Auto-Focus Lenses

Premium Nikkor Optics

Nikkor AF lenses represent “The Standard” for wildlife and other challenging photography, where one does not have the time to compose and execute with manual focus glass. While I actually prefer to use manual focus lenses for many aspects of nature photography (landscapes, flowers, most macro situations, etc.), when it come to capturing active wildlife, especially at a distance, only Nikon’s AF glass will do. Precision AF is vital when there is minimal time to react. When a fleeting moment is on the line, Nikon is the only name that I trust to capture this moment, quickly and beautifully, nailing the shot every time. As master lens craftsmen, Nikon know that rendering is as important as sharpness. Premium Nikkor glass embody the adage: “Class is hard to define, but those who have it are unmistakable.” When it comes to selecting focal lengths, I typically select successive focal lengths roughly-double to the focal length of the lens before it (e.g., 200mm, 400mm, 800mm, etc.). That said, here is my current Nikkor “Gold Ring” AF lens line-up:

F-Mount Glass

60+ Years of Optical Excellence

Established in 1959, the Nikon F-Mount has been the most flexible mount available, for decades, until the advent of mirrorless. Many of the most incredible, specialty lenses ever made have been crafted exclusively in this mount. However, to be realistic, the F-Mount’s future development is likely coming to a graceful sunset, within the next couple of years … while at the same time Nikon’s incredibly well-thought-out Z-Mount is rising, brightening the horizon with its unmatched potential. As a passionate photographer, I have accumulated some of the finest F-Mount lenses made—and, thanks to the FTZ Adapter, these lenses still operate perfectly on my new Z-Mount cameras. Nikon’s thoughtful adapter has ensured me a smooth transition, allowing me to enjoy the following stellar F-Mount optics for the rest of my life:

Nikkor AF-S 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR

The Ultimate Birding Lens

The Nikkor 800mm FL ED is the ultimate birding lens, offering the ultimate in reach along with the ultimate resolution and rendering. Simply put, there is no other wildlife lens (with or without TCs) that can match the optical quality of the bare 800 FL ED. This benchmark lens is the perfect companion for the Nikon D5 because the extreme focal length allows me to “fill the frame” with my subjects  while enjoying the reflexes of Nikon’s premier action camera. With the specially-designed 1.25x TC, I am shooting 1000mm f/7.1 and possess an unmatched opportunity to “capture the moment” as quickly, closely, and as beautifully, as is technologically-possible.

I also use the 800mm with the D850, when I am not going to be light-challenged, or the D500 if I need even more reach. Stunning images are the result. I have found I can actually hike with (and hand-hold) this lens by using two slings to carry it, the Magpul MS4 Dual QD Sling and the BlackRapid Sport Strap. What allows me to deploy two slings at once, on the same lens, is the RRS LCF-17 Lens Foot (which has two ports to accommodate both slings, simultaneously). By taking the weight burden from my hands, to comfortably distribute it across my shoulders, these simple but effective straps allow for “hands-free” enjoyment … as well as instant deployment … in a way that lugging a tripod around cannot.

See @ Nikon: Nikkor AF-S 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR

Nikkor AF-S 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR

The Benchmark in Optical Quality + Versatility

The Nikkor 400mm FL ED is the sharpest Nikon super-telephoto lens made. It’s value lies in its f/2.8 aperture and how sharp it is wide-open. By being Nikon’s absolute sharpest lens, and by also being the only super-telephoto option with an f/2.8 aperture, the 400 FL ED creates a compression plus separation “look” that no other lens can match. Even better, with a native .16x magnification, if I add a 36mm extension tube, I can enjoy a ~1:4 reproduction ratio, from 8′ away, and photograph most butterflies with a level of rendering and compression that is not possible with a standard macro.

As with the 800 FL ED, the 400 is similarly hand-holdable, because I also carry it with a Magpul MS4 Dual QD Sling and a BlackRapid Sport Strap. Again, these simple, but effective straps take the weight-burden away and yet allow for instant deployment. (BTW, the answer is, “Yes,” I can carry both the 800 and the 400 together, where these two Nikkor super-telephotos make the finest wildlife team money can buy.)

