Review: Ai AF-S Zoom Nikkor ED 28-70mm f/2.8D (IF)

Hello, everybody! I was watching videos of hippos in the swamp. It’s amazing how powerful they are despite their appearances. They’re huge, fast and deadly. In fact, they cause more deaths each year compared to lions. They’re territorial and aggressive, too. It gave me a new-found respect for these beasts, it also reminded me of how we should respect beasts and how magnificent they are as creatures. Speaking of beasts, I will show you something that many photographers nicknamed “The Beast“. It’s fast, powerful and big, it commands respect even after more than 2 decades of its debut. Let’s get to know this “Beast” in today’s article.


The AI AF-S Zoom Nikkor ED 28-70mm F2.8D (IF) was sold from 1999 to 2007. Many manufacturers have lenses that offer similar specs at that time, even off-brand makers have them, too. Nikon had to respond to this but it took them a few years to get it right. There was a prototype of an early attempt to bridge-the-gap but it wasn’t sold for some reasons. Maybe Nikon was trying to perfect it? By the time it was ready, it surprised everybody due to its optical and mechanical quality, it was an amazing lens. Nikon gave everything they had in it and the result is a formidable lens but it has a flaw.

It’s a very handsome lens, something that I have always wanted for many years but I couldn’t afford one and I had the AF Zoom-Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8D at that time. By the time I upgraded it I got the amazing AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED which was even more expensive but it’s a generation later. Finally, I got the chance to own one of these, 22 years after it was sold. It balances perfectly with my Nikon F100, this is period-correct.

it has a 15-elements-in-11-groups design, it’s moderately-complicated for a lens of its class. What made this a breakthrough for Nikon is its use of Silent Wave Motor or SWM, it’s one of the first Nikkors to have it. This 1st generation AF-S lenses focuses fast, near-silent and are quite responsive. They’re know to be very difficult to design with since it puts a lot of restrictions on the optical engineers. Weight, size and other things have to be considered so it was a tricky job. On top of it, it also has the tendency to malfunction which is a shame. This is its drawback, many 1st generation AF-S lenses will eventually develop a bad motor, squeaking and eventually dying. Some will last longer while some will die again even after a replacement. This is the reason why these are sold cheaply these days and that means a bargain for people who could repair lenses, like yours truly.

The AI AF-S Zoom Nikkor ED 28-70mm F2.8D (IF) was called “The Beast” because of its size and quality. It was built like a tank, it’s big, heavy and tough. The image quality is amazing, too. Although the competitor has one for a few years it’s not as good as this one and it was the envy of many photographers who shot with Brand X. The exterior is coated with protective paint and the construction is mostly-metal, inside-and-out. The rings are broad and easy-to-grasp. There’s nothing cheap about it and it will survive professional use when cared for.

This is the real reason why I bought it. I was looking for a midrange-zoom that would work with my Nikon Z6. It has built-in stabilization which makes this a cheap alternative to latest model in the market. It focuses fast, I couldn’t tell the difference between its speed and my old AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED. They’re identical in most respects. The only difference is it only has 28mm as its widest focal length.

Going back to the Nikon Z6, it functions perfectly with it. Autofocus us fast and accurate, tracking is spot-on as well in most cases. One of the things where it couldn’t match the Nikon D3 in terms of performance is speed or accuracy in tracking moving subjects in certain scenarios. This has nothing to do with the lens or the cameras but more with how autofocus was implemented with both since the algorithm used is different, it’s comparing apples-and-oranges at this level. Despite that, it’s sufficient and the biggest issue I have is how inconvenient it is to activate the tracking mode on Nikon’s mirrorless cameras since it felt unnatural.

The Nikon HB-19 should be mounted to it at all times to protect the front barrel and element. The front barrel moves in-and-out, any bump that is hard-enough will misalign it so this is essential. It makes the setup longer but it can’t be helped.

This is 3 generations in a single photo, a rangefinder, SLR and mirrorless. One of the reasons for owning this is you could use it with older film Nikons because it has a real aperture ring. It makes this the most useful one in its class in terms of compatibility.

It’s a very handsome lens. It ‘s one of those few Nikkors that were sold in grey, too. Even the hood is grey. The grey versions cost a bit more, usually around $100.00 or so more. I personally prefer the black one since it is more resilient to scratches. The grey ones don’t age well.

Knowing how your lens performs is key to maximizing it. You’ll know its strengths and weaknesses. This will help you decide if it’s the right tool for the job. I shot these photos from f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6 and f/8 because we’ll see the most changes happen within these apertures. I also assume that people would want to shoot with it using these settings, too. I wrote this article with using it on a Nikon Z6 in my mind, let’s see if it’s still a great lens in today’s setting.

