UPDATE 09⁄14: I have been using the Nikon 24mm f/1.4G now for over three years and have a lot more insight and examples to put along with this review. Instead of re-writing it from the ground up, I will annotate changes or updates in red. I will also say that it took a backseat to the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 in my camera bag for a while, but A. it still was my lens of choice for shooting open dancing at wedding receptions and B. I’m bored of the 35mm and will be using the 24 again much more in the future.
What strikes me most about my path to learning the art and craft of photography is how hard it was to find a straight-forward reference to lens selection. I remember being absolutely confused as to what lenses were good for what, and while I knew that 14mm was wide and 400mm was telephoto… I could not find any online source that just explained what each meant in real-world terms. I’m sure now there are more “layman’s terms” sources, but regardless, when I finally figured out what was what, I was already writing down my first “dream lens.” That lens was the Nikon AF-D Nikkor 28mm f/1.4. From my earliest days of taking photography seriously, I knew I was a wide-angle junkie, and since I started off in live music, I knew I liked my glass fast. Of course that’s a recipe for (financial) disaster. But as we set out on our journey as self-supporting artists, we build our lens collection based on need… based on practicality. While there are minor deviations here and there, for the most part, that’s the way it goes.
I was fortunate enough to have a coworker who was well-learned in photography and he helped me get off on the right foot with a 50mm f/1.8. Believe me when I say this… I shot every single day for a whole year with a D80 and a 50mm prime. Seriously. Never, and I mean that very literally, did it come off my camera. Then came the 85mm f/1.8, which by the way, is serious bang-for-the-buck if you were wondering. Of course I only had the joy of 127.5mm equivalency for less than a week before I got a full-frame camera. Remember how I told you I was a wide-angle junkie? Well, why on earth would you be both a Nikon shooter, and a lover of all things wide… and not have the legendary Nikon AF-S Nikkor 14–24mm f/2.8G? And so it was. For the next fourteen months, I built 95% of my portfolio with 14–24 and 85. If you’ve read ANY of my previous posts, you know how I feel about 50mm. Boring. Of course, then the serious wedding action comes in and you’ve got to invite a few more guests to the party. 105mm macro was up on deck first, quickly followed by the essential wedding lens… the 70–200. So I’m happy, right? I mean, I would have been if Nikon didn’t announce the sure-to-be-a-legend AF-S version of their classic cream machine, the 85mm f/1.4. So I got that. And of course then one day I said to my self “If I’m going to have a 50mm lens, I might as well have a cool one,” so I got a manual focus 50mm f/1.2.
That brings us to today.
I was a sad man when I heard Nikon discontinued the 28mm f/1.4. I was even sadder when Nikon announced their first AF-S wide-angle prime… at the same time I was buying the 85mm f/1.4. Damn them. Why would they forsake me? I am a mere mortal. I cannot afford this lifestyle any longer. Let’s just say, my girlfriend is very happy that she will no longer have to hear me whine and complain that I don’t have a 24mm f/1.4. Now my wife, she just has to hear me whine and complain about all the other lenses that I don’t have. So what’s all this fuss about? Dream lens? Legendary? Those are mighty big shoes to fill…
And fill them it does.
Let’s start at the very beginning. What are we dealing with? This is a prime (non-zooming) lens with a wide-angle and extremely fast f/1.4 aperture. Why f/1.4? Extreme low-light performance… with the added bonus of better subject isolation by being able to blur the backgrounds, which is increasingly more difficult the wider a lens gets. It’s also got Nikon’s voodoo-magic Nano Crystal Coat (that’s what the big N means)… basically it makes pictures perceptively sharper, richer, and reduces chromatic aberration a lot. It’s got a 9-bladed iris which makes bokeh (out of focus goodness) very beautiful and round. I’ll skip all the lame other technical mumbo jumbo… except I will say that it focuses pretty close as an added bonus. It’s not macro, but it lets you get some neat compositions!
