A few weeks ago I test drove the Nikon 24mm f/1.4 prime lens on my trip to Death Valley. I ended really liking it and wanted to give you some thoughts about why I did.
A Surprise Test Drive
It was weird because I had absolutely no interest in using this lens. But our video team at Kelby Training had the lens (it’s a popular video lens) and it turned out I could borrow it for a few days, so I did. One of the reasons I really wanted to try it out was because you constantly hear talk of how prime lenses are sharper than zoom lenses. I figured I could put it to the test against my Nikon 16-35mm lens at 24mm, and compare the results.
My First Time Using It
The first day I used it was when we went to shoot the sand dunes in Death Valley. I was a little worried that I’d have this prime lens on, and wouldn’t be able to zoom. While I had my 16-35mm lens with me, I wasn’t crazy about having to change lenses on sand dunes. But I decided to go for it anyway. I had it on right from the start and was amazed that an hour later, I hadn’t even thought about the fact that I hand’t zoomed. It was actually pretty cool. For my style of landscape photography, being fixed at 24mm seemed to work out just fine. That actually fits with what I already knew though, because I rarely shoot my 16-35mm at 16mm. Personally, unless I have something really close in the frame that I want to accent, I find 16mm makes everything off in the distance too small. So I find myself shooting at the longer end of the 16-35mm, and composing so that my foreground elements are there, but also the background elements of my landscapes still make an impact.
Here’s an example of what I mean. I shot these photos at Trillium Lake in Oregon. One photo is at 16mm and one is at 35mm. You can see how Mt. Hood gets really small and becomes much less part of the photo at 16mm. But at 35mm, it’s feels like a larger part of the photo.
BTW… This is a VERY personal choice and style. I personally like the 35mm image better for my style. Many of you may prefer the other one. That’s totally okay 🙂
What I Liked About The Lens
Well, you already know that I liked not zooming. I never felt the need for a different focal length that morning and ended up keeping the lens on until I replaced it with the 70-200mm, for some tighter more abstract photo of the dunes.
But the main thing I REALLY liked about the lens is something that is VERY specific to my style of shooting. It’s the sun-star it produces when shooting into the sun. Personally, I love shooting into the sun for my landscape photography. Especially when the sun is just about to come up from behind the horizon (or mountain) or set behind it. To me, it represents a very specific point in the day. A moment that only happens once in the place you’re standing. It’s like a perfect moment captured in time and held still. For me, it adds something of a dynamic element to landscapes.
Because of the blades and shape of the aperture, your wide aperture lenses like f/1.4 and even up to f/2.8 tend to have very nice looking, orderly sun-stars (when shot at higher f-stop numbers like f/16 and f/22). Here’s a couple of examples from the trip where I used it. If you wait until the sun is just coming up, or just setting this is the look you get. And when I say just coming up, I mean, within the first 10-20 seconds – after that I starts to get bigger and brighter.
Now here’s an example using my Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens. It may not be a huge difference. But to some one who really likes shooting into the sun, the shape of that star burst (and the differences) is very noticeable.
Was It Really Sharper?
Here’s what surprised me the most. I’ve heard for many years that prime lenses are sharper then zoom lenses. And I’ve actually seen that some of them are. Take my 85mm f/1.4 as an example. It’s sharper then if I set my 70-200mm lens at 85mm and take a photo. As I mentioned before, this was one thing I really wanted to test out with this lens. While I’m not an overly technical person, I decided to do a test. I set my camera on my tripod and took a series of photos with the Nikon 24mm prime. Then I changed to my 16-35mm lens, set the focal length to 24mm and took the same set of photos. Heck, I even put the 14-24mm on and the 24-70mm on to test them at 24mm too. When I opened the photos in Photoshop and put them on top of each other, I couldn’t tell any noticeable difference. Again, I’m not a techie person, so I don’t look at things like chromatic aberration, diffraction and all of those really techie things that only other photographers (not the rest of the world) notice. But from what I could see, there wasn’t anything close to a noticeable difference to warrant buying a lens like this because it’s sharper. It may be true for other prime lenses, but not this one from what I’ve found.
Would I (personally) Buy The Lens?
Here’s the magic question… would I buy this lens? For me, the answer is no for several reasons:
1) Why buy an f/1.4 lens if you’re not going to shoot it at f/1.4. Seriously, that’s part of what you’re spending your money on (almost $2000). I don’t shoot weddings and events. I think it’s a lens with a large aperture of f/1.4, meant for low-light situations, and shallow depth of field to isolate subjects from the background. Not to mention, it’s great for video DSLR because it’ll give a very cinematic feel to the video. But for landscapes and what I tend shoot, it’s overkill.
