Nikon SLR Lenses

Many pro photographers work with Nikon SLR lenses and cameras. Why?

Nikon puts a ton of effort into the quality and construction of their lenses. Over time (a lot of time) these lenses have gained a reputation for creating clear, crisp and colorful images.

Nikon SLR lenses are also a good option for the undecided: there are well over 50 that you can choose from.

But first, it helps to know what all of Nikon's letters and numbers mean.

Nikon SLR Lens Terminology

Just other manufacturers, the Nikon SLR lenses come with their own cryptic terminology.

While many of the lens designations are shared (focal length and aperture) many are specific to the Nikon lens family like VR and ED.

Let's decipher what some of these Nikon SLR lens acronyms mean.

Lens Example 1: Nikon AF 28mm f/2.8D

We'll begin with a pretty simple example. This lens doesn't zoom - it has a fixed focal length, and is also called a prime lens.

28mmThe millimeter number represents the focal length of the lens. Lenses with longer focal lengths allow you to get closeup photos of your subject even from far away.
f/2.8This is the maximum aperture of the lens: the widest f-stop that the lens can be set to, which also lets in the greatest amount of light. Lenses with smaller f numbers let in more light and are more useful for low-light photography. Lenses that let in a lot of light are also called fast.
DAny Nikon lens with a D designation relays the distance between the camera and the subject back to the SLR. This allows for the full use of Nikon's 3D Color Matrix Metering, which creates images with more balanced exposures.

Lens Example 2: Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR AF-S IF ED

Here's a lens with all the bells and whistles. This one's a zoom lens with a whole LOT of acronyms. Let's define what they all mean.

70-200mmSince this is a zoom lens, there are two numbers for the focal length that represent the zoom range of the lens. The first number represents the wide-angle setting for the lens (zoomed out) and the second is the telephoto setting (zoomed in).
f/2.8This zoom lens has a constant maximum aperture of f/2.8 at the wide angle and telephoto setting. This means that your aperture setting will never change no matter how much you zoom.
GA G lens no longer includes an aperture control ring on the lens itself (since changing aperture is handled entirely by modern SLR cameras). While a G lens will be fully compatible with any Nikon digital SLR, it won't work on an old Nikon film camera that doesn't control the aperture of the lens.
VRThis is Nikon's version of anti-shake and it stands for Vibration Reduction. A VR lens helps you take clear photos at slow shutter speeds when holding the camera in your hands. VR is also very useful for lenses with long focal lengths (200mm or longer) since these telephoto lenses magnify camera shake.
AF-SLenses with AF-S are designed to focus swiftly and silently. Nikon calls this technology their Silent Wave Motor, but for some reason the acronym didn't turn out SWM, it's AF-S. These lenses are ideal for natural wildlife photographers who don't want to scare off a skittish subject (like deer).
IFThis acronym stands for Internal Focusing. On cheaper lenses, the front of the lens spins around and the lenth of the lens changes as you focus. With an IF lens, all of the focusing happens internally which means the lens doesn't change shape when you focus.
EDED stands for Extra-low Dispersion glass, and what this really means is that the optics of the lens are superior. Lenses without the ED glass will lead to more distortions in your digital photos (chromatic aberration is a common one).

Which Nikon SLR Lenses Do You Need?

The lens that you choose for your Nikon digital SLR should be directly related to your favorite photography subjects.

I call these photography styles, and it's important to have an idea of which one you identify with before selecting a lens:

  • Action and Sports
  • Portraits
  • Landscapes
  • Macro (also called close-up)
  • Low Light / Indoors
  • Travel and Outdoor
  • Wildlife

Let me put this another way: if you want to photograph bears in Alaska you need a completely different lens than if you want to take family portraits.

In the following table, I've tried to match some of the Nikon SLR lens acronyms that are most useful for the different photography styles.

Photo StyleFocal LengthLens FeaturesRationale
Action and Sports100-300mmAF-S, constant max aperture For action and sport you need a fast-focusing lens that allows you to get right into the action from a distance. A constant maximum aperture on zoom lenses ensures that your exposure settings don't change as you zoom.
Portraits50-100mmVR, ED For portraits you're trying to get maximum image quality of a non-moving subject. The VR helps create crisp images with no motion blur, and the ED glass ensures superior image quality.
Landscapes10-18mmED, IF Landscape photgraphers need extremely wide angle lenses due to crop factor. The internal focusing helps when you have a polarizing filter attached to the front of the lens, and ED helps minimize image distortions.
MacroAnyMacro This one's pretty simple - if you want to take close-ups then get a dedicated macro lens. While you can find many zoom lenses that boast a "macro" setting, these will not yield the same image quality as a true macro lens.
Low Light / IndoorsAnyVR, wide max aperture VR helps immensly in low-light conditions when you don't have a tripod. A wide maximum aperture lets plenty of light into the camera so you can use faster shutter speeds.
Travel and OutdoorAnyMega-zooms There are a special class of Nikon lenses that cover a very wide zoom range. The reason these lenses work well for travel is that you can take both landscape and closeup shots without having to tote around 3 lenses. The only drawback is that these lenses don't have wide maximum apertures, but this has less of an effect when you're taking photos in plenty of light.
Wildlife200mm +AF-S, VR, ED If you're into wildlife photography then I have some bad news: you're going to need an expensive lens. In order to be far away from a skittish subject but still get a close-up, you'll need a lens with a focal length greater than 200mm. The longer the focal length, the more expensive the lens. AF-S is especially important for wildlife photographers, since the whine of a lens focusing can scare an animal off.

More Features, Higher Price

Hopefully the previous table has made it clearer to you just what sort of features you're going to need on your Nikon SLR lens.

The important thing to remember is that each additional feature is going to add more cost to the lens.

For example, if you had two identical 50mm lenses and one has ED and the other doesn't, the ED lens will cost more.

This is why there is such immense variation in the price of SLR lenses. While you can get a fairly commonplace zoom lens for about $300, a high-end zoom with VR, ED and a wide f/2.8 maximum aperture can run you well over $1,000.

This is why it's important to focus on your favorite photography style, and look for the lens that will help you take the photos you love.

If you just say "I want a lens that has it all" then you're going to pay a pretty hefty price for it.

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