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Nikon AF vs. AF-S: What Is The Difference Between These Lenses? (A Bit of History)

AF vs AF-S Nikon Lenses

Understanding old Nikon gear, specifically, AF vs. AF-S lens.


Autofocus allows you to focus on the subject without exerting any physical effort (such as twisting the focus ring or trying to determine by eye whether a subject is in the sharp focus).

Truth is, with the advent of autofocus, the everyday life of a photographer became much simpler and more fun.

Of course, some may disagree with me, arguing that the whole romance of the process of shooting is gone. But those who don’t agree can romantically continue using their hands (with manual focus). ?


The lens you choose for your camera can have a significant impact on the photos you take and the experience you get, so it’s important to understand the types of glass before making a purchase.

There are two types of Nikon lenses: AF (auto focus) and AF-S (auto focus with silent wave motor). AF are generally the older lenses that will only work in the manual mode. AF-S lenses work on all Nikon digital cameras, and have a fast and silent autofocus.

With that being said, you’ll learn:

  • a bit of history and design of Nikon AF and AF-S lenses,
  • how does the company benefit from selling the AF-S glass,
  • and why these will make your life as a photographer easier.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

Nikon AF vs AF-S (A Bit of History)

  • AF Lenses

Nikon began to produce lenses and cameras with autofocus (AF) as early as 1986. Back then all the lenses were labeled as AF.


In 1986, the operation of the autofocus mechanism was pretty simple. A reducer was installed on a particular lens (as seen in the image below):

And on the camera there is a drive:

Basically, it’s a screw thread that is fine spiral on the lens that interlocks with a corresponding fine spiral on the camera body to mount the lens.

Like a screw and a nut.

This way, the camera determines the required distance to the subject, the drive rotates the reducer, and voila!

You have an autofocus.

Examples of Nikon cameras with a “screw thread”:

D50 / D70 / D80 / D90 / D200 / D300 / D7000 / D7100 / D700 / D750 / D810 / D3

  • AF-S Lenses

AF-S = autofocus single.

(Sometimes called single area AF.)

This type of lenses emerged relatively recently.

They focus much more quietly (some are almost noiseless) and are much faster than AF lenses.

The difference is that the drive is already on the lens itself, and the camera only sends signals through the contacts:

The drive already adjusts the optical circuit to the desired distance.

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter how exactly it’s done.

What matters is the end result: having a fast and silent autofocus of an AF-S lens.

If you want to understand more about old Nikon glass (AI, AI-S, AF, AF-S), check out DPreview’s post here.

How Does Nikon Benefit from New Lenses?


For commercial purposes, Nikon made the separation between its digital cameras.

What’s that separation?

Basically, starting with the release of the D40 budget SLR camera, all budget Nikon SLR options were produced only with AF-S focusing, that is, they are all without a “screw thread”.

A few early camera examples:

  • D40 / D40x / D60 / D3000 / D3100 / D5000 / D5100 / D3200 / D5200 / D3300 / D3400 / D5300 / D5500.

Important to Note:

AF-S works on all Nikon digital cameras, so you don’t have to worry about autofocus. For AF lenses to have autofocus, you’ll need to get a kit lens with lens mount screws.

What I am trying to say here is that older lenses will work only in the manual mode autofocus.

Here’s the truth:

Nikon benefits from this. They make money on new lenses. All those new DX lenses are in demand for budget DSLR niche audience.

For example… 

You have D5000 and you want to buy a prime lens for portraits, but the problem is that you won’t have autofocus on a cheap 50mm f/1.8 AF lens (under $150).

So, you will need to buy either 35mm f/1.8 AF-S (under $200) or 50mm f/1.4 AF-S lens (around $450). See the point?

Don’t get me wrong though:

All new lenses are very well worth their price and I am sure you won’t regret buying one.

My Final Thoughts

Nikon AF vs AF-S Lenses: The Difference Explained (With A Bit of History)

I hope I made it easier to understand the difference between AF and AF-S lenses and how Nikon benefits from new lenses. 

They have different features that make them better suited to certain types of photography, so it’s important to choose the right one for your needs.

For example, if you want something with great image quality and speed, then an AF-S lens is best. If you want something more affordable with solid quality, then an AF lens is pretty great too.

But let me repeat myself once again:

AF-S lenses are sure worth the price and will certainly make your life as a photographer easier. You have my vote; but what you decide to invest in is up to you!


If you want to become a better photographer and learn about tips and tricks, I highly recommend you check out the SLR Lounge Workshops here (review). 

Pye Jirsa is an amazing instructor and will teach you everything he knows, across a range of genres.

Learning photography has never been easier…

SLR Lounge is my #1 recommendation to help you become a better photographer in a matter of weeks. Join the platform now.

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