2) While I love the shape of the sun-star that it produces, having a dedicated lens for just that is something that I’ll have to wait until I’m a rich doctor to own 🙂 Right now, it’s not worth the extra money, weight in my camera bag, not to mention the downside of not having a zoom lens if I need it.
3) It’s a heck-of-a lot of money to spend on a fixed prime lens because I “kinda” liked not zooming. You know what? I kinda like having an extra $2000 in my pocket too. So if I ever feel the need to not zoom, I’ll tape my lens so it’s fixed at 24mm so I can’t zoom 😉
What Lens Do I Use?
I wrote about it a while back and it’s probably due for an update blog post, but I use the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens. It’s proven to be a great landscape photography lens, and plenty sharp enough.
Thanks for stopping by. If you’ve got any experience with the lens, I’d love to here about it. Have a good one!
Nice write up and beautiful images. If you still have the lens you gotta try some night shots. That 1.4 is really gonna shine then. But agree for daytime it doesn’t make sense to shoot so shallow.
I shot the milky way with this lens. I don’t remember the settings, but I do remember it was LOW ISO (800 maybe, or less) and 10secs. Anything over 10 seconds you will see star trails. The corners ARE softer (I think it’s the distortion).
I recently bought the 24mm 1.4g and the 16-35mm f4 VR. Maybe my 16-35mm isn’t as sharp as yours, or my 24mm is sharper than yours was, or maybe my shooting style is more sensitive to subtle differences in rendering. Anyway, my 24mm 1.4g is way sharper than my 16-35mm f4 VR at 24mm and f8. I notice it the most in the corners, but it seems quite a bit more crisp throughout. I did immediately notice the improved sunstars too.
I’m testing on a D810.
I’ll probably bring both with me from now on, despite the weight. Sometimes I really need 35mm, but I rarely need 16mm. For everything else, I’ll use the 24 1.4g. It’s a shame the 35mm 1.4g doesn’t have ED glass. I’d trade the zoom for another prime in a heartbeat if they made it as good as this 24.
Hey Jesse – Not sure what it could be. I know I don’t look around the corners when I examine my images though, so maybe that could be it. But my 16-35 (and eventually the 18-35 cheaper lens I started using) have been razor sharp at the areas I look at. Thanks!
Nice review. However the conclusion is somewhat biased. The f1.4 is distinct in low light and the 24 has quite a bit of dof so works great for landscape even at f1.4. Unless the subject is close like 5 or 8 ft away, isolation is somewhat difficult at this focal length imo. So works great at low light events like concerts.
Matt,A tilt and shift lens would be the most useful for you.. I also have the 24mm 1.4G,it has excellent resolution and the 1.4 aperture is a BFD… few lenses allow shooting in such low light without driving up the iso.. resolution across the frame at f4-f8 is very good.. right out to the edges……but ultimately it’s a lens you buy for a “look” that can set your work apart and thats what 1.4 can do…
I have found that the D800 has revised common wisdom about lenses and sharpness. When one resizes the 4912 line file to that of 3840, to compare it, say, to a 5DMkIII file, the “apparent” resolution improves by approximately 23%. In other words, the blur is shrunk down. All one seems to hear is that the D800 demands premium glass. That may be true for 80 inch wide prints, but my experience has shown otherwise for those less than 40 inches (although I do agree with a greater need for tripods, good technique, etc.).
A few months ago, I did an outdoor model shoot with off-camera flash using my D800E. I took my favorite lens, the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and my 85mm f1.4 for the low ambient light or bokeh shots. About two thirds of the way through the shoot, I needed a wide angle. I left the 16-35mm at home, so I threw on my 28-300mm – a lens that does
not test well on a D3X according to Photozone and a lens that many dismiss as being roughly equivalent to a pinhole lens. When I went to pack-up after the shoot, I realized that I forgot to take off the 28-300mm and had used it for much of the shoot. I was kicking myself for the stupid error.
When I got home and reviewed the photos – I was completely shocked by the results. All my shots were focused on the models’ eyes and were somewhat immune to motion blur due to the short flash duration. I blew them up to an equivalent 40 inch wide format and compared shots. They were ALL razor sharp, with great eyelash detail. There was no discernable difference between any of the lenses! I must have rechecked the metadata information fifty times in disbelief. How could this possibly be?
