A Final Salute to Nikon’s AF-D Lenses

A Final Salute to Nikon’s AF-D Lenses

2000 1331 Jim Graves

Nikon has been going through a lot of changes over the last year, a year which had brought significant financial challenges due to the ongoing pandemic. In its effort to stay relevant in an industry that’s going whole hog on mirrorless cameras, a few sacred cows are being left behind.

Toward that end, Nikon recently announced that they have ceased production of the 135mm f/2 “defocus control” portrait lens – a legendary member of the company’s AF-D lens series that has been in production since the mid-1980s.

In a market notorious for the speed of its changes, it’s worth noting and celebrating when any consumer electronic product remains in production for so long. Similarly, Nikon’s F3 was more than twenty years old when Nikon shut down production in 2001. This may seem trivial to some, but for Nikon users like myself it is a testament to the quality of Nikon optics and the company’s commitment to its customers.

Buying My First AF-D Lenses

When buying my first DSLR, I took my time and looked at what was available on the used market. I was not blessed with a lot of disposable income, so with a brand new camera off the table, I bought a Nikon D90. Sitting at the top of Nikon’s consumer camera line, the D90 offered a lot of options when choosing lenses in the future. Not long after getting my D90 I had saved enough to buy my first autofocus lens, the Nikon 70-210mm f/4-5.6 AF-D.

My decision to buy this particular lens was driven by its affordability and my existing lens lineup. I already was using my Tamron Adaptall 2 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 that I had originally purchased for use on my Pentax SP500. The 70-210mm lens was the logical choice to give me an excellent focal range without needing to buy additional lenses. (How wrong that turned out to be, as I was soon succumbing to gear acquisition syndrome!)

[You can learn more about AF-D lenses from previous articles we’ve published.]

The AF Nikkor 70-210mm is a consumer grade lens designed for use with Nikon’s range of autofocus 35mm cameras from the 1980s, such as the Nikon N8008 and Nikon F4. It’s push/pull zoom design was as old as zoom lenses themselves, but the autofocus technology certainly wasn’t, and it proved to be both reliable and simple to use. As I got to know the capability of the lens and became more comfortable using it, I knew I had to go all in on these D lenses.

The Tamron was put on reserve and the 70-210 was soon joined by a 35-70 f/3.3-4.5 and the legendary, “plastic fantastic” 50mm f/1.8 AF-D. With these three lenses I had all the focal range I could want with a dedicated normal lens thrown in.

Life was good and was about to get a whole lot better.

Soon my D90 was joined by a Nikon F-801 (with a 50mm f/1.8 AI-S attached), which was gifted to me by a dear friend. I quickly came to enjoy the versatility of the F mount and the ease of switching lenses between film and digital bodies. I would have remained happy with my cameras had I not been allured by a Nikon D700 (which Jeb reviewed here).

The D700’s legendary full-frame sensor was a revelation as I was finally able to use my AF-D lenses and see through the viewfinder the focal length printed on the lens. I marveled at the D700’s dynamic range and was able to fully take advantage of the synergy between my film and digital cameras.

I spent a large part of 2019 out and about with my D700, F-801 and my three AF-D lenses, but I soon came to the conclusion that I wanted a walkabout lens – something all-purpose that I could attach to any of my cameras and reduce the weight in my camera bag. Having enjoyed my AF-D lenses, I knew I wanted to stay in that lineup and soon found a perfect fit – the Nikkor 24-120 f/3.5-5.6 AF-D.

The Nikkor 24-120 is not a light lens and when fitted to my D700 it means I’m lugging around five pounds of kit. It’s a heavy combination for sure, but also a good deterrent to any potential muggers looking for a quick score. Both the D700 and 24-120 are so well built I have no doubt that they could knock a man out and would still function perfectly.

