Despite its general reputation as the best Japanese supplier of wide-angle lenses, Nikon has only sporadically offered high-speed wide-angle lenses throughout its history. For that reason we cannot yet tell whether the new Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G is the first of a charge by Nikon on this market, or an “accidental success” as the 28mm f/1.4D Aspherical was before. Irrespective it is clear that Nikon’s new high-speed wide-angle lens is set to leave its mark in Nikon's history: the Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G delivers consistently excellent results and it is lots of fun to use, and that is a recipe for lasting chemistry.
There is only one fact I was able to assert simply by looking at the optical layout: it is a modern Japanese lens. This is not a flaw or an issue, of course, but it does caution that the Nikkor may not behave as an ideal lens would in use. The optical specification also suggests good correction of chromatic aberrations and the inclusion of the “Nano” crystal coating should give it strong resistance to flare and maintain utility in contra light.
After testing (reveling in) the excellent Zeiss 2.8/21mm ZF lens, I had set on a path to its acquisition. Before that could come to pass however, Nikon launched this fast 24mm lens and captured my imagination. I decided had to see this lens for myself before I could act on the ZF, so I immediately reserved a rental copy of the Nikkor.
My first impression(s) of the Nikkor is that it looked perfect on the table, bulky in the hand, and heavy on the camera. It is not really heavy, it just looks heavy, and actually balances very well on the D700. Your subjects will definitely feel its presence however, as the natural application of the lens requires that you encroach on your subjects’ personal space. In this respect it is about as impressive (or terrifying) as the 21mm ZF.
The 24mm is an auto-focus lens and as such it invites you to leave the camera in control of focus operations. In this mode the focusing process is slow, indecisive and rather imprecise with the D700. This is a weak point for the lens which is only severe when it is most important: in low light and when shooting wide-open. Other photographers have reported similar issues and I suspect that camera firmware updates may help.
As a manual-focus lens this Nikkor offers a workable solution, superior to other auto-focus lenses I have used. The focus ring is very well damped and easy to find, and offers an excellent angular speed of focus. Its diameter is too large for my comfort in prolonged use however and the rubber grip hurts my skin when rolling with a single finger (ironically that is not a problem with the fluted metal grips on the ZF’s). This copy also has play (backlash) in the movement which discourages the finest of fine-tuning.
Lastly the focus scale and its markings are not likely to be useful to anyone and there isn’t an aperture ring on this lens, both of which are exactly as expected. Few will bemoan these last two points as I do.
This fast Nikkor lens reminds me most of the 100mm ZF – that is very high praise and I must qualify further because the situation is not so simple. The Nikkor is never as sharp as that ZF, even though it impresses in that department considering the speed, nor does it draw with the same punchy-high contrast. Nonetheless in many other respects the two lenses draw in similar brush strokes, particularly where Bokeh is concerned.
Fine details are something of a mixed bag with this lens. At full aperture the lens can already resolve fine details with good contrast in the center portion of the frame, provided you achieve critical focus. Only moderate improvements are available there by stopping down by two or three stops, while the borders improve substantially with every stop. At its best aperture, f/5.6 in my opinion, fine details are rendered over the entire frame with firm and clear outlines but their density is not as good as I have seen with other lenses on the D700 (itself not a density champ).
Light fall-off is a concern when shooting this lens wide-open, and except for dynamic reportage would be very distracting. This is expected of course and thankfully the situation improves quickly when stopping down. What is more of an issue is that my copy of the lens showed a centering defect via asymmetrical shading, the right edge of the frame being visibly darker than the left in some cases. It is very likely that this also affected resolution on my lens, at infinity and wide apertures, but I did not notice it in reportage work.
That’s the end of the bad news however, and despite appearances this wasn’t much bad news, because on all other metrics this fast 24mm defines the state of the art. Chromatic aberrations are almost never a problem. Coma is not perceptible even in the night sky, astronomy might even be an application for this lens at full aperture. Resistance to veiling flare is high, though not as high as T* lenses (sorry Nano).
However the strongest quality of this Nikkor, and in my opinion its raison-d’être, is its drawing of Bokeh. The defocused regions of its images are soothing and richly colored. Defocused specular highlights are almost perfectly circular, even near the borders, with a slight softness at the edge. The ramp in and out of focus is generous, forgiving, and pleasant. This is why I associate this lens with the 100mm ZF, their sensational Bokeh make them two of a kind.
With all of these attributes combined you can expect consistently excellent images from this Nikkor. When focused properly, images at any aperture show rich details, colors, and Bokeh.
The Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G is a very special, delightful lens. At full aperture it offers something unique in the larger Nikon F ecosystem, which is a field of view that is inclusive in breadth and exclusive in depth (and highly energetic). Beyond f/2-2.4, where all its negatives become themselves negated, this is one of the easiest, most rewarding and most fun lenses to use.
Would I recommend this lens to other photographers? Yes. This lens delivers more than I expected.
Will I buy this lens? Not right now. I will reserve judgment until the day when I can test the 24mm Elmarit-M ASPH on digital.
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