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March 12, 2012

Manual Focus Nikon Primes: The Swiss Army Knife of Lenses

Lenses have been covered here a few times before - especially in the DSLR Cinematography Guide (and even a guest post by Matthew Duclos), but I thought this video put together by Caleb Pike over at DSLR Video Shooter was as thorough and brief as one could be on the subject of Nikon prime lenses. Even though Koo dislikes them for their backwards focusing, I happen to own quite a few of them and wouldn't recommend any other type of lens to budget filmmakers.

Just to clarify before going further, Nikkor is just the name Nikon uses for their highest performing lenses - but I still usually just refer to them as Nikons (if it doesn't say Nikkor it's probably a budget lens - so quality can vary). I've been thinking of doing a video Nikon lens guide since I own so many, but Caleb said just about everything I could ever think to say.

So why do I recommend them to any filmmaker on a budget? Many reasons, but specifically they are some of the sharpest, fastest, most durable, and most compatible lenses you can buy for the money. Seriously - these lenses work on so many cameras it's scary, so they are extremely good investments and they cover all image circles up to and including full frame 35mm. The only thing I'd say different than Caleb is that I would stay away from the NON-AI Nikon lenses (and even some of the AI ones). It's true that there are plenty of them and they can be had for cheap (and quality is decent, especially stopped down), but if you're spending over $50 per lens don't get anything less than AI or AIS Nikon lenses. In terms of optical quality they are leagues different (this is from personal experience). It's not even just sharpness, but flare resistance and less chromatic aberration more than make up for the extra money you'll spend with the AI and AIS lenses (especially if you can find a good deal on the AIS lenses).

It's true that these lenses focus backwards compared to almost every other lens ever made - if you're standing in front of the lens staring at the glass, the focus ring turns clockwise to focus more closely and counter-clockwise to focus farther away. This is about the only deal-breaker that I can think of for these lenses. In my experience, it's always been intuitive to me to focus using Nikon lenses, because I'm either behind the camera or on the left of the camera - so when I want to focus closely I pull towards me and when I want to focus farther I pull away from me. However, when I do use other lenses, like Canons or Fujinons, it does take a little while to readjust myself.

The AI and AIS Nikons range from $100-$700, but a good set of 3-4 fast lenses can be had for around $1000. When you consider that the fastest autofocus lenses can cost as much as $2000 or more, are almost useless for video, and the manual Nikons can be just as sharp and contrasty, it's a steal. The Zeiss ZF lenses (also manual focus and iris) are much more expensive. They might be a little more uniform in color output (though cooler than the Nikons, if that's your thing) and lens size consistency, but if you're on a budget, the equivalent Zeiss lens can be almost twice as expensive (this also applies to used lenses). The Nikon lenses can be easily modded to remove the hard stops in the iris, and add focus gears for a follow focus (many of which have reversing gears which allow you to make the Nikons focus the "correct" way).

Your own mileage may very, and many people certainly have personal preferences to specific brands - but if you have $1000 to spend, there isn't a sharper, faster, or more compatible lens brand money can buy. Camera bodies obsolete rather quickly, but if you take care of these lenses, they might just outlive you. The manual focus/manual iris Nikons are a sound investment over the long term, because at worst you need a cheap, dumb-mount adapter to make them work on your camera, and at best you're using them to shoot video on a Nikon DSLR.

Lenses can vary from sample to sample, but on full frame and for sharpness, bokeh, and color temperature, these have been my favorite lenses for shooting video: the Nikon 28mm 2.8 AIS (obviously slower than the 24mm or 28mm F/2, but I think it's sharper), Nikon 50mm 1.2 AIS, and the Nikon 85mm 1.4 (my favorite of any lens I've ever used - sharp as could be and buttery smooth bokeh). B&H is also a good place for used lenses, but if you're careful, eBay can be a steal.

Link: Episode 43: Nikkor Lens Guide – Adapting Nikon to Canon and Other Camera Mounts - DSLR Video Shooter

Your Comment

93 Comments

So would you rate a good set of Nikkors over a set of Canon FD primes?

