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Manual Focus Nikon Primes: The Swiss Army Knife of Lenses

03.12.12 @ 10:22AM Tags : , ,

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


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  • CraftyClown on 03.12.12 @ 10:38AM

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

  • 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.

  • Christian Hubbard on 03.12.12 @ 11:43AM

    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?

  • 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)

  • 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:
    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)

    • 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.

    • 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 :)

      • @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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

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

    • 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.

    • John Jeffreys on 03.12.12 @ 10:25PM

      sigma makes a 20mm 1.8 check it out

  • Buy contax zeiss! They are the best!

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

    • Christian Hubbard on 03.13.12 @ 9:18AM

      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?

  • 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.

  • Any recommendations for a Nikkor macro lens?

  • Luke Neumann on 03.12.12 @ 3:37PM

    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.

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

  • 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.

  • 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

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

  • man i think koo is missing out, he should have hopped on the c300 gravy train! your missing out!
    looks pretty filmic!

  • Aaaaaand the price goes up again. XD

  • 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?

  • 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.

    • Yes, to me all the other lenses are the ones that don’t make sense. It works for those lenses if you’re on the right side of the camera, but more often than not I am on the left – so that’s why I’ve never had a problem with Nikon.

      I guess if it was really a problem for anyone – they should just reverse which side of the camera they are on (space allowing).

  • LOVE IT! Thank you for sharing…I to am a Nikkor shooter, but I am still pretty new to DSLR video.

  • Nikon still catalogs Eight (8) new AI-s lenses. They are Special Order, but still available, contrary to what Caleb says.

    Duclos will de-click and mount focus gears on Nikon and Leica R lenses

    • You don’t have to special order them, you can buy them new from B&H – though you’ll save a lot of money by getting them used. Here’s the link:

      • Why would I buy from a New York store? There are plenty of places in L.A. that support the local Motion/Stills Pros. Nikon AI-s lenses can also be rented in Los Angeles. I like doing business with places that greet me by name, when I walk in the door. Me, I’d rather wait a week or two than buy from B&H. YMMV.

        • Buy them from wherever you like, but I was just referring to the special order part – saying that you do not have to special order them – and I simply gave an example that I knew of off the top of my head who actually provided them new.

  • I think the Nikkors are a bit over rated, I really really hate the backwards focusing! Pentax/Takumar, Fujinons and some Voigtlanders also focuses backwards.
    I think the Minolta Rokkors are better lenses, usually cheaper and very under rated, some Rokkors are so good that you just have to ask Canon users why they love converting Minolta lenses to use on Canon bodies (Minolta will not work on Canon with a simple adapter, you need to convert the mount)
    Also the Rokkor lenses are extremelly well built, durable, nice focusing and it’s color matched on most lenses (but never tested, though)

    • Ivan, could you please explain why you say Nikkors focus ‘backwards’? I understand this is a common knock on them but, I’m wondering what FF setup causes Nikkors to focus ‘backwards’? As I stated in an earlier post, when i roll my Redrock FF forward, the focus shifts forward. When I roll it rearwards, focus shifts rearwards. I don’t understand how that is ‘backwards’.

      • Well, from a still photography perspective, the Nikkors focuses close focusInfinity, all the other lenses in the world (besides Pentax and some Voigtlanders) focuses infinityclose focus
        This only matters if you use Nikkors and other lenses, it’s confusing for focusing “on the fly”
        you are used to a certain way, then you have to focus in a other way.
        But for the ones that uses only Nikkors, they are used to that… I say “backwards” just because you have only 2 brands in the world that focuses this way… that’s a huge minority.

        • OK Ivan, I appreciate that but, I’m not sure I understand what “close focus infinity” or “infinity close focus” means.
          If a FF, paired with a Nikkor, rolled forward shifts the focus forward and if rolling it backwards shifts the focus backwards, I’d say that’s a pretty good argument that the Nikkors focus the “right” way, whether that’s backwards or not.

  • I have fast Nikkor primes for my Canon and I couldn’t be happier with what they’ve done to the aesthetic. It’s impossible to describe well or quantify, the image just looks less “nasty” and more natural than the alternative lenses at their utter bargain price.
    The only thing I’d suggest is that you handle the actual lens you’re planning on getting before deciding if you can instead of purely distance-buying, as being so old the odd one will have aperture rings that don’t open/close all the way or stick, or don’t focus to infinity.
    I’d love to pick up more though.

  • t.boojahowski on 03.15.12 @ 10:33PM

    Joe: I’d kill for a summary/overview guide on lens options!

    Been debating with myself for a while what direction to go as I want to beef up my glass. Like many, my options are to buy modern lenses one at a time very slowly or get into vintage stuff.

    I guide that cuts through the forum chatter would be great!

    I see mention that FDs are out due to the adapter, but I seem to recall a post here that linked over to a video-review that was very favorable.

    Anyone know of a maker of FD to EOS adapters that have a decent element?

    Of course now I really have to look at nikkors again due to everything mentioned above.

    • You should really check out the links above to the DSLR Cinematography guide that Koo put together. It gives you the lowdown on what is out there.

      I personally own Nikon lenses, so that’s what I recommend. Stick to AI and AIS if you can, but if you are really on a budget, you might be able to get away with NON-AI if you can stop down 1 or 2 stops, or you actually prefer the more vintage look. Start off with a good, fast 50mm – the 1.4 or 1.2, and then move up or down from there, either getting a wide or a telephoto. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with building a set slowly like that. You can shoot most things with 3 or 4 lenses, having every step in between can actually make your time on set more difficult, as you’ve got too many options – and you can get lazy, instead of moving the camera you just replace with a different lens.

      I honestly can’t speak for a lot of the other vintage lenses out there, but the only other option – although expensive – might be to build up a set of Leica R lenses.

  • Tyler Baikie on 03.16.12 @ 5:29PM

    Just curious:

    If I’m using these primes on a 550D, does the same crop factor apply (1.6x)?

    Just making sure so I buy the right ones.

    • I won’t get into crop factor but very simply yes, the 550D will have a crop factor for Nikon full frame lenses and will be using a more center portion of the lens than say a 5D Mark II.

  • How do these lenses compare to the samyang series..was thinking of starting with the samyang 14mm f2.8, 35mm f1.4 and 85mm f1.4……..are these recommended over samyang..??

    • i’d stay away from the Samyang 14mm. i havent heard good things about the distortion of this lens. i’d go for the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8

      you should be good to go with the 35 and 85 though

  • That was a great video.Very informative. Is it just me though or was that guy having really bad allergies that day or high as a kite? : )

  • I have been going back and forth between Zeiss lenses (used Contax from or Nikkors. With the Nikkors I am looking at AI and AIS, depending on what is available from KEH, but I was wondering if having AI and AIS will give me a slightly different image, maybe in the color, or contrast, etc. Say I am using a 50mm AI and switch to a 85mm AIS, will the image be slightly different? Has anyone noticed anything like this? Obviously the Nikkors are an excellent price, but I can buy the Zeiss as well. Just want to make sure the consistency is there. Thanks!

  • guys any recommendation for the focus ring on my nikkor lenses ?

  • The article mentions that the Nikon lenses can be easily modded to remove the hard stops in the iris. Is there anything online that shows us how to do this super cool thing by ourselves?

    • Remover the lens mount, remove the aperture ring, you’ll see a flat spring held down by a screw underneath where the aperture ring was. remove this reassemble and you re done. simpler than any other system that uses ball bearings.

  • Joe, thanks for all this useful information. In the last paragraph, do you refer to the 85 1.4 AIS or AF/D? Thanks

    • AIS, but I believe they are very similar optically anyway.

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