I’m not what one might call a big “gear-head.” In other words, my lenses and other equipment are just tools to me, and I don’t have much brand loyalty or sentimental affection for any of it. But every now and then a piece of equipment comes along that is a real pleasure to work with, doing what it is supposed to do and doing it well. Of all the gear in my kit, one piece of equipment fits this description more than any other: my Nikon AF-S Zoom Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF Lens. I have owned this lens for several years now, and find I use it for approximately 75-80% of my landscape work. But wait, some of you ask . . . don’t you shoot with a Canon camera? That’s right—I love this Nikon lens so much, I have adapted it to my Canon system. In my opinion, no other wide-angle lens out there can compare to this incomparable gem.
Simply put, the optical quality of this lens is astounding. I have used a number of wide angle lenses, including the following: Sigma 12-24mm, Canon 16-35mmL (both the Mark I and Mark II versions), Canon 17-40mmL, Canon 24mmL tilt-shift, and even the legendary Contax/Zeiss Distagon 21mm. I can say without hesitation that the Nikon 14-24 is the best of the bunch!
Other sites have done extensive resolution testing for this lens against a range of competitors (see for example the testing done by 16-9), and I do not intend to replicate those results here. Overall, my goal is to present more of a subjective review: just my sense of the lens’ performance based on experience and intuition.
Let’s start with the pros:
Excellent optical quality: In my experience, the Nikon 14-24 outperforms any other lens in its class. Images taken with this lens show corner-to-corner sharpness (assuming depth-0f-field is not an issue, of course) at all apertures, even wide open at f/2.8. Most other wide-angle lenses are unsharp at the corners and edges of the image frame wide open, and don’t really begin to effectively resolve detail in those areas until stopped down to f/8 or f/11. Not the Nikon—it starts off with consistent, high quality performance across the image frame when wide open and just gets sharper from there. Optical performance peaks at around f/8 to f/11, and is still excellent when diffraction-limited at f/16 or f/22 (all lenses suffer from a degradation of image quality when used at small apertures, known as “diffraction”). The Nikon especially excels in the widest half of its zoom range, with incredible results from 14mm to around 20mm. From 21mm to 24mm, I would say that it is “merely” excellent. Overall, the Nikon shows a corner-to-corner sharpness that I have seen with very few lenses (wide angle or otherwise), putting it into an elite class that includes legends such as the Canon 500mm f/4L .
Minimum vignetting and distortion: Here’s another coup for the Nikon 14-24mm: almost no noticeable vignetting, even wide open at f/2.8. Being an ultra-wide angle lens, there is of course distortion, but it is very manageable, well-controlled, and much more attractive than the distortion found on the Canon 16-35 or 17-40, or the Distagon 21 (all three of which have an unpleasant waveform distortion that is difficult to correct). The Nikon 14-24’s well-controlled distortion makes it my wide-angle lens of choice when working coastal scenes, where keeping a straight horizon is critical.
Low light champion: This lens’ excellent performance even wide open at f2.8 make it unsurpassed as a lens for low light and night photography. Few wide-angle lenses open up to f/2.8, and none of them offer the 14-24’s corner-to-corner sharpness at this aperture. Simply put, when I want to photograph at night, this is the lens I reach for. It’s perfect for long exposures of stars trails and streaking moonlit clouds, or for shorter high ISO exposures to capture static star field images.
Extreme angle of view: This lens is designed for full-frame sensor cameras. That’s right, you get 14mm on a full-frame camera! At its widest end, the Nikon 14-24mm is what I call a “big sky” lens. It’s about as wide as you can go on a full-frame camera without using a fisheye. Its generous field of view allows you to include lots of sky and lots of foreground at the same time. I like to use the lens at 14mm whenever I have dramatic clouds in the sky; it is also very useful in tight spaces such as slot canyons. Truth be told, 14mm is too ridiculously wide for many scenes and composition must be handled carefully; as you head to the longer end of the zoom range, you start to approach a more “practical” wide-angle field of view.
Excellent control of lens flare and chromatic aberration: Overall, this lens handles flare and chromatic aberration (CA) very well. CA is virtually none-existent, although I can sometimes see some in very high-contrast areas (such as dark twigs against a bright white sky). Whatever CA that can be found is easily removed during the raw conversion process or in Photoshop. Lens flare is reasonably well controlled for such a wide angle lens. Because of the “Popeye” design of this lens, with its huge and protruding bulbous front element, stray light coming from glancing angles can create flare. The lens has a built-in metal lens hood that helps quite a bit. I shoot into the sun a lot, and haven’t found the flare created by this lens to be any worse than other lenses I have used. The Nikon 14-24 creates an attractive sun star. The image below is a good example of how the lens handles shooting into the sun.
You can use it on a Canon camera! Nikon users aren’t the only ones who get to experience the joy of this wonderful lens. The 14-24 can be used on Canon cameras with a special adapter. Lucky for us Canon guys and gals, Novoflex now makes a wonderful Nikon 14-24 to Canon adapter that is easy to use. When using the adapter, you lose auto focus and have to manually set the aperture: compose wide-open, and then stop the lens down to your chosen aperture right before you take the shot. I find that this lens works great with Canon’s Live View, as I can stop the lens down to the working aperture, and use Live View to check critical focus and hyperfocal distance. This way I can make adjustments to my focus point and aperture as necessary, resulting in perfect depth-of-field—and optimal aperture for maximized sharpeness—every time!
All right, no lens is perfect. Here are the cons:
Heavy weight: There’s a penalty for the Nikon 14-24’s excellent optical characteristics: this lens is very big and heavy. Its huge front element protrudes, making handling the lens a nerve-wracking experience: one tumble to the ground and the glass will surely explode! Furthermore, the lens is extremely unbalanced, with the front element being much larger and heavier than the read end of the lens. Weighing in at just over two pounds, it definitely has some heft, but won’t break your back. It certainly is not as big and heavy as carrying 3-4 prime lenses to cover its range. As a result, don’t use this lens on a crop sensor camera. It was designed to give excellent corner-to-corner sharpness on full-frame digital cameras, so all the extra weight and bulk will be wasted on a crop sensor camera.
Filter use is difficult: Using filters on this lens, or any ultra-wide for that matter, is a real challenge—but several solutions do exist. Please see my post on using filters on super-wide angle lenses for more information.
Expect to break the bank: At approximately $1700, there’s a bit of ouch factor involved with buying this lens, but considering that you are getting excellent optical quality from a zoom lens that covers the range of three primes, you’re actually doing quite well. Your price tag will bump up by several hundred dollars if you buy the Lee SW150 filter system, and a few hundred more if you are adapting the lens to a Canon camera. Expect to pay close to $2500 total to full trick your Canon camera out with this lens and accessories!
Conclusion: The Nikon 14-24mm zoom is truly amazing. Heavy and unwieldy, yes. Expensive, but cheaper than buying a bunch of matching primes. In my opinion, it is simply the best lens in its class for full-frame digital cameras, whether for Nikon—or Canon—users!
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