There’s a wide range of options in the AF-D lens lineup. From the more plasticky, variable minimum f-stop zooms, to all-metal pro-spec primes, there’s something here for everyone. Unlike other manufacturers, Nikon kept its F-mount when they made the switch to autofocus. For the D line, Nikon also kept an external aperture ring, allowing the lenses to be used across the greatest number of Nikon cameras. Until 1992, the lineup was marked just as “AF,” until the lenses were given the ability to tell the camera at which distance the lens was focused. Thus the “AF-D” designation was born.

The lenses range from the legendary, such as the 135mm f/2 and 35mm f/2 to the underrated 70-210mm f/4 and 60mm f/2.8 and the most budget friendly 50mm f/1.8, which for many years has been one of the cheapest new lenses offered by a major manufacturer. It remains a vast collection of lenses from pro grade down to entry level optics designed with the best available coatings and manufacturing methods.

This was Nikon’s flagship lens series until the release of the G (gelded) lenses at the turn of the millennium. Among other things, G lenses removed the external aperture control and embraced the industry trend of more and more plastic construction. This didn’t spell the end of the AF-D line however. In fact, it ensures that these quality lenses will be available and affordable for years to come.

The Demise of the D lenses

The writing has been on the wall ever since Nikon pivoted to its mirrorless cameras and its new Z mount (which James used during a tour of the Kodak factory). This was the first major step away from the F-mount in more than half a century, and we D series shooters knew that the days of D were coming to an end. This fear was confirmed when it was announced that the mirrorless Z-series F-mount adapter (which allows F mount Nikon lenses to be used on the new camera system) doesn’t support screw-driven autofocus lenses (like the D series). For the first time in the past seventy years, customers who had invested in AF-D glass would not be able to enjoy the newest Nikon cameras with their existing lens kit.

Other blows followed, as Nikon ceased production (albeit very limited production) of their last film camera the F6, and later announced a discontinuation of that legendary AF-D portrait lens, the 135mm f/2. This seemed to finally bring the curtain down on the AF-D lenses after thirty great years of production. 

But all things end. And the decades of lenses which comprise the D series ensures a vibrant used market for AF-D lenses. Nikon photographers who seek a perfect mix of quality, price and compatibility should look no further than this series of lenses. It’s an appropriate time to raise a glass in salute of these products, which were so long in production and continue to produce outstanding images for countless photographers (myself included).

As Nikon (and the greater photography industry) moves in a new direction, many of us will continue using old glass. Now more than ever they’re an excellent choice for photographers on a budget seeking to maintain as much quality as possible.

With the film renaissance bringing new photographers into the medium who weren’t yet born when film was ubiquitous, they can rest easy in the knowledge that they have such a vast inventory of great lenses out there waiting. I know that I and other Nikonians will continue to benefit from the D series lenses for years to come, even if Nikon must move on. 

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24 comments
  • Nice article on a lens set I’m rather familiar with (and in the case of the 50mm F1.8D shall never, ever, part with), but I do feel the need to point something out.

    As with a lot of information parroted across the internet, you’ve fallen for a joke and printed it verbatim without knowing the meaning.

    Nikon G lenses are not “Gelded”. Gelding is when you castrate a horse, and I’m pretty sure Nikon doesn’t consider the removal of the physical aperture ring a castration of their product.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gelding

    Ken Rockwell has been pushing this joke for well over a decade now and it’s clearly stuck.

    At least you’re far from the only one to have fallen for it, judging by its mention in Nikon reviews all over the web.

    • I think he was poking fun with that reference for the same reasons you mention.

    • Phil it was a nod to Ken Rockwell. He gets a lot of fun poked at him from various folk in the photography community, but he helped me as his review of the Nikon D90 helped to convince me to buy mine. A decision I have not regretted.
      If Ken Rockwell ever reads this, cheers Ken.

  • Wim HH van Heugten May 3, 2021 at 6:16 am

    Hi,

    You state that the Nikon F3 was more than 30 years in production in 1992. That’s not correct. Around 1960 the Nikon F was introduced, but it’s rather questionable to consider the F and F3 as the same cameras. In fact the F3 has been produced for little more than 10 years. The Pentax LX, a direct competitor to the F3 has been produced from 1980 to 2001.

