With the longest-lived 35mm bayonet-mount (1959-), Nikon has a vast catalog of manual focus lenses in a sometimes dizzying array of variations. This can make choosing the right one for you seem daunting. Hopefully, we can help you to find the most suitable candidates for your Nikon lens (Nikkor) arsenal. In this first article, we will search out the best bargains in single focal length (prime) lenses. "Bargain" is relative in this case to other Nikkors in the same focal length ;-). Nikkors generally have higher prices than other brands of vintage glass because the mount is still current and because of Nikon's reputation as the "choice of pros" over a period of many decades.
Manual Focus Nikkors can first be separated into 2 major categories: pre-AI (non-AI) and AI. AI stands for Automatic Aperture Indexing, which debuted beginning in 1977. Before 1977, Nikkor lenses used a metering-prong (referred to as Rabbit Ears or the Crab Claw, colloquially) which was the means of communicating the lens aperture setting to the camera body for metering purposes. This slotted prong engaged a pin that protruded below the prism housing of the camera. To properly couple the lens to the camera, you had to: 1) set the lens to f/5.6, line the slot up with the pin while inserting the lens into the bayonet-mount camera, 2) turn the lens counter-clockwise to lock it into place, and 3) twist the aperture ring to minimum aperture and then back to maximum aperture to index the lens with the meter. This was called by Nikon the "click-click" procedure, and was given various other names by Nikon users ;-). It was anything but automatic. In 1966, Minolta had introduced its MC coupling for its Rokkor lenses, which was a simple tab on the aperture ring that engaged a spring-loaded collar with a tab on its new SRT SLR body. All you had to do was mount the lens, and the coupling & indexing took place automatically. Nikon basically copied this simple system in 1977 to quicken the lens indexing process.
AI lenses will mount on any Nikon body, pre- or post-1977. Non-AI lenses, however can only be used on pre-1977 bodies or bodies with a flip-up AI tab (Nikkormat FT-3, Nikon EL2, FM, FE, F3, F4, Df). Mounting an unmodified pre-AI lens on Nikon bodies with fixed AI tabs WILL DAMAGE the camera and/or lens and will necessitate repairs. The greater mounting versatility of AI lenses thus makes them more popular and they have higher prices than pre-AI Nikkors do. This leads to our first bargain possibility: pre-AI lenses are a more cost-effective way to get into the Nikkor system, especially if you are using them on a mirrorless camera (no AI tabs to worry about on adapters). Another avenue available to the pre-AI user is conversion of the aperture ring to allow AI operation. Indeed, for many years, Nikon offered a factory AI conversion program where they would do an aperture ring swap to your lens. Unfortunately, this program is no longer offered and the few remaining conversion kits are rare and can be costly. Fortunately, though, most pre-AI aperture rings can be machined or have a tab added (commonly referred to as "AI'd") to permit full AI compatibility. We are happy to provide this service at 678 Vintage Cameras for $40 CAD per lens plus shipping. Feel free to contact us for details.
Ok, now that we have that out of the way, here are the different generations of manual focus Nikkor glass:
24mm f/2.8 N-C/K/AI/AI-s Nikkor (1972-2006)
This was the first lens to feature Nikon's Close Range Correction (CRC) technology, which permitted improved performance at close focusing distances, which was generally a weakness of wide angle's. Up to this point, such lenses had to be optimized for either close focus or infinity (far) focus, at the expense of the other. CRC now allowed for excellent performance at both ends of the focus range. The 24/2.8 is the best bargain among CRC lenses. All variants have 9 elements, but the pre-AIs have these in 7 groups rather than the 9 groups of the redesigned AI & AI-s. Performance is reputed by many to be a bit better in the last two versions, which also focus a tiny bit closer, but there is nothing wrong with the earlier versions, which can be had for lower cost because of their pre-AI construction. If you are seeking the absolute best (SIC) coatings on a 24/2.8, look for an AI-s with a serial # of 84xxxx and up. But be prepared to pay more for an AI-s, generally around $200 USD, which, frankly, is still pretty decent. On the other hand, the pre-AI lenses, particularly the K with its NICs, can often be had for $120 USD and the AI version for $150 USD and sometimes less, with a bit of patience :-). All have 7-blade apertures, except the N-C version with 6, if that is important to you (7 blades will give 14-point versus 6-point sunstars). One other thing to be aware of is the shorter focus throw of the AI-s, less than a quarter turn compared to just under a half a turn for its predecessors. This can be an important difference if you plan to use the lens for video, with the longer throw making pulling focus much easier. Weights dropped from 290 grams (10.2 oz) for the N-C to 250 grams (8.8 oz) for the AI-s.
