Pekka Buttler, 01/2024
The table below summarizes the lens’ key specifications (measurements based on pictured sample):
|Subfamily (if applicable)
|Filter ring diameter
|Lens element count
|Lens group count
|Aperture blades (S/R/C)5
|Minimum focusing distance
|Has manual aperture ring
|Has Manual focus ring
• This autofocus ultra-wide zoom was – at the time of its introduction in 1993 – the widest zoom in Nikon’s history. However, some have seen this as a rather copycat move on Nikon’s part as arch-rival Canon had introduced their identical specs (20-35 mm f/2.8 L) lens already in 1989.
• Importantly, compared to Nikon’s existing lineup of wide-angle zooms, this new zoom was not only wider (20 mm at the wide end, instead of 24 or 28), but also brighter (f/2.8 instead of f/3.3 or f/3.5) than other wide zooms. And this lens kept that f/2.8 brightness throughout the range.
• Moreover, after having (deservedly?) been criticised for the build quality of first-flight AF lenses, this lens’ materials and design signified a different approach. The lens’ construction is decidedly pro-level. Both zooming and focusing happens within the lens barrel, which means the lens retains its shape.
• This lens has a manual aperture ring. Also it is of the generation of Nikon AF lenses where autofocus was actually facilitated by a focusing motor in the camera body (not the lens). It further sports a ring with which the user can switch from autofocus (manual focusing not possible) to manual only.
• Nikon offered a dedicated, bayonet-mounted, petal shaped hood for the lens (the HB-8). While lens hoods on wide-angle lenses are often only limitedly usable, the construction of the lens is such that the front lens element recedes into the barrel as you zoom in, making the lens hood a lot more effective than it otherwise would be.
• This lens was superseded in Nikon’s pro-level wide-angle lineup in 1999 by the AF-S 17–35/2.8 D IF-ED, but this lens was not discontinued right away.
• This lens was discontinued in 2001. During those eight years, roughly 85 000 copies were manufactured.
This lens remained fundamentally unchanged throughout its 6-year manufacturing run. Also, this lens does not have a direct predecessor as this lens’ design is neither a direct evolution of another lens, nor did this lens replace another lens in Nikon’s lineup. Similarly, this lens also does not have a clear descendant.
In fact, one has to be rather surprised at Nikon’s policy regarding wide-angle zoom lenses up to the point of the introduction of this lens.
In the early history of wide-angle zooms (a wide-angle zoom defined as anything that is wider than 35 mm at the wider end) Nikon was a definite front-runner. When Nikon introduced the Nikkor K 28-45 mm f/4.5 zoom lens [data sheet] in 1975, it was the world’s widest angle zoom. If from today’s point of view seems hard to believe, one should know that wide-angle zooms really became practical only with advancements in computer ray-tracing technology. Hence, the mid 70s sees the launch of wide-angle zooms. Importantly, the 28-45/4.5 was not only a workable zoom – Nikon had clearly set their sights at the pro segment, as the build quality was a few notches above other zooms of the day.
Nikon further upped their game in 1979 with the introduction of the Nikkor Ai 25-50 mm f/4 lens [data sheet], which was not only wider, longer, and brighter, but also took the pro finish to an even higher level (as a personal opinion, the build quality of the 25-50/4 is the highest I have ever encountered on a wide-angle or standard zoom). That lens made the transition to Ai-s and remained in production all the way into 1985, to then be replaced by …
To make matters worse, not only did Nikon discontinue the 25-50/4 without having a pro-worthy replacement in the pipeline, for some time there was an actual drought. The Nikkor Ai-s 28-50 mm f/3.5 that Nikon had introduced only at the beginning of 1984 was also discontinued in 1985, likely to be replaced by the Nikkor Ai-s 28-85 mm f/3.5 (introduced december 1985). Interestingly, the Ai-s 28–85/3.5–4.5 lens is by no means a slouch. Au contraire, it was a respected, and well-liked lens that stayed in the lineup until 2005 (!), and outlived its AF versions.
But the 28-85/3.5–4.5 was only 28 mm wide, it did not have the build quality of a pro zoom, and it did not have a constant aperture. As a result, after the discontinuation of the 25-50/4, Nikon did not have a pro-level wide-angle zoom, and did not offer a zoom wider than 28 mm. This later lack was remedied in 1987 with the introduction of the Nikkor AF 24-50 mm f/3.3–4.5 – a lens that was technically the widest zoom Nikon had to date introduced, but a lens that pros (rightfully) took as an insult.