  • Like the latest version of the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 D lens.

  • The D lenses are the last Nikon lenses I can really use on my Nikon film cameras and Olympus digital cameras (with an adapter), since the later G lenses have no aperture ring.The D lenses are also more compact; the G lenses are considerably more bulky because they have the auto focus motor in the lens. Since I use the D lenses on manual focus bodies, auto focus speed is not an issue for me. I have the 50mm f 1.4 and 24mm f2.8 D lenses and have found them to be both to be outstanding performers.

  • I bought my son a Nikon D80 with an AF Nikkor 28-100 3.5-5.6 G. The lens fully functions on his DSLR, but I have a Nikon F801 and F801s that I can only use his G lens with in programme mode. That 24mm 2.8 D you have is a great lens and it’s on my list of lenses I need to buy.

  • Nikon is one of the top brand for quality. I have discovered late … 😉 Now market are for impressive features that only a few photographers use … this is marketing (like computers, mobile phone, …) and cheap, made on dictatures to create weapons, space rocket and stations but pretending to be “developing nation” (https://www.skynews.com.au/details/_6252033434001) (we have to change before 2030 and them 2050 bravo John and Joe…) …
    So, … this is our world, … social medias, and gears we use to post 42 mp pixels sensor pictures in social medias … and the climate, the pollution, … what … … what do you say, … sorry, … I use the old Nikon AI-S lens on my Sony A7 RII and it works with also my M lenses. Everything is a question of choice. Nikon which is a great brand which loves photography is also sucked by the markets and trends … (there is a very good article on emulsive.org about “amateur photographers”).

    • Hi Eric. Nikon has been a tad late to the mirrorless revolution and has been given a lot of flak for it, but Nikon has always operated on “Nikon Time.” I think this time it bit them on the backside and gave them a wake up call. Film Photography lovers are now firmly in the used market yet Nikon still made new lenses for their film cameras. It wouldn’t surprise me if there is a stock of brand new Nikon manual focus AI-S lenses sat it the corner of a warehouse in Japan, waiting for it’s fate to be decided. My digital content is 12 mega pixies courtesy of my D700 and I really enjoy using it. I will get a “new to me” camera in the future, but I will probably be at least 10 years behind the latest tech. That suits me as I can buy a decent dslr/mirrorless camera for less than $500.

  • Peter Bidel Schwambach May 3, 2021 at 7:50 pm

    Good glass lasts pretty much forever. All my lenses are still AI-S Nikkors, which, considering I don’t own a camera with Autofocus or Body control, I see no need to ever replace. From what I understand, these were pro spec back in their day, and they can be had for pretty cheap nowadays, they’re easy enough to CLA that everytime I bring something I’ve dug up to the shop, I actually get discounted service, and they’re smaller and lighter than current motor driven lenses.

    Not being a pro myself, I consider that the best of all the worlds!

    • Hi Peter, I have one Nikkor AIS lens, the 50mm f/1.8 I mentioned in the article that was given to me with my F801 by a dear friend, it is also the long nose version. I know there are a vast amount of Nikon manual focus lenses that are every bit as good as their auto focus siblings, but if there is one AI-S to own the 50mm f/1.8 long nose is the one to have. I believe it laid the foundation for the AF 50mm lenses that followed, but what a great heritage it came from.

      • Peter Bidel Schwambach May 6, 2021 at 10:56 pm

        I’ve actually been debating with myself whether to get the 1.8 or not, based solely on how good the long nose version looks. My standard lens that’s on my FM2 almost all of the time is the nifty fifty 1.4, but I’ve heard that, aperture for aperture, the 1.8 makes up that third of a stop less speed with more sharpness all the way up to f5.6 or f8. I might just have to get myself one now!

  • Hi Jim,
    Very nice article and a fitting salute to some very special lenses. Light, compact, durable, great value and excellent performance. Jeb’s has well written reviews of two of these great lenses.

