The Nikon 28mm f/1.4 lens is a piece of glass I have obsessed over for many, many years. I still do not own one; however for my travels to Germany this past June, I did have the opportunity to rent one. My conclusions (both positive and negative) on this legendary, expensive, and remarkable pieces of glass are outlined in this article along with sample photos to demonstrate the lens’ virtues.
When I was just starting out in photography, two of the most intriguing concepts to me were producing a shallow depth of field (subject sharp, background blurred out), and photographing in natural light in not so well-lit situations. Unfortunately, at the age of fourteen, the lens was very much out of my price range – $1700USD in 1997. I attempted to occupy myself with other lenses – the 50 f/1.2, the 85 f/1.4, and the 105 f/1.8 (all manual focus) – all supreme lenses in their own right. Another reason for the attraction to fast lenses was my involvement with theater photography in both high school and college. This was pre-digital and I used a Nikon F5 and the above-mentioned lenses in conjunction with Fuji Professional 800 film to produce images that were quite stunning. If only the high-ISO quality of my D3 was available five years ago I would have been able to utilize a shutter speed faster than a 1/30 of second.
So, where to begin with this huge chunk of glass? Well, I will preface by saying just like a D3 this lens is not for everybody and I am in no way saying everyone should have one. However, it is an absolutely extraordinary lens. Most lenses that are ‘fast’, meaning they have a wide maximum aperture capability generally do not perform their best at the wider openings. For example the 50mm f/1.2 is ‘ok’ at 1.2, however it doesn’t reach its sweet spot until 2.0 or 2.2 – but it allows you to shoot at 1.2 when necessary. The 28 f/1.4 on the other hand is as sharp at f/1.4 as it is at all other apertures – no compromises in quality whatsoever. What is it about the lens that makes it so? It is the extreme care to detail that Nikon gave this lens during the relatively short 10 year production run on this lens. There were only 7,333 units made. Each of these units was comprised of precision molded hand-ground glass with layers of super multi-coating. Purchasing one of these lenses was like ordering a custom-tailored suit, a home-cooked meal from scratch, a limited edition Ferrari. All for the then bargain price of $1700. This lens is no longer available new from Nikon and very few if any retail stores have one new in box on their shelves. When you can find them used on Ebay, they are selling in excess of $3400. Interesting, a piece of technology which has not dropped in price. This is because this lens is not just a piece of technology, it is a work of art.
This lens is built rock-solid. It features an all metal lens barrel with the professional Nikon crinkle finish – a treatment only their finest auto-focus lenses have received. (As of 2005, they no longer use a crinkle finish.) The rental unit that I had on my trip must have been one of the first in production as it had a very low serial number. Admittedly the lens was quite beat up (scuffed, paint worn, a few dents) on the barrel and both focusing and metering functioned without any problems. Of course the glass was fine or else they probably could not use it as a rental piece any longer. Upon picking the lens up the day before I left for Germany, it felt as if a dream had finally come through – and what a great opportunity to use it with my new D3 – a perfect combination!
The main reason for my renting the lens was that I knew I was going to find myself in a number of troubling low-light situations – dark cathedrals, dark monasteries, and possibly some evening landscapes all handheld. You can’t bring your tripod into a cathedral. I had run into a number of these problems when we were there last time in 2006. I was using a D200 then and at that point in time a noisy photo was better than no photo at all. This time, however, I had the tools to get the job done correctly. As I was so eager to use the lens, after we got into center-city Cologne from the airport and put down our bags and washed up, I was immediately out the door for the cathedral just down the street. The Cologne Dom is my favorite cathedral, towering 515 ft. with detailed and ornate carvings covering the exterior façade – I tremble with fear whenever I approach and my photos remind me of the same feeling.
It was still early enough in the morning that good light was still coming in through large stained glass windows. Even with the window light, the exposure value for a digital sensor was still poor and it necessitated not only moving the camera to 3200 and 6400 ISO, but also the 28 f/1.4 to achieve great light gathering capability. For this quick jaunt, it was the only lens I did not leave back in the hotel room.
