Like other lens makers, Nikon has its own technical jargon for the features and specifications of its lenses. The first bit of Nikon lens jargon is the name – Nikon brands its lenses ‘Nikkor’’ – though some reviewers and retailers us the name ‘Nikon’ instead, just to be clear about who makes them.
Nikon camera types and formats
Nikon only makes lenses for its own cameras, but these come in different types. Nikon is best known for its DSLRs and there are two different sensor sizes: Nikon makes DSLRs with full frame sensors, which it calls FX format, and DSLRS with smaller APS-C sensors, which it calls DX format.
Both cameras use the same Nikon F lens mount, but the different sensor sizes mean that although you can use the same lenses on both, there are some instances where you need lenses designed specifically for the smaller DX format. These will always have ‘DX’ in the name of the lens, for example the Nikon 35mm f1.8 G AF-S DX. DX lenses don’t cover the full frame sensor area, so although they can be fitted to an FX format Nikon DSLR, they can only be used in a smaller ‘crop mode’.
Nikon now makes mirrorless cameras too, and these use a new Z mount and a new range of lenses. These lenses have the Nikkor Z, label, for example the Nikkor Z 85mm f1.8 S Lens.
Almost all current Nikon lenses have one of two autofocus systems. AF-S lenses, the oldest and most common type, use Nikon’s Silent Wave autofocus system for fast, quiet autofocus. These lenses are ideal for stills photography since they focus very quickly. They can be used for video but are not necessarily ideal since they are designed for a fast rather than a smooth response and are not necessarily completely silent.
Nikon also makes AF-P lenses. These use ‘stepper motor’ autofocus technology which is being adopted increasingly by lens makers in lenses which need to focus smoothly and silently. A number of consumer level Nikon lenses now use AF-P autofocus.
Nikon D, G, E, S lenses
The Nikon F lens mount goes all the way back to 1959, but while you can physically still fit older lenses to the latest bodies there are certain limitations and incompatibilities caused by changes in technology and consumer demand.
Older Nikon D type lenses date back to the film era and have lens aperture rings which are no longer used (the aperture can be set from the camera body instead). These lenses are compact and affordable but may not match modern lenses for performance and rely on the camera’s own in-body autofocus drive for focusing. This is no longer included in many lower-end Nikon cameras.
G type lenses are the most common modern type. The ‘G’ indicates the removal of the aperture ring, as these lenses are controlled from the camera body.
E type lenses have a newer electromagnetic diaphragm design. This gives more consistent exposure control in high-speed continuous shooting, for example, but only newer Nikon bodies are compatible with electromagnetic diaphragms.
Nikkor S lenses don’t belong to the Nikon F lens range at all. The ’S’ designation is used for high performance Nikkor Z lenses for Nikon’s new mirrorless camera system.
Other Nikon lens jargon
IF stands for ‘internal focus’. This means that the lens barrel doesn’t move in and out as the lens focuses. This is a very useful feature to have because the balance of the lens won’t change as you use it. Most higher-quality lenses now use internal focus.
PF stands for ‘Phase Fresnel’. This is a new and experimental kind of lens design that uses a special lens element with precisely cut ridges to bend the light rather than regular optical refraction. It allows much smaller telephoto lens designs.
ED stands for ‘extra low dispersion lens’. Dispersion is a problem in optical lens elements because it reduces image quality. Low dispersion glass is more expensive than the ordinary sort but improves image quality, so it’s used by lens makers as a selling point.
FL stands for ‘fluorite lens’. It means that one of the lens elements in this lens is made from fluorite, which is both expensive and difficult to work with, but especially effective at maintaining top image quality in telephoto lenses.
VR stands for ‘vibration reduction’, which is the name Nikon uses for the image stabilization technology built into many of its lenses.
Nano Crystal Coat is an advanced lens coating developed by Nikon to reduce internal reflections and glare in its lenses. This helps lenses deliver better contrast and reduced flare when shooting into the light.
PC Nikkor lenses are designed for precise perspective control using geared tilt and shift adjustments on the body of the lens. They’re designed mainly for architectural and product photography.
Micro Nikkor is the name Nikon gives to its macro lenses.
How to ‘read’ a Nikon lens
No single Nikon lens will use all these different technologies, but just to give an indication how all this jargon fits into the lens name, let’s break down the name of this lens: Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f2.8E FL ED VR.
First, it’s designed for Nikon DSLRs, since it starts with ‘Nikkor’ and not ‘Nikkor Z’. ‘AF-S’ means this lens uses Nikon’s Silent Wave autofocus technology, 70-200mm is the lens’s focal range and the fact there’s a single aperture value of f/2.8 means that the maximum aperture is constant throughout this range. The ‘E’ after the aperture value means this lens has an electromagnetic diaphragm and ‘FL’ means this lens has an advanced and expensive fluorite lens element. ‘ED’ indicates that this lens uses one or more extra low dispersion elements (six in this lens, in fact) and ‘VR’ indicates the lens is equipped with Nikon’s Vibration Reduction system.