    In addition to the excellent macro and defocus lenses you mention, there are a number of exceptional AF-D telephoto lenses, such as the 180/2.8 ED and the 80-200/2.8 ED. Also, you should add the delightful 85/1.8 AF-D to your kit if you haven’t already.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Cheers Caj. An 85mm f/1.8 D is definitely on my list of lenses I need to buy. Nikon have made some great lenses for just about every style or genre you can think of and probably a few more. Once you get hooked into a system there’s so much to explore that it may take a lifetime to accomplish only a portion of it.

  • Shooting my F6 these days with 24mm F2.8 and 85mm F1.4, both D lenses that I’ve been using for many years without a problem. Great build quality, fast and sharp.

  • marcusterrypeddle May 4, 2021 at 8:50 pm

    Great article. I panicked a little bit when an online Nikon guru said that the newest G and later lenses would be required to take advantage of high resolution cameras like my D850. I tried both D and G lenses on my digital camera and I couldn’t tell the difference in quality. And, as mentioned, the D lenses are small, affordable, and work on both my digital and film cameras. I especially love the 1.8D because the front element is set so far back into the lens that I don’t need a hood.

    • marcusterrypeddle May 20, 2021 at 7:09 am

      I must have jinxed myself by praising the 50mm 1.8D. I went out this morning and found that it’s underexposing by a stop or two. Man . . . .

  • I have been using a few different Nikon AF-D lenses for some years now and I really love them. Those lenses are the AF-S 17-35mm f/2.8D, 50mm f/1.4D, and 85mm f/1.8D. I have used them on my Nikon FE2, Nikon F80, Nikon D90, Nikon D700, a borrowed D750, and even on a Nikkormat FT2. These lenses really are incredibly versatile with their ability to be both fully camera-controlled on modern film and digital SLRs and to be both fully manually controlled on older film cameras. You can even stop-down meter with them on older Nikkormats that normally require a lens to have metering rabbit ears. On at least some of these AF-D lenses, there are even little pilot holes in the aperture ring that will let you attach a set of metering rabbit ears to the lens so you don’t have to use stop-down metering on older pre-AI Nikon SLR. In my opinion, these are some of the best value lenses Nikon has ever made given their versatility and cross-compatibility across their cameras over the decades. With the proliferation of mirrorless digital cameras now, these mechanically focused AF-D lenses are being left behind by Nikon. On the newest Z-series Nikon cameras, these lenses can still mount and meter via the proprietary FTZ adapter, but they lose their autofocus capability because there is no longer a mechanical connection to the camera. There are still many years of life left in these AF-D lenses and as long as there are working film and digital SLRs, they will have a place in any Nikon shooter’s camera bag.

    • +1 on the 17-35mm. That lens is a serious piece of equipment.

      • My father-in-law bought that 17-35mm f/2.8D lens when he started seriously shooting on Nikon DSLRs about 10-12 years ago. I have been able to use it quite a bit in the last 4-5 years as his time to devote to photography has dwindled. It’s an amazing lens in terms of image quality and useful focal range. I have used it to shoot astrophotography and it’s one of my favorite walkaround travel lenses on a Nikon D700. I spent a week in Italy with the 17-35mm and a 70-300mm lens and didn’t need anything else. It also works wonderfully on my F80, but it’s a heavy lens and it makes the lightweight F80 quite unbalanced to hold. I will say that I like using the 17-35mm f/2.8D less as a manual focus lens on my FE2 and Nikkormat because the focus ring just doesn’t have a very sweet-feeling focus throw. But that’s a small trade-off for the amazing image quality. I got some amazing photos in Joshua Tree National Park 2 or 3 years ago on Provia 100 using this lens.

        • The widest zooms I’ve ever consistently worked with were the 24-70s. I know it’s common for people to have the 16-35 range plus a telefoto, but I’ve always hesitated to quit the mid-range stuff. It’s all I’ve ever known!

  • I prefer lenses with aperture rings. I see a Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 AF-D Nikkor ED in my future. For my Df, my F6 and even my FE (manual focus only).

    Good article which references some of the real winners in the AF-D line.

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