By itself, as for instance when traveling won’t allow me to bring two large lenses, the 400 FL ED + 1.4x and 2.0x TCs represent a more flexible premier quality option over my 800mm. For this reason, the 400 FL ED  is the MVP of my lens lineup.

See @ Nikon: Nikkor AF-S 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR

Nikkor AF-S 300mm f/4E PF ED VR

The Pocket Super-Telephoto Wonder

The 300mm f/4 PF is an anomaly in my lens line-up, but it’s one of the most useful lenses I’ve ever enjoyed. To begin, sometimes I don’t feel like lugging my 400 or 800mm FL ED lenses around—but yet I still want telephoto capabilities when I hike in the field or take a short trip. Mounted on my D500 (which gives a 1.5x crop factor), the 300 PF frames as a ~450mm lens. When I add the 1.4x TC, or even a 2x TC, the 300 PF frames as a ~630mm and ~900mm lens, respectively. No, the image quality produced isn’t quite what the super-telephoto lenses can do; yet, I am constantly surprised how close this little lens can get! It certainly is better than any zoom.

Further, while it doesn’t have the extreme quality of the 400 FL ED, the 300 PF has a .25x reproduction ratio (.34x w/ the 1.4x TC, and .5x with the 2x TC), so this versatile piece of glass can achieve near-macro capabilities also, with the added bonus of allowing me to take photos of butterflies, dragonflies, and such from 4-feet away. (It is also armed with better VR than any macro.) All of these specs combine to make the 300 PF the most all-around useful, enjoyable budget field lens I have ever owned, quite frankly.

See @ Nikon: Nikkor AF-S 300mm f/4E PF ED VR

Micro-Nikkor AF 200mm f/4D IF-ED

The Reference Lens for Long-Range Macro

This lens is beyond outdated. (My copy is actually brand new in April, 2020,  but the lens design itself goes back to 1993.) Being “outdated” isn’t always bad though. For one thing, the Micro-Nikkor 200mm f/4D has a great working distance (WD)  [@1:1 the WD is 26 cm  / 10.2″ (@ 1:2, the WD is 47 cm / 18.5″)], which is longer than any other 1:1 macro lens from any other manufacturer. For another, the Micro-Nikkor 200mm is also built like a tank, to a level none of the other current offerings can match. According to Coin Imaging, the Micro-Nikkor 200 f/4D is also one of the top performers in terms of resolution & sharpness—and even some modern reviews still rate this lens as peerless among more modern competitors [e.g., NikonRumors (2018) and True Toad (2018)].

According to my own usage, this lens is not as sharp wide-open as the Voigtländer SL 125mm f/2.5 Apo-Macro, but by f/5 it is bitingly sharp. Unfortunately, it is not really “a bokeh lens,” for flowers, so much as it is a sharpness lens for arthropods. This lens truly excels at butterfly photography, because its 200mm compression + its extreme sharpness @ f/5 make for particularly compelling arthropod portraiture. For thicker-bodied arthropods, f/10 – f/13 is recommended. This lens must absolutely be used with a tripod, where its superior tripod collar is most welcome for framing, and the results it produces more than compensate for the extra work.

See @ Nikon: Micro-Nikkor AF 200mm f/4D IF-ED

Nikkor AF-S 105mm f/1.4E ED

The Sublime Portrait Telephoto

This lens is amazingly-sharp wide-open and, even better, its AF allows me to nail the focus quickly (which might be missed with MF), with precision accuracy. The combination creates a unique portraiture perspective, especially in nighttime conditions when hand-held. With pleasing bokeh and rendering transitions, the Nikkor 105 f/1.4E allows me to capture intimate portraiture moments, from afar, with exquisite sharpness, separation, along with artistic excellence in the process. Even better, with a 36mm extension tube, I can enjoy a 1:2.3 reproduction ratio (.43x) for the kind of flower photography sharpness, rendering, and bokeh that is not possible with a standard macro lens either.

