Five months ago, I bought my first ultra-wide lens — the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 — after holding out for years. I’ve always flirted with the idea of such a crazy perspective, but I kept finding reasons not to purchase one myself. A 24mm lens had worked well as my widest angle for years, and I rarely found myself wanting anything more. Now that I’ve seen the other side, though, have my attitudes changed? After going on two major trips with the 14-24mm f/2.8, the insane perspective has started to grow on me, but I still have plenty of reservations. Here’s how I’d sum things up, including my recommendations for anyone else considering making such a leap for themselves.
Table of Contents
1) The 14mm Is Addictive, but Not Necessarily Rewarding
When I went to Escalante National Monument, Zion National Park, and Death Valley National Park over the Spring, I found myself in some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes I’ve ever captured. The crazy slot canyons and sand dunes almost begged for an over-the-top perspective, and 14mm obliged.
Checking my photo stats in Lightroom, I took 992 total photos during that trip — 606 of which were from the 14-24mm, and 301 of which were taken at 14mm.
That’s not inherently good or bad, but it shows how addictive the 14mm focal length can be, even for someone who never really wanted that perspective beforehand.
Still, the keeper ratio isn’t what you may expect. On that trip, I got three photos that were good enough to put on my website (which is pretty typical). How many were taken with the 14-24mm, though? One, at 14mm.
I know that this is a small sample size, but it’s still a bit worrisome. In roughly 400 photos taken with my other lenses, I ended up with two portfolio-level keepers. In roughly 600 photos taken with the 14-24mm, I got one.
It is easy to use an ultra-ultra wide angle by default. But to use it successfully is a different matter. Since 14mm captures such an insanely wide angle of view, you’ll end up including all the imperfections and complexities in a photograph that, normally, should be excluded. But you don’t notice them at the time, because the siren song of 14mm is so strong.
At least, that’s one way to justify it. Another explanation is that I just didn’t end up with many keepers at the slot canyons — which accounted for the vast majority of my 14mm shots — due to poor light. More than the lens, the conditions were to blame, and these numbers will even out after future travels.
I don’t know which explanation is correct. To different degrees, both probably are. What I do know is that the addictiveness of the 14mm view doesn’t necessarily match the photos that it actually lets you take. I wouldn’t say that it’s a bad focal length — not at all. It is simply a typical focal length, in the sense that it provides no more or fewer keepers than other lenses would, despite its outward allure.
2) 14mm is Amazing for Nighttime Photography
The one exception — the one place where the 14-24mm f/2.8 really shines — is nighttime photography.
Having used a 24mm lens for most of my Milky Way endeavors in the past, followed briefly by a 20mm, I didn’t know how much better things could be. But the 14mm perspective is insane for nighttime shots, and it’s something I now would find very difficult to forego in the future.
Beforehand, I didn’t realize just how much of the Milky Way you end up cropping out at focal lengths that otherwise seem quite wide. But it’s one thing to capture a lot of stars in your photo, and another thing entirely to see the entire wispy band of our galaxy stretch across the frame.
That’s not even considering depth of field — the other major reason why a 14mm f/2.8 works so well at night. In the past, with my 24mm f/1.4 or 20mm f/1.8, I was used to experiencing a complete lack of depth of field that blurred everything in my foreground.
It’s not as though the 14mm focal length provides enough depth of field for every situation at night, but it’s a vast improvement. I can lock my lens to its widest angle, pre-focus on the stars, and shoot without worrying about blurring my foreground beyond recognition.
That doesn’t mean, though, that the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 is the only lens with these characteristics. Other manufacturers also make 14mm f/2.8 lenses, or even wider, that work equally well. One that a lot of people mention to me (though not one I’ve tried myself) is the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8. Another is the recently-announced Laowa 12mm f/2.8, along with the Irix 15mm f/2.4, and zoom options like Canon’s 16-35mm f/2.8 or Tamron’s 15-30mm f/2.8. (We have a full list of good night photography lenses for Nikon that you might find helpful.)
