Controlling a lens’ aperture using the aperture ring (Nikon)

This post will be relevant only to those readers who use Nikkor lenses on Nikon SLR’s and dSLR’s, but may be of academic interest to others as well.

The central point is – if you’re using a Nikon dSLR’s and use Nikkor lenses that have an aperture ring – that there’s a chance that you can still set your lens aperture on the lens – not only by using the control wheel on your camera body. This might be worth a post, as this is a feature that many of the more recent entrants into photography do not know is available.

First, we’re going to have a look at history to understand why this feature exists, then look at those combinations of lenses and body which support this, before finally discussing whether (or more precisely: under which conditions) controlling the lens aperture on the lens is desirable.

If you feel you could read up on the Nikon F mount in its entirety, have a look at this article.

History – how come there is such a feature?

Back in the olden days, you controlled sensitivity by inserting a specific sort of film, controlled shutter speed (a camera body function) on the camera body, and controlled aperture (a lens function) on the lens. Then you would either use a light meter or your trained eye, set your variables and hope for the best.

Then came metering (which meant that the camera could actually measure the amount of light available) and suddenly cameras needed information to estimate whether the shot would be exposed properly.
The camera already knew the shutter speed (the photographer had set it on the body), but it also needed to figure out the film sensitivity and the aperture. The first was accomplished through adding a dial on the camera body that the photographer would use to ‘dial in’ the ISO/ASA value of their film’s sensitivity.

But aperture was trickier as that value might change shot to shot, and asking photographers to set their aperture not only on the lens (where it actually mattered), but also on the body (only for metering purposes) was not only cumbersome but also error prone. Instead, it made sense to allow lenses some way of communicating the selected aperture to the body. Nikon’s first response to this were the “rabbit ears”, which Nikon implemented on its 1959 pro SLR body (the Nikon F) and the proprietary lens mount for that camera. 

Nikkor lens (“New Nikkor” or K-type lens, Pre-AI) with “rabbit ears”
Pictured: Nikkor K 50 mm f/2

Jump one generation forwards, and Nikon replaced the cumbersome rabbit ears in favour of automatic indexing (AI) in 1977. AI lenses have a “notch” or “ridge” next to the mount and interacting with (compatible) camera bodies, that automatically communicates the set aperture to the body (which has a lug or “lens speed indexing post” to read the aperture). Thus bodies could now tell you whether you needed more light (increase aperture or lengthen shutter speed) or less. This trait carried over to AI-s lenses, and subsequently all the way until G-lenses were introduced (starting in 2000).

Nikkor AI-type lens with both rabbit ears and aperture indexing ridge
Pictured: Nikkor AI 50 mm f/1.4

Because Nikon has always been unusually (read: more than most of it’s competitors) keen to enable cross-generation compatibility, the aperture ring remained on cameras even in the AF age (when bodies were fitted with control wheels that could command the lens aperture). While Nikon has not introduced a new lens sporting an aperture ring since 2001 (even though some are still being manufactured today), they still allow users the preference to (with some combinations) to do it “the old way”.

Nikkor AF-D type lens, with aperture ring. Not only is this lens still being manufactured, it also has pilot holes to aid affixing rabbit ears for compatibility with pre-1977 bodies.
Pictured: Nikkor AF-D 35 mm f/2

Ability – will your combination of body and lenses allow this?

While photographers nowadays mostly set the intended aperture using a command dial on the camera body, using the aperture ring is still possible on some combinations of Nikon dSLR bodies and lenses. This is a not so often discussed feature and I’ve been unable to make a comprehensive list of body-lens combinations which support this. Below you will find a list of all successfully tested combinations, but before that, we can analyze.

To be analytical about it, for a you to be able to control your lens aperture using your aperture ring, you need three things: A lens that communicates its aperture mechanically, a body that can read the aperture ring position, and finally, the camera software also has to support using the aperture ring. Let’s take this in steps:

1) A lens allowing mechanical communication of selected aperture.

Up until about 2000, all Nikon lenses had an aperture ring and all AI/AI-s/Series E/AF/AF-D as well as the earliest AF-S lenses (up till the advent of G lenses) had that notch in the lens base, enabling the lens to communicate the position of the aperture ring. Simply put, all the following Nikon lenses have this ability:

Likewise all third-party lenses which are Nikon AI compatible, will allow this.

2) A Body that can read lens aperture setting.

Film SLRs
With the advent of AI, Nikon naturally added this feature to its cameras, starting with the Nikkormat FT3, Nikon EL2 and Nikon FM. All Nikon Film SLR’s introduced after 1977 can read the AI-compatible lens’ selected aperture. All the way to the Nikon F6 still being produced today (2020).

Digital SLRs
Nikon’s first digital SLR was the Nikon D1 (introduced 1999), before the advent of G-lenses, so naturally it included the requisite parts for reading a lens aperture setting mechanically. Thereafter, with the increasing proliferation of AF-S and G -type lenses, the need for the mechanic reading of aperture (and screw drive autofocus) has significantly lessened.

