The 14-30mm f/4 S autofocuses quickly and almost silently, with very impressive accuracy both in the viewfinder and in live view (and with more precision than we see in F-mount glass). This is as much due to the camera as the lens, but either way it’s great to see the trend continue on the 14-30mm f/4.
In terms of manual focus, it has the issues I’ve already mentioned – the usual ergonomic problems with Nikon’s AF-P motor – but nothing more than that. I was able to focus manually with perfect accuracy on stars at night, despite only being an f/4 lens.
As for close focusing, the 14-30mm f/4 is far from a macro lens. At 30mm, you can get a maximum magnification of 1:6.25. That’s enough to fill your frame horizontally with an object 8.8 inches across (22.4 cm) – not terrible, but not great. However, I doubt that many photographers were ever seriously considering this lens for close-ups anyway. It’s a non-issue.
The 14-30mm f/4 S has astonishing amounts of distortion, particularly at 14mm, but it’s still high across the rest of the zoom range. You can see our distortion graphs below. These are based on the uncorrected RAW file from RawDigger:
As you can see, the distortion at 14mm is nearly 8% barrel distortion, which is insane! The crazy thing is that many photographers – specifically Adobe Lightroom and Nikon Capture NX-D users – may never even realize their lens has such extreme distortion. That’s because Adobe and Nikon have built-in lens profiles for the 14-30mm f/4 that you cannot remove at all.
How does this look in practice? Here is an uncorrected test chart image at 14mm demonstrating the near-fisheye quality of the 14-30mm f/4:
In some sense, I’d say it is a good thing that Lightroom and Capture NX-D hide this version of the photo by default, instead showing you an image with essentially zero distortion. However, that correction does come at a cost.
First, by stretching pixels in the corners, Lightroom potentially makes those regions appear less sharp. More importantly, it crops out plenty of pixels that you may have wanted to include, especially if the distortion doesn’t matter for the particular subject you’re photographing. Architectural photography? You’ll be glad it’s corrected by default. But for landscapes, I really wish Nikon and Adobe – or at least Adobe – would let us access the unedited image.
Here’s a real-world sample photo at 14mm comparing uncorrected distortion (from RawDigger) versus Lightroom’s built-in corrections. RawDigger is the first image, and Lightroom is the second:
As you can see, especially by looking at the stairs along the bottom, the Lightroom image looks great, while the RawDigger image almost looks like it was taken with a fisheye. There’s also a big difference in the composition and what’s included in the frame – just look at the buildings at the the top left and top right corners. Hopefully, you can see what I mean about the large number of pixels eliminated by Nikon’s and Lightroom’s approach. (Ignore differences in color processing; RawDigger is much flatter than Lightroom by default.)
In the image above, of course, the uncorrected version is essentially useless because of its extreme distortion. But that won’t always be the case. Sometimes, your composition will be just slightly off, and having those extra pixels can make the difference. It’s one reason why I’m slowly transitioning away from Lightroom for post-processing these days.
The moment you’ve been waiting for – how sharp is the 14-30mm f/4?
Answer: Extremely sharp, with a big caveat.
First, take a look at our sharpness graphs below. They will be more meaningful on the next page of this review, where we compare the 14-30mm f/4 against two other Nikon zooms, the 14-24mm f/2.8 and 16-35mm f/4. But even now, you can probably tell that the lens’s performance is quite strong overall:
The weakest numbers occur in the corners at 14mm wide open, which is no surprise. Stopping down improves things a bit, but the corners at 14mm never quite get great (though they’re never bad).
By zooming in, even to 16mm, corner sharpness noticeably improves, while center and midframe sharpness remain about the same. The overall sharpness decreases a hair at 24mm, and again at 30mm, but it remains extremely good at all those focal lengths. The best apertures for center sharpness are f/4 and f/5.6 across the zoom range, while the corners are best at f/5.6 and f/8.
Again, the comparisons on the next page will make things clearer. But the takeaway from the graphs above is that the 14-30mm f/4 is an extremely sharp lens – one of the best ultra-wide zooms we’ve ever tested.
What’s the caveat I mentioned earlier? You need to get a good sample.
We tested two samples of the lens in the lab. One was amazing, and one was heavily decentered. Based on other reviews we’ve seen online, we are not the only ones to get a bad copy of this lens. (That said, since the time when I first published this review, I have now tested two additional copies in the field – neither of which was decentered. The current total is one decentered lens and three extremely sharp copies.)
Take a look at the following crops (from Lightroom), captured at 14mm and f/8 – an aperture where you would hope for reasonable performance on any lens. First, I focused in the center, which is completely sharp (100% crop):
But the corner is pretty bad:
However, the good copy of this lens – Nasim’s copy… arrgh :) – is indeed quite good, as you can see below:
In case you’re wondering, yes, the bad copy’s flaws are severe enough to show up very clearly in real-world shots. Take a look at the following photo – captured at f/8, ISO 64, and 1/320 second. Everything except the bottom-right corner is at infinity. These are pretty much the perfect conditions to show off a lens’s good side, and yet…
The center crop looks awesome, especially considering this is an unsharpened 720 x 480 pixel image from a 45 megapixel sensor. But the bottom left corner is extremely blurry. Also, this is exported from Lightroom, meaning that distortion has been corrected and the worst parts of the corners are cropped out. If I hadn’t done distortion correction on this image, it would be even worse.
So, if you see other photography writers telling you this lens is great, bad, or decent… well, they’re probably correct. But they also probably used just a single copy. Maybe it was great, maybe it was bad, or perhaps it was somewhere in between.
- The good news is that if you buy this lens, it should be pretty clear if it has problems as significant as in our bad copy. No matter what I did, I just couldn’t get the bottom left corner to look sharp, and the bottom right wasn’t much better. Classic decentering – one or two corners worse than the others. (Though, even the better corners on my copy didn’t measure up to those on the good copy, which is to be expected.)
- The bad news is that not all decentering is going to be this obvious. If your copy is only moderately decentered, it may be hard to tell. You could come away with the impression that the 14-30mm f/4 lens is “just good” when the right copy is actually capable of excellent sharpness.
- At the same time, I wouldn’t worry too much. Of the four copies I’ve now tested in person, three were amazing, and only one had decentering issues. The odds that you’ll get a good copy are better than the odds you’ll get a bad one – though if you get a bad one, you’ll definitely want to return it.
Of course, sample variation is always going to occur. You can’t expect to get above-average copies of each lens you buy! But with the 14-30mm f/4 in particular, the sample variation appears a bit greater than normal.
At a minimum, it’s a bigger difference than we’ve seen so far with any other Z lenses at Photography Life. All the rest have been remarkably consistent from copy to copy – more so than F-mount glass typically is. Even the 24-70mm f/4 zoom, of which we tested four copies extensively and two others at a cursory level, had high performance across the board, with negligible sample variation.
Perhaps now is a good time to revisit our article on decentered lenses, including how to figure out if you’re working with a good or bad sample of whatever lens you have.
The 14-30mm f/4 follows a pattern we’ve seen before in small, sharp zoom lenses: It has high levels of vignetting. Take a look at the following chart (with “CF” meaning close focus and “IF” meaning infinity focus). Note that these numbers are from uncorrected images (RawDigger, as usual), and distortion correction can still improve them significantly by cropping out the worst parts:
Particularly at 14mm, this lens has a lot of vignetting. That’s true even relative to other ultra-wides; the Nikon 16-35mm f/4, for example, maxes out at 1.65 stops (16mm, f/4, close focus). Even the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S lens – also not great with vignetting – never has more than 2.01 stops (24mm, f/4, infinity focus). That’s the same as the 14-30mm f/4 stopped down to f/5.6!
However, when zooming in the 14-30mm f/4 to 16mm and beyond, especially at f/5.6 or smaller, it has no real vignetting issues compared to other lenses on the market. And, again, correcting the massive 8% barrel distortion goes a long way to making even the 14mm numbers look reasonable.
Some good news: adding a slim 82mm filter does not change vignetting too much on this lens, even at 14mm. The following images are exported from RawDigger, so they have zero distortion correction. I also shot them on a gray field, exaggerating the darkened corners. Take a look at the images below:
Sure, the filter darkens the corners a bit. But again, the images above have not been corrected for distortion or vignetting at all. When you open these photos in Lightroom rather than RawDigger, the differences are completely cropped away, thanks to the automatic distortion correction. Even if you use some other software and choose to leave the massive distortion in place, you can largely equalize the two images above with simple vignetting corrections.
In short, if you want to use a slim filter on the 14-30mm f/4 lens, you have nothing to worry about.
Lateral Chromatic Aberration
The Nikon 14-30mm f/4 has a bit of chromatic aberration, easily correctable in post-processing software. The greatest amount occurs at 14mm and f/4, as you can see below:
For a near-worst-case example of chromatic aberration, here’s the same test chart crop from earlier, uncorrected for chromatic aberration. This is taken at 14mm and f/8:
Sure, the lens has some chromatic aberration, but it’s not a big deal. These numbers are better than those of the Nikon 16-35mm f/4, which maxes out at 2.47 pixels (versus 1.72 for the Z lens). On top of that, the 14-30mm f/4 is comparable to the Nikon F-mount 14-24mm f/2.8 in this regard, with the F-mount lens maxing out at 1.69 pixels of lateral CA.
That said, there is little reason to leave chromatic aberration uncorrected with this lens. I have my post-processing software set to remove it by default.
The Nikon Z 14-30mm f/4 S is very flare resistant, a welcome and fairly unusual sight for such a wide lens. At 14mm, I sometimes get a few green or magenta dots of flare, which change in shape and brightness while composing the sun differently (including slightly out of frame). At 30mm, the flares become slightly bigger, fainter blobs. None of it is objectionable, especially compared to other wide-angle zooms on the market. The F-mount Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G lens, for example, is well known for its high levels of flare. Here’s a shot from the 14-30mm f/4 by comparison:
One thing to note is that the 14-30mm f/4 has a slight tendency to add some veiling flare in extremely high-contrast situations. This, too, is nothing objectionable, and it’s easy enough to correct – but it’s still a bit stronger than with the other Nikon Z lenses I’ve used. In the image below, you can see some contrast loss in the shadow areas in the lower right part of the frame:
On balance, the 14-30mm f/4 is one of the best ultra-wide lenses, particularly zooms, that we’ve seen in terms of flare and ghosting. Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coating and Super Integrated Coating certainly do their job well here.
Next up in this review, we’ll compare the 14-30mm f/4 S’s sharpness – the good copy, naturally – against two of Nikon’s popular F-mount zooms.
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