March 12, 2012

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CraftyClown

They are both good, but I would give the edge to Nikon, yes. The compatibility aspect cannot be stressed enough, as all it takes is a simple dumb mount to go from Nikon to a Canon DSLR.

March 12, 2012

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Joe Marine
Editor-at-Large
Shooter/Writer/Director

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you lose a stop of light with FD lenses when mounted to any DSLR.

March 12, 2012

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Benyam

You do lose a stop of light and the lenses become so incredibly soft wide open which means you need to stop down even more.

March 12, 2012

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Kevin

FD on nex or m43 will work great
but yes, on DSLRs, you'll need an adapter with optics, which basically kills the lens (it will be so soft you just don't want to use it anymore)

March 12, 2012

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March 12, 2012

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FD on DSLR using adapter without optics only with GH2. It´s gorgeous with GH2 and FS100. With canon DSLR nikon lens still the best from vintage lens.

March 12, 2012

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guto novo

What about M42 glasses, especially Zeiss lenses? It should be pretty much the same with them.

March 13, 2012

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Just my 2 cents

there are dumb M42 to EF adapters (i.e. without electronics or optics) that give you infinite focus
so yes, M42 on EOS works great (I've had 3 carl zeiss jena M42 lenses on my canon)
it's all here: http://www.similaar.com/foto/lensmount/lensmount.html

March 13, 2012

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I know that it works, since I'm using m42 Zeiss lenses on my EOS cam. I just want to know if the lenses are comparable in quality. Does it make sense to switch from m42 to Nikkor lenses?

March 13, 2012

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Just my 2 cents

that will depend on the lens model
check my tests, your lenses may be there:
http://www.similaar.com/foto/lenstests/lenstestsa.html
http://www.similaar.com/foto/lenstests/bokehtests.html

March 13, 2012

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Crafty, FD lenses are good for any micro 4/3 or NEX cameras. They're the wrong choice for DSLR cameras due to the change in mounting distance, (the old canon bodies were thinner,) which makes you need an extra element to focus. These elements are usually low quality crap.

Joe, The only thing I'm not sure I agree with is your assessment of NON-AI lenses as they often have twice the focus throw, which comes in extremely handy VS the newer nikon primes. (just don't mound them on your nikon as they may break it).

Great article all around though.

March 12, 2012

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Darrell

Could you do a summary of the zeiss zf lenses as well?
What would be your preferred choices?
Any factors to keep in mind, like the ais/ai for Nikon?

March 12, 2012

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Christian Hubbard

I meant older zeiss lenses, not ZF, sorry

March 12, 2012

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Christian Hubbard

I love the Nikon ai lenses. I bought three already, all for about $100 a piece (24 2.8, 50 1.8, 105 2.5). I personally like the physical aperture ring (even for photography)

March 12, 2012

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taz

so you said...
"So why do I recommend them to any filmmaker on a budget? Many reasons, but specifically they are some of the sharpest, fastest, most durable, and most compatible lenses you can buy for the money."

vintage Leitz for Leica-R will beat vintage Nikkor at basicall all of that, plus bokeh:
http://www.similaar.com/foto/lenstests/lenstestsa.html
http://www.similaar.com/foto/lenstests/bokehtests.html
http://www.similaar.com/foto/lensmount/lensmount.html
but probably won't do it "for the money"

(btw: that lens mount compatibility chart also points out another issue with vintage Nikkor: it will work on anything... except sony A; Leica-R lenses will work on that too; as I said: better on all counts... except price)

March 12, 2012

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Yeah price is the concern here. I like your test, but as I said, I don't really like the NON-AI lenses, and wouldn't recommend them, so that's not much of a comparison for me.

But you're right, they'd be the next option. If anyone is interested in the Leica-R, this is a pretty thorough lens chart for Canon cameras.

http://www.pebbleplace.com/Personal/Leica_db.html

March 12, 2012

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Joe Marine
Editor-at-Large
Shooter/Writer/Director

I hope I'll be adding some AI lenses to the tests soon...

