Nikon 24mm f/1.4 Review (Part One: Mechanics)

August 28, 2014

 

[This article was originally published on MiddleSilver, my old photography website, on January 14, 2014.  The article below is a revised version posted to spencercoxphoto.com on August 28, 2014.]

 

Overview

This is the first part of an in-depth review of my favorite lens, the Nikon 24mm f/1.4 lens.  This section covers the mechanics and build quality of the lens.  I have taken more of my favorite photos using this lens with my D7000 than any other camera-lens combination I have ever owned (which totals two DSLRs and five lenses).  This article was originally published on middlesilver.com, my old photography website.

 

Part Two covers the optical quality of this lens.

 

Part Three is a summary of the lens, plus a comparison to others.

 

Samples

Eiffel Tower at night"Beacon"My camera rested on a concrete ledge a few feet in front of me, and I could barely reach the shutter button. If it had fallen off the ledge, a 150-foot drop would have been its fate. I waited for the Eiffel Tower's spotlight to shine directly upwards, and then I quickly took this photo.


Standard Edition - Tier One


Special Edition - 5/10 available

Artist's Proof - 2/2 available

Purchase

To read more about this photo, visit my blog post.

- Finalist in Travel Photographer of the Year competition.

(Click to see on black  ::  Link to photo in gallery)

 

"The Fox of Amiens""The Fox of Amiens"I walked through the pristine streets of Amiens, France, without finding any graffiti or street art. Then, on this one abandoned building, there was more graffiti than I had ever seen on a single city block. And I've been to San Francisco.


Standard Edition - Tier Two

Special Edition - 7/10 available

Artist's Proof - 2/2 available

Purchase

(Click to see on black  ::  Link to photo in gallery)

 

(Click to see on black  ::  Link to photo in gallery)

 

Ratings

Portrait use: 8/10 (for environmental portraits)

Landscape use: 9.5/10 (if you don't mind that it can't zoom)

Sports/Wildlife: 2/10 (That's not what it was designed for, although it's a viable option for some sports like rock climbing)

Documentary/Street: 8/10

Travel photos: 9/10

Cat photos: 9/10

Build/Ease of use: 9/10

Autofocus: 6/10

Features: 7/10

Optics: 10/10

Value: 4/10

Overall rating, taking cost into account: 7/10

Overall rating, not taking cost into account: 9/10  

 

Introduction

The Nikon 24mm f/1.4 lens is Nikon’s widest f/1.4 lens.  It does extremely well in low light and can separate subjects from their backgrounds more easily than traditional wide-angle lenses thanks to the f/1.4 aperture.  The lens is marketed primarily towards environmental portrait shooters who want all the light of f/1.4 but at a wider angle (this is the theme of both of Nikon’s official sample images for this lens).  This means that wedding shooters especially could find that this lens fits a niche. 

 

However, I use this lens for much more than people photos.  If you like prime lenses (I do), then it excels as a travel lens because of its size and its image quality.  No, it’s not Nikon’s smallest lens, but it certainly takes up less room than a similarly-priced 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens.  Its aperture also lets in four times more light than any of Nikon’s zooms, and it’s just as good, if not better, optically. 

 

When I went to Paris this fall, I shot 2800 photos.  Over 2300 were taken with this lens, and rarely did I regret losing the ability to zoom.  For the times that I wanted a different perspective, I just switched to my 105mm macro lens.  When I shot with the 24mm f/1.4, I could take photos in extreme low-light areas with a reasonable shutter speed and ISO, all with a much lighter load than I carried when I went to San Francisco with my 17-55mm f/2.8! 

 

As you can probably tell, I really like this lens.  Despite being a prime lens, it’s versatile and it opens up new photographic opportunities.  This lens, paired with a 50mm prime and a telephoto lens, could be all the lenses you ever need.  (In fact, other than renting the occasional super-telephoto lens for wildlife expeditions, that's all that I ever use: this 24mm lens, a 50mm lens, and a 105mm macro lens.) 

