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Which NIKKOR Lens Type is Right for Your DSLR

Reading about all of the different lens types and abbreviations might be a bit overwhelming, so we'll try to simplify this as much as possible. You're interested in one of the latest NIKKOR lenses, but aren't sure if it will work with your camera. Well, there's an easy way to know—by checking the abbreviations that make up the name of each NIKKOR lens.

Nikon makes two different types of DSLR camera bodies—those that have a built-in focus motor, and those that don't. The cameras that are without a built-in focus motor are required to use a lens that has a built-in focus motor. The abbreviation for lenses that incorporate a built-in focus motor is AF-S and AF-P2. NIKKOR lenses that do not have a focus motor incorporated are simply called AF lenses.

The DSLR camera bodies that do feature a focus motor built-in are: D70, D70s, D80, D90, D100, D200, D300, D300s, D700, D7000 series, D500, D610, D600, D750, D810, D1-series, D2-series, D3-series,D4-series, D5 models1. These DSLRs can utilize both AF and AF-S lenses. Or, in other words, because AF-S NIKKOR lenses have built-in focus motors, they can be used on any current Nikon digital SLR body, whether the body has a focus motor or otherwise, as the lens itself controls the focusing function.

Nikon DSLR cameras that are designed without built-in focus motors, are generally smaller and lighter than the larger, more professional models. The ones that do not incorporate a built-in focus motor (and therefore need to use AF-S or AF-P2 type lenses) include the following: D40, D40x, D60, D3000 series, and the D5000 series1. If you own one of these cameras, then you need to use an AF-S or AF-P2 NIKKOR lens to get the full autofocus capabilities from the lens.

What if you own one of the aforementioned consumer level camera bodies and really want to use an AF lens? You’ll then need to know if your camera is compatible with the lens—and the answer is yes. An AF NIKKOR lens can be used on a DSLR camera body such as the models listed above, but with limited functionality. You will have to manually focus the lens, using the focus ring on the lens barrel. The electronic rangefinder, which is visible in the lower left portion of the viewfinder, will confirm that your subject is in focus. Rotate the focus ring on the lens and when the focus indicator shows a (), the subject is in focus.

A handy benefit of the AF-S NIKKOR lenses is that they use a "Silent Wave" motor and focus quieter than the AF lenses do. Likewise with the AF-P2 NIKKOR lenses; the lens utilises the stepping motor technology to drive its autofocus while ensuring a fast and quiet focusing, beneficial especially with movie recording.

Legacy NIKKOR Lenses

One of the great aspects of Nikon's camera systems is that most of the legacy lenses—those that you may have used with your film-based Nikon SLR camera—can be used on your digital SLR camera. There may be some limitations, depending upon exactly which NIKKOR lens you're looking to use with your DSLR, but we'll get into that further into this article.

An AIs lens, the Micro NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8 lens is a manual focus lens.

AI Lenses

What if you've got older lenses that you used to use with a Nikon film-based SLR camera-well you can use those lenses as long as they were made after 1977. That's when Nikon began manufacturing AI lenses. AI stands for "Automatic Maximum Aperture Indexing" system, which is the mechanical system for coupling the lens to the camera's exposure system.

AI lenses are manual focus, and can be used on any Nikon DSLR with a few exceptions. In general, the higher-end camera bodies: D1-series, D2-series, D200, D3-series, D300 series, D700, D7000 series, D500, D610, D600, D750, D810, D4-series and D5 will be able to meter through the lens of an AI NIKKOR. Camera bodies such as the D70, D70s, D80, D90, D100, D40, D40x, D50, D60, D3000 series and D5000 series can accept an AI NIKKOR lens, but the exposure will need to be determined manually, using a light meter, not through the lens.

The AIS lens, which came later, allowed for automatic aperture control; which controlled the aperture more precisely.

Nikon Ai NIKKOR lens. (r.) A Nikon Ais NIKKOR lens, with lens type signalling pin notch, highlighted in red.

An AI-P lens is a manual lens that has a CPU (basically a computer) built into it; which is used to transfer metering data from the lens to the camera.

An AF-I lens uses a built-in D/C coreless focus drive motor for speedy autofocus operation and were Nikon's first lenses to offer the now popular M/A focusing mode.

So regardless of the other abbreviations you may see on NIKKOR lenses, certain consumer Nikon DSLR cameras require the use of AF-S lenses for full functionality. The higher-end professional DSLR camera bodies need only an AF lens for autofocus functionality. An AI lens can be used, when focusing manually, on almost all Nikon DSLR cameras, but can only meter through the lens when paired with the higher end DSLR models.