Handling? Really, it’s got good weight, balances really well on any mid to large-size camera. Oh, and for you DX users (D300, and below), this lens would work just a swell on your camera, albeit, it will give you a 36mm field of view (and a depth of field equivalent of about f/2.1). Construction-wise, it feels exactly like the 85mm f/1.4G in build. It’s got a slightly different profile and front lens element, but that’s about it. It’s also not quite as heavy or long. Nikon has gone to these reinforced plastic casings. Some people don’t like the idea of a $2,000+ piece of glass being put in a plastic housing, but mind you, this is a very high-end composite… not your Tupperware plastic. The internal structure and mounts are most certainly metal… with many of them even being magnesium alloy. And I would hope so. There are TWELVE precision glass elements inside… two of them are ED (reduces lens flare) treated. And yes, that’s more lens elements than any other prime Nikon makes… and more than a lot of their zooms, even. Anyway, like I said, it’s extremely solid, handles amazingly on my D700 and D800 and D810, with and without a grip, and even of the focus ring just feels good. The front is 77mm, which is standard for pro-level lenses sans the 58mm f/1.4G, and since it doesn’t extend when zooming, you can use polarizing filters and the like but you should be very careful using polarizing filters on wide angle lenses if you’re trying to darken skies because they can look very uneven.
A few things to keep in mind about why having a fast wide angle is such a powerful tool for your camera bag… You can hand hold down into the 1/25th or even 1/15th or 1/8th if you’re in the zone area without VR. Not only that, but a 24mm lens gathers twice as much light automatically over a 50mm lens. Not to mention that it inherently has more depth of field, meaning it’s way more practical for portraits (think wedding receptions). While it is pretty much the only lens I use during wedding receptions, I’m not sure what my logic was for that last sentence. I cannot think of a better collection of attributes for a low-light-loving photojournalist.
Focus? Accuracy is the name of the game. Speed comes second. You won’t complain when you realize it locks on target near all of the time. I’ll say this… Canon users cannot say that. It’s true, but I will say there are challenging focus situations and I still consciously focus on areas of contrast or texture to enhance my focus reliability. My 85mm is the exact same way. I literally never miss focus. It focuses about the same as the 50mm AF-S lenses I’ve used… maybe a hair slower than the 85mm f/1.4G… a little slower still than the 14–24… and well, not even in the same ballpark as the 70–200 VRII. That sucker is a speed demon. But I’m pleased. In daylight I can capture a child running around fairly crazily. Now, there is one other thing regarding focus I must add. It’s the nature of the type of lens, but the 24mm f/1.4 is notorious for requiring AF fine tuning. Now with 24 and 36mp cameras the norm, all lenses will benefit from fine tuning. What does this mean? Two things. 1. This is a extremely high-end-bordering-on-exotic lens, and as such, wasn’t designed with consumer cameras in mind. I believe you can get away with a D7100 now, but not even a D90 has AF fine tune capability. With that out of the way, 2. You need to match its focus “personality” to your camera. This means testing your camera and finding what compensation provides the sharpest image. I recommend using a focus calibration tool like the (overpriced but good) Datacolor SpyderLENSCAL. My D700 requires a -13 and -17 on the D800 and +4 on the D810. I read other reviews saying they needed +5… -5… and a few were good at 0. It doesn’t mean your lens is bad. It means these are extremely high-precision instruments, and when you factor in 12 glass elements, a lens mount, mirrors, and a sensor plane… things can have a margin of error. Thankfully that margin of error is static, and can be corrected. You set your AF fine tune number once, and you’re done. It automatically recognizes your lens.
Sharpness. Sharp as the devil himself. We’re talking, a new standard in sharpness for nearly any lens. We’re talking 400mm f/2.8 sharpness. No we’re not, but it is truly outrageously sharp at f/1.4. We’re talking there’s no other f/1.4 in the world that’s sharper… and I’m including Zeiss. Amazing what a few years will do. While still top of the class, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 and Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 are both marginally sharper. And not just sharp in the center. Sharp corner to corner. Don’t get me wrong, the corners are most certainly softer than the center, but it’s not soft by any means. But what happens when you stop down to even f/2.8? Please. Let’s just say that the *only* reason you’d ever need to leave f/1.4 is if you just plain need the depth of field. Yes, I just said that. It’s that good. I exaggerated. The corners do sharpen up quite a bit as you stop down to f/4. I’d also like to take this opportunity to mention that sharpness is not the only important factor in image quality. In fact, it’s substantially overrated.