 

Below is an extensive review that I compiled after spending months shooting with this lens. 

 

I tried as much as possible to avoid it, but you may find a sense of bias throughout the review.  After all, the lens was expensive, and no one likes to slam their own big purchases (although people sometimes have fun criticizing what others bought).  There are certainly things that this lens does not do well, and I try my best to outline those below.

 

Announced

This lens was announced back in February of 2010 along with the 16-35mm f/4 lens.  

 

Price

It has a current (January 2014) list price of $2200 on Nikon’s website, but it can be found for $2000 new from Amazon or B&H.  KEH Camera currently has a $1600 used lens (excellent condition) in stock, and it can also be found used on eBay for less than that.  I paid $1475 for mine from eBay, and it came with a $70 B+W filter.  Then again, I waited over a month for this deal, so take that price with a grain of salt.

 

Terminology

The lens’s official name is the AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.

 

AF-S: Silent-wave motor, making the lens quiet and theoretically fast to focus.  Also, the lens can autofocus on all digital Nikon cameras. 

 

SWM: Same as AF-S.

 

RF: The farthest-back glass element is the one used to focus.

 

Aspherical: Fancy and expensive lens elements which help make the lens sharp.

 

Nano Crystal Coat: Fancy and expensive coatings which try to prevent flare.

 

ED Glass: Fancy and expensive glass which makes colors look pretty.

 

Made in Japan: Arguably more expensive than from China or Thailand, and theoretically better made.

 

ø77: The lens has a 77mm filter ring, so don't buy smaller filters.  (Larger filters are OK, but they cost more and you'd need a step-down ring to get them to work on this lens.)

 

G: No aperture ring, which means this lens won’t work on really old film cameras.

 

The bottom of the barrel is marked with the number 10 inside a recycling sign.  This just means that the lens is certified to meet China's environmentally-friendly guidelines for a minimum of ten years.  Contrary to internet misinformation, this does not mean that the lens will die in ten years.

 

Versions

This is the first and only 24mm f/1.4 lens Nikon has ever produced.  Back in 1994, Nikon sold a 28mm f/1.4 that now costs nearly $3000 on eBay, used.  This lens is based on that old one, although the 24mm f/1.4 is better because it's wider, cheaper, and better optically.  Canon has had a 24mm f/1.4 since 1997.

 

Fits

This lens works with both Nikon's DX and FX cameras.

 

On DX, it gives roughly the same angle of view as a 35mm lens used on FX cameras.  This is a relatively useful length for a DX camera, although this lens costs so much partially because it covers the FX sensor size.  It's definitely recommended for DX users (I use mine on the D7000), but probably only for those who will buy an FX camera at some point in the future.

 

Otherwise, although not exactly the same field of view, the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM is a really nice DX-only lens, and it only costs $500 (new) compared to this $2000 lens.

 

Angle of View

DX: 52.0 degrees horizontal, 36.0 degrees vertical, 60.7 degrees diagonal.

 

FX: 73.7 degrees horizontal, 53.1 degrees vertical, 84.1 degrees diagonal.

 

Just like Nikon's other lenses, the horizontal angle of view on a DX camera is similar to the vertical angle of view on an FX camera.

 

Weight

Nikon specifies that the lens weighs 620 grams, which is equal to 21.9 ounces (1.37 pounds).  This is almost exactly the weight of a dozen medium eggs.  So, if you’re a weight freak like me, there’s an easy way to test whether the 24mm f/1.4 takes up too much of a load in your bag: just backpack around town for a day with a dozen eggs and your camera (body only) in your preferred camera bag.  If that’s too heavy for you, I’d suggest an older, lighter prime lens instead, like the 24mm f/2.8.  

 

Of course, I understand that some people’s camera bags are too small to fit a dozen eggs, so I’ll just cut to the chase: it’s a comparatively light lens if you’re used to using an f/2.8 or f/4 zoom.  However, if the heaviest lens you use is an 18-55 kit zoom or a small prime lens, this lens is certainly a step up in weight and size.

