Digital Photography Review

A Final Salute to Nikon's AF-D Lenses – Casual Photophile

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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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