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.
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.