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.
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.
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.
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!