A little more than one year ago, while preparing to emigrate to Europe, I decided to put together a proper kit that could shoot nearly any type of photo. I settled on a Nikon F100 SLR camera, the AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D, the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D, and the 50mm f/1.8D. This comprised a D-series lens lineup spanning the focal lengths I most often shot. One year later only one of these lenses remains an indispensable part of my camera bag; the Nikkor 24mm.
My choice of Nikon’s AF-D lenses over their more expensive, premium lens ranges was a practical one. Not only are these lenses (typically) light and small, making them perfect for traveling, but they’re also much more affordable than their counterparts in the Nikon AF-S and G series. But most critical of all, the AF-D lenses have physical external aperture rings.
Because of that, they are compatible with many more Nikon film cameras than are the newer and more expensive lenses. This almost universal compatibility was the key deciding factor when it came to choosing AF-D lenses, and it makes the series a perfect choice for those of us shooting digital and film Nikons. With AF-D lenses, I can just as easily attach any of these lenses to a DSLR like my D850 as I can to my film SLRs the F4 and F2, and they’ll work equally well.
A History of Nikon’s 24mm f/2.8
Nikon’s first 24mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens debuted for the F mount in 1967. It was a manual focus lens with nine elements in seven groups, and was single coated until Nikon’s coatings were upgraded in 1972. In 1977, an improved AI version (auto-indexing for cameras with built-in metering systems) was introduced with a nine elements in nine groups design. An AI-S version soon followed in 1981, equipping the 24mm with an aperture that could be controlled by the camera body (to be used on cameras with program and shutter priority modes). More details on the differences between pre-AI, AI, and AI-S lenses can be seen here.
The next big change came in 1986 with the first 24mm autofocus Nikkor. While the lens used the same metal and glass construction on the interior and lens mount, the shell of the lens was now a less impressive plastic. In 1994 Nikon added distance encoding to the lens and upgraded its build quality. The lens now had the ability to measure the distance to the subject, information it sent to the camera to assist with metering for flash.
Nikon continues to sell the manual focus AI-S and the autofocus versions of the lens in 2019.
The AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D has the same nine elements in nine groups construction that has been used since 1977, along with multi-coating and a floating element for close-range correction. Its seven straight aperture blades open up from f/22 to a maximum speed of f/2.8.
Despite being a small lens and weighing just above nine ounces, it doesn’t feel cheap or insignificant. It’s heavy enough to convey the quality of its parts, but light enough to be unnoticeable in a camera bag. The shell is plastic, but not cheap, thin plastic. Manual focus is controlled by a rubber ring below the filter thread and spins through infinity to a close-focus distance of 0.3 meters. Focus throw is about 90 degrees, and since autofocusing is done mechanically, it’s not especially quiet. The lens will extend slightly when focused. A distance scale rests between the lens badging along with a depth-of-field scale with f/11, f/16 and f/22 markings.
By the time my AF-D version was made, long gone were the days of the manual focus Nikkors and their silky rings that glide into place like butter on toast. The aperture ring on my AF-D is similarly lacking compared to the older models. If there’s one very minor criticism I have with AF-D lenses, it’s their stubborn, harsh aperture rings. The 24mm is no exception. As with many of the modern variations of AF-D, the ring also allows for locking when stopped down to f/22 for wheeled aperture control on more modern cameras.
The AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D sells new today for $392, and an excellent copy can fetch between $250 and $350 on the used market. Off the shelf new, it’s substantially (and counter-intuitively) less expensive than the $537 manual-focus AI-S version, which contains the exact same optics.
The lens pitches sharpness right down the middle throughout the f-stop range. There’s corner softness at f/2.8, which is drastically reduced by f/4 and gone at f/5.6 and beyond. Sharpness doesn’t improve after f/8, and images become softer due to diffraction at f/22. Because I’m almost always using this lens for landscapes, I live in the f/5.6-11 range and have always been happy with the sharpness in my images.