Differences between Autofocus and Manual Focus Lenses

Now that we've gone through a little history of NIKKOR lenses, we'll discuss the differences between autofocus and manual focus NIKKOR lenses.

Nikon currently offers lenses that have autofocus operation and others that offer only manual focus operation. Because you sometimes want to be able to control the focus yourself you can actually manually focus any autofocus NIKKOR lens, simply by setting it to the manual focus mode.

The AF-S version of the Nikon 24-120mm lens; (r.) the AF version of the Nikon 24-120mm lens.

AF, AF-S, and AF-P NIKKOR Lenses

There are three series of autofocus lenses: AF NIKKOR, AF-S NIKKOR and AF-P NIKKOR. These NIKKOR lenses can also be used in manual focusing mode.

AF NIKKOR lenses use a mechanical coupling between the lens and the camera body. On several Nikon DSLR camera bodies, the focus motor is in the camera and a series of gears drives the lens' focusing mechanism, which allows the lens to focus.

The AF-P2 NIKKOR lens line-up brings stepping motors to the table, following its introduction with example of the AF-P DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR and AF-P DX NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G ED VR being the foremost introductions to the range.  These lenses benefit from the new NIKKOR stepping motor technology which is faster and quieter than any of their predecessors, including those with the Silent Wave Motor (SWM) which are the AF-S NIKKOR lenses, making these lenses also ideal for video making.

The autofocus lenses are further categorized into G-type, D-type, or E type lenses.

The AF-P DX NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G ED VR lens for an example of an AF-P NIKKOR lens type

D-Type NIKKOR Lenses

A D-type lens relays subject-to-camera-distance information to Nikon DSLRs that feature 3D Colour Matrix Metering (all versions), 3D Matrix Metering, 3D Multi-Sensor Balanced Fill-Flash and i-TTL Balanced Fill-Flash. Many D-Type lenses have an aperture control ring and can be used on older Nikon SLR cameras that allow for manual control of the aperture, as well as on D-SLRs—especially useful for adjusting aperture while recording D-Movies on higher end models. When used on a DSLR, the aperture control ring needs to be locked at the smallest possible aperture (generally designated in orange), and the aperture control is maintained through the camera's command dial.

The AF NIKKOR 35mm f/2D lens is an example of a D-Type lens.

G-Type NIKKOR Lenses

A G-type lens does not have an aperture control ring and are intended for use on Nikon DSLRs that allow the lens aperture to be adjusted via the camera's command dial. Because G-type lenses relay subject-to-camera-distance information to the camera, where it is used to help determine ambient and flash exposure, they are also considered to be D-type lenses. The lack of an aperture control ring is perhaps the easiest way that you can tell if a lens is a G-Type NIKKOR or not. The AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR lens, shown two paragraphs above is an example of a G-Type lens. Note there is no aperture ring on that version of the lens, while there is an aperture ring on the AF version.

E-Type NIKKOR Lenses

A lens marked with an “E” on its lens’ barrel (as seen in the example below)  is a lens that incorporates an electromagnetic aperture mechanism. This technology serves to provide a highly accurate diaphragm control for more stable auto-exposure control when capturing fast-paced scenes at high frame rates.  Lenses with an electromagnetic aperture mechanism capture consecutive shots with minimal differences in exposures as the aperture opening is controlled via digital signals that are passed through the CPU contacts of the lens. This is enabled by a small motor inside the lens that moves the blades based on digital communication between the DSLR body and lens. These lenses however, are compatible with selected DSLR models.

Manual Focus NIKKOR Lenses

Manual focus NIKKOR lenses, on the other hand, don't have the capability to autofocus at all. Manual focus lenses can be used on all current Nikon DSLRs, in the manual focus mode. With the inclusion of HD video capture in many new Nikon DSLRs, manual prime (or fixed focal length) lenses are experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Manual focus lenses will not use the in-camera metering systems on several DSLRs so make sure to review your instruction manual to understand the compatibility of manual focus NIKKOR lenses and your particular camera. The Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 lens, shown as an example of an Ais lens on page 1 of this article is a manual focus lens.

1 Applicable Nikon DSLR range as of September 2016
2 Selected DSLR camera bodies are compatible with the AF-P NIKKOR lenses because AF-P lenses incorporate a stepping motor. Even for compatible cameras, a firmware update may be required