Because this a wide angle lens, it naturally has more depth of field than say a 50mm lens. Wide angle lens make the subject appear further away, therefore at f/1.4 this lens will have more in focus than a 50 at f/1.4 because the subject is ‘further away’. For a greater understanding of this, see my upcoming article “The Depth of Field Debate”.
Related to depth of field in a way (specifically a shallow depth of field) is the term bokeh. Bokeh refers to the appearance of the out-of-focus elements on an image. This can be either in front of or behind the main subject, but is usually analyzed as behind the main subject. Simply, there is good bokeh and poor bokeh. The quality of the bokeh does not refer to whether or not you achieved the correct focus and correct depth of field, because you could have mastered this and achieved poor bokeh results. Sharpness refers to what is going on at the point of focus. Bokeh refers to what is going on away from the point of focus. You have no control over the lens’ ability as to how it will render the out of focus objects. This property is inherent to the optical quality of the lens. Good bokeh is exemplified by having smooth out of focus transitions and soft diffuse edges of out of focus elements.
The lens, coupled with a D3, allowed me to take photographs in situations that would not have been possible with any other setup, considering in the situations I will tell you about flash was not an option. When visiting the medieval monasteries where the dungeons are cold and dark because either they still use candlelight or they can’t use lights in fear of ruining artwork, etc. for most its enjoy viewing the scene (which you should do anyway), but then pack it up and go home. This was the critical advantage for me with this lens.
The above image taken in the wine cellar of the Eberbach monastery would have been impossible under ‘normal’ situations. I needed to be at f/2.0 for depth of field purposes and I was already pushed up to ISO 6400. My shutter speed? – only a 1/20 of a second! Yes, I was bracing myself against the entrance doorway. There were many similar lighting situations in the cellar which required the use of this lens pushed to its max.
It served its purpose outdoors at night as well. The handheld image of the Cologne Cathedral serves as a good example. The image is sharp from corner to corner. Another remarkable technical feature of this lens that I have not mentioned yet is its incredible lack of distortion, particularly barrel distortion on the edges. Most wide angle lenses produce a curvature in the image which can also be seen through the viewfinder when composing the images. Not this lens. Nikon corrected for all barrel distortion in this lens, the 28mm f/2.8 AIS and the 15mm f/3.5. This quality makes these lenses perfect for shooting interiors, architecture, and brick walls (don’t ask).
Another technical feature of this lens is its lack of coma and ghosting. Ghosting occurs when there is a large light source in your photo and it produces blobs of light running through the center axis point of the image. Coma refers to points of light in the corners of an image appearing as large blobs. This happens because the lens cannot properly focus all rays of light to the same point in the corners of the image. As can be seen in the below night-time urban landscape of the Cologne Cathedral, this lens produces no effects of coma or ghosting. A properly engineered lens!
My conclusions on this lens? It allowed me to get the shots that I needed in specific lighting situations. Beyond that the lens ended up being quite useless to me. I don’t mean to sound disapproving of the lens – it is truly an extraordinary piece of glass. However, it will not be as useful to me as I thought it would be. Therefore, when I returned home from Europe I had no problem bringing it back to the rental place. it is not a general purpose lens, and as one can infer from the price tag, it is in fact engineered for quite a specific task – night landscape photography. Why else would a wide angle lens have capability of f/1.4, no distortion, no coma, no ghosting, and something I did mention specifically – a quite unique infinite focus calculator scale. From further researching this lens, I was able to gather that one of its prime uses other than night landscape photography was astrophotography. It all makes a little more sense now, right? Super-sharp even wide open, no ghosting, no coma, custom focus for infinity.
I am happy I was able to use this, and am extremely pleased with the results I got from it. I’m just glad it was not the only lens I had with me. As for me, I will continue to work with the Nikon 28mm f2.8 AIS that is currentl in my camera bag. 2.8 is just fine for most of what I do and it is much smaller and lighter weight. I suppose I would love to own the 1.4 as a collectors piece considering it has become such a rare find right now, but the $3500 price tag is not justifiable for the infrequency it would see use.