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.
This week some absolutely-completely-expected data from DXO came out for the M9 and the web forums caught fire. All the usual tripe came out – cheaper cameras push better pixels. Yes! Whatever!
I’ll say my position on this: Leica’s cameras are desirable only because they mount Leica’s lenses. If the M lenses weren’t so exquisite or so small, Leica probably could not sell M cameras above their manufacturing cost. However, support for M lenses without cropping is a significant cause for enthusiasm about the M9.
In my humble opinion, the serious M9 buyer isn’t buying the M9 because it’s the best sensor in the business. To a first order the M9 is only required to not suck eggs because it uses M lenses the way they were intended to be used.
Now, let’s see if we can make more sense of all the predetermined-yet-controversial data.
Here’s a comparison that speaks to me, from first-hand experience:
The D80 was a good camera. Under ISO 1000 the D80 delivered excellent results in my hands, even indoors, and even in crappy light. When I paired it with a Zeiss lens the D80 just roared to life and produced results way above its price tag. I probably came close to extracting maximum image quality from the D80 towards the end of my time with it, and those images still look as good as the best images I’m taking today.
The D700 is a better camera. Purely judging from pictures, upgrading to a D700 brought me 1 extra stop of dynamic range and 2 extra stops of sensitivity with acceptable noise. DXO agrees with both, note. However, these aren’t all the improvements in the D700, and there are plenty of conditions where they are basically moot.
In my review of the D700 (forgive the bad product photography, not my cup of tea) I concluded that the D300 would have been a better choice, because it has all the same non-sensor improvements for half the price. A year later, still with the D700, my final verdict comes down to the crop factor or lack thereof. I’m very happy with the D700’s sensor but basically because of its physical dimensions.
One thing that the D700 did not terribly improve over the D80, and DXO doesn’t take into account much, is resolution. DXO noise results do account for resolution in a way, but they never tackle the subject of image acuity and microcontrast. In this area the D80 and D700 definitely fall within 10-20% of each other and the M9 ought to trounce both (expect ~50 better). If any camera system can actually deliver a perfect 18MP image sample it’s the M system, as opposed to Canon’s APS-C system, say.
Let's combine the DXO data with other M9 facts to draw a bigger picture:
The M9’s color depth is only slightly better than the D80.
The M9’s dynamic range is halfway between the D80 and D700.
Low-light ISO on the M9 is maybe a half-stop better than the D80.
The M9’s image acuity is about 50% better than the D80 and D700.
An M9 with lens is less than half the size and weight as the D700 with lens.
That’s a very good balance – I would gladly give up some high ISO performance for greater acuity and shoulder relief. Especially if I can make up some sensitvity loss by leaning on fast Leica lenses, and here the trade-off gets really interesting.
As you know, I own a Zeiss 1.4/50 Planar ZF. You may not know that I simply do not shoot this lens at f/1.4, ever. At this aperture the bokeh is ugly and distracting, micro-contrast is lost in various fringe effects, and it is extremely difficult to focus closer than 12 feet if ambient light is low. I use this lens starting around f/2.4 - 2.8, where it is much easier to focus and produces beautiful bokeh and micro-contrast. This is basically 1.5 - 2 stops of light-gathering power that I choose to throw away because the D700 can make it up in ISO sensitivity.
Judging by lens availability right now, most M9 owners also carry a 1.4/50 Summilux-M ASPH. This lens has beautiful bokeh at all apertures, is essentially apochromatic, exhibits almost no focus shifts and, best of all, delivers very high micro-contrast right from the maximum aperture. Focusing in low light is easier on a rangefinder than an SLR ground glass. I would shoot this lens wide-open by default, or step down 1 stop to gain some depth of field and forgiveness of focus error.
Some people will cry foul, that I’m excusing sensor limitations by finding lenses that mitigate them. But these lenses in particular can only be used with this sensor, so the two might as well be considered together. They would be right to complain if the Summilux could be mounted on a D700, but alas this is not possible.
So, in my opinion, the M9’s ISO performance being lower is both predictable and partly a moot point. The M9 clearly does not suck and that’s really all it needed to (not) do to succeed.
I found more low resolution samples: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tengsama/.
This (again) low resolution series goes for several pages comparing the 16-35mm f/4G VR and the 24mm f/1.4G against the 24mm PC-E. I haven’t learned anything new with this series, but we did get some size comparisons to other lenses and a look at the matching hood.
