I have been on Nikon’s case to release fast, wide primes since about 30 seconds after they discontinued the 28mm f/1.4, sending the price of existing copies into the stratosphere. It has been the biggest gaping hole in Nikon’s lens line-up, and as zooms got better and better, and each new camera pushed the ISO boundaries — 6400, then 25,600, now the D3s’s 102,400 — I worried Nikon might think professional fast primes were a thing of the past.
Thankfully not. With the new 24mm f/1.4, Nikon shooters have the option for extreme low-light shooting or depth-of-field separation at wide angles, but it comes at a steep price — 2,199.95, almost enough to buy five Sigma 24mm f/1.8’s. So the question is, is it good enough to be worth it?
Let’s face it, for most people the answer is going to be no. Most people are never going to buy a two thousand dollar lens, and if they do, they might pick more of a general-use workhorse like a 70-200 VRII or the (bit cheaper) 24-70 f/2.8. The price and specialized nature puts it squarely in the market of rich amateurs, primes addicts, and that now-rare class of photojournalists who somehow make money. My documentary wedding style in dark, dark New York City venues puts me in the market, but most people may be better served with another lens due to price alone.
But if you like fancy toys, or can simply justify that it’s still more than $4,000 cheaper than Leica’s 24mm f/1.4, read on. Lots of pictures to follow, so I’m sticking it behind a cut. These are commissioned pictures, so I can’t release full-size images, but you can see full-size snapshots and RAW samples from my quick impressions here.
Way more solid than the Sigma 24mm, it feels like a solid hunk of polycarbonate. It’s small enough to feel well-balanced on mid-sized bodies like the D700, but it’s large for a wide-angle prime, so the smallest SLR bodies could be hard to shoot one-handed or lay flat. Operation is simple; there is only one switch, for manual focus, and the focusing ring turns smoothly with an even throw. The hood is slightly flimsy like most wide-angle hoods, but fits tightly and can rest on a flat surface so you can rest the lens on it, unlike the hood for the new 70-200 VR II.
It’s not as fast racking through the whole focus range as some of the professional zoom lenses, but the autofocus is accurate so you usually won’t have to. it locks focus fairly quickly even in moderate darkness, but fast wide-angle lenses require you to be absolutely certain you are locked on to the the focal point you want. Because it is wide, the camera’s AF sensor might cover areas of very different distances, because it has a wide aperture, you will actually see that effect. New users might get some misfocused shots until they get used to that, but that is a problem not with the lens, but with physics. With AF assist, it has no problem locking onto fast motion in the dark, such as the groom spinning his bride around on the dance floor:
THe Sigma wins handily here, with a reproduction ratio of 0.5. The Nikon is only 0.179x, meaning you’re not going to use this as a macro. But that’s just due to the wide-angle — you can still shoot less than 10 inches from your subjects, meaning you will never be limited by the lens when you’re shooting people. Here’s a shot very near close-focus distance.
Really, really good. Really. The 24 has the same excellent color transmission as most other recent Nikon professional lenses and starts out quite sharp. If you’re trying to get maximum resolution out of a D3X you’ll want to stop down a few notches, but otherwise you could leave this on f/1.4 all day and the images will be sharp and contrasty. Here’s a shot of a gorgeous bride getting ready. At f/1.4, even though it is a wide angle shot, there is enough separation to make her pop:
Here is a 100 percent crop:
You are usually not going to get extreme bokeh because it is a wide-angle lens — at 24mm, any separation from the background is an achievement — but if you are close to the main subject you will. So here is the bokeh of the busiest subject imaginable:
And an example of foreground separation:
Smooth, but not quite up there with the smoothest lenses. Still,I like the look of it much better than the old 28mm f/1.4.
And, of course, being an f/1.4 lens allows you to shoot in extremely dark situations without grain. Here is the bride walking down a dark aisle, ISO 2000:
Is there any downside? Well, being a low-light specialist leaves it limited to f/16 on the low end. I know that most fast prime shooters don’t like to spend a lot of time at f/22, but I like as varied a portfolio as possible, and have litle choice over clients’ schedules, so I often have to work in bright days close to noon. f/16 and the base 200 ISO of Nikon cameras will not fully kill bright sunlight. For this shot I had to resort to Auto-FP trickery, at 1/8000th, f/9. Anyone who’s worked with Auto-FP a lot know that, because it decimates flash power, f/9 isn’t a easy target to hit:
So, do I like this lens? No. I absolutely adore it. I haven’t been as excited about a new lens since many years ago when I first got the 85mm f/1.4. But it’s extremely specialized. 24mm is wide for a prime. You’re either going to feel like you’re getting too close to your subjects, or you’re going to often have things in your shots you don’t want. If Nikon releases a 35mm f/1.4, that may have a bigger usage base. No one can say what’s right for your style, but given the size of the investment I would make sure that you really like shooting at 24mm before you buy this one. But if you do, you’re going to like it a whole lot more now.