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Distortion is prominent at the wide-end but it’s not as bad as some zooms specially ones from other brands. It has a slight curve with a moderate profile. It look a lot better at the long-end but that doesn’t mean it’s gone. I am impressed by this, I’m sure it looks better at 50mm.

Vignetting is visible wide-open where it’s darker at the long-end. It improves considerably by f/4 and you will only see traces of it by f/5.6. You won’t see any of it at f/8.

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Flare resistance is mediocre to poor, I expected more from a lens coming from this generation of Nikkors. You will get blobs and other ugly artifacts when the sun is within or just-outside of your frame. It’s disappointing, I felt that I was shooting with a zoom from the 1970s.

I don’t mind flare in my photos but ghosts is something that I don’t tolerate. The good part is it’s easy to hide if you have foliage in your scene since it could blend with it. Shooting a seascape will be more challenging and it will be annoying to correct it at post.

Here is another example where it could ruin a scene. It’s such shame that it performs this way. I consider this to be a modern Nikkor so I expected it to behave better here.

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Chromatic aberration can be observed in extreme situations. You’ll see coma, aberrations of the lateral type and other artifacts when you have overblown areas in your scene. This has more to do with the coating used so Nikon added Nano Crystal Coating to its successor.

This is a close-up photo showing some ugly artifacts. Stopping the iris down will help alleviate some of this, it will also clean-up the look of the discs, too.

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Its bokeh quality isn’t bad at all but it could exhibit some roughness at times on difficult backgrounds. Despite that it is quite nice in most cases as far as midrange-zooms go. Its 9-bladed iris ensures that the discs remain round thanks to the curved blades.

Foreground and background blur generally looks pleasant. Some people note that it has the tendency to show rough-looking artifacts and they’re right but they forgot to mention that it could also render nicely.

Twigs and foliage are difficult subjects to render if a lens has poor bokeh quality. I saw non of it here, if there are any roughness in the blur it’s mostly due to a bad mix of details in the background.

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It’s very sharp wide-open at the center and the corners don’t look bad either. Contrast is a bit subdued due to flaring in some cases but it’s still quite good. Resolution looks adequate. Sharpness improves considerably by f/2.8 thanks to the improved resolution. The center looks great and the corners aren’t that far-behind, too. It is impressive. The center is operating at near-peak levels where it could resolve fine details beautifully. You are going to see peak performance at center by f/5.6 and the corners look great, too. This is the best aperture for a sharp center and good corners which is good for taking group photos. While the improvement isn’t drastic it’s enough to see when you inspect it with a large monitor. It’s subtle but it’s there. Stopping this down to f/8 will not give you any visible improvements when it comes to sharpness, you’ll only get more depth-of-field. This is an impressive lens in terms of sharpness. Many people noted that the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED is not as good at the corners when it came out and you can now see it for yourself. It’s not that the newer lens is soft at the corners it’s just not as good. The difference is marginal but it’s enough for you to notice it when zoomed with a large monitor.

Focus transition appears to be quite natural, there’s none of that over-corrected-look that I hate which is what I consider to be the trait of cheaper lenses. The rendering is polite, the colors appear to be neutral and you’re going to get great photos with it even with today’s high-MP cameras.

This would have been a better photo if I have a circular-polarizer with me at that time to mute the reflections.

There’s some roughness in the foliage but this is a difficult subject to render. It’s distracting at times and the only way to negate this is by shooting wide-open.

Contrast is generally great despite its tendency to flare. Its performance is certainly a step above the older lens it replaced but it’s not as good as the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED when it comes to getting great contrast. Its performance sits between the AF Zoom-Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8D and the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED in this department.

For the first time, Nikon shooters got a professional midrange-zoom that could go as wide as 28mm. This is a huge improvement over the AF Zoom-Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8D.

Flare isn’t really a bad thing in some cases, it adds a delicate look to the screen door to the right, giving you an impression that it’s quite sunny outside.

The good thing is flare won’t cover your frame and is usually isolated at the overblown areas only. This is nice as you could have a scene with 2 different characteristics.

Its low-levels of distortion for a zoom is handy for taking photos of storefronts. This was shot at 50mm I think where the distortion is shallowest.

I shot this because it has a lot of interesting features so you can observe varying qualities in one photo.

This is a real-tight crop. I won’t use this for portraiture but it’s not a bad idea to use the long-end for it. I think the shutter-speed is slow on this one, it would’ve been blurrier if the Nikon Z6 doesn’t have stabilization.

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Here are more photos for your enjoyment. I enjoyed shooting with it a lot, it gave me a feeling that I was using an outdated lens with modern features. Outdated in the sense that its coating isn’t up to modern standards but modern in a way because I could use it perfectly with a Nikon Z6. It offers great value in today’s economy.

Let’s now see some film photos. Grain looks different and is difficult to simulate with a digital camera. It has a unique look that I like a lot. This lens was made during the peak of film technology, the last few years of it as a mainstream medium for photography. You can say that it was made with both film and digital in-mind so let’s see how it performs with both. I shot these with a Nikon F100 loaded with Fujifilm Industrial 100.

Distortion is prominent at the wide-end, you can see the top of the torii bow.

It’s not as bad at the long-end. If I were to shoot something where straight lines should be kept straight I’ll use this at 50mm where distortion is not as obvious.

It’s just as sharp on film as it is with a digital camera. You can see the details of the characters very well.

While I wasn’t shooting against-the-sun I noticed that it doesn’t flare as bad with film than it was with digital. That’s because film isn’t as reflective so you’ll get less internal reflections.

This is how it looks as far as flaring is concerned. It’s not bad at all if you ask me.

It’s maximum aperture speed is fast-enough for indoor photography. I wish I have a faster film when I shot it but I am glad that it turned-out fine.

Saturation and contrast looks great with film, you’ll get vivid colors with it.

I’d imagine that we’ll get to see some flare with this scene if I were to shoot this with a digital camera. This is the reason why it’s best to look at both results from film and digital in order to give us a balanced opinion.

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Here are more photos for you to study. Notice that it flares less with film, something that you should consider when purchasing one of these. It’s a gorgeous lens for film photography, I will shoot more with it and see how it fares with chromogenic film.

I highly recommend this lens to anybody who wants a not-so-modern midrange zoom for use with both digital and film. While the Tokina 28-70 AT-X PRO has similar specs it won’t autofocus with non-motor-driven Nikons. I like it a lot, I’m very familiar with it as it was my workhorse lens many years ago so here’s what I have to say. Despite being capable it’s not as good as this one specially in terms of ghost resistance. It appears to flare less, something that you should consider. It’s weak at the wide-end because of vignetting but that’s just about it. It’s still a nice lens today if you know how to use it effectively. Its best feature is its reliability, there’s not a lot that could malfunction since it’s mostly mechanical inside. It also has a real aperture ring, too. If you could spare a little bit more you can buy the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED which is better overall optically if you ask me. I could shoot directly at the Sun with it, I have used it for several years so I know it quite well, I used to shoot seascapes with it. The only problem with it is it doesn’t have an aperture ring which makes it useless for using it with most film cameras. The AF Zoom-Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8D another good option but you’ll get more from the Tokina 28-70 AT-X PRO. If you’re really set on buying this despite the alternatives that I’ve mentioned, look for the ones that operate properly. Its weakness is its motor, they usually sold with bad motors these days. It’s worth noting that it was also a problem 14 years ago. Put the cap on and the focus should be quick, silent and smooth. It should rack effortlessly from end-to-end. You may hear a little bit of hiss but that’s just normal. All the rings should turn smoothly and evenly. If they don’t something is wrong inside such as wires and ribbons catching on something, or worse, it may have been dropped. The glass has to be clean and clear, too. Shoot it a bit and it should work as it should. A good copy will cost you around $500.00 or more. I got mine for $170.00, it was sold as junk since the seller didn’t bother to clean the contacts so his camera couldn’t recognize it. I finally got to own one of my dream lenses and I got it for a song because I knew what I was looking for. Patience does payoff. Happy hunting.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Repair: “alleged” Ai AF Zoom Nikkor ED 28-80mm f/2.8D (IF) | Richard Haw's Classic Nikon Repair and Review
  2. Trackback: Shopping: Suwa Camera (Shinjuku) | Richard Haw's Classic Nikon Repair and Review
  3. Marc
    Aug 17, 2021 @ 22:58:01

    Glad you got your 28-70/2.8 ED AF-D so cheap! I paid like ~250 EUR many years ago, the seller said, AF isn’t working. I put it onto my D7000, and it worked with flying colors. Need to get a decent FX Nikon DSLR someday…


  4. recumb123 (@recumb123)
    Oct 19, 2021 @ 21:32:22

    I just got one of these lenses last week. First tests revealed it’s actually a wonderfull lens with great colours, sharpness and contrast. I find it’s very resistant to flaring too.


  5. Trackback: Optical Review Blog No. 30 – Nikon AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm 1:2.8D – Alex Luyckx | Blog

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