Some new images taken with the 24mm Nikkor appeared a few nights ago on a Japanese blog. These aren’t high-resolution samples however, so we won’t be going too deep with the pixel peeing. I will comment on the images in two groups, based on the character they reveal.
In the first group up, I’m looking at the bokeh shape and neutrality.
I like to see perfect circle neutrality with clear definition of point lights, and that’s almost what we get here. The only element bothering me is a troubled feeling I get from the flowers behind the camera. Even at closer inspection I can’t decide if some of the hightlights are ringed or not, they’re fishy. I’m particularly pleased that the “cat eye” impression near the borders is under control.
In the second group, we get some idea of details.
In the previous group we got very few pixels that were actually in focus. In this group we get a sense of the detail the lens is capable of – obviously I wish we had full-res samples. The flowers in particular show no detectable weakness at this resolution, I recommend you click on that one and let it sink in.
Contrast could be higher, but this set of pictures shows there is resolution to be extracted if the lens is focused properly. Mercifully, the DPR close-up portrait sample can be disregarded as an outlier.
Several years ago I spent some time shooting with a Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. It had poor contrast a full aperture, quite soft at 200mm, and obviously the absence of VR limited its usefulness at indoors venues. I disliked it enough that it convinced me only the Nikkor VR lens (back then, version 1) would do for me. That Sigma lens is probably 10 years old now, but to this day it still sets how I perceive Sigma’s medium telephoto lenses.
Zoom to today, so to speak, and enters the new lens.
Looking at them by themselves and ignoring the competition, these charts look pretty good. There is more weakness at 70mm than I would like to see, with a pretty sharp drop to minimal contrast at the corner, but the performance at 200mm looks simply excellent. Possibly this means that there is significant light fall-off at 70mm and that drives down contrast.
If I compare with the previous Sigma version (not shown here) there has been a exchange between lowering performance at 70mm and improving performance at 200mm. This is probably the right choice, not only because this lens is most likely to be used at longer focal lengths, but also because it was done in such a way that DX shooters (or teleconverter users) will never notice. This new lens looks very strong for those photographers.
Compared to the latest Nikkor lens
The obvious, somewhat unfair contender for the Sigma is the $2399 lens from Nikon, also a new design from the last few months.
This lens is the reigning champ, but it also shows some weakness towards the border and corner. What is impressive with this lens however is how even the performance is across the zoom range.
Let’s see how the Sigma compares:
At the wider end of the zoom range the Sigma is beat by an absolute 10% edge in favor of the Nikkor, widening to a 20% edge and relatively twice the contrast at the corner. There’s no doubt the Nikkor is the better lens at shorter focal lengths. Now zoom towards 200mm and the picture changes, the Sigma roughly matches the Nikon but improves upon it significantly towards the corner.
It’s clear that the Sigma is a serious contender. If money is no object to you then you should just get the Nikkor and never look back, but everyone else should give the Sigma some thought. Price is going to be crucial to the success of the Sigma lens.
Compared to the previous Nikkor lens
The old version of the Nikkor is still around and is a spectacular performer on DX and teleconverters. This lens is still a contender for many, even if it has severe issues with FX sensors.
You’ll notice immediately that this lens also has very weak corners at 70mm so this should be a close comparison.
Across the range the two lenses are very close, with one important improvement to the Sigma. At 70mm the Sigma is only very slightly behind – this is a focal length where I thought the Nikkor excelled and seeing the Sigma meet that is exciting. At 200mm the Sigma lags the Nikkor in the center but completely outclasses it at the far border and corner, where the Nikkor is very weak.
This new lens is – in my opinion – most easily described as an improved version of Nikon’s 70-200mm f/2.8 VR version 1. This summarizes the reason for this lens to me. Sigma is caught up to just one step behind Nikon now.
Dpreview just did a tremendous service to Nikon users and put up the first sample images of the new 24mm lens. All of the images in this post are based on those samples, which can be found here as of this writing.
This said, true to DPR’s tradition of top-class analyses paired with poor photography, the images are rather crud quality. Given that I'm starving for test images I’ll take what we got and be happy about it, but I will skip some images.
Let’s dive in now, let’s look at a pair of similar images.
