Unleashing Creativity with Nikkor AF D Primes

Unleashing Creativity with Nikkor AF D Primes

As a former computer scientist, I’m all about finding efficiencies in my workflow and making my life easier. Some people might call it laziness. Logically, after years of shooting with a traditional DSLR kit, I was ready to ditch it in favor of moving to a small and light mirrorless set up. However, no other camera body appealed to me as much as my Nikon bodies for professional shooting. The combination of the great grip and ergonomics, fast and accurate autofocus system, solid battery life, and great image quality makes them a delight to use professionally. I didn't want to let go of the camera bodies so I decided to try something else first…

Going Back in Time

It took me some time to accept AF-D lenses as a viable option. As a tech head I’ve always wanted the latest and greatest. Why would I want to use the same crusty old screw drive lenses my uncle was using in the 80s? But they were still manufactured and damn cheap so I purchased a few lenses and gave it a shot.

I’m glad I did!

Cost, Size, and Weight

These things are ridiculously cheap. They’re extremely small and light too. This is thanks to their older lens designs (not being as well corrected for lens aberrations and corner sharpness) as well as not having an internal focusing motor. We’ll hit on those two points later.

The size and weight of these lenses, combined with the relatively svelte Nikon D750 meant I was approaching mirrorless camera size and weight. This combined with the traditional Nikon qualities makes it a wonderful professional tool.

Image Quality

We’ll get the bad out of the way first. If you want to shoot at f1.4, these lenses are not for you. We’re in an era where lenses offer corner to corner sharpness at wide apertures, and for many shooters, there is no going back. As I do most of my shooting between f2.2-f5.6 they work well for me and deliver reasonably sharp results for real world use on my D750 and D810.

It makes more sense to consider these a contender for people who would be looking into something like the Fujifilm X system with its new f2 WR primes, rather than comparing them to 1.4E primes.

Like any other lens series, there are good and bad apples. Generally with older prime lenses the longer the focal length, the higher the image quality. For example, the Nikkor 105mm f2 AF-D DC - released in 1993 - already had colors, contrast, and rendition that were just about perfect. With some of the nicest bokeh rendering to boot! The 50mm f1.4 AF-D is sharp well into the corners at f2.8 and just pure magic when shooting portraits at f2.2.

As you go to the wide angles, modern coatings and optical corrections become more and more important. With that being said I’m still happy using the “worst” of the bunch - the Nikkor 24mm f2.8 AF-D - as it provides me with other qualities I value over sharpness. Qualities that are considered optical imperfections and ironed out in modern lens designs but which can add so much to an image. Sun flare and night lights blooming for example. It’s become an unlikely favorite of mine!

I’m very happy with the image quality using them on my Nikon D810 with its 36-megapixel sensor and I foresee no issues using a Nikon D850 also.

Usability

I must admit to never having used screw drive auto focus lenses until very recently. I was nervous initially. Will they be accurate and reliable for a professional wedding shoot? Will it track a bride walking down the aisle? Will the noise be an issue?

Thankfully, the system pleasantly surprised me. After tuning the lenses using Reikan FoCal Pro they’re dead on accurate. I cannot recommend this program enough! My tip with these older lenses is to calibrate them for the minimum aperture you will actually shoot at (eg. f2.2 on the 50mm 1.4D for me).

Are they noisey? If it’s having to rack focus yes, otherwise the movement is so minuscule that it’s just about silent. They seem to be accurate enough for my camera bodies that I don’t get much hunting which keeps the noise in check.

When putting them on a newer generation D5 focusing system, they respond even better. Any hesitation is removed and the lenses lock on and track with ease. It was a delight to see these old lenses gain the same benefits as AF-S lenses do from improved focusing and metering systems! They’ll be very well suited to being used on the upcoming D850.

As a side benefit, with no internal focus motor and great build quality, I can only assume they’ll last longer than their younger AF-S siblings.

Driving Creativity

I settled on a relatively simple 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 105mm lens kit. As I built confidence in them, they replaced my big 2.8 zooms. What happened next was wonderful…

Gone was my gear anxiety.

The anxiety of keeping up with the trends was replaced with the knowledge that my eyes and brain were the things that will make or break the image. Something about having these lenses on my camera reminds me of what photography is really about: capturing beautiful moments with gorgeous light. 