March 12, 2012

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I'm slowly building my ultimate Leica set for DSLR.
So far I'm keeping:
Leica 19mm / 2.8 v2.
Leica 24mm / 2.8
Leica 35mm / 1.4
Leica 80mm / 1.4

planning to add
Leica 100mm APO 2.8
Leica 180mm APO 2.8
Leica 50mm / 1.4

I owned and video tested in the last 2 years these lenses:
canon EF-S 18-135mm F3.5 - 5.6 IS Zoom (set)
canon EF 50mm F1.4
canon EF 28mm F2.8
canon EF 17-40 F4 L
canon EF 16-35mm F2.8
canon EF 85mm F1.8
canon EF 100mm F2.8 IS macro L
canon EF 35mm F1.4 L
canon EF 24mm F1.4 L
canon EF 24mm F3.5 TS L
canon EF 45mm F2.8 TS
sigma 30mm F1.4
pentacon 135mm F2.8
zeiss flektogon 20mm F2.8
pentacon auto 50mm F1.8 MC
zeiss Jena tessar 50mm F2.8
zeiss Jena tessar 50mm F2.8 zebra
helios 44-2 58mm F2
sigma M42 39-80mm macro F3.5
SMC takumar 50mm F1.4
leica summicron-r 50mm F2.0
Leica Summicron-r 35mm F2.0
Leica Elmarit 135mm F2.8
Leica Elmar 180mm F4
Leica Elmarit 60mm F2.8 macro

if there is an interest, I can do a write up as far as usefulnes of these lenses for video.
BTW I shoot for living, which is the only way I could go through so many so fast :) , which also explains why I'm so picky :)

March 14, 2012

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@palisady

I'd really be interested in hearing your thoughts on the Canon EF 50 1.4, Canon EF 85 1.8, and the Sigma 30 1.4. I'm using the two Canon lenses on the 5D Mark ii and the Sigma on the 60D.

October 12, 2012

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I have 3 Nikkor AIS lenses, one of which is a 50mm f1.2
I've adapted all of them to my 5D and they work beautifully. I highly recommend as a less expensive entry into fast prime lenses.

March 12, 2012

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Tony U.

I'm looking for a wide (30mm ish) fast lens for my 550d and I,ve been looking at a Sigma 30mm 1.4, but I am open to using some old Nikkor glass. Is there anything comparable in these old lenses?

March 12, 2012

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Shawn

as I posted above: Leitz for Leica-R, but it's usually more expensive (look for the Elmarit-R 35mm F/2.8)

March 12, 2012

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If youre looking for a wide lens on the 550d you might need to go a little wider than that since it has a crop sensor. I have the nikon ai 24mm 2.8 and it ends up being just a little bit longer than a 35mm. maybe look for a 20mm? check out ebay. you can usually grab one for a little over 100 dollars.

March 12, 2012

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taz

...and i use the t2i/550d

March 12, 2012

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taz

sigma makes a 20mm 1.8 check it out

March 12, 2012

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John Jeffreys

Buy contax zeiss! They are the best!

March 12, 2012

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Contax Zeiss are very good but the good ones are also very expensive

March 12, 2012

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JEF

i've been looking all over for these!
cant seem to find them anywhere.

could you provide a link?
maybe i'm just stupid >.<

What's the difference in using old contax zeiss vs buying new M42 or pentax k zeiss from bh?

March 13, 2012

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Christian Hubbard

I couldn't agree more w/ this article.
I've become addicted to AI and AI-S lenses and going to purchase the 50mm 1.8 AI-S soon as well.

I've compared them back and forth to the Zeiss ZF lenses and they're on par w/ them, only with a different color temperature (zeiss=blue, nikkor=magenta). I have another old Nikkor 135mm QC lens that boasts excellent quality as well.

This glass is an absolute steal and he's right. They're compatible w/ almost every camera.