This all means that when Nikon introduced the Nikkor AF 20–35 mm f/2.8 in 1993, it was not just any lens. It was the widest zoom lens Nikon had manufactured to date. It was the brightest wide-angle zoom Nikon had ever done, and it finally offered Pros the build quality they had learned to expect from Nikon. The pros – those who had not already deserted Nikon – loved this lens so much that they even forgave the rather limited focus range and the 77 mm filter ring (up to this point only pro tele zooms had needed that big filters).
A brief genealogy of Nikon SLR lens types
Nikon is undoubtedly one of the great names in 35 mm SLR photography. The Nikon F mount has been in continuous production since 1959. During that time, the mount has developed/changed in some detail, however without ever fully sacrificing compatibility.
In short (a longer version is here), the development of Nikon’s SLR lenses can be traced as follows:
• 1959–1977: Pre-Ai. Manual focus lenses that use ‘rabbit ears’ to communicate selected aperture with the camera body.
• 1977–1986: Ai and Ai-s. Manual focus lenses that may have ‘rabbit ears’ for backward compatibility, but are designed to communicate selected aperture with the camera body through indentations in base of aperture control ring.
• 1986–today: AF and AF-D. Autofocus lenses that do not have a focusing motor within the lens, but rely on the focus motor within the camera. All AF and AF-D lenses are simultaneously Ai-s lenses (they are Ai-s lenses extended with AF) 6
• 1996–today AF-S and AF-P. Autofocus lenses that have an internal focusing motor and do not rely on the body having a focusing motor.
Besides adapting, this lens can be used natively on all current high-end Nikon dSLRs and several earlier medium-to-high-end older Nikon dSLRs. Moreover, if the camera body contains a slot-drive focusing motor, this lens will even auto-focus7. Likewise, if the lens has been retrofitted with ‘rabbit ears’, it can be natively used on all Nikon F-mount film cameras ever produced (without the rabbit ears, it is limited to post-1977 bodies).
Thanks to being a fully manual lens (manual aperture, manual focus), the lens can be adapted to all mirrorless cameras using a suitable dumb adapter (and such adapters are easy to find). Moreover, a large range of special adapters (helicoid adapters, tilt/shift adapters, speed boosters) for using Nikon F lenses on most mirrorless systems are available. Currently no adapters for mirrorless exist that would allow autofocus through the slot-drive screw.
Using Nikon F lenses on non-Nikon SLRs and dSLRs is likewise a distinct possibility. Thanks to the relatively generous flange focal distance of the Nikon F mount (46,5 mm), adapter rings for all dSLR mounts are available as well as for a goodly portion of film-era SLR mounts. Such rings will not allow autofocus, and are unlikely to support auto aperture, but even then the lenses can be used in stop-down metering mode.
1 Focal length is (unless stated otherwise) given in absolute terms, and not in Full-frame equivalent. For an understanding of whether the lens is wide/tele, see ‘Angle-of-view’.
2 Picture angle is given in degrees and concerns the diagonal picture angle. Rule of thumb:
> 90 ° ==> Ultra-wide-angle
70–90 ° ==> Wide-angle
50–70 ° ==> Moderate wide-angle
40–50 ° ==> ‘Standard’ or ‘normal’ lens
20–40 ° ==> Short tele lens
10-20 ° ==> Tele lens
5-10 ° ==> Long tele lens
< 5 ° ==> Ultra-tele lens
3 Length is given from the mount flange to the front of lens at infinity.
4 Diameter excludes protrusions such as rabbit ears or stop-down levers.
5 S=straight; R=rounded; C=(almost)circular at all apertures.
6 There is a further sub-class of AF-D lenses called AF-I lenses that are otherwise AF-D lenses (meaning, fully Ai-s compatible), but have an internal focus motor. Only long tele lenses were made in AF-I variants.
7 As of this writing, the following Nikon dSLRs fully support autofocus, aperture priority and manual metered modes on Nikkor AF/AF-D lenses: D2, D3, D4, D5, D6, Df, D200, D300, D300s, D500, D600, D610, D700, D750, D780, D800, D800E, D810, D850, D7000, D7100, D7200