Nikon AI-S lenses

Photo 21-5-2020, 07 01 09

Brand loyalty is a strange phenomenon. It’s certainly not commanded by reason, whereas the emotional grounds supporting it are rarely acceptable by common sense.

Most often, a brand is able to create a kind of hostage effect on the loyal consumer who, while acknowledging products from rival brands are superior, still prefers to stay in his prison cell and suffer, lacking the courage to jump ship.

Brand loyalty can therefore lead to blindness, denial or even hatred towards a rival brand and its followers — something very common nowadays in internet forums.

Brand loyalty had had an effect on me as well. Hatred not being a part, I was nevertheless a loyal Canon fan ever since I started shooting with my fathers’s Canon AE-1 back in my school days.

Only about 10 years ago was I able to liberate myself from Canon, having decided to ditch my DSLR to board the mirrorless wagon.

Walking this new path, I ended up trying a variety of brands and products, leading me to uncover just recently the beautiful world of Nikon AI-S lenses — a world I didn’t even know existed.

Nikon AI-S lenses

A couple of weeks ago I wrote this post here about a second hand Nikon Df that I fell in love with, together with a set of three magnificent Nikon AI-S primes.

My Nikon AI-S trinity: 28mm f/2.8; 35mm f/2.0; and 50mm f/1.8

To say that I’m happy using these primes would be an understatement.

I’ve been using them with my Nikon Df for the past couple of weeks and enjoying every bit of the experience. Hence I decided to write this post to share my thoughts.

These lenses are superb

Sharpness levels are excellent, solid enough to survive pixel peeping from the 16MP sensor of the Df. Not sure how they perform at higher pixels, but how important is this anyway? These lenses are sharp for what you’ll ever need.

Shot with Nikon Df + AI-S 28mm lens at f/2.8, 1/4000, ISO 180

Build quality is on par with Leica M lenses. Yes, these manual Nikon AI-S lenses are this good. Tactile feedback is first class: focusing rings are smooth, the aperture rings move faultlessly with reassuring clicks at the f-stops.

They are cheap

Their jaw-dropping price in the second hand market is truly unbelievable. I’ve paid around USD$ 100 for each of them.

No, this is not a typo: each Nikon AI-S prime you see here cost me around one hundred US dollars. Only.

What’s amazing is that to this day Nikon still produces AI-S manual lenses. You can buy them new if you are not into second hand gear. Popular sites like B&H still have some available. Obviously, you will have to pay more for new ones.

If you ask me, I’m happy buying second hand — they are abundant and I’ve been lucky enough that all my 3 primes are in mint condition.

These lenses have no electronics, so there is not much that can go wrong. Just make sure you get enough photos of the product for a careful assessment before hitting the buy button.

They are small

Probably for two reasons: first, these are lenses from the 70’s, so they are not oversized like everything produced nowadays.

Secondly, these lenses are fully manual and have no electronics, so there are no motors or other complicated stuff inside the lens body. There’s only glass inside.

My favorite right now is the 50mm f/1.8. I mean, this is a full-frame f/1.8 fast prime and it’s a pancake, unbelievably small and light. It’s the perfect match for my Df.

They are beautifully designed

I like everything about their old school design. I like the trademark silver ring and I like the colour coded f-stops in the aperture ring for fast reading of the DOF scale.

Photo 21-5-2020, 07 03 01

Photo 21-5-2020, 06 50 38

These colours are purely for practicality and not a design feature, but as a result they do add a layer of flair, turning a no-nonsense piece of optical instrument into something more, erm, colourful. The charm and simplicity of products from yesteryear is worth appreciating.

They work perfectly with Nikon DSLRs

Unlike Canon that ditched the FD mount in the 80s for their EOS cameras, the Nikon F-mount first introduced in 1959 was carried all the way till present days, which is remarkable.

This means you can use these manual Nikon AI-S lenses in every Nikon SLR or DSLR camera that you can find.

The lack of electronics means you have to inform the camera what lens you have coupled to the body.

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It’s a very simple procedure: go to menu, set the lens as a Non-CPU lens, input its focal length and maximum aperture. Save it to the list.

From now on, every time you couple the lens to the camera, just go to the list and select the lens. That’s it.

And you are now rewarded with full metering support. Also, when turning the mechanical aperture ring in the lens body, the camera will know what aperture you are using and it will show up in the external displays and viewfinder. And you will get all the EXIF data in the image file.

Manual Focusing

Don’t you be afraid of manual focusing. Most Nikon DSLRs like my Df feature focus assistance through arrows in the viewfinder. Right arrow = turn the focusing ring clockwise, left arrow the opposite. A circle lights up when focus is achieved. Easy.

Obviously, you can also use live view if preferred. But that sort of kills the beauty of the DSLR’s optical viewfinder.

Manual focusing is good fun, it makes you feel in total control. When you press the shutter button, the camera takes the picture. No unexpected AF hunting or whatever AF feature stopping you capturing at that exact moment.

Not all Nikon AI-S are good though

And I learned this the hard way. Carried by the excellent results from my three primes, I decided to buy this one below: a 28-50mm f/3.5 zoom.


It looked right to me: a short usable zoom range, a moderate constant aperture. All in a small and light package, with an interesting design. And cheap: USD$ 85.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be quite a lemon and clearly below the standards of my other three primes.

The zoom slider is smooth between 35-50mm. But it gets stuck at 35mm when you try to slide down to 28mm. I need to push it hard, with both hands and the camera body pressed against my stomach. Perhaps I got a bad copy… So it kinda feels like a step zoom now, like a Leica Tri-Elmar.

I could live with this, but my main problem with this lens is the visible barrel distortion at the wide end. For me this is a no-no, especially because I’m an architect — I’m very sensitive to geometric distortions. Sure, you can always make the corrections in post-processing, but this is not my way.


Furthermore, this lens is clearly not as sharp as my other primes. But that’s to be expected, after all this is a zoom. And, to be fair, per available internet data this lens is known to be average only, not the best from Nikon.

But still, I mean… for USD$ 85, I’m not complaining.

Bottom line

We often spend loads of cash buying the latest and greatest gear available, the highest megapixel camera with the highest dynamic range and low light performance, coupled to the fastest light absorbing prime lens around.

However, this does not necessarily translate into pure photographic satisfaction and engagement. And we keep burning our cash.

These manual Nikon AI-S lenses though… They had been an eye opener for me.

Nothing beats the simplicity and the charm of these lenses coupled to my Df. Setting the aperture and working out the focus manually with the excellent optical SLR viewfinder. It’s a unique experience, as pure and rewarding as using my Leica M-E.

All this, and for a fraction of the price. What’s not to like?

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