28mm f/3.5 K Nikkor (1975-77)
The ultimate bargain in wide angle Nikkors. Copies can be found in excellent condition and factory AI converted for $70 - 80 USD. The K version is special because it offers an interesting combination of optics, coatings, and aperture blades unique from all other iterations of the 28/3.5 Nikkor. All versions have a 6 element design, but the formula was changed with the AI version. The older design has a larger front element and a smaller rear element that produces a trade-off: more light falloff at the edges (vignetting) and softer corners, but excellent performance shooting into the sun and for infrared (IR) photography. The AI & AI-s versions have a smaller front element and larger rear to combat the light falloff but do not work as well for IR. Check out Bjorn Rorslett's review of the 28/3.5 for more details (scroll down his page). The K version has the advantages over its predecessors of: 1) NIC (which further suppress flare and ghosting), 2) a 7-blade aperture instead of 5 blades (giving 14-point sunstars as opposed to 10-point if that floats your boat :-)), and 3) focusing down to 0.3m (12"), half of the 0.6m (24") of previous versions. There are other Nikkors that do as well at such contre-jour (into-the-light) shooting, but none at even close to this price point. Focus throw for the K is 190 degrees. Weight is 230 grams (8 oz).
28mm f/2.8 AI-s Nikkor (1981-2006)
While not in the same bargain category as the 28/3.5, the AI-s f/2.8 is a good bargain for its performance level. As the only 28/2.8 Nikkor with the CRC floating elements feature, it focuses down to just 0.2m (8") and is wicked sharp in the center. Some performance has been sacrificed at farther focusing distances, but that's not what you buy this lens for. Produced for 25 years, the AI-s was upgraded to SIC from serial # 825xxx on. Focus throw is just under a half a turn and weight is 250 grams (8.8 oz). Prices run from $200 - 250 USD.
35mm f/2.8 K/Early AI Nikkor (1974-79)
Nikon's 35/2.8 has a long history, first being produced in 1959. The design went though several changes over the decades. For our purposes of maximum performance for the dollar, we recommend the third optical formula (6 elements in 6 groups) found in K & early-AI form, which gives the best performance and costs no more than the final (cheapened) late-AI/AI-s version. This article from the Nikkor website gives an interesting glimpse into the evolution of the 35/2.8 and shows the superiority of this iteration. There is basically no distortion and reduced coma from earlier versions. As with the 24/2.8 the K & early-AI have a longer focus throw than their successors (195 degrees vs. 100 - 120 degrees). Weight is 240 grams (8.5 oz). Roland Vink's invaluable website gives all the necessary details to determine the serial numbers and other data that differentiate all Nikkor lens versions (including the 35/2.8s). Prices run between $70 - 150 USD depending on condition.
50mm f/2 H/H-C/K/AI Nikkor (1964-79)
The classic budget normal lens, even the single-coated H version gives great performance (using a lens hood is always a good idea). About all it gives up to its f/1.8 successor is slightly more barrel distortion and field curvature, and a 6-blade aperture vs. the 7 blades of the 1.8. The K & AI variants have a long 230-degree focus throw for any videographers out there. A typical Planar design (6 elements in 4 groups), the K & AI versions also focus closer than the H & H-C (0.45m (18") vs. 0.6m (24")). Performance is equal to the concurrent 50/1.4 lenses. Prices are variable, $50 - 80 USD depending on variant and condition. Weight increased from 200 - 220 grams (7 - 7.8 oz) over time.
50mm f/1.8 AI/AI-s Nikkor (1980-2005)
Probably the best all-around manual focus 50mm Nikkor, ever. As mentioned above it offers superior distortion correction and a flat field of view. It gives up nothing to the 50/1.4, except cost :-). The AI and first-edition AI-s (commonly called long-grips) are seeing a rise in price to over $100 USD, but with a bit of patience you can still score one for $70 USD or so. The plethora of later AI-s versions are very plentiful at that $60 USD mark. They give up some build quality to the two earliest variants, but optical quality remains excellent. The AI has a 210-degree focus throw as opposed to the 130 - 140 degree throws of the AI-s models. Weight was reduced over time from 220 to 145 grams (7.8 to 5 oz). There is a Series E 50/1.8 that shares the optical formula of the Nikkor and it performs quite well, but for the price, the multicoating and better build of the Nikkor swing our vote.
