Nikon 24mm f/1.4 Review (Part Three: Comparisons)
[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.]
This is the third part of an in-depth review of my favorite lens, the Nikon 24mm f/1.4. This section lists the different possible uses for the lens, as well as briefly comparing it to other lenses.
Part One covers the build quality of the lens.
Part Two covers the optical quality of this lens.
Below is a scale of how this lens performs, according to my (strict) guidelines. Like, when I rate a lens as 5/10, that’s a solid score. A 5/10 means that half the lenses you’d find will do better, and half will do worse. That said, there’s not too much to be worried about with this high-scoring lens.
If your specialty is environmental portraits, where your photos would probably be shot at a wide angle, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better lens. The only issue is that, due to the wide focal length, this lens will make people’s noses look disproportionately large if you’re doing a really tight head shot. Still, due to the beautiful background blur combined with a wide angle, it’s hard to make this score too low. 8/10.
No. This isn't a sports lens. The first strike is that it's a wide angle, so you'll need to be very close to your subject. Strike two is that it doesn't focus fast enough to capture people running by the camera. Yes, the f/1.4 aperture helps to freeze motion when it gets dark, but it's still not a good sports lens by any means. I kind of wish that I could find some random strike three just so that I could complete my baseball reference, but that's not happening. How about I count the first strike again because it's so important? There, strikeout.
I can't discount it 100%, though, just because it can be useful for a few fringe sports, such as bowling. If you happen to be shooting a sport indoors where you can get close to your subject and autofocus doesn't matter (in other words, bowling and perhaps indoor rock climbing), this lens does have potential. But these are such rare uses that I can't give the lens a high rating. 2/10.
If you get close to your subject, which is usually the case for documentary work, this lens shines. This isn't the type of lens that lets you sneak a photo of someone; you have to get too close. But if you're comfortable talking to people and asking their permission for photos, this lens rocks. If you're not comfortable with that, I don't know why you'd be a street photographer in the first place.
This lens is also nice and small compared to the usual 24-70mm f/2.8 used for street photos, although it isn't as small as a 50mm f/1.8, another popular street choice. 8/10.
(Click to see on black :: Link to photo in gallery)
This score really varies depending upon your needs. Here, this lens is really a bit of mixed bag. If you absolutely need to zoom for landscapes, then you won’t be too happy with this lens. You’ll need to stitch panoramas if you want to go wider, and you’ll need to crop to zoom in. Thus, for landscape zoomers, this is probably a 3/10.
However, if you don’t mind using prime lenses for landscapes, or if you already have a wide angle zoom when you need one, this is probably a 9.5/10 for landscapes. In my book, the only potentially better option is a tilt-shift lens, which is manual-focus only. Some people would argue that the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 or the Zeiss 25mm f/2 are also as good for landscapes, with which I partially agree. The 21mm f/2.8 is wider if that suits your style, and the 25mm is cheaper but just as nice optically. However, the 24mm f/1.4 can go to f/1.4, which can be extremely useful for star photography or photos of the northern lights. Also, both of the Zeiss lenses are manual-focus only, which may be a deal breaker. All these lenses are about perfect at f/8 or f/11, so the optics should not really be a deciding factor.
This lens is so good for landscapes because of its flare resistance and sunstars. Yeah, it’s wicked sharp, but so are all the other expensive lenses at this focal length (including zoom lenses). That's especially true at typical landscape apertures like f/8 or f/11. This is really a specialist landscape lens and would be few people’s first choice for such a task. That said, it’s absolutely amazing as a landscape lens, so choose your own rating based on what you just read. For me, it's a 9.5/10. For you, it could be much, much lower.
Also note that the 24mm f/1.4 lens can take regular 77mm filters, unlike a lot of wide-angle lenses. If you have a collection of these filters, this could be a bigger deal for you than for others. By contrast, the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 takes 82mm filters (which are typically very expensive if you don't have them already, and somewhat of a waste of money if you already have a set of 77mm filters). Of course, the classic landscape zoom for Nikon users, the 14-24mm f/2.8, doesn't even take any screw-on filters, so it's even worse!
(Click to see on black :: Link to photo in gallery)
On one end, this lens can’t zoom, but on the other end, it is the best that money can buy for dark museums or churches. If you’re going somewhere like Alaska where you’ll be generally outdoors and changing focal lengths a lot (from, “look at this mountain’s reflection” to “look at that moose in the distance”), this isn’t your lens. If you’re going to Europe’s crowded streets and dark cathedrals, this lens is a dream.