See @ Nikon: Nikkor AF-S 105mm f/1.4E ED

Nikkor AF-S 58mm f/1.4G

The Ultimate Character Portrait Lens

This is a Nikon signature portraiture lens, and one the coolest I’ve ever used, and yet (ironically) it doesn’t do well on the lab benches. I discuss this indepth on this forum post. However, for those who actually give this lens a chance, they will find the 58mm f/1.4G to be a terrific niche lens designed for a specific type of photography: human portraiture. PhotographyLife has a great review. Although human portraiture is not my usual effort, it is still a nice lens to have when such moments present themselves. To fully-appreciate this lens, one has to either see the images from it … or use it themselves. It’s a masterpiece. Even better, with a 36 mm extension tube, I can enjoy a 1:1.33 reproduction ratio (.75x) for the kind of flower photography, rendering, and bokeh that is not possible with a standard macro lens either.

See @ Nikon: Nikkor AF-S 58mm f/1.4G

Nikkor AF-S 28mm f/1.4E ED

'The Auto-Focus Otus'

This lens is the finest wide-angle prime lens available from anyone, including Sigma and Zeiss. Only the Otus can compare (at twice the price, and weight), and yet even the Otus cannot match the central sharpness or bokeh of the Nikkor 28E. The Otus also doesn’t have AF, which limits its usefulness for real-time wide portraiture. For night events, be they nature or human, there is no finer wide-angle prime to choose from. Its fast aperture and portrait-friendly rendering place this lens in a niche that no “f/2.8 zoom” can match. Even better, with a 36mm extension tube, I can enjoy a 1.46:1 reproduction ratio (1.46x) for the kind of tiny flower photography sharpness, rendering, and bokeh that is not possible with a standard macro lens either.

See @ Nikon: Nikkor AF-S 28mm f/1.4E ED

Z-Mount Glass

Future-Forward Advantages

The Z-Mount possesses critical specifications which position Nikon users to enjoy some unique advantages. The Z-Mount’s 16mm flange distance, mated with its 55mm throat width, mean Nikon’s Z-Mount lenses will lenses will have engineering advantages over what is possible from other systems. Nikon’s mount dimensions also mean Nikon Z-mount cameras can adapt other lens, from other manufacturers, while no other system will be able to take advantage of the new Nikkor Z-mount ‘S’ lenses. These strategic advantages spell an exciting new era for Nikon shooters. The Z-Mount ‘S’ lenses offer a level of edge-to-edge clarity, and subtle APO color-correction, which actually aren’t possible in other systems, due to their more limited mount dimensions. These advantages apply mostly at the wide-end, however (from 10mm to 100mm). For longer glass, from telephoto to super-telephoto, there is no real reason to switch mounts.

Nikkor Z 24-70 f/2.8 S

The First Zoom Lens to Exceed Prime Lens Specs

I have to be honest, as a lens fancier, I am not a big fan of zooms. Reason being, while handy, zoom lenses typically offer inferior image quality to dedicated primes. Or, at least they did! The MTF stats of this new Nikkor Z-mount “S” zoom are amazing, at every focal length. They actually eclipse most F-Mount primes within its zoom range, making this the best 24-70 f/2.8 lens ever designed. This makes the Z 24-70 f/2.8 S the perfect walk-around and travel lens, where it simply delivers. The 24-70 f/2.8 S is actually the primary lens I use for my professional career as a casualty investigator. The moment Nikon releases the Z 14-24 f/2.8 S companion, I plan on replacing all of my f/2.8 Zeiss prime glass with this single “S” zoom as well.

However, because this lens doesn’t possess an f/1.4 aperture, it cannot replace my gold-ring F-Mount portrait primes (the 28, 58, 105 f/1.4E, above), for that special 3D-bokeh effect. Still, most of the time I don’t need a really fast aperture, so for a walk-around the 24-70 S is what I use. Also, as with the above primes, if I don’t require that special ‘fast’ rendering of f/1.4 to f/2, the new Meike MK-Z Extension tubes allow me to enjoy a .40x to 1.6x macro-magnification range, @ f/2.8+, where I can match this entire range in just one superior lens.

See @ Nikon: Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S