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Nikon 20/2.8 AF lens

by Philip Greenspun, 1991-1995

Totem pole. Ketchikan, Alaska. There isn't a whole lot to say about a fixed 20 lens. It is sharp, contrasty, and a bit fragile. All of Nikon's "very wide" lenses have "close-range correction" (CRC). This is a "floating element" that moves relative to the other pieces of glass inside the lens as you focus. Most lenses just move a whole rack of optics in and out as you focus. They are optimized for subjects 3 meters away but perform adequately at infinity or close-up. I don't understand optics, but I know that this doesn't work for extreme wide angles. You lose a lot of optical quality close up if you don't change the configuration. This is very important because most of the interesting pictures that one can take with a 20 are "near-far" images, with a relatively close main subject and an interesting background far away.



Photojournalism has been getting wider and wider over the years. A 20 is a good lens for showing a group of people, one or two people close up, and the background.


Make sure to keep the lens level to the horizon and then crop out uninteresting foreground. This makes the lens a reasonable substitute for a perspective correction lens or view camera.

Saarinen's Gateway Arch. St. Louis, Missouri.


I broke my 20, I'm not even sure how. S.K. Grimes in Boston fixed it for $60 and said that it was a very common failure. Some little plastic piece. The image at right was taken in Berlin with the broken lens. The depth of field looked very strange in the viewfinder and in fact you can see that there is an awful lot of soft focus for a 20.

The price

I paid about $400 for mine back in 1991 or something. I'm sure it has gone up since then. Off-brand lenses are much much cheaper than manufacturer wide angles. That's because they don't have a floating element (see above) and hence are incapable of quality results when focussed close.

An alternative

George. Boston Garden. I've become very fond of my Canon EOS 20-35/2.8 zoom. Not because of the optical quality, which is obviously less than the Nikon fixed 20/2.8, but because of the flexibility. Nikon's 20-35/2.8 zoom is allegedly marvelous. That's what I would buy today instead of a fixed 20. However, don't be tempted to substitute an off-brand 20-35 zoom for the Nikon 20. You won't get comparable results.

Text and pictures copyright 1991-1995 Philip Greenspun

Article created 1991-1995

Readers' Comments

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Tyler Vance , February 12, 1998; 03:33 A.M.

Try using the 20-35 for close work in crowds, or to show perspective near to far--the lens will not focus up close...

Tyler Vance , February 12, 1998; 03:34 A.M.

Try using the 20-35 for close work in crowds, or to show perspective near to far--the lens will not focus up close...the fixed focus 20 will go 10 inches.

Miles S. , February 25, 1999; 04:24 P.M.

In regards to wideangle lens Prime vs Zoom ( ie 20 - 35 mm) the primes will focus closer than the zooms. If you wish to photograph objects at close range so as to give that unique perspective of a super wide this is important. Further I have not seen -- but it probaly does exist -- a zoom super wide with depth of field markings. Again possibly important as less and less new camera come with DOF preview.

Tharler Tai Wai Fu -- , March 15, 1999; 11:22 A.M.

My friend got a AF Nikkor 20mm f2.8D recently. We discovered that there was a little bit soft in the corners at f2.8 and gone by f5.6 Can it be improved? Does it occur in the zoom Nikkor 20-35 f2.8D ?

Kwan Cheung , April 16, 1999; 09:49 P.M.

I bought an AF20/2.8 around 8 years ago and hardly used it until recently. The lens has good sharpness and color. But when I used the lens to take architectural subjects in Hong Kong where many very high rises are around, I found curvature are noticable at the corners. I held the lens horizontal at every instant. Are there any users found the same problem with their 20/2.8 Nikkor?

wayne chiu , April 17, 1999; 03:51 A.M.

here is for above last-two quetion, Every wide angle seem to be soft at the edge when using full aperture. Any MTF curve shows image from middle(0mm) to the edge(about 16mm-18mm) is smooth but after that, it drops quickly down whether you use F2.8 or F8. this is the characteristics for very wide angle lens of SLR. But the contax G 21mm/2.8 and leica m-21/2.8 wouldn't have that situration, and their MTF curve line are very smooth to the edge end.

wayne chiu , April 17, 1999; 03:58 A.M.