 

If you're really concerned about weight, this is not the lens for you.  However, it is significantly lighter than the similarly-priced 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, or 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses that most people buy at this price.

 

Size

Unlike a carton of eggs, the 24mm f/1.4 is only 3.5 inches (8.9 centimeters) long from its mount to its filter threads, specified by Nikon.  It's a really dense lens.

 

The included lens hood is not that much taller, maybe an inch and a half, but it is a relatively wide hood because this is a wide angle lens.  

 

Mechanics

Nothing visibly moves on this lens whatsoever unless you move it yourself.  The filter thread doesn’t rotate at all so you can thankfully use polarizing filters, the barrel doesn’t extend, and the focus ring doesn’t spin when the lens is autofocused.  

 

However, because this is a rear-focus design, the back element of the lens moves in closer to the camera as the lens is focused farther towards infinity.  You don’t see this movement unless the lens is off of the camera body.  This element protrudes slightly out of the back of the lens when focused at far towards infinity as possible, leaving it more vulnerable to scratches when changing lenses.

 

To make everything a little safer, I always manually focus this lens to its closest focusing distance before removing it from the camera.

 

Switches

There is just one (large and easy to move) switch to go between autofocus and manual focus.  Like Nikon’s other lenses, the M/A means autofocus and the M means manual focus. However, the M/A mode allows manual focus override, so I always leave my lens on M/A.  All of Nikon’s expensive AF-S lenses allow this. 

 

Focus Ring

The manual focus ring is surprisingly smooth, probably the best on any of my lenses.  That’s saying something, too, since I also have the 105mm f/2.8 macro, which has a nice focus ring.

 

Not everyone likes smooth focus rings because they are a little easier to bump out of focus, but I love them because it’s so much easier to make tiny adjustments for landscape photography when I’m wearing gloves.  It is really easy to move this focus ring with a single finger, unlike the ring on my 17-55mm f/2.8.  From farthest focus to minimum focus, the ring turns roughly 150 degrees.  That’s the same angle of rotation as going from noon to seven on a clock (going clockwise, of course), which is surprisingly large for a wide angle lens.

 

Like many of Nikon’s other lenses, the 24mm f/1.4 can be manually focused past infinity and has a sort of hard stop at maximum and minimum focusing distances.  I say “sort of” because it’s technically possible to turn the focus ring past the hard stops, but doing so doesn’t change the focus, and it is much tougher to turn the ring than with regular manual focus.  If you’ve ever tried a lens like this before, you’ll know what to expect.

 

Focusing scale

This lens has a focus scale that sort of works but isn’t really that helpful (it only shows f/11 and f/16, and it’s not calibrated perfectly).  That said, it is possible to set the aperture to f/11, line up the left f/11 dot with the far-left edge of the infinity symbol, and shoot without worrying about focusing.  Everything from about five feet on will be in focus. 

 

I question the usefulness of doing this for walk-around photography (staying at f/5.6 for walk-around photography is a better idea because photos are sharper and it lets in four times more light), but do whatever floats your boat.

 

The focus scale is marked at infinity, 2.5 feet, 1.5 feet, 1 foot, and 0.82 feet, along with 1 meter, .5 meters, .35 meters, .3 meters, and .25 meters.  

 

There is an infrared focusing dot for those of you who care (this only matters if your camera has been specially modified to shoot infrared light, and it is no concern for most people). 

 

Noises when focusing

Autofocus is very quiet but, of course, is not completely silent.  The loudest noise comes from moving the focusing elements, the same sound it makes when the lens is manually focused!

 

Funnily enough, using autofocus, my copy is quieter focusing far-to-near than near-to-far.

 

When your surroundings are noisy, it can be hard to tell if the lens is even focusing because it’s so quiet!  Be careful to check every once in a while that you haven’t accidentally bumped the switch to manual focus.  If you did, you may not notice because it's so quiet even in autofocus.

 

Materials

Much of the lens is plastic.  Yeah, I guess it’s high-quality plastic, but it’s certainly not metal.