The following list is based on the assumption that all bodies which are compatible with AI-lenses, are also able to mechanically read a which aperture a lens is set to:

AI -compatible dSLR bodies:

  • Pro bodies: D1, D2, D3, D4, D5 (including variants)
  • Advanced bodies: D200, D300, D500, D700, D800, D810, D850, Df (including variants)
  • Mid range bodies: D7000, D7100, D7200, D600, D610, D750

Not AI-compatible bodies:

  • Advanced bodies: D100
  • Mid range bodies: D70, D80, D90, D7500
  • Upper entry bodies: D40x, D60, D5000-series
  • Entry level bodies: D50, D40, D3000-series

3) Software support.

By default, cameras will give an aperture error (EE) when an AF/AF-D, or AF-S (non-G) lens is mounted and its aperture is not set to its minimum value. To allow setting the aperture using the aperture ring, the user needs to modify their cameras settings:

Menu->Custom settings menu->Controls->Customize command dials->Aperture setting->Aperture ring.

Note, that even though you set your body to allow the aperture ring to control the aperture when possible, G-type lenses (those which lack an aperture ring) will remain controllable using the designated command wheel.

Surety is better than speculation …?

Instead of assuming that a camera which has the mechanical parts to allow aperture control through the lens aperture ring, I’d rather have it proven.

While I have not been able to find a conclusive list online, I know (out of personal experience) that the following bodies have both the requisite mechanics and software: D200, D300, D700, D800 and Df.

Further, based on reader feedback, the D500 has the same abilities. If you want to add your piece of information, drop me a line (comments).

Yes, but why use the aperture ring?

Assume your body and lens allow using the aperture ring, why would you want to do that?

Pro’s to using the aperture ring:

  • If you like old manual focus lenses and have a range of them, you’re already used to controlling the lens aperture using the aperture ring on the lens. When you also use newer non-G lenses, configuring your body to act similarly with these lenses makes total sense.
  • If you use manual focus (even on AF lenses), you’ll already have the left hand holding the lens, so why not set the aperture there as well.
  • You might just be the tactile type or old-school photographer, who thinks that the clicking aperture ring is more satisfying than an endlessly spinning command wheel.
  • If you are a videographer, using lenses with de-clicked aperture rings, this allows you very fine and smooth aperture control.

Con’s to using the aperture ring:

  • When using the aperture wheel and your lens has not been de-clicked, you are somewhat limited to the clicks (full-stop and sometimes half-stop) allowed for by the lens, whereas the command wheel allows 1/3 stop increments.
  • If you mostly use G-type lenses, using the aperture ring for non-G lenses probably makes no sense.
  • If you mostly use short primes and autofocus (in which case you have little reason to hold the lens in your left hand), you might be loathed to enable a feature that necessitates you change your way of holding your camera.

Last words:

In any case, if your camera and lens combination allows it, you might want to try it out. Maybe it’s not your cup of tea, but maybe it is…


About G / non-G lenses:

Common wisdom has it that G-type lenses are basically synonymous with AF-S lenses, but technically that is not true. Firstly, the first G-type lenses appeared before AF-S lenses did. Secondly, many early AF-S lenses (especially pro-level zooms) still had an aperture ring. Look for more in the article on the Nikon F-mount.


  1. Hello,

    I liked your article and it was very informative. You may have answered this question already but as I’m new to photography, some stuff isn’t clear for me so I was hoping you could help.

    Im looking at the Nikonf80 to purchase with the 50mm 1.8d AF Nikkor lens which has an aperture ring. I will mostly use the camera in program mode, but do I still have to manually set the aperture on the lens or will the camera still do it for me automatically?

    Many thanks


    1. Hi Callum,
      When in program (auto) mode you will always need to set the lens’ aperture ring to the smallest aperture (f/22) and let your body handle selecting the appropriate aperture value.
      Setting the aperture on the aperture ring only works in aperture priority and manual shooting modes.

      Kind regards,

  2. Greetings,

    I am the owner of a Nikon D4 and I recently purchased an old Nikkor 60mm 2.8 (non-D) Micro with an aperture ring. I have a preference for controlling the aperture via the lens instead of the camera body, perhaps for nostalgic reasons. The issue I’ve noticed is when specifically focusing within the macro range, if I have the camera set to control aperture using the command dial, and I’m at the closest focusing distance possible, the max aperture is f5. But if I switch the camera to use the aperture ring to control the aperture, while at the same closest focusing distance, and for example let’s say I set the aperture ring to f5.6, the D4 automatically limits the widest aperture to only f11. I don’t know if there is an additional setting that needs to be adjusted or if there’s an issue with the lens. Of course, I am aware that at the closest focusing distance, the aperture will be limited, but I can’t understand why that limit differs depending on if you’ve set to control the aperture via the body Vs the lens. If you have any insight or direction on this matter, I would greatly appreciate it, take care and be well. (I literally have a picture showing the top LCD screen showing F 11 and the aperture ring set to f 5.6, head scratcher )

    Clifford K.

