Tips when using older manual focus lenses on Nikon

Nikon D800 with manual focus lens 28mm ai-sI’ve been using older manual focus lenses on my new Nikon camera a while, and I’ve come to learn a trick or two that makes life a bit easier.

1. Focus confirmation

It’s not always easy to tell just by looking through the viewfinder, if your subjects are in focus. However, you can actually use the camera’s auto-focus system to help you when using manual focus!

Nikon cameras have a separate sensor for the auto-focus system. This is still active no matter what lens you put on your camera. However, if it’s not an auto-focus lens or if both your camera and lens lacks an auto-focus motor (which would be the case with say a D3200 and any AF-D lens) there is no way for the camera to automatically adjust the focus, but it would still be able to tell you if your subject is in focus though.

So, how can you utilize this? Well, first you’ll need to be aware that this requires a lens with an aperture of 5.6 or faster. In the lower left corner of your viewfinder you’ll see a green dot appear when your subject is in focus. Depending on your model some cameras also have two little arrows guiding you further or nearer.

Illustration of viewfinder showing focus confirmation– Press the shutter button half way (or alternatively the AF-ON button on some models) to activate the camera, set your focus point using the multi-selector button on the back of the camera.

– Turn the focus ring on the lens until the green dot is lit. This means your subject is in focus. Some models feature two arrows telling you if you should focus closer of further away.

– If the green dot is flashing it mean your subject is moving in and out of focus.

– If both arrows are lit, pointing towards each other it mean the camera can not find the accurate focus.

On some newer lower end Nikons (D3xxx and D5xxx series) when in manual mode you have the option to activate what Nikon calls a rangefinder that takes the place of the exposure meter in the viewfinder. This is usually activated in the a4 menu.

However, since this separate sensor requires light to be reflected off the mirror, it will not operate once the mirror is lifted. Hence this will not work in Live View. Unfortunately. If you are using Live View your best chance of focusing correctly is to use the display zoom-function and zoom in to easier see the accurate focus.

2. Non-CPU lens data

Newer lenses got loads electronics inside them. This is why your camera automatically recognizes which lens is mounted and saves information such as focal length and aperture in the image’s meta data. Older lenses however, are stripped of electronics and are often called non-CPU lenses. If you mount an older lens on your camera the camera will not be able to figure out the current F-number.

Before you continue to read all this, you should know that unfortunately not all Nikon cameras support adding non-CPU lens data. Most newer mid- and high-range cameras from the D7000 and up will support it, but lower end Nikons may not. You will still be able to use manual lenses on cameras that do not support adding non-CPU lens data, but you will have to shoot in manual mode and light metering in the camera will not work.

Nikon Non-CPU lens data menu

You’ll find the Non-CPU data menu under the wrench menu on your Nikon.

Since the camera lacks information such as focal length and aperture about the lens, auto functions, such as certain flash functions and light metering, may be crippled. But there are ways of getting around it! You can manually tell the camera what lens you are using. Your Nikon can store information about 9 different non-CPU lenses.

Nikon Non-CPU lens data menu

By adding the focal length and aperture info your Nikon can use auto functions with manual lenses.

At the bottom of the wrench menu you’ll find the Non-CPU lenses data menu. By adding focal length and maximum aperture, the camera will automatically display the current aperture in the display. If you use a lens that supports aperture indexing (Ai/Ais lenses) the camera will register when you change the aperture and change the aperture in the display to the next whole step. This means the camera can work out the light metering and flash functions and information about aperture and focal length will also be saved in the image’s EXIF data.

Nikon My menu

By adding the Non-CPU lens menu to My Menu you’ll have easy access to changing the settings when using multiple manual lenses

This is a great solution for fixed focal lenses. Unfortunately, you can not add shortest and longest focal length for zoom lenses. You can however save a lens under several lens numbers say one for 70mm and one for 200mm on a 70-200mm zoom lens.

If you use a lot of different non-CPU lenses make sure to add this menu to your custom My Menu for quick access as you have to change the lens number manually if you change lenses.

Review: Nikkor 28mm 1:2.8 Ai-S

Review may be the wrong word. This is not going to be any scientific lab test. You’ll find plenty of such elsewhere on the Internet. This is simply my thoughts on this lens.

Nikon 28mm 1:2.8 Ai-s

Nikon 28mm 1:2.8 Ai-s

See more images taken with this lens in the gallery at the bottom of the article.

Nikkor 28mm 1:2.8 Ai-S is a lens of older design. Though it was introduced in the early 1980’s it is still sold new today! I picked up mine from a second-hand dealer a little while back. I only did a couple of test shots before I bought it. Now I’ve been using it a little while and thought I’d let you know what I think about it.

Why manual?

I’m interested in old manual focus lenses for shooting video on my DSLR. Manual focus is much better for video and older lenses also have a manual aperture ring that lets you control the aperture during filming with ease. However I’ve come to realize they’re excellent for stills as well. Yes, they are older, but in my experience that may not be a bad thing. Especially older prime lenses tend to perform really well.

Build

I really like the build quality of older lenses. This lens is no exception! It’s all metal and feels sturdy and well-built. It snaps on my camera nice and tight and it feels like real craftmanship. The focus is smooth and the aperture ring is tight as they should with no excessive play. The lens has a focus distance meter in both feet and meters on the focus ring and color coded a depth-of-fields scale as well. It’s light weight and small, but the focus and aperture rings are wide and easy to operate. This makes this lens very handy as a walk around lens.

Performance

What makes this lens stand out is the close focus distance of 0,2 meter. This is the closest focus on any Nikon wide-angle lens and it makes for some interesting perspectives when playing around with this lens. When I tested this lens with my D800 I got very pleasing results.

As every review of this lens will tell you it’s very sharp and performs well, especially at close distance, however focus is a little soft on infinity. I’ve experienced the same thing when I’ve used it, though I mostly use it on closer distances and it’s not much of a problem for me.

On the other hand all other aspects about this lens is right! It renders nice colors and contrast, vignetting is hardly there and there are almost no problems with color fringing. Not to mention it produces some really nice bookeh as well.

It performs surprisingly well wide open at 2.8 and it’s sharp on close distances, but stepped down to 5.6 it’s really good! All in all in my experience this lens performs very well!

Conclusion

This is a lens I’m very happy with! It’s a lens you can get second-hand rather cheap and if you look at cost vs. performance you’ll get lot of lens for your money! It performs well on my D800, so I wouldn’t hesitate putting this lens on a new camera.

Due to the performance on distant focus subjects it may not be the optimal lens for landscape photographers who require distant focus. Also, a deal breaker for a lot of people would probably be that this lens is manual focus only. On the other hand, this lens is perfect for street photography, journalism, nature and as a general walk around wide-angle.

Further reading

Nature photographer Bjørn Rørslett has a great survey of lenses on his website Naturfotograf.com. Check out what he thinks of this lens here. (Scroll down to find it)

Read what the users on SRLGear.com thinks of this lens here.

Photography in Malaysia have some interesting history and resources on the lens here.

Darin McQuoid has an excellent review and comparison of the Nikon 28mm f/2.8 and 28mm f/2 lenses here