 

This is nice in some ways because the plastic doesn’t get nearly as cold as metal when the temperature drops, and it’s definitely lighter than metal (and this dense lens can use all the weight savings it can get).  On the other hand, it feels more exposed to scratches than metal, and it doesn’t give the solid, invincible feel of some other lenses (like the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8). 

 

Get over it.  I did.  It’s better for hiking in the Arctic this way, so you should be happy. 

 

On the bright side, the mount is metal, along with the focus ring (most of which is covered by rubber, but it’s still metal and it gets colder than the rest of the lens when it's cold outside). 

 

Sealing

The 24mm f/1.4 is sealed with a rubber ring near the lens mount to keep out rain and dirt and other grime.  Because nothing moves in or out externally on the lens, and the focus ring doesn’t turn when you’re using autofocus, the lens is one of the more weather-sealed lenses available from Nikon.

 

The only issue is that its bulbous front element sticks out enough that shooting in the rain will soon cover the front element in water, even when you use the hood.  No big deal; just wipe it off and try not to shoot straight up in the rain. 

 

Lens hood

I don’t particularly like the 24mm f/1.4’s lens petal-shaped lens hood (the HB-51) for a few reasons.  I still use it (lens hoods are the cheapest way to improve a lens’s performance), but I wish it were better-designed. 

 

First, it does not completely protect from stray light, although this is understandable because few hoods do so perfectly.  On DX bodies especially, it's possible to get tiny specks of flare in the photo even when the sun is out of the frame.

 

Second, the lens hood is tough to take off the lens.  This may not seem that bad, but the amount of force needed to get the hood off can actually wiggle the lens in the lens mount!  You never want to bend the lens mount.  Not only does it misalign the lens-sensor path (making your images less sharp), but it can also mess up autofocus.  You just need to be careful if you're removing the hood when the lens is mounted.

 

On the bright side, the lens hood is thick plastic, thicker than most other lens hoods.  This makes it harder to chip the edges, which is always welcome.  It's also not going to fall off the lens easily!

 

Filter threads

The 77mm filter threads are plastic, but they don’t cause vignetting with filters unless you start stacking thick ones, so overall they're fine.  Because the filter thread is 77mm, this lens can be more useful than some other options for landscapes.  It’s hard to find a good, fast wide angle lens with a regular 77mm filter ring, so this lens can be a cost-saver for people who already have an arsenal of filters.

 

Lens caps

The front lens cap is Nikon’s usual snap-on cap (The LC-77), which works extremely well.  The pinch tabs are deep enough that it’s possible to take off the lens cap even with gloves on.  This is exactly as expected.

 

The rear cap, on the other hand, is a bit different than you may think.  Although the 24mm f/1.4 uses a standard rear cap, it will ship with one of two different rear lens caps depending upon the age of the lens.

 

Halfway through the lens’s life, Nikon decided to replace the older LF-1 rear lens cap with the newer, fancier LF-4.  This may have been a cost-savings measure, but I actually find the newer LF-4 to be better ergonomically (it has more ribs, making it somewhat easier to remove).  My lens came with the old rear cap, but I swapped it out with the newer cap for ease of use. 

 

There is no difference between the optics of the lens with the newer cap, but the type of cap used actually can serve as a way to identify a newer model when one shows up on eBay.   Some of the very first shipping models of the 24mm f/1.4, all of which had the old cap, had autofocus issues.  Now, not all the lenses with the old cap are bad at focusing (again, my 24mm f/1.4 came with the old cap and focuses normally), but all the defective lenses had the old cap.  Of course, clever eBay sellers may intentionally swap out the old rear lens cap with the newer one to make it seem like their messed-up lens is really free from problems, so watch out.  

 

Note that some stores are selling their new 24mm f/1.4 lenses with the old caps simply because they had surplus from before Nikon made the switch.  If you buy from a reputable dealer, don't be worried about getting a lens with broken autofocus.  

 

Continue

This article was the first of three. 

Part Two covers the optical quality of this lens.

Part Three is a summary of the lens, plus a comparison to others.


 

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