Having shot Leica and Zeiss lenses for some years, I am a stickler for absolute sharpness. I have sold a number of lenses that just didn’t pass muster. Since acquiring the D800E, however, I have found that I can just shoot any of my lenses and not worry about image quality. My 70-200mm VRII seems to have the best micro-contrast and color straight from the camera, which makes it my favorite, but then Photoshop can help even-out all of those variables when I shoot other, “inferior”, lenses. Most importantly, sharpness is never an issue anymore (barring camera shake 🙂 ).
I shoot D800E too. Generally for normal light conditions or for speed lights, most pictures come out well with any decent lens. I have seen better clarity with more expensive lens in cropped pics(http://nashflix.smugmug.com/). The difference is only with low light conditions. Also when you want a broader dynamic range, you are almost lost with lens that is not as bright as at least F2.8. I do landscape and always love the F1.4 or F2 range in evening/early morning shots – it just blows up my mind how much dynamic range I could get. I don’t have this 24 mm and resort to 50F1.4 for most of my low light conditions and 17-35 F2.8 for others. I have been seriously considering 24 F1.4. So in general I disagree with the author as well as those who think the 24 F1.4 is not distinguishing. It will, if you really want great ones. Here’s one for getting and shot in normal fall weather looking special, just by using 50 mm at F1.4.
Also, I have some portraits where the 85mm F1.4 has been distinctly crisper than those I got from 70-200 with much nicer bokeh. So in general, I am a big fan of F1.4 primes.
Good comparison, but seriously, you’re not paying “$2000” for f/1.4. You’re actually paying about $550 at current prices if you purchase a 24 f/1.4G instead of a 16-35 f/4.
Matt, I thought for sure you would say something about this lens and night photography. Any big advantage shooting at 1.4 or 2.0 vs F4 at night when shooting stars?
Matt, first, it’s really refreshing to read from a respected blogger or reviewer that, even though it’s a really nice lens, no, I would not buy one! Second, I am going to respectfully take issue with you on one point. That is: “why buy a 1.4 lens if I am not going to shoot at 1.4?” I tend to buy a lens because of what it will do at the type of images I love to shoot. Example–a few years ago, I bought a Pentax f/1.8 – 77 mm Black Limited, one of Pentax’s legendary primes. I thought I would use it on portraits. But … I took it out one evening while sailing to photograph a sunset (preferably with that last-moment sunburst 🙂
I was absolutely amazed at the richness of the color and the beautiful tonal transitions I get with the lens on my K-7. But I very, very rarely even approach f/1.8. I get quite a few opportunities to shoot sunsets, and they are what I love to do for myself and my sailing friends. Yes, it is a very able portrait lens too, but I really love it because it POSITIVELY EXCELS at what I love, down around f/8 or f/5.6.
Thank you, for your review! I already bought a 24mm (instead of 16-35mm) because I wanted to shoot without a flash/handheld at night.
Had you ever thought of trying one of the older manual focus primes like a 20 or 24 f/2.8? For landscape who needs autofocus. And the price is right, new or used.
Nope. As I said, I like to shoot into the sun so I like the nano coating on the newer lenses. And I use auto focus all the time 🙂
Me again! I just watched your onOne webinar. It was Great! Man, I really got a lot of it. I tried some of your effect on a few of my images and they work out great!
Primes make ya walk and money talks.
Awesome real world review. I too have the 16-35 and love it. Other than for doing way cool 1.4 environmental portraits or star trails, most wide angle stuff is shot at smaller apertures anyways.
Matt, I agree completely that you can’t rule out the zoom lenses for quality photos. Here is a photo I took with my Nikon kit 18mm-55mm lens:
I had a UV filter on it
Meta Data was:
Definitely don’t think you should count out the zoom lenses. Thank you for posting this! It makes me feel better not yet owning a prime lens.
Awesome post today Matt! Thank you very much!!
Matt, love your post on this lens! Lots of good info. I’ve been using a 18-250 mm 3.5-6.3 Sigma Lens. I really like it, but I had to use Michael Taps Lens Align system to get it set up for sharp images thru the zoom range. It helped a lot. Also, I use a Canon 7D. Not full frame … APS-C 1.6x EF or EF-S Lens. Any suggestion on a lens to be equivalent to your full frame 16-35 mm lens?
Again, great post!
The Sigma 10-20 is pretty close in range, and the one I have has been quite nice for the situations when I want something that wide. (I rather like longer lenses for their depth compression when shooting landscapes, myself.)
Thanks for the Reply! Very much appreciate. I’m heading over to B&H right now to check it out!
Love the review, Matt! You bring up some very good point, especially “If you’re buying a 1.4 lens – you’re going to shoot at 1.4”!
Good to know re: sharpness. I love the photos!!
I’ll pass ya the Gaffer tape.