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August 9, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

Knobby, Knurly, Neither — the three siblings of the nikon manual focus lens family

Nikon Manual Focus Lens

About half a century ago — back in 1959 — Nikon (nee – kon) made history with the introduction of the new Nikon F SLR (single lens reflex). It was the right 35mm film SLR for the right time.  Alongside, it had a complementary series of well engineered lenses. At that time the lens barrel used what was known as a scalloped metal focusing ring. These rugged black metal knurly lens designs lasted into 1974, when Nikon engineers started to replace them with a metal barrel and rubber focusing grip. Aside from offering tactile relief,  these rubber grips had the effect of performing reliably under conditions of heavy perspiration or dampness.

  • 1. Nippon Kogaku (pre-Nikon) 28mm f3.5 — shows the knurly scalloped ridges — or as some call the “hill and dale” design —of most nikon lenses manufactured prior to 1974. The metering prong on this model was factory converted from the original F style — to the Ai (aperture index) style. Note the holes in the prong so they they would allow light to illuminate the ƒ numbers behind it.
  • 2. Nikon Nikkor 50mm f1.8.— shows the knobby rubber waffle grip and diamond cut aperture ring.  Ai, and later Nikon Ais lenses had a meter coupling ledge on the rear of the lens which automatically mated with new cameras . The prong on the front was a legacy artifact that kept these lenses backward compatible with older non Ai compliant cameras.
  • 3. Nikon Nikkor 45mm f2.8 P — chronologically out of order, this lens was introduced in 2001. The focusing barrel is intended as a nostalgic complement that honors the fine traditions of it’s predecessors. The lens barrel is metal, the aperture ring is now plastic, but the numbers and marking are once again engraved.  A hybrid of both the knobby and knurly — this design balanced weight and size for the cameras of the day. The aperture prongs were considered redundant. Instead a computer chip was mated with the mount for coupling with matrix metering technology.
  • 4. Nikon AF Nikkor 35mm f2 — for Nikon news was made when this radical new lens design was first introduced in 1990. Autofocus lenses were designed for both automatic and manual focus cameras. The epoxy graphite like composites and plastic components were necessary to reduce the weight of the lens so that the camera motor would not burn out. The effects of this compromise can be seen as the rubber waffle grip has fallen off and the plastic lip damaged. This model will not suffer the same torque and tension applied to any Nikon manual focus lens with an all metal barrel. The printed numbers and markings are also prone to wear with extensive manual operation.
  • 5. Zeiss ZF 50mm f1.4 — it was back to the future when Zeiss introduced this nostalgic design in 2006. The all metal focusing barrel and metering prong —redundant by Nikon standards — are meant to appeal to those who still respect the look, feel, and operation of a traditional Nikon manual focus lens. In the same spirit of going back to the future, the numbers and marking are engraved onto the lens and the focusing mount was most definitely made knurly — but without scallops.


Optically, each successive generation of a lens was typically much improved. However mechanically, they evolved so design compromises were necessary to balance the customers desire for lighter lenses, standard components, low cost, and new technologies. For those who have a critical preference for manual control of their optics — and there are a variety of reasons why this may be so — there is no better solution than an ergonomically designed barrel and grip. This type of exoskeleton is mandatory for optimum manual performance.

Up until a few years ago, it was not difficult nor relatively expensive to acquire a Nikon manual focus lens.  However a surge of new interest in high quality mechanical designs, manual control, and their inherent compatibility with some models of the Nikon SLR digital camera, is making these lenses much more difficult to find and buy. Especially ones in prime working order. For optimum manual control, Nikon news hound strongly recommends you consider trying some of the vintage Ai and Ais lens barrel designs  — or third party alternatives such as the Zeiss ZF. Knobby or knurly — don’t let the fine opportunity for manual control of your optics slip away.

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1 Comment »

  1. Posted by FrankG

    August 31, 2009 @ 1:09 am

    The poo loves super-sharp manual lenses, though I don’t think most of the new CV Zeiss is sharp. Maybe the 50/2 M-mount and that’s about it.

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