Nikon Lens Buying Guide

New to Nikon? Here's what you need to know about Nikkor lenses.

Credit: Nikon
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  1. What Nikon Has to Offer A brief overview of Nikon’s impressive lens lineup
  2. Nikon DX Lenses What you need to know about Nikon’s entry-level DSLR lenses
  3. Nikon FX Lenses Nikon’s pro-grade glass serves every need.
  4. Terms to Know VR? D vs. G? What the heck does Micro mean? Learn the Nikon lens lexicon!

1. What Nikon Has to Offer

A brief overview of Nikon’s impressive lens lineup

The Nikon F mount on a modern G-type lens

Chances are, if you’re not shooting with a Canon DSLR, you probably use a Nikon. Though there are plenty of other brands making excellent cameras, these two companies essentially own the market, having fought an epic, multi-decade struggle for supremacy. Nikon is the older of the two companies, dating back to 1917 when it was founded as Nippon Kōgaku Kōgyō Kabushikigaisha (Japan Optical Industries Co., Ltd.)

Today, Nikon’s DSLR lenses are split between its DX (APS-C) and FX (35mm full-frame) cameras, which share the well-established Nikon F-mount. Since the F-mount has gone essentially unchanged since it was released in 1959, modern Nikon DSLRs can (with some exceptions) utilize more than 50 years’ worth of lenses. It's one trait that has helped the brand earn a devoted following.


2. Nikon DX Lenses

What you need to know about Nikon’s entry-level DSLR lenses

Designed for Nikon’s entry-level and affordable enthusiast DSLRs—including the D3000, D5000, and D7000 series—DX lenses are smaller, lighter, and usually more affordable than their FX bretheren. Impressively, Nikon offers roughly double the number of DX-format lenses as Canon, and the available options run the gamut. Beyond the usual kit lens fare, you can get everything from fisheyes, to macros, to telephoto zooms.

Nikon FX vs DX Comparison
Credit: Nikon
Though Nikon's FX and DX cameras have very different sensor sizes, they share an identical lens mount.

Nikon’s long-lived F-mount means you can also use contemporary and classic FX-format glass with your DX-format camera. Depending on the specific DSLR you own, you may be able to use lenses from as far back as 1977 without issue. Conversely, some DX-format lenses can even be used on Nikon FX-format cameras, thanks to their DX crop mode.

That being said, you should be aware that the least expensive DX-format cameras (like the D3000 and D5000-series) will only autofocus with Nikon’s G-type AF-S lenses (or equivalent third-party lenses). Earlier D-type or AF lenses will not autofocus with these newer cameras.


3. Nikon FX Lenses

Nikon’s pro-grade glass serves every need

The majority of the F-mount lenses made for Nikon cameras have been and continue to be so-called FX, or full-frame, lenses. These lenses are designed to cover the full-frame image sensors found in Nikon's FX cameras, like the D600, D700, and D800 series. That means they also cover the smaller DX (APS-C) image sensor.

The upshot is that these lenses are bigger and heavier than their DX counterparts, and they also tend to cost more. In addition, though there are plenty of all-around zooms and affordable prime options, many FX lenses are targeted at professional or advanced enthusiast photographers. These include ultra-wide-aperture primes, super telephotos, and high-end macros.

There are nearly 70 Nikon FX lenses in production today, along with a wide array of third-party options from manufacturers like Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, and Samyang. In addition, you can mount several decades’ worth of manual focus F-mount lenses (specifically, Ai and Ai-s type) without any adapter and start snapping away.


4. Terms to Know

VR? D or G? What the heck is a “Micro” lens? Learn the Nikon lens lexicon!

Though it’s less aggressive with proprietary acronyms than some other brands, Nikon still puts its fair share of coded language onto the barrel of its lenses. It also uses several terms that don’t appear on the lenses themselves, but are still important to keep an eye out for.

Nikon Lens Markings
Credit: Nikon

DX: DX lenses are designed for use with Nikon’s entry-level (APS-C) DSLRs—the D3000, D5000, and D7000 series. They can be used on Nikon full-frame (FX) bodies in DX crop mode.

FX: FX lenses are designed to cover the full-frame image sensor found in Nikon’s D600, D700, and D800 series DSLRs (as well as the Nikon Df). Since they use the same mount as DX lenses, they can also be used on DX-format cameras, albeit with some restrictions depending on the specific model.

G vs. D-type Lenses: The difference here is simple: Nikon D-type lenses have an aperture ring; G-type lenses don’t. Several newer DX-format DSLRs (including the D3000 and D5000 series) will not function properly with D-type lenses. Other Nikon DSLRs work equally well with either variety.

VR: This is Nikon’s term for optical image stabilization, short for “Vibration Reduction.” A newer version of the system, called VR II, is found on some newer lenses.

AF: Lenses badged with “AF” use the focus motor inside the DSLR body to autofocus. These lenses will not autofocus on some more affordable Nikon DSLRs, like the D3000 and D5000 series.

AF-S: AF-S lenses feature an in-lens electronic focus motor. They will autofocus on all Nikon DSLRs and many late-model film cameras.

SWM: Short for “Silent Wave Motor,” this term refers to the autofocus motor built into AF-S lenses.

N: Indicates a lens uses Nikon's proprietary Nano Crystal Coat lens coating, which is designed to reduce lens flare, ghosting, and internal reflections.

ED: Describes lenses that employ extra-low dispersion glass elements, which can help eliminate chromatic aberrations (color fringing) in photographs.

FL: Some Nikon lenses—particularly super telephoto primes—use fluorite glass elements, which can reduce chromatic aberrations and weigh far less than optical glass.

Micro: This is simply Nikon’s idiosyncratic way of saying “macro.” A Micro-Nikkor lens is a macro lens.

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