To Focus or Not to Focus

This is the focus pin, sometimes referred to as the autofocus "screwdriver", on a Nikon camera with its own built-in focus motor.
This is the focus pin, sometimes referred to as the autofocus “screwdriver”, on a Nikon camera with its own built-in focus motor.

A young photographer asked me today to recommend a camera, saying she had exhausted the capability of her point-and-shoot camera. A friend or two told her to buy a Canon. I agreed that if a Canon fits her style and meets her needs, Canon cameras are great. I added that since I am primarily a Nikon shooter, I know a little more about their offerings, and jotted down a couple of suggestions, including the Nikon D5300 and the camera is replaced, the D5200. Both have great image quality, high-definition video, are lightweight, and offer an articulating monitor.

“Don’t you have to have a motor for the lens to focus?” the photographer asked, and I tried to explain it as succinctly as I could.

This is the mount of the Nikon D3000. Note that it does not have an autofocus pin because it does not have a built-in focus motor.
This is the mount of the Nikon D3000. Note that it does not have an autofocus pin because it does not have a built-in focus motor.
  • All of Nikon’s digital SLR cameras will take almost every Nikkor lens ever made, dating all the way back to the 1950s (noting that the very old ones needed to be updated so the aperture ring is “AI” so it won’t damage the lens mount on the camera.
  • Nikon currently make a large selection of AF-S lens, which stands for AutoFocus Silentwave. These lenses have a focus motor built into them, so the camera does not need a motor (and even if it has a motor, the camera automatically uses the one in the lens.)
  • Nikon still makes a few AF lenses, which will autofocus, but only if there is an autofocus motor in the camera.
  • Nikon actually still lists a handful of manual focus lenses in their catalog, though I doubt they are widely available. There are also a very large number of manual focus lenses for sale on sites like Ebay. They work fine on all of Nikon’s digital SLRs as well, but the photographer has to set everything by hand, including aperture, shutter speed, and, of course, focus.

The cameras I recommended, the D5300 and D5200, don’t have focus motors in them, so AF-S lenses will autofocus with them, but AF lenses will not. That said, AF lenses work fine with these cameras, but the photographer needs to focus the lens by hand.

As an aside, Canon lenses made before 1987 can’t be used at all with new Canon cameras. That was the year Canon changed lens mounts entirely, from the F-mount to the EOS-mount. It upset a lot of photographers at the time, but it allowed Canon to leap ahead of Nikon in autofocus technology, a gap Nikon couldn’t close until they introduced AF-S lenses.

Finally, I would urge anyone getting into digital SLR photography to learn to manually focus. There are times when you can’t convince a camera’s autofocus system to focus where you want, and there may be times when you use non-autofocus cameras. It’s a valuable skill.

This is the slot in an AF Nikkor lens that accepts the so-called focus "screwdriver" of a camera with its own focus motor.
This is the slot in an AF Nikkor lens that accepts the so-called focus “screwdriver” of a camera with its own focus motor.
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1 Comment

  1. That does seem like a succinct explanation, something that I’ve never seen anywhere else on the web when searching for answers for Nikon photographers. Hopefully, Google will pick this up before long so more people can get better answers.

    Most of the questions I’ve seen have been regarding third-party lenses (Sigma, Tokina, etc.), and whether that lens will autofocus with a given Nikon camera.

    Though Canon’s decision (as you said) upset quite a few people — I’ve seen some who are STILL upset by it — at least it provides for an easier set of answers.

    * If it’s an autofocus lens with an EF mount, it will work on your Canon DSLR.

    (Canon later decided to add some confusion to the mix by introducing EF-S lenses, which only mount on crop-sensor cameras and have a smaller image circle. But they will all auto-focus with all Canon crop-sensor cameras.)

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