Nikon Z 14-30mm F4 S Review

Nikon Z 14-30mm f4 S Initial Impressions Review

The brand new Nikon Z 14-30mm F4 S lens is finally arriving into circulation. I received mine this week and here are my initial findings. This is a lens with specifications that would have been unthinkable only a decade ago. Nikon have managed to combine an extreme wide angle zoom with compact size and the ability to mount conventional filters. The new Z mount together with ever improving optical designs and exotic elements and coatings have brought a product that sounds like the perfect wide angle zoom for many photographs. Read on to see how successful Nikon have been.

The technical specifications of this lens give an accurate and complete list of all the technical aspects. I recommend you browse the official press release and data sheets in addition to this review.

A few relevant Specifications:

Weight : 485g

Length:85mm

Breadth:89mm

Filter Thread: 82mm

Form factor: Compact – twist to reach working length.

Cost £1349 (full price paid by me, not a ‘review sample’.

Lens supplied by Fixation, my preferred place for sales and repairs.

Full specs are here

I’ve had the new lens for 24 hrs now and managed to both give it some use and make some photographs with it. If you’re reading this while making up your mind about purchasing, you may be too late for now as I understand they have sold out in many places already.

Caveat 1

When reading this review bear in mind that all lenses are subject to sample variation. I’m only giving a perspective on the individual lens in my possession. Another lens may perform quite differently even if both are within manufacturing tolerances. Any lens may also be beyond manufacturing tolerances and may have decentred elements for instance.

Caveat 2

I’m reviewing this lens within the mode in which I use it. I don’t photograph moving subjects and wherever possible I use a tripod. There would be very few circumstances in which I’d be likely to use such a lens wide open at F4 and the overwhelming majority of images would probably be made in the range F8-F11. I’m judging the lens purely under the circumstances in which I would use it.

Caveat 3

I’ve never owned nor shot with a Nikon 14-24mm. General opinion was that it was stunningly good. I’ve no idea how the two would compare side by side but I’d love to see.

Caveat 4

I’m not the biggest fan of ultra wide angle lenses. I used to use the Nikon 16-35mm and that was plenty wide enough for me. If there had been a 16-30mm alternative to this lens I’d have bought it in preference to this 14-30mm. I’m more comfortable with the natural view obtained at 24-28mm. This however is the only sensible offering if one wishes to shoot wider than 24mm at the moment. Despite what countless magazines, websites and Youtube ‘gurus’ tell their readers, landscape photography is not always best served by the widest lens possible. The extreme downside of ‘getting it all in’ is the ‘it’ becomes very small in your images.

Caveat 5

Be cautious with online reviews. Most are written in order to increase readership and gather followers. This leads not only to extremes of opinion but also an ever increasing tendency to produce an exceptionally negative review. I’m not selling advertising space (nor will I ever). I’m not trying to recruit followers or increase ‘hits’. I’m simply sharing what I find out in the hope that it may help someone else.

Handling

I like the way this lens handles and I liked the way the 24-70mm f4 handled. I’d prefer it if you didn’t have to do an initial twist to release it from its travelling position but consider this.

  • You can transport it in the ‘open position’ if you prefer and save yourself an operation at the expense of some bulk.
  • If there were two alternative versions for sale, one large and without the initial twist and this compact version. I’d still choose this compact version. The twist is an acceptable price to pay for the compact nature of this lens in my opinion.

I’m no engineer nor craftsman (hollow laughter stage left from Mrs P…) but the lens seems well made, it claims to be fully sealed and although very personal, I like the look of the Z lenses.

Performance

First a reminder of the caveats defined above. Even at this price point there can be sample variation and my findings are only accurate for the sample that I have. In every instance one needs to make a prejudgement about the performance that we expect for any given lens. If you feel that the lens is substandard, bite the bullet early and send it back.

Vignetting

There is vignetting due to the optical construction of the lens and that which occurs due to an obstruction caused by filters or lens hood. Almost every lens vignettes to some extent and there is little the user can do to influence it other than choose the aperture which minimises it. Increasingly such vignetting can be minimised or even eliminated in post processing either manually or by specific profiles. Two side issues arise when considering such vignetting:

  • Even though the vignetting can be measured using processing software, the key determinant is whether vignetting is visible to, rather than measurable by the viewer.
  • Even with a perfectly uniform exposure, the deliberate application of a little vignetting can, to some eyes, bring an aesthetic improvement to the image. It may serve to concentrate the viewer’s attention on the centre of the image or it may serve to provide a boundary or container to the edges of the frame. With this in mind, it is not automatically the case that the presence of some vignetting is always a negative factor.

Vignetting due to Filters

One of the enormous attractions of this lens compared with other similar focal lengths is that the design allows the use of standard screw in 82mm filters. These allow simple, sensibly priced filters for protection such as a UV or filters to adjust the light entering such as colour, neutral density or Polarising. Although one hopes it would be obvious, all the filters I tried caused no visible vignetting even at 14mm. The polariser was a slim version, the Hoya Pro 1 Digital.The deepest screw in filter I own is a Hoya PRO ND100 , I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a deeper filter mount. I didn’t try stacking multiple screw in filters as I don’t do that in the field.

Hoya PRO ND 82mm screw in filter.