50mm f/1.4 K/KII/AI/AI-s Nikkor (1974-2006)
So you just have to have f/1.4 ;-). Although Nikon debuted its 50/1.4 in 1962, we will confine our recommendation from the first-generation K-version to the AI-s. Why? Well, because more improvements in performance were made in that period. Now, some people swear by the performance of their S Nikkors, and we are not here to argue about it. If it gives you the look you want, go for it :-). But we feel that the newer versions offer more bang for your buck. Like closer focusing (0.45m vs. 0.6m), better coatings (NIC), and better performance at wider apertures. If you are a video junkie (or like ultra-precise focusing), the first-gen K also offers a nice long 225-degree focus throw instead of the 160 degrees of its predecessors. Nikon changed the optical design during the K-era from 7 elements in 5 groups to 7e/6g. That is why we show a KII in the subheading. The easiest way to tell the two K-versions apart is by the front name plate: the early-K ring slopes in toward the front element, and the gen-two K is flat (as is the AI/AI-s). The focusing ring also has a larger diameter swept-back front surface on the early K. That also means that the first K is the heaviest of the bunch: 310 grams (11 oz), which then dropped by 50 grams (2 oz) in the later iterations. The second-gen K and AI went with a 210-degree focus throw which was reduced to 140 degrees in the AI-s version. Prices range from $100 USD for an early pre-AI K to $200 USD for a mint AI-s.
100mm f/2.8 Series E (1979-85)
Performance is very good for this simple (4e/4g) lens. The only reason, though, we would recommend selecting it over the classic 105/2.5 Nikkor, though, is for its compact, lightweight (it's hardly bigger than a 50/1.4) construction. Coming in at around half the weight (225 grams for the early black-ringed version, and 215 grams for the later chrome-ringed type) of the 105/2.5, the Series E is the ultimate travel or backpacking low-powered telephoto in Nikonland. You can snag one in excellent condition for under $100 USD. The 100/2.8 is easily distinguished by its square focusing ring nubs and has a 140-degree focus throw.
105mm f/2.5 P/PII/P-C/K/AI/AI-s Nikkor (1959-2005)
If we could only have one Nikkor telephoto, this is our pick, hands down. Legendary performance for portraiture or general use. The 105/2.5 came in two optical configurations: the first P-design was a Sonnar-type (5e/3g) and the second was a Xenotar-type (5e/4g) that was carried through for 34 years (1971 - 2005). Some prefer the rendering of the Sonnar version to the Xenotar and you can save a few dollars in doing so. The P-Sonnar is easily differentiated from the P-Xenotar by its silver nose and lens barrel and shorter focusing grip. The Xenotar variant is a little sharper and offers the advantage of selecting from multicoated versions with 7 curved aperture blades for smoother bokeh (out-of-focus areas). It also focuses 0.2m (8") closer than the Sonnar version. Focus throws ranged from 180 degrees on P-Sonnars to 170 degrees on all Xenotar types except the AI-s with 140 degrees. All pre-AI version Xenotar-types have an f/32 minimum aperture which dropped to f/22 with the AI & AI-s lenses. The AI-s version went to straight aperture blades instead of curved and SIC was integrated from serial # 1043xxx onward. P-Sonnar weight is 375 grams (13 oz) and all Xenotar versions are 435 grams (15.2 oz). Prices range from $115 USD for excellent P-Sonnars to $250 USD for near-mint AI-s and everywhere in between and often with a hood included (which it is good to use on any variant, but especially a single-coated lens).
135mm f/3.5 Q-C/K/AI/AI-s Nikkor (1973-1983)
Starting at $90 USD for an excellent condition Q-C or K (4e/3g), the 135/3.5 is one of the most cost-effective Nikkors in the line-up. If you want to lose a little weight & bulk, improve performance, and focus 0.2m (8") closer, the redesigned AI and AI-s (4e/4g) versions can be had for less than $150 USD. And that is a considerable savings of $50 - 100 USD over a comparable 135/2.8. Focus throws went from 190 degrees on the Q-C & K to 220 degrees on the AI and back down to 180 degrees on the AI-s.
200mm f/4 K/AI/AI-s Nikkor (1975-96)
If you are looking for a light telephoto with very good image quality that will not break the bank (or your back carrying it), the 200/4 is a great choice for film or 16MP and below DSLRs. The AI-s has a different aperture blade design, that produces smoother bokeh (out of focus areas) under some conditions than the K & AI versions (which have a saw-tooth shape to the iris at wider apertures). Weight ranges from 540 - 510 grams (19 - 18 oz). Focus throw is 205 degrees on all variants. You can get excellent condition K & AI variants for $115 USD and AI-s for $150 USD. Great for hikers or anyone looking to travel lighter, but still have a bit of reach.
Updated July 25, 2019
Roland Vink's Nikon Pages @ http://www.photosynthesis.co.nz/nikon/lenses.html
Lens Survey and Subjective Evaluations by Bjorn Rorslett
The Thousand and One Nights Story #60 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/story/
The Thousand and One Nights Story #57 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/story/
The Thousand and One Nights Story #44 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/story/
The Thousand and One Nights Story #38 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/story/
The Thousand and One Nights Story #14 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/story/
The Thousand and One Nights Story #5 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/story/
The Thousand and One Nights Story #2 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/story/
Suffers from a two-decade and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.