    1. Hi Clifford,
      I know, my AF-D 60 mm macro does the same on my Nikons (Df and D800). It might feel outright odd, but there’s a perfectly logical reason for this.

      In macro photography, there’s this thing referred to as ‘effective aperture’, which has to do with that most macro lenses work by moving the objective (entirely or to a significant portion) away from the film/sensor. This narrows the field of view and ‘effectively’ changes the focal length. As the physical opening in the diaphragm however remains the same, this leads to that the aperture value (defined as focal length/diameter of physical opening) decreases. This relationship follows roughly the formula of:
      f-stop x (1 + Magnification) = Effective f-stop

      In other words, when you set your 1:1 macro to f/5.6 and focus down to MFD, your effective aperture becomes … wait … f/5.6 x (1+1) = f/11.

      Effective aperture is important, because it’s not just something theoretical – the aperture value (focal length/opening diameter) really does change. It hence effects not only the amount of light reaching your film/sensor (and you might have noticed that the metering values your body gives change when you focus closer), but also introduces the bogeyman of everyone hoping to take pin-sharp pictures: diffraction. Hence, it is rarely advisable to go beyond f/8 in 1:1 macro (because that effectively is f/16 and is already diffraction-limited).

      Now, you might now think: ‘Hold on, doesn’t this mean that whenever focus breathing occurs, so does the aperture value?’
      And you would be entirely correct. Any f/2 50 mm lens, when focused to MFD and now being effectively a 60 mm lens would also effectively be an f/2,4 lens, but convention has it that effective aperture calculation is disregarded at anything below 1:2 magnification.

      Obviously, this whole situation necessitates that the body has an understanding of how strong the magnification is (i.e. how close it is focused), otherwise it cannot calculate effective aperture. What I find interesting here is that even though your lens is not a D-lens, it seems that it is able to communicate focusing distance to the D4, (because the D4 adjusts your effective aperture accordingly). Because AF and AF-D lenses have always had the same electronic (5-pin) interface, I suspect that Nikon implemented distance communication on macro lenses in advance of official D-spec.

      Hope this helps,

      1. Wow, you are wealth of photographic knowledge and I greatly appreciate all the time it took you to compose your response. While I intellectually grasped the general concept of what you’ve detailed, I still find it odd that there is the discrepancy of this ‘actual or effective’ f/stop based simply on whether I adjust it via the aperture ring or the D4 command dial. One would think the F/stop value should be constantly reported for metering purposes no matter where I have chosen to adjust it. Either way it is what it is, I was just more wanting to confirm my lens was not malfunctioning and that I wasn’t going crazy. I suppose you’ve answered both of those questions. I want to thank you again and wish you an amazing 2023 🙂 If ever in the Los Angeles area, I owe you a coffee/tea and more camera & lens talk.
        Best, Clifford K.

  3. Hello! Thank you for the thorough explanation. Just to confirm, this setting works on a d500 as well 😀

  4. thank you for posting this… I’ve been using that awful the aperture control wheel since I got my D700 years ago. I have no idea I could disable it until I read your post.

  5. I can confirm it works on the D850.

    The only problem with controlling aperture with the ring is that it significantly reduces the desire to use a G lens. 😄

    Remotely related question, as most non-G lenses are AF, what kind of longevity can one expect from the camera’s AF motor? Anyone had it die, had to replace it?

    1. Hi Mirko, and thanks for your comment.
      There are indeed a lot of AF/AF-D lenses where focusing depends on the in-body focusing motor. I have had a bunch of Nikon bodies, and I have never yet encountered an in-body AF motor failure (the same can not be said about AF motors in lenses). I once chatted with a mechanic at the local Nikon repair specialist about what the most typical repairs are, and I distinctly remember that in body AF motors was not in the Top 10. All in all, I think the slot-drive AF system was very reliable and – mostly – speedy enough. This is one of the key reasons why I have a hard time being okay with Nikon not offering an adapter from Z to AF/AF-D lenses.

      Take care.

  6. Yes, I actually meant “they’re AF” as opposed to AF-S, AF-I or AF-P with in-lens motors. I find calling some of those “AF-D” just brings confusion as the “D” doesn’t denote a different AF “mechanism” as the other of those designations do. But to each his own 😄

    In any case, many thanks for your reply. That’s good to know, that in-body motors seem to be rather robust, I have indeed while browsing used lenses stumbled upon a number of AF-S ones with “autofocus not functional” in description.

    Well, it’s perfectly logical from a business perspective that an FTZ adapter for AF shouldn’t exist, the main purpose of mirrorless is to replace as much perfectly functional and capable equipment as possible by selling the story of some amazing revolution through a couple of useless gimmicks. Full compatibility with great 30 year old glass doesn’t fit there that well.
    Could also just be that I’m becoming a grumpy old man regarding that topic 😄

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