What seals the high rating for me is the weight of the lens. No, it’s not Nikon’s lightest lens, but it’s awesome considering what it does. If you’re used to traveling with the trio of f/2.8 zooms, you owe it to yourself to replace two of them (the 14-24 and the 24-70) with this lens for a trip and see how it goes. You and your shoulders will be pleasantly surprised. If you’re trekking up a remote mountain in Nepal, this lens (especially combined with a light telephoto prime, perhaps an 85mm f/1.8) will leave you with enough energy to make it to the top. That 14-24mm plus 24-70mm combo can certainly go wider than a 24mm and 85mm combo, but remember that you can just stitch some 24mm shots together if you get desperate. Aside from that, the 24mm/85mm combo pretty much equals or beats the two zooms, so I really would recommend it if weight becomes an issue.
If you like prime lenses more than zooms, this lens is a 10/10. There is not a single better travel prime lens that money can buy, in my opinion. Honestly, you don’t even need a zoom lens for a lot of travels, because most shots will probably be wider, scenic shots anyway. However, I concede that there are circumstances where you would prefer a zoom for traveling, so I'll make the rating 9/10.
Perhaps the most popular type of photography (aside from the selfie) is cat photography. Cat owners who want to make their cat's face appear really big and cute will be excited by this lens because it's a wide angle, so it makes close things appear bigger than normal. It's also nice for blurring the background and creating a realistic cat portrait. Also, since a lot of cats are indoor cats, the f/1.4 aperture really helps to brighten a scene.
The only downside to this lens for cat photography is that your feline friend needs to like you a lot. Because this is a wide angle, you'll need to get very close to your cat's face to make it fill the frame. Be wary of this one issue, and you're good. 9/10.
This lens is pretty much perfect, although the rear element extends out (into the camera body) when the lens is focused towards infinity. Not a big deal at all, but it makes it more prone to scratches when you remove the lens. Also, the front element is prone to catching rain water because of its bulbous design, even with the hood on. Aside from those minor issues, this is one of the best-sealed lenses I have ever seen. 9/10.
Ease of use
The pros: I love the focus ring and the relatively light weight (which isn’t exactly featherweight, but it’s pretty nice given the quality and specifications of the lens).
The cons: I really don’t like that lens hood, and part of me still wants a beefier, metal design. However, the lens’s light weight literally allows me to carry this lens with one camera and a mini tripod for an easy day of landscape photography without any optical compromises (in fact, probably with optical benefits). 7/10.
It doesn’t zoom (if it could, it wouldn’t be f/1.4) and it doesn’t have vibration reduction (which arguably is not needed anyway on a wide-angle, wide-aperture lens). Those are the only two spots were it loses feature points. Remember that a 7.5 on my scale means that this lens has better features than literally three quarters of all the other lenses out there, which is pretty darn good for a prime lens. 7.5/10.
In general, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better lens in most any regard. In terms of optics, this is certainly the best lens I own optically. It has great sharpness (good detail and outstanding microcontrast), beautiful color, great flare resistance, amazing sunstars (literally the best I have ever seen), shockingly good bokeh for a wide lens, decent distortion control (better than most 24mm lenses), and good vignetting control considering the design (Canon's 24mm f/1.4 has among the worst vignetting of any modern lens, by comparison).
The one area where it falls short is chromatic aberration, both axial and longitudinal. Axial chromatic aberration (colored lines along contrasty edges) is almost a non-issue because it can be corrected with minimal side effects in nearly all editing programs (and is corrected automatically by most cameras if you shoot jpeg). Longitudinal chromatic aberration, where out-of-focus areas have green or purple fringes, is moderate but not unexpected on a wide-angle, wide-aperture lens. It's possible to correct this in some editing programs, but never perfectly. It's honestly not that visible because it helps to smooth the background anyway. It even seems to me that Nikon left some of it uncorrected intentionally to give us the great background bokeh that this lens can produce. 9/10.
Few of Nikon’s lenses are this exorbitantly priced, especially given the other options available for much lower prices (the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 and Nikon 28mm f/1.8, for example). I would think long and hard about buying this lens for its $2000 price tag. Of course, a lens's value is all in the situation of the buyer. For me, I knew that this was a lens I will truly keep until it breaks. That could happen decades from now, and in the mean time, every one of my photos taken at this focal length will be just a little bit more special than they would have with the other lenses. Most people don’t think of lenses this way, though, hence the low score for value. 3/10.
Note, though, that I bought my lens for, essentially, $1400. (I actually paid $1475, but it included a nice $70 filter.) If you wait for a deal like this, then this lens probably jumps higher than a 3/10 in value (maybe a 5/10 if you’re feeling generous).