The bottom line, though, is that this crazy perspective is fantastic for nighttime photography; it’s almost essential if the Milky Way is your favorite subject. I don’t think of myself as a primarily nighttime photographer, but it’s a capability I want to have, and the 14-24mm f/2.8 is a great tool for the job. In that sense, I’m very glad to have made the leap.
3) For Foregrounds, 14mm Really Works
Now that I’ve started using the 14-24mm lens pretty frequently, I’ve found myself occasionally defaulting to 14mm without thinking, then catching myself to ask why I used it.
Other times, though, it’s been a lifesaver.
When landscape photographers talk about ultra-ultra wide lenses, they almost always do so with foregrounds in mind. There’s a good reason for that.
If you want to emphasize the beauty or interest of a small element in your foreground, there is no better tool than an ultra-wide angle lens. The extreme perspective of these lenses also seems to “stretch” photos in a way that draws viewers into the frame, emphasizing dramatic lines that are present in the composition. Although a few wider lenses exist today, 14mm is more than enough to exaggerate lines and emphasize your foregrounds in a way that could not be depicted otherwise.
Here’s my only problem: For my own photography, I’ve never really been interested in foregrounds as much as grand, distant landscapes Part of this, I’m sure, is due to the fact that I never had an ultra-wide lens before now; I’ve never really trained myself to look down in a beautiful landscape rather than ahead. Still, the fact remains.
Now that the 14mm perspective has given me the chance to explore this type of photography, I think I’ll be a slow but steady adopter. This high-stretch perspective can quickly become a gimmick, but, used carefully, I think it has a lot of potential. I don’t like my compositions to look wild and stretched, but I do think that it’s possible to emphasize a foreground without falling victim to the insane appearance that some 14mm photos have. At the very least, I think that this perspective is growing on me; whether or not that will continue is anyone’s guess.
If this sounds good to you — emphasizing foregrounds and adding dramatic lines to a beautiful landscape — an ultra-wide angle is probably a worthwhile part of your kit. For some people’s style of composition, it is fundamental. I’m not at that point yet, but many other photographers are. Depending upon the type of work you do and the subjects you focus on, an ultra-wide can be a fantastic tool, and one that I would highly recommend.
I wouldn’t say that I’ve become a full-on ultra-wide convert, but I’m certainly starting to appreciate it more and more. Still, although I used 14mm for 30% of my photos at Escalante, Zion, and Death Valley, I do think that the slot canyons and nighttime photography outings made that trip a bit of an outlier. We’ll see how it goes in the future, though.
To me, the most important thing is to not get caught up in the mystique of the 14mm — to make sure that the lens does not choose my compositions. With that qualification, the benefits of this field of view are pretty significant. It’s now easier to capture nighttime photos with a beautiful Milky Way, as well as emphasizing beautiful foregrounds and dramatic lines in nature. For now, that’s enough to earn the 14-24mm f/2.8 a solid place in my kit.
Nice topic, thanks for the article. The widest angle I can use is 24mm (on a D7200), and I find myself turning the ring to it very often, trying to get as much as possible within the shot.
However, to the technical aspect… and this may not be an issue for the Nikon 14-24mm, but it certainly is for the Tamron 24-70mm – the lens is just not the best at its extremes. It can take really nice and sharp images, but widest aperture, widest (or longest) zoom simply don’t bring the best results.
For this reason, I’m thiking of getting a wide prime for landscape purposes. Would that be a good idea? Or would you say, based on the canyon tour, that it would be too much of a limitation to go on a landscape tour with a fixed lens?
“In roughly 400 photos taken with my other lenses, I ended up with two portfolio-level keepers. In roughly 600 photos taken with the 14-24mm, I got one.”
Just curious; what landscapes were you shooting with the other lenses?