Similar to the sharpness rating, there’s a good amount of vignetting at f/2.8. This decreases at f/4 and is barely noticeable by f/5.6. Noticeable distortion tends to depend on the angle of the photo – it will be highlighted when the subject is photographed from an angle, and minimal when shot straight on.
It seems strange that Nikon would ship this lens without a lens hood included, an especially egregious omission since this flare magnet certainly needs a hood. The HN-1 lens hood fits, but is sold separately.
Wide angle lenses aren’t designed with bokeh in mind. Shooting with a 24mm lens, it’s a challenge to actually get a background out of focus. And when that does happen, you’ll wish it hadn’t. Bokeh is nervous and suffers from outlining that turns beautiful bubbles into schizophrenic amoebas. If bokeh quality is a real factor in your 24mm lens selection, this Nikkor won’t make the grade.
Like any neurotic buying something expensive, I do my best to overanalyse every single aspect of every possible purchase. But when it really comes down to it, I’ll either like the images a lens produces, dislike them, or (worst of all) be indifferent to them.
In my year with the lens, I was consistently happy with the images I made with it. I liked everything from its color rendering and contrast to its sharpness and distortion. Before buying it, I mostly shot with a 35mm lens because it was close to what my eye really saw. Now I’m using a lens with a focal length that brings additional personality.
It’s easy to correct the imaging flaws of the lens in post-production, but I had done enough of that working in corporate photography. These days, I lean into the lens’ “issues.” To my surprise, some of my favorite images I’ve made with the lens are vertical landscapes that became more dramatic because of its drastic convergence and inherent distortion.
Final Thoughts and Consumer Advice
To know if this lens is worth buying, it’s worth considering Nikon’s two other 24mm lenses, which both have faster maximum apertures. The faster Nikkor 24mm f/1.8G is twice the price of the AF-D version and weighs more by one third. The even faster Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G costs almost $2,000, more than quadruple the price of the AF-D, and it comes in at more than double the weight. The obvious winner for those who value money and lightness, is the AF-D.
Even for those who aren’t concerned about their budget or their backs, I’m really pressed to find a serious advantage in either of the other Nikkor 24s. Certain performance measures will be marginally better in the G lenses, but not enough to justify the additional costs, especially with the f/1.4 lens. It’s also worth noting that both G series lenses will present limitations on cameras made prior to the F5, since they don’t have external aperture rings. With some cameras they’ll only be usable in program or shutter-priority mode; with others they can only focus manually.
As far as speed is concerned, I would be truly amazed if anyone could think of a real world use of f/1.4 on a 24mm lens. I seldom go as low as f/2.8 on mine and have never wished for more speed in real-world shooting.
Comparing this to zooms with 24mm in their range would be a false equivalency. But I will say that while I miss having an 80-200mm f/2.8 every single day, I’ve never missed having a 24-70mm. When I did have one, I found that I typically stayed near 24mm. I’m happy to pack this little lens and sacrifice the convenience to lose the weight of a zoom.
It should be obvious at this point that I really like this lens. My appreciation is somewhat clinical and practical. The AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D isn’t a lens that’s wrapped in legend, as are so many of the special lenses we write about on this site. There’s no romantic backstory and it wasn’t made to be a personification of its designer. There’s no single optical feature that makes it stand out. Instead, it does a pretty good job at everything, and it goes about it in a quiet, modest way.
It’s a product of the designs of the late eighties, which allows it to travel incognito today. Along with the other AF-D lenses, the 24mm slips by unnoticed. Riding the wave of Nikon’s first autofocus lineup, it was born straddling two eras of camera technology and allows today’s Nikon photographers to co-exist in both media. It’s not as fast as Nikon’s newer 24mm lenses, and it lags behind in lab tests. But if you’re looking for an affordable wide-angle Nikkor to travel with, the Nikon AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D could be the lens for you.