Overall rating, taking value into account: 7/10
There are three main competitors to this lens: the Sigma 24mm f/1.8, the Nikon 28mm f/1.8, and the Sigma 35mm f/1.4. Of the three, I eliminated the Sigma 24mm f/1.8 immediately because it is said to be a poor performer in comparison to the other two (though it is cheaper). I know that people who have that lens swear by it, but I wanted a lens without compromises that could last me decades.
I seriously considered both of the other lenses, but I picked this one because I realized that the lens I chose was going to last me pretty much forever. I didn’t want any compromises.
Sigma 35mm f/1.4
The Sigma had three strikes for me: it wasn’t weather sealed, it was too long of a focal length to be a general lens (for me, at least, because I'm using a DX camera for now), and I didn’t like the background blur on the Sigma from samples, although this is very subjective. The Sigma is purportedly sharper optically, but I felt that these three compromises outweighed the optical gains.
Nikon 28mm f/1.8
This seems like a great lens, and its focal length is better than the Sigma, but the 24mm f/1.4 lens is wider and more than half a stop faster. I knew I’d be happy with the 28mm, but I also knew that this 24mm would be another step forward. I didn't want to wish “What could I have gotten?”
Any of the other three lenses could be great for most people, especially those on a budget. New, the Sigma 24mm f/1.8 is $550, the Nikon 28mm f/1.8 is $700, and the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 is $900. This Nikon 24mm f/1.4 is a whopping $2000 by comparison, and it's not necessarily better than the others, depending upon your needs.
For me, though, I was ready to buy my "final lens." Don't take that the wrong way because I'm still probably going to buy more lenses in the future, of course. What I mean is that I was done buying cheap substitute lenses with the sole purpose of reselling (at a loss) until I could afford what I really wanted. When I bought the Nikon D5100, for example, it was a substitute for the camera I really wanted, the D7000, because I couldn't afford the D7000 at the time. I ended up selling my D5100 just half a year later at an enormous (roughly $350) loss, then buying the D7000 that I had really wanted. Well, this lens was what I really wanted, and it was honestly worth it to me.
Why would you buy this lens? The primary selling point, as I've shown above, is the f/1.4 aperture combined with the wide focal length. These two reasons— not sharpness, not distortion, not anything related to optical quality— are why this lens costs more than any other modern, non-telephoto Nikkor lens. Its optics are amazing, yes, but that's not the main selling point.
Still, those were not the only reasons I bought this lens. I bought it partially because I like working with prime lenses because they fit my style of shooting. I wanted a lens that was fully weather sealed, would work well as a landscape lens (wide angle, good flare performance, good sun stars), was small enough not to attract attention in crowds, and was light enough to carry all day. I wanted something that could last me decades on numerous camera bodies, never disappointing me. This lens fits all those qualities.
Is this the lens for everybody? No. It’s just way too expensive for most people, considering the other options available. But it’s true that I wanted the best, and for my needs, this was the best available. It might take a while to save for the lens, but I have been happy with mine in the months I’ve shot with it. And honestly, I think I’ll keep being impressed for the next several years.
Overall, if I could only have one wide lens for the rest of my life, it would be this lens without a doubt. I don’t mind zooming with my feet, and I love the look that this lens lets me give images. The price, though, is the real catch. For the price of this lens, you can literally get any other wide lens from Nikon and still have a bit of money to spare. It all depends on what you want to do, but I'd say that this lens is overkill for most people given the price. But if you're like me and you're fed up buying cheaper-quality substitutes, I promise that you won't be disappointed.
It boasts first-rate optics (ever so slightly better than the f/2.8 zooms)
I love the 24mm f/1.4's handling of bright lights (both flare and sunstars), which makes landscape or cityscape photos much nicer.
The lens is pretty light and small, especially compared to the f/2.8 zooms that most people buy instead at this price.
It has really great weather sealing and mechanical quality. It will last me for years, if not decades.
It really needs a better lens hood. I'm not going to reiterate everything I said above, but I'm kind of disappointed in Nikon's efforts here.
This lens can be tough to focus well due to the nature of phase-detect autofocus, which doesn’t like wide-angle, wide-aperture lenses. There are also some early copies that naturally have bad autofocus, so be careful.
The biggest strike against this lens, as mentioned above, is the price. It literally costs more than any other non-telephoto lens from Nikon.
This article was the third of three.
Part One covers the build quality of the lens.
Part Two covers the optical quality of this lens.
Thank you for reading through this review! It took a lot of research and thousands of photos to make this happen, but I had fun writing it! I certainly hope you gained something from reading through it. If you have any specific questions about this lens or others, please email me using the address in the copyright bar at the bottom of this page. Thanks again!