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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

Topic: Understanding old Nikon lenses, specifically, AF vs. AF-S (with a bit of history).

This will be the shortest article on this website but something I meant to write about for a while.


Old Nikon lenses and autofocus: Nikon AF vs. AF-S.

I will talk about the difference between these two types of Nikon lenses but first…

What is autofocus?

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).

By the way…

Here is a good resource on Auto Focus vs. Manual Focus on LifeWire.

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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.

If you want to understand more about old Nikon lenses (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).


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.

And let me repeat myself once again:

AF-S lenses are sure worth the price and will certainly make your life as a photographer easier.


If you want to become a better photographer and learn about tips and tricks, I highly recommend you check out the Digital Camera Mastery course here (my review). 

Happy photographing!

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