IF YOU WON'T have architectures to be distorted around the picture, buy a canon TS-E 24mm would help you much.

Perry To , May 08, 1999; 06:02 A.M.

I've used the AF 20/2.8 for taking architectural photographs extensively, and found out that it's barrel distortion, though quite light, is visible expecially when I tried to get the lines perpendicular to the film plane. Don't know if stopping down could minimize such effect.

chu jo jo , July 03, 1999; 01:59 P.M.

I use the nikon 20/2.8 for travelling use, undeliable, it is useful for both landscape and news report. However, i still find the lens is sofer than i expected. still sharper than canon very much. When compare with my 50/1.8, the 20/2.8 is sofer. I want to trade in the 20mm with a 20-35. Any one know which lens is sharper??? is the 20-35 far more better than the 20mm thanks

Timothy Breihan , September 10, 1999; 10:36 A.M.

In response to the above comment, I would argue that the Micro-Nikkor 105/2.8 is probably the sharpest lens that Nikon makes (perhaps the sharpest in the world, for that matter). However, I don't own one. What I do own are a Nikkor 28/2.8 AI-S (CRC), a 50/1.4 AI-S, and an old Nikkor-P Auto 180/2.8 (this is the first generation of this lens, made in the late-70s/early-80s. On film, these lenses are equally sharp, and they are damn sharp!

ken ROCKWELL , October 06, 1999; 05:48 P.M.

The 20/2.8 AF is, like most every one of Nikon's wide angles, soft in the corners wide open. It gets better with smaller apertures.

ken ROCKWELL , October 06, 1999; 05:49 P.M.

The 20/2.8 AF is, like most every one of Nikon's wide angles, soft in the corners wide open. It gets better with smaller apertures. It's barrel distortion is also typical of Nikon's wide and fast normal lenses. It does not change with aperture.

Ivan Verschoote , February 08, 2000; 02:39 A.M.

I've traded my 24-50/3.5-4.5 to have a 20/2.8D. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. The 20/2.8 is very, very sharp in the centre and still OK at the borders wide open. Stopping down this lens to f8 or f11 enhances the corners. Colour contrast is very good. The lens is very compact. The lens is heavy compared to its lenght. However, using a 20mm requires a little bit of experience. After a while its dramatic views (big difference with a 24mm) are a bonus to everyday photography. The price is high but it's a long time investment. I should never consider a zoom like the 20-35/2.8 or 17-35/2.8. Too big and too expensive.

Lan Tu , March 17, 2000; 03:16 A.M.

My theory about why wide-angle lenses have been getting more and more popular in the last two or three decades is that (1) 99.9% of the cameras out there only show about 90% of the image that will be on the film -- even worse, the 90% that they do show is not even centered, and (2) 96% of the film being used is color-print film, virtually all of which is being processed by cheapo mass-marketers who don't even bother to show all of the 90% that people are able to see in their viewfinders. Therefore, today's photographers have to use, for example, a 24mm lens just to see what they would see if they were to use a 28mm lens on a camera with a viewfinder with 100% accuracy.

Steve Maslin , April 23, 2000; 08:11 A.M.

Blue Water Cafe, (South Australia)

I love Nikon's 20mm 2.8, if I placed it on an altar I would worship it every morning when I wake. The amount of landscape you can pull through this lens is very nice. I was going to buy the 24mm, but I asked the store assistant to give me a look through both. The 24mm hasn't got the power in my opinon. 83.9744260 horiziontal and 61.9275140 vertical with the sharpness makes me go "WOW" when I look at some of my slides. I normaly use it at f/22 or /16 mounted on a Gitzo tripod and cable release. I actually came to this site before I bought the lens looking into reviews about it, and running around outside with the angles drawn on paper so I could see what I could fit in a frame. Thanks Philip for helping me decide.

Sanford Edelstein , December 31, 2000; 11:13 A.M.