Vignetting? Sure. It’s got a fair amount (but not as much as Sigma’s 35mm f/1.4 Art). But seriously, in the world of digital is that even a big deal? It’s easy to compensate for, and unless you’re in the upper half of your ISO range, you wont’ even take an exposure (noise) penalty. I will also let you know that Lightroom 3.5 (in beta as of this writing) has finally added the correction profile for it. It also corrects the slight barrel distortion. The distortion of this lens is quite minor, and is only really visible when shooting straight lines up close. Again, it’s fixed instantly in Lightroom now. If you don’t have Lightroom, 1. you’re a crazy psycho, and 2. you can do it in Photoshop, too. Yep, if you’re not using Lightroom as the primary tool for organizing your library, I still think you’re a crazy psycho.
Bokeh? Actually pretty great. “Gasp! But it’s a wide angle!” Yep. It is. The bokeh has a different character than, say, the bokeh from the 85mm f/1.4. It’s not as smooth, but as Todd Owyoung noted in his observations, it’s a good “harsh”. It gives a bit more of a 3D quality to the image. Images are sharp, and just even look sharper because of it.
Ghosting? Flare? Contrast? The voodoo-magic Nano coating and ED glass are seriously good at keeping them at bay. Here’s a shot straight into the sun. You tell me. I didn’t even touch the contrast slider on this pic.
I won’t bore you with test charts. Besides, I don’t have the time to do them, and they’ve been done elsewhere. I already told you it’s hella sharp. What do you need a chart for? Real-world is all that matters. Here are a few more pics to help you forget that I said “hella”.
While I’ve only had it one day, it is built *exactly* like my 85mm f/1.4, and they are as tough as tanks. Even the lens hood it comes with is fantastic. I can’t think of anything else I’d really need from it. It has one switch for A/M or M focus modes. It doesn’t need VR in the slightest. I guess I’m upset it didn’t come with a puppy? It handles super well, and actually works well on both DX and FX cameras. I’ll give it a point off for needing a camera with AF fine tune, and another point for the learning curve required to nail focus or use in low light. It’s sexy high-end Nikkor glass. It’s got the gold lettering, the gold band, etc. But really, I don’t think they look better than the AI-s lenses… and it’s not nearly as impressive and imposing as the 14–24. Because these things matter when you’re picking up chicks.
It’s a very wide-angle lens with impressive and substantial bokeh that also allows unparalleled low-light performance. The images it produces are striking, unique, and have a very three-dimensional feeling. I would say a lens like this defines Wow! Factor. That is if we’re talking about the images. The lens itself, all photos aside, will only give photo geeks that tingly feeling. So it really comes down to what Wow! we are talking about. I make the rules. I’m saying the images. After all, that’s what the lens is for. The 24mm f/1.4 is the most expensive non-telephoto lens Nikon currently makes (still true). But it is also one of their highest quality lenses, period. Sigma makes a 24mm f/1.8 lens for *way* less. As with most everything in the camera world, you get what you pay for… but how much do you need? If you aren’t doing a lot of low light work, you can save yourself a bundle by getting the 24mm f/2.8 prime. It’s an older, manual focus Nikkor, and they can be had for like $350. If you’re just doing this as a hobby, you’ll probably like the Sigma alternative just fine. But if you’re a wedding photographer, concert photographer, or photojournalist who is making money with your work… there is absolutely nothing better, and it shows in every image you make. It’s a great value… but not for everyone. Nikon has since released both 20mm and 28mm f/1.8 lenses which are substantially less expensive with very good performance. Because you could buy both of those lenses and still have over $500 left to spare, I have to dock the value of this lens a bit. The 24mm is still a special lens, but for most people it’s not the financially “correct” choice.
More sample images: