Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S Focusing Performance
The 14-24mm f/2.8 S autofocuses quickly and almost silently, with very impressive accuracy both in the viewfinder and in live view. This is as much due to the camera as the lens, but it’s still great to see the trend continue on the 14-24mm f/2.8 S. The accuracy is fantastic and even better than a Nikon DSLR in live view (which itself is amazingly accurate).
Because of the large f/2.8 maximum aperture across all focal lengths, the Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 focusing in very dark conditions without any issue. Compared to something like the Nikon Z 14-30mm f/4, the 14-24mm f/2.8 can autofocus in conditions with half as much ambient light. At these focal lengths, it’s only beaten by the Nikon Z 20mm f/1.8 and 24mm f/1.8 lenses for low-light focusing capabilities.
In terms of manual focus, I’m clearly fighting a losing battle by saying in every Nikon Z lens review that I’m not a fan of focusing manually with a focus-by-wire system. Nevertheless, I’ll repeat my claim that a mechanically-coupled focus rings are generally better for manual focus. As it is right now, the Z 14-24mm f/2.8’s manual focus system doesn’t just depend on how far you turn the focus ring, but also how fast you turn it. That can make it trickier to pinpoint the right focusing distance compared to a mechanical system.
Lastly, the close-focusing capabilities of the Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S are hardly great. At 24mm, you’ll get a maximum magnification of 1:7.7. That’s enough to fill the frame horizontally with an object 10.8 inches across (27.4 cm) – nowhere near macro. However, I doubt that any photographers were ever seriously considering this lens for close-ups anyway. It’s a non-issue.
The Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S has reasonably high levels of barrel distortion at 14mm, but very good distortion performance once you’re at 16mm and beyond:
By comparison, here’s the level of distortion on the Nikon Z 14-30mm f/4 S:
It’s not even close! At all the focal lengths we directly compared – 14mm, 16mm, and 24mm – there’s substantially more distortion on the 14-30mm f/4.
Next, here’s the distortion performance of the F-mount 14-24mm f/2.8 (be aware of the different Y axis):
This one is more comparable. It has slightly more distortion than the Z-mount lens from 14mm to 18mm, but less at 24mm.
Hopefully that puts things into context a bit. The Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 certainly isn’t free from distortion, but it’s no worse than expectations and arguably better. Even the strongest distortion of -3.52% isn’t enough to look like a fisheye by any means.
I should also point out that many photographers will never see this distortion in the first place, even if they’re shooting lots of totally straight lines like architecture. The reason is that Adobe Lightroom has a built-in lens profile for the Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 that almost completely removes distortion, and the lens profile cannot be disabled. (The same is true if you use Nikon’s own editing software or shoot JPEGs.) The only way to see to the original, distorted images is to open your RAW files in some other software like Capture One that lets you disable profile corrections.
To me, the inability to see the uncorrected images in Lightroom is a problem. I get why Nikon’s own software won’t let you remove them, but there’s no excuse not to have a “disable” button in Lightroom. It’s not something you’ll need very often, but every once in a while, your composition may be just slightly off, an a handful of extra pixels on either side could make a difference. You may never be able to see those extra pixels on this lens even if you captured them. I blame Adobe and not the 14-24mm f/2.8 S lens specifically, but it’s irritating either way.
The Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S is one of the sharpest zooms we’ve ever tested. It’s actually one of the sharpest lenses we’ve ever tested, period. Here’s how it performs at 14mm:
This is pretty amazing performance, and it’s at a focal length of 14mm where almost all lenses struggle. There’s nothing here to complain about at all. Even wide open at f/2.8, the corners are very good.
At 16mm, the center sharpness is slightly better than it was at 14mm, especially wide open at f/2.8. Midframe performance is practically the same, but corner performance has bumped up a bit from f/4 through f/8. Taking midframe and corner performance into account, this is the sharpest focal length on the zoom, with simply incredible performance all-around.
The story is very similar here, with practically the same amazing performance as 16mm – only a very slight drop in the corners at f/4 and f/5.6 (and a very slight gain in the center from f/2.8 to f/5.6) but any differences likely to be invisible in real-world images.
This performance is also amazing. Central sharpness is the highest so far, although corner sharpness has fallen a bit (at least before f/8, where it’s just as sharp as before).
Finally, here’s 24mm:
24mm is the strongest focal length for the 14-24mm f/2.8 in the center, but the weakest focal length in the corners. The corners are respectable by f/4 and especially f/5.6, but they never quite crisp up to the level we saw at the other focal lengths. It’s nothing to worry about; these are still excellent numbers, as you’ll see on the “Lens Comparisons” page later in this review. (If you happen to pair this lens with the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8, its strongest focal length is 24mm, at which it outperforms the 14-24mm f/2.8 in the corners; so, between the two, use the Z 24-70mm f/2.8 if you’re trying to pick one at 24mm).
For comparison, here is the manufacturer-provided MTF chart:
In terms of other sharpness issues, one thing we did find is that there’s some visible focus shift from 14mm to 18mm at apertures of f/2.8 to f/5.6 (none beyond that). In other words, if you focus on something at f/2.8 and then stop down to f/5.6, the point of focus will shift slightly farther back in your composition. It’s not a huge effect on this lens, but it exists. Luckily, Nikon Z cameras are programmed to focus at whatever aperture you’ve set (at least at f/5.6 and wider), which means the solution to this issue is simple. Just set the aperture first and focus second, rather than focusing first and setting aperture second. If you do that, you’ll never see any focus shift on the 14-24mm f/2.8 S.