I think that those of you concerned about the AF 20mm being fragile should try to find a used (or still available new) manual focus version of this lens. AF is not really needed in such a wide angle lens and the Manual focus version is much better built.

Rasiel Suarez , August 26, 2001; 01:22 P.M.

not sure if this is too early to tell but does anyone know how this lens compares to the new sigma 20 f/1.8?

Ellis Vener , September 30, 2001; 07:09 P.M.

The 20mm f/2.8D AF-Nikkor is a terrific lens. It is an outstanding performer, and very well corrected in terms of distortion and color. I have no idea why Philip thinks it is fragile, as I work the hell out of mine and have had no problems and he didn't provide any details of what was damaged. I use this lens to photograph people, buildings and landscapes. Wide angle lenses designed for SLR cameras seem to be inherently less crisp than normal or telephoto lenses which are much simpler to design. I still think the Nikon is going to be a better buy than the Sigma lens because Nikon lenses tend to be (in my experience) a bit more mechanically rugged and durable than brands like Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, etc.

Axel Kuhlmann , April 08, 2002; 01:37 P.M.

Do you know if the Nikon 18-35 is as good as the 20mm 2,8? I want to get one of these two lenses but don't know which one.

Axel Kuhlmann , April 11, 2002; 01:45 P.M.


Does anybody know the Nikon 20/f3,5 AIS? Thanks

Chien Shih , November 10, 2002; 06:53 P.M.

NIkon 20mm has many different versions, I have tried three of them. 20mm F3.5 Non-AI with 72mm filter mount: very sharp lens, great handling with fair amount of light fall off when wide open. 20mm F4 AI- This is one of the best 20mm lens around, I can not belive the resolution power of this lens especially enlarge to 11 x14 or larger prints. Great contrast and good linear distortion characteristics. 20mm F2.8 AF - Sharp and good in color rendition but bulky, I like 20mm F4 better.

A T , November 11, 2002; 02:00 P.M.

The 50mm f1.8 is one of the sharpest lens that Nikon makes. It is not a good idea to try and find sharper than this. Perhaps the 180mm f2.8 AF IF ED lens is sharper but I have a hard time telling if it is. I have heard that the Nikon 20-35mm is not that great a lens in terms of sharpness or contrast. That it is designed for the professional photojournalist who does not have the flexibility to use several wide angle lenses and must sacrifice image quality for image composition and convenience. Here is a link to a Nikon 20-35mm f2.8 eval: http://photo.net/photo/nikon/20-35-2.8.html

Steve Spiker , March 26, 2004; 02:57 A.M.

You can get two lenses in one if you get the Sigma 20/1.8 (if you are unlucky)- my friend bought one and it broke in two one morning after 6 months light use, whereas my nikon 20 has been around the world twice and still takes fantastic images, great little lens, the advantage of the close up range is really lots of fun in many situations too!

Image Attachment: 139-34 wall patterns.png

William Kazak , February 09, 2007; 05:11 P.M.

I use the 20mm F2.8AF next to my 35mm F2AF for weddings and especially wedding receptions where it can get dark. These lenses work on film or digital Nikon bodies. The 35mm F2 seems to be the cut off point where quality goes down hill for anything wider. If you need a wide, you need a wide and that is the only reason I have the 20mm F2.8AF. I use the 35mm F2 whenever possible and it compares nicely to my 50mm F1.4AF. All of the above focus very well on my F6, F100 and D70s bodies. The 20mm has more flare and the shade should always be used. The 20mm lens is nice and compact but the shade makes it wider and a bit difficult to carry in a Tamrac pouch.

J Javann , February 10, 2007; 02:50 P.M.

Has anyone else used this lens on a D70 or D200 with good results?

Ivan Verschoote , October 27, 2007; 04:53 P.M.

My 20/2.8 AFD was an excellent lens during the analog era, but with my D70 and D200 I got disappointed results. Corners were soft at best (even at f8) and CA was terrible. I've sold the lens and I use my 17-55/2.8 with much better results.

