by Becky Danese
Perhaps an unusual topic, but certainly one worth keeping on record, is the many versions of the 50mm f/1.8 AIS, a manual focus AIS lens produced between 1981-2005 in one or the other of its forms.
I thought it might be useful for those interested to understand, in simple terms, the key differences between each one, and what to look out for when buying. After all, even Nikon sellers can make this mistake considering the small differences between each.
There are FIVE versions of the AIS lens, plus an AI version produced between 1978-1982. (See our YouTube video on how to tell the difference between AI and AIS.)
Starting from the beginning of the AIS lenses:
50mm f/1.8 AIS – serial numbers start 3xxx
This was not a compact or ‘pancake’ lens – produced between 1981-1985, there were just under 170,000 units produced before production petered out. Ironically its production overlapped with the later versions for some years before it was discontinued.
50mm f/1.8 AIS first compact version – serial numbers 2xxx
This version was made specifically for the Japanese market, but over the decades has migrated all over the world. Serial numbers begin with the digit ‘2’ and it is often sought after for its close focusing distance – 45cm – as well as it’s light weight and pancake-like design. It is sometimes called the compact ‘A’ version, and was produced between 1980-1982.
50mm f/1.8 AIS ‘New’ compact version – serial numbers starting 4xxx
This was the mass market compact version, usually called the ‘New’ compact version that took over from the original long-nosed AIS. It features a plastic focusing ring rather than the earlier rubber style, and only focuses 60cm away. For this reason it is usually slightly less desirable, but as it was manufactured for 20 years it is far easier to come by. Nikon produced this lens between 1985-2005.
Series E (economoy) versions
Series E lenses were produced to be lightweight, cost-effective lenses, originally for pairing with the Nikon EM, FG and FG-20 bodies. There were two versions of the 50mm f/1.8 AIS, both of which will clearly state ‘Series E’ around the front element, so easy enough not to confuse with the regular versions.
The first of these is rather distinctive looking:
First version 50mm f/1.8 AIS Series E
Second version 50mm f/1.8 AIS Series E
There’s a lot of taboo surrounding the Series E lenses. Some say they were produced by other manufacturers, some question whether or not their optics are up to Nikon’s usual standards. It is certain that they were designed by Nikon themselves, whether or not the manufacture was outsourced to other factories, and the idea behind them was admirable. For the most part, these will produce perfectly acceptable results on any film body, but if you’re looking for something to hold its value for years to come you might want to look at one of the non-Series-E lenses as an investment.
There are distinctive design differences between the two versions, the first being a more plastic design while the second looking much closer to a regular 50mm f/1.8 AIS. Both will clearly state ‘Series E’ on them though, so there is no risk of mistaking it when you see one.
For more resources, you can also visit the invaluable Photosynthesis website, which provides details of all the different versions of Nikkor lenses and is run independently of any official Nikon database.