copy-editing:

RE: “Our intredpid Nikon rep, David Edelstein," Mr Edelstein should really be “intrepid.”

Give it a break you twit.

*****, all.

just wanted to weigh in, here, with my decrepit 64 year old body. i've always used film and always prime lenses, manual focus all. can't even abide a zoom lens! not so much a purist, but that's just me.

please forgive me if i break out in giggles at the digital issues, ie. trying to come up with software that looks like film, trying to duplicate grain as opposed to noise. makes me laugh. have you ever thought of using film, hand held light meters or developing your own exposed film? this is all where the magic comes in. oh regarding the 50mm focal length, among us oldies the finest 50mm is the 50mm f2.0 nikkor. beats the 1.4 and 1:1.2 hands down across the range!

so, don't feel bad if you can't afford one of the hunks of glass, get the little guy, outperforms the others.


Do the old Nikon lenses with the meter-coupling tab really work on the new

DSLRs? Only for video? What a dream not to have to sell/give away/throw away my old Nikon lenses.

Anonymous wrote:

Do the old Nikon lenses with the meter-coupling tab really work on the new

DSLRs? Only for video? What a dream not to have to sell/give away/throw away my old Nikon lenses.

I did not see a response to your question.  The AI (Auto Indexing - meter-coupling tab) lenses will work on any of the Nikons that use the F mount.  Notice, I didn't say all, because Nikon also made the Nikonos, and possibly other cameras that I'm not aware of.  Actually, all F mount lenses, will work on all F mount Nikon bodies.  Will the meter work - probably not.  Will the body know what the F-Stop, probably not. Can you set the sutter speed on the body, and the fstop on the lens, focus and take a picture - absolutely.  Don't have a hand held meter.  Take the picture, look at the screen and adjust accordingly.  If necessary, bracket your images.

Nicely enough, the new higher end DSLRs, actually work nicely with the AI and later series lenses.  That would be the D3 series, D700, and possibly the D300 (not sure).  In my case I have D700.  To get the most out of mirroring AI lenses with the D700, you let the D700 know what lens your using.  This is not a attach the lens, the lens and the camera body have a small discussion and now they know everything about each other.  In the menu [Setup Menu > Non-CPU lens data] you enter the Lens number, Focal length, and Maximum aperture.  Lens number is just a number you choose to repesent that lens.  In my case, for lens #1, I have 50mm, f/1.4, lens #2, 55mm, f2.8, #3, 55mm, f3.5, and so on.  It is not all perfect.  Zoom lenses have multiple focal lengths and some have multiple fstops.  For example, I have a 80~200mm, f4.5.  I think it is actually f4.5 at 80mm, but possibly f5.6 at 200mm.  I could be wrong, and it is f4.5 through out is focal length.  The issue is that you can only enter in a single focal length and a single fastest fstop.  ***** Understand, this does not affect picture quality or the ability to use the two together.  What it does affect, is the meta data stored in image regarding focal length and possibly fstop.  ****  If store the Non-CPU lens as 80mm, f4.5, then it doesn't matter what zoom you actually take the picture at, it is going to record 80mm.  If this is bothersome to you, you are either not focusing on the task at hand, which is taking photographs, or you should forget manual focus lenses and get a CPU type lens, so if you zoom to 103.5mm, the body will record it accurately in your meta data.

So, that was a long explaination to say, yes they work.  In some models, the mariage between AI lenses and body is better than others, but they all work.

In my case, I'm using lenses I bought in 1978, that I used on my FT3, F2AS, and F3.  It is highschool football season, and I only use my 1978, 80~200mm, f4.5 lens.  I'm a bit rusty, my hands are not as steady as they used to be, and don't get me started on my eyes, but if you want to see results go to

Like another gentle mentioned, I'm from the film days and fully appreciate film. I am also embracing the digital age, but I'm not that good at it.  I've just recently obtained the flickr account where the above photos are.  Not sure how you do it, but my flickr name is "lensmen-i&p" just in case you want to see some examples.  I try to mention both camera, lenses, some settings for the group of pictures.  Again, I'm just starting, but will be posting pics from time to time, but priority #1 are the football pics, so the kids get get them up on their facebook page.

Again, the answer is yes.   You also can see how to set up your body to correctly use the lens, so as you change the fstop, the body is in sync and will also meter appropriatly.  Lastly, there is a link, if you would like to see results of using 30 year old glass.

With this being said will there be a price jump on used Nikon MF lenses?  I also know people are using Nikon lenses on the Canon 7D and 5D mk II for video purposes.  Thank god I bought my set awhile ago!  Only hope all the faketographers out there can figure out how to shoot manually!  "Uh, you mean I actually have to put effort into it?" LOL!

 I wish Nikon would make a few NEW, fast constant 2.8, manual focus, zoom lenses!

I've had good results on an F3 with the 35 mm 1.2 and 55 Macro 3.5, both older lenses, both sharp and fine with color, and made with metal.  I still use the 55 mm lens to make copy slides for classes I teach.