I’ve been lured by the siren songs as well. I’ve been experimenting with the Nikon AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR lens. Has anyone had any experience/fortune with using this lens for astrophotography, or can I expect the f/4 to be problematical?
Hey Brent, sorry for the slow response. At the Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley, I used a 70-200mm and a 35mm pretty extensively. That was the main example, but I also used the 70-200 from time to time in Zion to photograph some green tree leaves against the red rock background.
Spencer, I really like the article but don’t agree with conclusion 100%. If i’m shooting landscapes, nikon 14-24 is on my camera more than 90% of the time and yields amazing results. I agree there is additional work to bring it far objects to scale but as long as you are ready to focal length blend it’s worth it.
Bought a 14-24 some weeks ago and I´m really fascinated not only by the wide perspective (a friend said take care not to get your shoetzips into the Picture) but also with the enormous depth of field. You even can take Close-up´s of flowers (not really Close, but a Group of flowers) with all the Background within the depth of field thus resulting in better Pictures than with the 60 mm macro.
I’m a news shooter (not even full-time) and I shudder at the idea of using this lens because of the very large, exposed, bulbous front element. I handled this lens for the first time just a few days ago and, quite honestly, was pretty floored at the size/weight. Although I know that the lens is very popular with all sorts of shooters….man, I just can’t see how that front element could stay unscathed in everyday, hurried handling.
I’ve owned the 14-24/2.8 since it came out. However, now that I’ve switched back to primes, ùy super-wide is the Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8, which performs at least as well, and in most cases better, than the Nikkor zoom —AND it takes filters. I was surprised not to see it in your list of lenses… I have not done night photography so far but I intend to look into it this season, and the Distagon will certainly be put to good use. The next shortest primes I have are the 19/4 PC, which is stellar (no pun intended) but will suffer from not being fast enough, and then the 24/1.4 Nikkor.
There is mixed advice on the internet as to the best focal length for Milky Way photography, and the widest lens is not always favored over the fastest… I hope to try both the 15 and the 24.
The 14-24 has rather too much distortion at 14mm but it’s a great lens for the night sky due to it’s low coma.
The best super-wide lens IMO is Nikon’s DX 10.5mm fisheye, which might sound silly but I have both lenses.
The 10.5 was almost permanently on my D200 for over a year, the 14-24 comes out at night and not too often.
The 10.5 straightens really well with Rectfish, only loosing a bit at the corners. It’s also amazingly sharp with low flare even with the sun in shot; and it has a fabulous dof..
I’ver never had satisfactory straightening of images taken with the 14-24 and flare is diabolical.
But as always it’s not what lens you use but how and when you use it and to that end the 14-24’s keepers have all been of the night sky; and the 10.5’s keepers have ranged from portrait through still-life to landscape, but the key is to keep it horizontal and use a good defishing app. .
Thank you for sharing these stunning milky way pictures. It never occurred to me I could use my 14-24 for this kind of stuff – I tried 24/1.4, 20/1.4 and am looking forward to the 14/1.8 of Sigma. The lens which beats the 14-24 (at least on Nikon) is Sigmas 12-24/4 Art. As good as the 14-24, just without the tremendous flares in backlight conditions.
I found myself in the same situation, I feel comfortable with down to 20mm if I take time to compose, 14mm seems quicker, but (for me) is a dual edge knife, what I see in the ovf normally is better than the final result. I don’t mean that what you see is different that what you get, I mean than in a hurry lot of details were overlooked. In other words a 14mm needs extreme care composing in order to get a keeper, it doesn’t forgive so easily.
Interesting perspective, Spencer, thanks for posting. I use an 11-16mm on aps-c and share many of your pro’s and contra’s.
A question: that image of the slot canyon with the central highlighted rock really grasped my attention – it’s as 3D as any photo can possibly get! Did you perhaps selectively lower the contrast/clarity on the more “shadowed” rocks to guide the eye (esp. some regions on the left) or is that just a play of dof?