March 12, 2012

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Any recommendations for a Nikkor macro lens?

March 12, 2012

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Peter

Hey Peter, I did a review on this Macro kit and I use it with all my Nikkor lenses...it's the best combo out there and it's under $30.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0R6MEIEP4OM&feature=plcp&context=C485a651...

March 12, 2012

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Luke Neumann

Dude, those macro shots are sick. I gotta buy one of those things now. Fotodiox should have paid you to make that.

March 12, 2012

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mind you: this method has some downsides
http://www.similaar.com/foto/tuten/520.html

but yes, it's what I use too, and it works (just don't expect to control focus or aperture from the camera body)

March 13, 2012

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Been using the Nikkor AIS lenses for a while now. I would also throw in the 80-200mm f 2.8 AIS. It's a great zoom lens and you can pick it up for nothing on ebay.

March 12, 2012

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Luke Neumann

How do these things work with a cinema-grade camera, like the Scarlet, F3 or C300? Any samples?

March 12, 2012

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Should work the same. Especially on the C300. I will be doing some C300/Nikkor AIS tests when my C300 arrives! www.youtube.com/dod3032

March 12, 2012

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Luke Neumann

You guys are getting a c300...
AWESOME.

I expect lots of videos!
:D

March 12, 2012

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Chris Hubbard

Many people who used Eclair CM3 35mm motion picture cameras, had a Nikon lens mount on the camera.

Haskell Wexler, talking about American Graffiti " I just sat in the back seat of the car with the CM3 and panned her over and that was it. And the lenses were Nikon lenses mostly." http://site.douban.com/widget/notes/127384/note/91565727/

March 14, 2012

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c.d.embrey

Sean, I shot this little vid mostly with my 50mm 1.4 and 85mm 1.8 (older non AI) Nikkors on my F3...
www.richardkrall.com/movies/glassheart.html

March 15, 2012

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dixter

On a GH2, I don't think an early non-AI is so optically damaging since the 2x crop looks through a small portion of the center of the lens. At least to my sick eyes I don't see any anomalies, and I deliberately bought the oldest mofo I could find on eBay for dirtcheap, just a nostalgic thing to be tied to prehistoric times. On a hacked GF2 (a consumer camera), the aperture ring keeps the camera from overriding the f/stop. One concern I had about buying online was the possibility that the focusing ring could be noisy. That ain't kool with video, for sure.

March 12, 2012

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animal_264

For anyone looking to get into Nikkor AI or AIS lenses check this out by Ken Rockwell on how to spot None AI, AI and AIS lenses http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/nikortek.htm#ais

March 12, 2012

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Lee

March 12, 2012

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Bruno Chansou

Thanks for posting that link, I always forget about that site but I've used it for buying all of my lenses. Really essential.

March 12, 2012

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Joe Marine
Editor-at-Large
Shooter/Writer/Director

The video is skipping like crazy? I have nice internet, what is the problem?

March 12, 2012

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Baron

man i think koo is missing out, he should have hopped on the c300 gravy train! your missing out! http://vimeo.com/35406295
looks pretty filmic!

March 13, 2012

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alguti

Aaaaaand the price goes up again. XD

March 13, 2012

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Moore

Is their an affordable follow focus that can account for the Nikon glass focusing backwards? I know the Flippable Reversible Z-Focus can do it, but is there anything else out there that is cheaper with comparable features?

March 13, 2012

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moebius22

You just turn your follow focus the other way...

March 16, 2012

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Moore

I have a Redrock follow focus and when my Nikkors are on my F3 and I roll the knob on the Redrock FF forward, the focus moves forward. When I roll it rearwards, focus moves rearwards. Why would you want it to be different? When I say forward, I mean, while looking at the knob, it turns counter-clockwise. When I say rearwards, that's clockwise. Of course, my FF is on the left side of the camera. Are we talking 'backwards' when the FF is on the right side? And, yes, these lenses perform admirably considering the cost.

March 13, 2012

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