Ted Smith , November 17, 2007; 03:08 P.M.

I have just bought this lens for use with my Nikon D70s and Nikon F80. I am yet to try it but hope it is good - the above comment has worried me a bit! Everything I read before buying it generally recommended it as a really good lens.

Larry Miller , September 26, 2008; 04:00 P.M.

My personal preference is the manual focus version of this lens. It's a great lens and it always has been. If utilized correctly it will literally grab you viewer by the collar and bring them into the picture. What an ultra wide lens, in my opinion, is supposed to do. The AIS version is a first class lens and I am really picky about lenses!

Luis Saavedra , August 08, 2009; 05:05 A.M.

I have had this lens for about 7 years and it has allowed me to capture some very good pictures. However I've had to send it in twice to get the aperture to close down from its maximum setting. I don't know if this has anything to do with the "fragile" nature that people speak of about this lens or not. Now that it's out of warranty recently I noticed again that the aperture is giving me trouble again and won't close down any more. I take care of my gear very well and don't subject it to shock or mechanical vibration. I'm perplexed as to why this problem keeps coming back and why Nikon hasn't been able to address it after having looked at it twice. Does anybody know what is wrong with this lens ?. thanks, --Luis

adamgilly adamgilly , March 04, 2010; 05:46 A.M.

In other words, there is a whole lot going on inside this lens to assure top quality at all distances, and the sound of stuff rattling is all the separate free groups of elements rattling. Cams have more play than helicoids, and allow more freedom to design the mcitp training lens for optimal performance at all distances. I'm very impressed at the advanced lens design Nikon did and didn't even brag about. The filter ring on mine has visible play, but less then 1mm. This is typical for AF lenses.

Lee vGG , June 23, 2010; 02:33 P.M.

I just picked up a used (Excellent Condition) 20 f/2.8 from Adorama and am considering returning it.  I'm concerned it isn't as sharp as it should be. 

Can someone take a look at the photos posted on my Flickr site and provide an opinion? 


I've compared the 20 to the 17-55 at 20 and included each shot full resolution and a print-screen of the comparison in LR3 Beta 2.  They were all taken hand-held, available light, overcast skies, with no processing in LR3 Beta 2.  All shot at ISO 400, same speeds at various apertures with a D300s.  B&W MRC UV filter on the 17-55, nothing on the 20.  All auto focused.  First set (A) is focusing on the bottom left corner of the back windshield.  Second set (B) is focusing on the edge of the red seat.

I noticed that the 20 seems to have out-performed the 17-55 for the close-up shot of the bike in the corners at f/9 (see f9 B Corner 1 and 2).  Strange, because it absolutely failed when focusing on the car at all apertures.

Do I possibly need to calibrate it to the body??


Edit:  I've posted there here as well.

Mike Anders , December 08, 2010; 12:13 P.M.

Designing lens has never been easy to be frank. Mind you, sometimes, something that appears complex to deal with can be simplified. Typically, optimal results in all weathers require extra effort in understanding what exactly to put in. The mcitp training lens already mentioned is an impressive design. What are the exact tools involved anyhow? Would a 1.5mm affect the distance related aspects in a Nikon 20/2.8 AF camera?


Ramanand Mandayam , January 10, 2012; 06:33 P.M.

I know this is an old topic but I wanted to share my own experiences.

I bought this lens back in 1993 for about $600. This is one of the sharpest lenses I have had the chance to own and I still use it. My only gripe is that the aperture diaphragm has jammed 3 times due to some oily film (I have never seen this in other Nikon lenses, and Nikon reluctantly let it slip that others too have had a similar experience). In the last 17 years I have spent $500+ (3 times at about $170 a pop) to have this lens serviced. One more time and I will probably get rid of it for something more cost effective.

Rohini Ranjan , March 22, 2015; 09:25 A.M.

Lee's photos on flickr to my eyes appeared that the 17-55 is not only sharper, but had more contrast-capturing capability, and the latter enhances the appearance of sharpness to the eye. So it has that added bonus! Sharpness + Contrast

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