First up is a shot wide-open, focused somewhere towards infinity:
We’ll look at crops from the center, border and corner, wherever appropriate detail may be found. Here reproduced slightly below 100%.
The center (left) looks good, there is just a bit of softness there that would probably not be visible after a RAW conversion in Lightroom. The far border at 18mm (center) looks fairly good as well, though it is quite a bit softer. You can see that fine detail (center, leaves below) is reproduced with very low contrast and is at the limit of what simple sharpening can fix. Finally at the corner (right) we get the very soft details you would expect to see from this lens, but I am pleased to note that fine structures are still quite visible. The contrast is extremely low, and clearly there is light fall-off in spades here, but there is none of the smearing I dreaded to see.
I am very pleased with the results so far.
Next is a shot stepped-down to f/8, some five stops down, again focused somewhere towards infinity:
Again, we’ll look at 100% crops from the center, border and corner, wherever appropriate detail may be found.
The center (left) looks great, I have nothing to say here because this is perfect. The far border at 18mm (center) looks great as well, with the faintest touch of softness. Finally at the corner (right) we get very good detail with a bit less contrast than elsewhere in the frame. This image would sharpen up easily to just fantastic results.
What else do I note in these images?
Chromatic aberrations are either negligible/absent or the D3S corrected for them very well if this was shot in JPEG. Possibly the latter applies and is responsible for some contrast losses.
The color transmission is different from what I am used to from the Zeiss ZF family, the contrast and saturation of this image (which was shot in daylight!) is moderate. Quite possibly this is also due to the D3S if this was shot in JPEG.
I would rather get a RAW file and process it myself but for now I think this has been very interesting, and I’m encouraged by the data.
While patiently waiting for images showing the size of the 24mm in people's hands, and next to cameras like the D700, I made this collage.
Left to right: Zeiss 2/35, Nikkor 1.4/24mm, Zeiss 2/100mm.
So it's a chunky lens, no doubt, but that's what I was expectng.
Earlier today NikonRumors posted what’s, true to its namesake, a vaporous rumor about a new lens. Even knowing how speculative the posting was, when I saw the accompanying fake picture I still wanted to jump out of my chair and scream HELL YEEAAAH! BOO-YA!
How fantastic does this look to you? Very much fantastic if you ask me. Now that I have this image burned into my head, I can’t imagine getting excited about any other medium telephoto lens. Forget the real-world lenses, this dream-world lens is my pick.
I dragged around the first version of the f/2.8 VR lens for several years and I thought it was a massive piece of kit. Eventually I stopped using it because the benefits it brought to me over the Zeiss 100mm f/2, while substantial in an absolute sense, didn’t justify the relative difference in size and weight. What I mean is that I very much liked the solid auto-focus, stabilization and extra reach but I very much preferred to carry the downright-miniature and twice-faster Zeiss lens. Today the hot new f/2.8 VR version is even larger and heavier, not to mention a lot more expensive, which just further unbalances the bang/pound/buck equation.
The day is fast approaching where reach will start to matter more to me, thanks to kid sports. I’m just left scratching my head looking for a not-ungainly and not-unaffordable (also, ideally, teleconverter friendly) option around 200mm. What I really want is either a 200mm f/2.8 prime with VR and Nano, or a 70-200mm f/4 zoom with VR and Nano.
The picture above just looks perfect to me. What’s worse is that I’m sure Nikon could make one of these in their sleep – the only question is how affordable they could make it. I’m somewhat flexible on that, if it’s the right product.
Here are super-imposed the charts for the 50mm f/1.4G (lower red & blue) and 24mm f/1.4G (higher red & blue) lenses. There isn’t a single point where the 50mm beats the 24mm.
Let’s see what happens when I super-impose the charts for the 24mm f/1.4G and Leica’s 24mm Summilux-M ASPH. The faint/light red curves below are Leica’s; I have drawn a yellow curve between the lowest pair and the second lowest pair of these that is comparable in metrics to Nikon’s blue curve.
To the exception of the extreme corners, the theory is that Nikon’s implementation surpasses Leica’s. The Leica is almost assuredly smaller and less conspicuous but it doesn't eclipse the competition with its performance.
Finally, it's relevat to know how it compares to the Canon. The lower set of curves, the fainter ones, are comparable to Nikon's.
The Nikkor is better over the whole frame, but not by much.