They encourage me to get out and shoot!

If you couldn't tell already: I'm thrilled with my switch to these lenses. Using these lenses combined with Capture One Pro I get amazing rendition and skin tones straight out of camera. That means less time editing, more time shooting!

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14 Comments

Paul Seiler's picture

Great post Peter! A recently found myself keeping track of the metadata in Lightroom, assessing which lenses I don't use as much. As I primarily shoot primes all day, my 70-200 (prior to switching to Nikon, this was my Canon zoom) wasn't getting much use. I was actually planning to upgrade to the 70-200 f/2.8E (what a huge chuck of change in my switch from Canon to Nikon) but, on the suggestion of a local camera shop owner, picked up the Nikon 70-210 f/4D originally produced in 1986. While I don't have IS, after some initial AF Fine-Tuning in-camera on my two D750's, it is both sharp as nails and has beautiful color rendition. I rarely use it, and was able to pick it up for about $120. At 1/20th the cost, I'll keep this one around for the foreseeable future :)

Peter Georges's picture

There's something about the way they render color and skin tones that's really appealing right!

Paul Seiler's picture

What lens did you shoot the lead image on this article with?

Peter Georges's picture

I used the 105mm f2 DC. That's also just a basic curve in Capture One Pro with some spot removal and yet to my eyes it looks almost Photoshopped :)

Troy Phillips's picture

Less glass in the older lenses leaves more of the light spectrum in tact. Less aberration correcting coatings and less perfection. The new lenses try to correct everything to perfection. This seems to create a flatter looking image with less character. Also the new lenses have less micro contrast.
I'm torn between the old with character and new with perfection.
I used to use binoculars a lot for hunting. My favorites were the old style Swarovski porro prism . They had depth and great light gathering vs the roof type prism with the heavily corrected coatings on everything inside. They had to be because of all the glass they had to go through. The image just didn't have the depth or character.

Peter Georges's picture

There's certainly something amazing in the colors coming through this glass!

Elan Govan's picture

Thank you for this article Peter. Dare I say I have a few of these D series in my cupboard. Carry the 28 mm all the time.

Peter Georges's picture

Yea the 35mm f2D is my walk around lens, I love it for that purpose!

Joey Lamb's picture

Love the post! That 105 is a beauty of a lens!

Awesome post, I also have consumer level primes (all I can afford) Canon EF 28 1.8, 50 1.4, 85 1.8, 100 2.8 macro and although I got them as back up for my "L" zooms, I just started using them more and more on my wedding shoots, and like you Peters I used mostly around f/2.0 to f/2.2 and I am very happy with the results, I'll use these till they brake! Then probably will replace with nicer ones but till then...

Chris Rogers's picture

I love my 85mm f1.8d It's bauss and more than i'll ever need in an 85. my 50mm f1.8 d although plasticy is a very good lens too. the only reason I'm not using the nikon 80-200mm f2.8 is because i was lucky enough to get the 70-200mm f2.8 vr2 for my birthday a few years ago. I use and 18-35mm f3.5-4.5 for my wide shots. Although it doesn't have the widest aperture, the glass on this sucker is insanely sharp for the price. I think I paid about $700 new for it. With these lenses I'm set. Now I just need to work on my lighting gear :O

I have a collection of D lens since the film days. I always have a 50 1.4D and a 20mm with me. Only until recently my 20 2.8D was replaced by the new AF-S 1.8G. With less corrective elements, no VR, no motor, simple mechanical design the D lens are certainly compact and have much fewer failure points.

John Skinner's picture

My 300 f/2.8 ED-IF (screw drive) has been with me for decades. I sill use it for sports daily here and wouldn't part with it for love or money. It sits beside the normal trinity of the 14-24, 24-70, 70-200.. But I would challenge anyone to see how or why this lens doesn't sit in comparable company as the newer pieces of glass.

The D line (and older) are some of the best glass ever made. I'd rather depend on a lens where I have complete control over..... you know, that old stuff, like APERTURE, than newer SWM that fail and Nikon can't supply parts for anymore.

Peter Georges's picture

I would love to add that 300mm 2.8D to my kit for fashion shoots!