Lens Review: Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED

January 18, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Pacific SunsetPacific SunsetA sunset on the beach somewhere along the Oregon coast in December of 2013

The Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G is a relative newcomer to the Nikon lineup but already has legions of followers, particularly (or so it seems) in the high-end wedding photographer realm, where a fast wide angle prime is useful for low light work and subject isolation as well as environmental portraits and group shots. I like fast primes for their optical quality and flexibility (in terms of large aperture, though obviously not in terms of zooming ability), and I was looking for a wide angle lens to compliment (or possibly replace) my Samyang 14mm f/2.8 for my D800E and the little Sony RX1R’s superb 35mm Zeiss f/2.0.

After reading a ton of reviews and pouring over hundreds of shots taken with the lens online, I decided to give it a shot. At $2,000 US typical (non-sale) price this is not a cheap lens, and I had very high expectations. Basically it needed to prove its value vs similarly priced Nikon-compatible wide angle lenses such as the monster Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 (a proven classic ultra-wide), the newer Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR, and the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 or Zeiss 25mm f/2. I was hoping for a lens that could serve me in a variety of roles, including landscape, lowlight, cityscape, portrait, and possibly wedding shots.

Long story short: I elected to return the lens. It has its charms but also has its problems (though I admit I might have gotten a bad copy, but Lloyd Chambers, in the course of his highly detailed review of this lens, also ran into the same issues, so the issues are not solely limited to my copy).

Star Filled NightStar Filled NightMy first attempt at photographing the night sky - out on the beach somewhere in Oregon, far from big city lights. It was a beautiful - if chilly - night.

Pros:

  • Usably sharp at f/1.4
  • Very sharp from f/2 onwards, and sharp across the entire frame (even corners) by f/4
  • Good subject isolation possible with the large aperture, opening up creative options
  • Easily accommodates filters
  • Solid build quality (not Zeiss ZF.2 level, but on par with the latest pro Nikon lenses)
  • Good resistance to flare even shooting straight into the sun (with caveats)
  • Very good macro- and micro-contrast
  • Relatively low distortion for a wide angle lens
  • Good control of vignetting
  • Nice, smooth bokeh (out of focus elements)

Cons:

  • Autofocus completely missed focus approximately 10% of the time for me (~50 out of ~500 shots)
  • Veiling haze shooting into the sun
  • Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration or “LoCA” (purple and green fringing) present on high contrast out-of-focus edges from f/1.4 to about f/4
  • AF adjustment for f/1.4 might not be perfect at f/2 or f/2.8
  • Expensive

Looking at the list of Pros and Cons above, it’s easy for me to see why so many reviewers online praise this lens so highly. And it really does have good qualities. At max aperture (f/1.4) the lens isn’t bitingly sharp even in the very center (there is some haze and loss of contrast, in particular) but it’s usable and therefore useful for hand-held low-light shots. That said, I think f/2 is a much stronger aperture for this lens and the main “subject isolation” aperture at which I’d use it – the haze disappears and the contrast and sharpness both bump up a lot. For landscape shots, of course, or any time you need corner-to-corner sharpness, you’ll need to go to f/4 or f/5.6 at least. On the opposite end I was able to get sharp and very usable results at f/11 on the D800E without significant detail lost due to diffraction.

You will encounter LoCA at larger apertures – purple and green fringes along the out of focus boundaries, a problem particularly endemic to fast primes. In fact, you really need a true “APO” (apochromatic) lens, where all three main colors of light hit the focus point at the same place regardless of subject distance, to avoid LoCA. Lightroom 5 and Capture One 7, among other software, have the means to reduce or eliminate LoCA, but this can come at the cost of some detail (and occasionally doesn’t work at all – the software eliminates the purple or green but either pulls too much “legitimate” color from flowers or foliage surrounding those areas or leaves a halo along the edges).

Vignetting and distortion are well controlled. The vignetting wide open and at larger apertures, to me, was pleasant, and correctable in post if you don’t like it. I found the lens to be pretty resistant to flare even when shooting straight into the sun (better than my old 14-24mm that I used to own, and much better than the Carl Zeiss 16-35mm f/2.8 on Sony mount that I also used to own – of course, both of those are zooms and therefore more flare prone by their nature, and the 14-24mm has the huge, rounded, exposed front element that gathers in flare). The caveat here is that I encountered a fair amount of veiling haze when shooting into or toward bright light sources like the sun or a brilliant sky – basically a significant, visible loss of contrast and detail throughout the frame but especially surrounding the light source. You can recover that contrast and detail somewhat in post (contrast and clarity sliders in Lightroom or Capture One Pro 7, for example), but only so much.

There are two main reasons why I returned the lens. Both have to do with my expectations regarding a $2,000 lens. The first and most significant reason is the autofocus issues, about which I’ll go into more detail below. The second is that I constantly found myself wanting a wider or narrower perspective when using the lens for a given scene; 24mm was rarely “perfect” when I was standing on a cliff edge along Hwy 101 or trying to get the Milky Way in the frame when shooting the night sky, where zooming with my feet wasn’t an option. To that end, a 24mm prime just doesn’t seem to be one of “my” focal lengths (it may be perfect for you), and after a while I just had to accept that. For $2,000 I need a lens in “my” focal length or a very good zoom that has my focal lengths.

Oregon Coast Light RaysOregon Coast Light RaysBrilliant sunshine on a cool winter day (one that was, rarely, cloud-free) along the coast of Oregon

Now, the autofocus problems. In his (pay-to-subscribe) review, Lloyd Chambers went into great detail – and provided lots of examples – of his copy (or copies) of the lens significantly and repeatedly missing focus. As in, he’d put the focus point on a clearly visible, high contrast subject in the center of the frame and have the lens lock and confirm focus, then fire a shot, and the focus would be several yards off – making the photo a total bust. I read that review, worried about the issue, but then didn’t find too many others online making a big deal out of it (most reviewers seemed much more enamored with the lens than not). I thought maybe Chambers just had a bad copy or two.

Well, it happened to me. Of the 500 shots I took while using this lens on the D800E, about 50 ended up unusable because the focus was completely missed. And that doesn’t count the many times I noticed the focus was off in the viewfinder and re-focused until the lens/camera finally nailed it. Important note here: I’ve never had this issue with any other AF lens on my D800E, and I’ve used a lot of them on both D800E bodies I’ve owned in the last two years. Lenses might hunt and might *occasionally* lock-and-miss, but this wasn’t hunting: this was locking, very quickly, on completely the wrong distance.

To me this isn’t excusable in a professional-level (gold-ringed) $2,000 lens, even “only” 10% of the time. I could have elected to return the lens for a replacement 24mm f/1.4G and seen if it was just a bad copy, but since Chambers also encountered this issue and I was often wishing for wider or narrower focal length, I decided this just wasn’t the lens for me. Given my primary usage was landscape, cityscape, and other “found”-style photography (with just a distant hope for use as portraiture and wedding in the future), it seemed like I would be better served by another lens. Which lens? Well, we’ll see – I’m figuring that out right now, and that’s a discussion for another day.

I don’t want to seem too down on this lens. It wasn’t for me but it might be perfect for you. Maybe your copy will have no AF issues and 24mm might be the perfect focal length for your style of photography. I’d just make sure to thoroughly test your copy in a variety of environments before the return period runs out, and make sure that AF behaves itself.


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