Review: Nikkor 28mm f/2 Ai-S

Hello, everybody! I like Korean fried chicken, it tastes great and I won’t get tired of eating it all-day. It’s crispy and tastes better with the special sweet-and-spicy sauce. There are some things that you’ll never get tired of, I will show you something today that’s similar to Korean fried chicken, you could reheat it and it will taste just as good as the day you bought it but this one is something that you’ll never ever digest.

Introduction:

The Nikkor 28mm f/2 Ai-S was sold from 1981 to 2005, quite a long time compared to many Nikkors. This is an upgrade of the older Nikkor 28mm f/2 Ai wherein it gets a new barrel, later serial numbers have the then-new Nikon SIC coatings applied. It’s great to use, I know many people who love these but some people will always compare this with the cheaper and tinier Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai-S and claim that the latter is better. Neither is, they’re different tools for different uses. If you want something that renders a scene with a delicate look, this is the one you need.

Its barrel is beautiful, the build quality is good and it will survive professional use in the field. It has a rather pathetic depth-of-field scale which I don’t like, it’s narrower compared to many wide-angle Nikkors. For those of you who are used to focusing with the scale, this may be a problem. The good news is your view is going to be a lot brighter because more light will reach the focusing screen.

Its 9-elements-in8-groups design is identical to the Nikkor-N 28mm f/2 Auto which is the first one in this family. The optics mainly remained the same throughout all its versions but I suspect that it underwent a few minor modifications apart from the expected coating upgrades. This is the last one so I assume that it’s the best of the lot.

Just like the Nikkor-N 28mm f/2 Auto and the rest of the family, it incorporates CRC on the front block. It gives this better performance at the corners when shooting at closer distances. Unlike the older ones, this one could focus a bit closer. It also has a shorter focus-throw compared to the Nikkor-N 28mm f/2 Auto. It’s something I’m not too keen about because it makes this harder to focus with precisely.

It handles perfectly with most Nikons. It’s amazing how Nikon packed so much inside its little barrel. Despite it being compact it’s larger than most smaller Nikkor primes such as the Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai-S. It’s best to buy a Nikon HN-1 to help shield the front element from stray light and your fingers.

This is one of the few Nikkors that NASA sent to space, it had to be modified in order to survive being used in space. The focusing ring is bigger to allow astronauts to turn it easier. It also required special grease that will not gas or evaporate in space, too. Such is the proud heritage of the 28/2 family of Nikkors.

Pairing it with a Nikon Z6 enables you to shoot using slower shutter-speeds thanks to its in-body stabilization. It’s the best thing that could happen to this lens.

Knowing how a lens performs is key to exploiting it, you’ll know how to maximize its use and workaround its weaknesses. This knowledge will help you determine which lens is the right tool for the job. These were shot from f/2f/2.8f/4 and f/5.6, I assume that these apertures are the most common values that people would want to use this lens with. These also exhibit the most changes in its rendering characteristics. I shot these with my Nikon Z6 to see how it performs with a modern high-MP sensor.

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The distortion profile is rather high and is most evident at the long-edges of the frame. The profile doesn’t look complicated at all but it’s not simple either, this is something that should be easy to correct in post. Vignetting is high wide-open. It improves considerably by f/2.8 and it’s not an issue from f/4 and on. You’ll lose about 1-2 stop’s worth of light at most but the falloff isn’t steep so it’s easier to conceal. If you are shooting with an even-colored background like the sky be sure to stop the iris down to at least f/2.8 if you can.

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It has a tendency to flare but it’s not that bad thanks to the better coatings applied to it. You’ll get blobs in your frame if you’re not careful and they tend to be quite well-defined specially when you stop the iris down. You’ll get nice sun-stars with it with defined rays and a clean core, this will make landscape photographers happy.

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Chromatic aberration is well-controlled at areas that are in-focus when shooting wide-open but you’ll observe some of it at the focus transition areas. It’s not ugly at all so this isn’t really an issue. Stopping the iris down to f/2.8 will alleviate it and you won’t see much of it at this aperture. You’ll only see traces of it or none at all by f/4 and f/5.6.

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The bokeh quality is above-average for a lens of its class but it has a tendency to render rough-looking details if you have things such as foliage or trigs in the background. This is not much of a problem in real-world use, I don’t think anybody would want to shoot with this just to get nice-looking blurs exclusively.

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It is really sharp wide-open at the center, the contrast is quite good, too. You’ll occasionally see a bit of softness due to flare and spherical aberration but it’s actually sharp when you look at it. The extremities look ugly but I expected that anyway. Stopping it down to f/2.8 helps raise its center resolution which improves sharpness at the center and the areas surrounding it. The far-corners look a lot better but still unusable in most cases. Stop it down to f/4 and the center is now at its peak. The extremities look better but still quite bad compared to the center. The extremities will improve a bit more by f/5.6. I doubt that it will look better at f/8, maybe it will but I think it will stay like this. It performs better at close-to-moderate distances, the performance drops a bit when you focus it at further distances. It’s not a big deal but you’ll notice a slight drop in sharpness.

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Its ability to focus really close is useful and it’s reassuring to know that it’s sharp even wide-open if you do not have anything that could trigger flare and other optical aberrations. If your shot demands it, stop it down to at least f/2.8 to get excellent results at the center. This is impressive, I wasn’t expecting this level of performance.

The distortion profile is obvious if you have straight lines that are parallel to the edges of your frame. Angling your shot a bit so people will notice it less.

This is not a lens that I’ll use for shooting architecture and art. Anything that requires your lines to be straight will be better-served by another lens.

Its fast maximum aperture makes it ideal for shooting at night. Its sharpness at wide-open apertures is also a big plus and you’ll be addicted to it. This photo exhibits some spherical aberration at overblown areas which makes them appear to be veiled in a delicate “glow”. This is useful for adding another interesting layer to your photo.

It renders with a nice, natural look which many modern lenses lack. It has the right balance of sharpness and softness. The smooth focus-transition is also a big factor, too.

Its ability to render a beautiful, balanced photo is useful in scenes like this where you have lots of details. It’s useful for giving your photo a sense of depth, something that wide-lenses will benefit from.

A 28mm lens is great for travel and documentary photography. I love this focal length a lot. it’s my favorite so I own several 28mm lenses.

Angling your scene helps mask the effects of distortion. You’ll still see it in this photo but you will have to look hard in order to see its effect.

The roofs of the temple and pagoda aren’t straight so the effects of distortion isn’t obvious here.

Street photography isn’t the best application for it but no one is stopping you from using it. You’ll have to get a lot closer to your subjects which is not always possible.

It renders beautifully, it’s like an artist’s tool in this regard. The textures in this photo look so real, if this was shot with slide film it will be amazing to look at it through a loupe.

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Here are more photos that were shot in real-world scenarios. I believe that you can only judge a lens once you have shot with it in the field. You can’t judge it using boring tests, its utility and practicality can’t be measured with charts alone. This is an amazing lens even with today’s high-MP cameras, it doesn’t feel old at all.

Let’s now check some film photos. Film has a unique look that is hard to simulate with a digital camera thanks to grain. It reacts differently to light, this means that it could mask a lens’ flaws or amplify them. Since it was designed to be used with film, it’s best that we judge this using its intended medium. Some of these were taken with the iris stopped-down unless there’s not enough light. I used the Nikon F3 loaded with Fujifilm Industrial 400 to take these photos.

This is what this lens was made for. Shooting lowlight scenes is challenging even with an ISO400 film, this isn’t much of a problem with this lens since you could use slower shutter-speeds with it. Its ability to gather light is amazing, something that’s invaluable when shooting at dark places.

Shooting with the depth-of-field scale isn’t simple because of its short focus-throw. The scale is pathetic, you’ll have a hard time getting it precisely so a lot of guesswork is needed in order to pre-focus effectively.

Once you’ve got the hang of it you won’t even feel the need to confirm your focus with it, you simple frame the scene and just click the shutter. Focusing with the scale is a skill that many photographers forget, it is simpler to use autofocus with today’s electronic lenses.

The effects of distortion is obvious at the roof and the beams of the gate. While this may be acceptable for a lot of applications it’s not something that I am comfortable with for photos like this.

Here’s an even worse example, the awning is literally bowed. This may be fine when you treat this as a travel photo, otherwise it’s unacceptable for some cases.

This amount of distortion makes it appear like a shot from a fisheye lens.

Contrast and resolution is quite good when you stop the iris down a bit. The corners look great except for the extremities which won’t look good even if you stop it down to f/8.

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What an amazing lens when shot with film, I think this is the best way to enjoy shooting with it. This is a great combination, seeing these photos reinforced my opinion that this was one of the best lenses of its time when film was the mainstream medium for taking photos.

Here are some photos that were shot with Fujifilm Natura 1600. I don’t have a lot of this left, I decided to shoot one of my last rolls with this lens because it’s worthy of being used with it. This will give us a good idea about how people were shooting with this at the dark back then when film was the only practical option. These were shot with my Nikon F3.

This lens was made to be shot at night and it excels at this application.

The shallow depth-of-field will work against you when shooting with it wide-open. Stop the iris down a bit so you’ll get more things in-focus.

Shoot with it at smaller apertures even at lowlight situations if you can. Having a fast maximum aperture of f/2 makes it tempting to shoot with it wide-open but you should resist the urge to do so.

Spherical aberration makes your overblown areas glow a bit, giving you an impression that they’re bright. It’s helpful in making your photos look a bit more interesting.

This is a great lens for telling a story, you’ll get more of the scene within your frame which helps in creating a photo that tells multiple stories.

A wide lens helps establish your scene so your viewers will get the context of your setting better. This can be a useful tool if you’re shooting a scene where the location plays a big part of your story.

This shot wouldn’t be possible if it couldn’t open-up to f/2. Use this ability to isolate parts of your frame to lead your viewers’ eyes to your subject.

Videographers will find this lens useful but its short focus-throw will be a problem. The older Nikkor-N 28mm f/2 Auto will be a better lens for that application since you could focus with it more precisely.

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I love shooting with it a lot, I regret storing it inside the dry cabinet for so long. The photos look great, this is a great lens for filming in the dark, its ability to render natural-looking photos also makes it a great lens for use with cinematography.

I highly recommend this to anyone who could afford it. These aren’t cheap, they’ll cost you $300.00 on average for a nice copy. A worn one will cost you around $200.00 or so. I got mine for a reasonable price because I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time. If you don’t want to spend too much the Nikkor-N 28mm f/2 Auto or any of the older versions will work great as well but this version is a lot better thanks to the improved coatings. It makes it more-resistant to flaring which plagues some of the older versions. When looking for one be sure that everything operates smoothly and the iris is dry and snappy when actuated. The glass needs to be clean and clear, too. Be sure that it has great image quality specially at the corners when shot close. It has CRC implemented and that can get misaligned, giving you poor performance wide-open at closer distances. Do not forget to buy a hood for it, too. Despite being pathetic for shading the front element it helps prevent fingers or other things from touching it. These aren’t rare, you could get one for not a lot of money if you just be patient. Happy hunting.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Niels
    Dec 25, 2020 @ 15:31:41

    Thanks Richard, As always super interesting and useful information!
    I hope you and your family are enjoying the holidays and enter the New Year safely and in good health.
    Your contribution to the collective knowledge of the internet is really appreciated – please continue 🙂
    Tanks!
    Best
    Niels

    Reply

  2. Joe shoots resurrected cameras
    Dec 25, 2020 @ 16:14:02

    You spoke of the focus throw and I’d have to agree with you. I don’t have the F/2 but I do have a Nikkor-H 28mm f/3.5 and the AI-s 28mm f/2.8 and it’s annoying just how imprecise focusing it is unless you’re really close, I feel like it’s made me fudge a few shots so far. In fact I will actively look for AI over AI-s lenses now for that reason.

    Reply

  3. Tokyo John
    Dec 26, 2020 @ 00:28:30

    Thank you Richard, I applaud all of your efforts, this is an excellent example of how a lens ought to be reviewed. We can see the lens’ rendering characteristics and understand its application to real world scenarios.

    As for the 28/2 Ai-s, you show that it offers a unique rendering, especially when shallower depth of field is desired on a wider perspective. For me personally, I honestly don’t see many practical cases for my own shooting where this is something I would need/want compared to other lens options I already use (e.g., the Milvus 35/1.4). Your review will save me some ¥¥¥ since I’ve long considered buying one. On other hand, I do love my trusty old 28/2.8 Ai-s, which has little distortion, is very sharp across the frame, focuses close, is small and light for hiking/travel, and takes 52mm front filters…I’ve taken that with me around the world, and it has performed marvelously.

    Richard, have a wonderful holiday. Please think about setting up a Patreon or other mechanism for us readers to support you, a lot of us don’t use PayPal. I think your work deserves to be better-supported by us, at least to cover the costs of all the wonderful film you’re shooting (+dev & scan), and your valuable time.

    Reply

  4. Larry miller
    Jun 27, 2021 @ 18:47:50

    Great review Richard. I have used both the 28/2.8 AIS and I still have the 28/F2 AIS. In my humbled opinion my F2 has more depth of field and focuses from close range to infinity better than the 28/2,8 does. The 2.8 is good from close to mid distance range. It’s not that great at clarity for close to distance scenes. I really wouldn’t go back to the 2.8 lens for that reason alone. I also like that the F2 has SIC coating on it. I have the late version. Anyway, my 2 cents worth. Keep on clicking!!!!!!!

    Reply

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