Another common issue with lenses of this focal length is field curvature, where the “plane” of sharpest focus is actually more like a dome or hemisphere. This can mean that photographing flat subjects like walls will give you blurrier corners than the lens is actually able to resolve. Even though the weaker corners at 20mm and 24mm on this lens may seem like field curvature, they aren’t. Our tests showed almost no field curvature on this lens at all, unlike many other ultra-wide zooms (including the Nikon F-mount 14-24mm f/2.8).
Of every zoom lens we’ve tested in the lab, only the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S and Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 S are sharper, and not by much (all three are in the same ballpark). It just doesn’t get much sharper than this.
Related to sharpness is coma, a lens aberration that can make dots of light in the corner of a photo look like smears. Coma isn’t usually visible in everyday photography, but for something like photographing the Milky Way, it’s an important factor. The Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S is targeted at Milky Way photographers, so I wanted to put its coma performance to the test.
The crops shown in the image below are extreme crops from the top-left corner of the Nikon Z7 with the 14-24mm f/2.8 S. I cropped the Nikon Z7’s 45-megapixel sensor down to minuscule 450 × 450 pixel crops. The image below has four such crops, from f/2.8 to f/8:
To clarify, these crops are not downsized to make them look better; those are the exact 450 × 450 excerpts direct from the Nikon Z7’s sensor (at least once you click the image above to enlarge it). Not to mention that these are from the farthest top-left extreme, where coma performance should be the worst. Yet there’s essentially none at all.
This is the best coma performance I’ve seen on an ultra-wide lens. Milky Way photographers and nighttime cityscape photographers will have no issues at all getting sharp corners with the Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S.
In uncorrected images, the Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 has moderately high levels of vignetting wide open, though it depends on your focal length and focusing distance. It’s worst at 14mm and infinity focus. Here’s a full chart of vignetting levels:
The maximum of about two stops of vignetting is pretty high – about like the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 at its worst (2.01 stops). However, it’s better than the F-mount 14-24mm f/2.8 (2.61 stops), and even beats the Z 14-30mm f/4 (2.51 stops) despite having a larger maximum aperture. It’s also surprisingly good at 24mm, where it has acceptable levels of vignetting even wide open.
Stopping down to f/4 puts vignetting at reasonable levels even at 14mm and infinity focus, and it’s almost invisible at 18mm and beyond. At apertures like f/5.6 and smaller, I wouldn’t worry about vignetting at all with the 14-24mm f/2.8 S.
Also, keep in mind that auto-corrected images in Lightroom will show less vignetting than this, so you may find that the numbers above are exaggerated compared to your real-world impressions. It’s really only something I’d watch for when photographing Milky Way images at high ISOs, where it’s harder to correct for vignetting without adding some extra noise in the corners of your image. You may want to apply selective noise reduction along the edges of your photo in that particular case.
There is a negligible amount of chromatic aberration on the Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S at every focal length and aperture. Here’s the chart:
Anything under about one pixel is almost impossible to notice in real-world images, even with chromatic aberration corrections turned off. By comparison, the F-mount 14-24mm f/2.8 maxes out at 1.69 pixels of chromatic aberration, and the Z 14-30mm f/4 has 1.72 pixels at the most. Those aren’t high, either, but the 14-24mm f/2.8 Z still beats them handily.
You’re not going to get much background blur with a 14-24mm lens, f/2.8 maximum aperture or not. I had to focus at the lens’s maximum magnification, 24mm, and f/2.8 to get pedestrian levels of out-of-focus areas. This is actually one reason why landscape photographers prefer ultra-wides in many cases; they have a ton of depth of field. But the flip side is that these lenses are rarely meant for capturing shallow-focus photos.
What little background blur you’ll get with this lens is somewhat nervous. Take a look at the image below, followed by a crop of the background blur:
It doesn’t ruin the image or anything, but there’s a definite “ring” around the out-of-focus highlights that makes them less smooth than they would be with some lenses. The above is a worst-case scenario, and I was able to get plenty of photos with lower-contrast backgrounds that have pretty pleasant bokeh
Either way, I’m hardly concerned. Bokeh quality is going to be way down on the list for most photographers considering the Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S. That’s just not what lenses like this are made for. Go with a 24mm f/1.4 or 35mm f/1.8 instead if you need good levels of background blur on a reasonably wide lens.
Sunstars and Flare
One of the few flaws with the F-mount 14-24mm f/2.8 is that it has a lot of flare in backlit situations. Many other ultra-wide lenses are similar. Considering how easy it is to end up with the sun in a 14mm composition, flare is one of the biggest things I was worried about on the Nikon Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S. Turns out there was no reason to be concerned. This lens has excellent flare resistance:
I don’t see any flare at all in this image, which is remarkable for such a bright sun! Well done on Nikon’s part for however they managed to have such great performance. It’s almost impossible to get dots of flare in this lens without deliberately trying (and taking a photo no one would actually take for artistic reasons).
As for sunstars, the 14-24mm f/2.8 is good but could be a bit better. Here’s an example:
This is a solid sunstar, although it’s not quite at the level of lenses like the F-mount 20mm f/1.8 or some of old Nikon prime lenses. The image above is also at f/22, where sunstars are especially dramatic. You’ll want to use f/11 to f/22 if you want decent sunstars on the 14-24mm f/2.8 S (though f/22 has a bigger sharpness penalty from diffraction).
Overall, taking flare and sunstar performance into account, this is an excellent lens for photographing backlit scenes or taking pictures where the sun is in your composition. Considering that the 14-24mm f/2.8 is targeted at landscape photographers, that’s exactly what I’d like to see.
The next page of this review dives into the sharpness numbers a bit more, with some comparisons against other lenses that Nikon users may be considering. Click the menu below to go to “Lens Comparisons”.