Neither the Polariser nor the Hoya Pro ND produces no visible vignetting even at 14mm. It is worth bearing in mind that if using a polariser to intensify colours and darken a blue sky, the use at extreme wide angles is not to be recommended as the degree of polarisation varies widely across such a wide field of view and leads to visibly uneven skies.

The picture with filter systems is a little more mixed and I only have results for the current Lee 100 filters holder (older holder results to follow). No doubt there will be reports circulating with regard to the other filter systems.  Lenses such as the 14-24mm f2.8 have traditionally required a much larger filter system taking filters 150mm wide in order to avoid vignetting. I don’t ever see myself investing in these so what can be achieved with the standard holder? The following indicates at what point I did and did not notice vignetting.

Lee 100 Filter System (new holder) / two slots: No observable vignetting at any focal length.

Lee 100 Filter System (new holder) / three slots: No observable vignetting at any focal length.

Lee 100 Filter System (new holder)/ two slots/ Polariser fitted: No vignetting to 17mm. Tiny amount of darkening (probably removable in processing) at 16mm. Very noticeable at 15mm and even more so at 14mm. These latter two go beyond darkening and include being able to see the edge of the holder in the corners of the frame.

Lee 100 Filter System (new holder)/three slots : No vignetting at 18mm Small Vignetting at 17mm and very noticeable any wider.

This was an astounding finding. I’d expected to be able to use screw in filters but to have my full normal use of Lee filters is a really strong point for the lens. I wasn’t surprised about the limitations with the Polariser.

Optical output

After my euphoria at being able to use a standard slot in filter system, the picture changes a little when we consider the optical output of the lens. Various aspects combine to produce the overall image but not all are of the same importance to each user. I’m not photographing perfectly flat subjects and tend to use smaller apertures and often focus stacking. Therefore absolute field curvature isn’t a huge problem and may even go unnoticed. Modest amounts of barrel and pincushion distortion tend to disappear into the organic landscape. For seascapes however, I do need the horizon to stay straight even if the camera is tilted. Good contrast and resistance to flare have become expectations at these price points. Sharpness is however critical and that’s where I have concentrated my efforts so far.

Distortion

Crucially, we have no idea how the ‘bare’ lens performs as the output we see is a combination of glass elements and computer correction. All that can be determined is how the output presents itself. The full picture will emerge after much more use but so far there don’t seem to be any hidden gremlins in this lens. It is rectilinear to an extent that would have been unthinkable and certainly unaffordable in my early days making photographs. The field is either generally flat or unobservably curved. There seems to be minimal pin cushion or barrel distortion. There is no immediate evidence of any of the ‘wavy’ patterns of distortion that can beset extreme wide angles. Contrast, colour and resistance to fare are all excellent and exactly what we might expect of a Nikon lens at this price point. If operating at 14mm however care must of course be taken and an awareness of how perspective is distorted must be present. Any FF 14mm lens needs careful handling and the results they can produce are certainly not to everyone’s taste.

Sharpness

Nikkor 14-30mm f4 at 14mm and f11.

Here the picture changes slightly (ON MY SAMPLE) and if representative, shows exactly where the compromises have been made to achieve this focal length range, the use of filters, small size and price. My initial feeling is that this is at least a good lens in terms of sharpness but not a great one and certainly not up to the standard set by the 24-70mm f4. When both are compared at 24mm they are however broadly similar. {but at wideer focal lengths the differences increase}You could almost guess the results before putting it on the camera. Best performance away from the extremes of focal length, aperture and frame. Both ends of the focal length range are less good than the mid ranges. The edges are less good than the central areas and the middle apertures help to tidy up the edges. Central sharpness is very good across all focal lengths and apertures, even wide open.

Edge detail lower right from main image above 14mm @f11

Edge detail bottom left from main image above 14mm @f11
Lower centre detail from main image above 14mm @f11

For interest, I compared the 14-30mm with the 24-70mm both at 24mm and f11.

Full frame of 24mm view. Two lower left had edge details below.
However I present this, they do seem to be similar .

One odd outcome yet to be understood by me is that I struggled to get Photoshop to accurately align /blend focus stacked files from this lens. In every set there were issues of alignment and resulting double images in tiny areas. I’ve only attempted ‘big vista’ stacks and test images, I’ve not done anything yet with much closer focusing distances. Again, I’ll return with an update when time permits. if you’d like to be advised on updates and new posts, add your email over on the right to subscribe. I don’t use these emails for anything else and certainly don’t share them with anyone else.

These are very early impressions, I’ll return to this review when I’ve had the time to look more carefully and make further comparisons. However even now it seems Nikon have a ‘good ‘ (if not outstanding) lens to offer and the performance with filter systems is a real bonus. I’d love to hear feedback either from other users, users of the 14-24mm or anyone with a view or suggestion to make.

EDITS:

1.Looking further the entire Right Hand Side of the images produced is less good than the Left Hand Side. This suggests either decentred or offset components or perhaps an aspect of the software correction. I don’y have the technical knowledge to go beyond saying that one side shouldn’t look different from the other.

2. I’m considering sending my sample back, I can’t accept the compromises at this price point. I’ll await the results of the test bench to see whether the lens is under performing or my expectations are unrealistic.

Nikkor Z 14-30mm F4 S – 14mm @f11
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9 Comments:

  1. Richard Hollins
    May 10, 2019

    An interesting review Mike, which fits with what I’ve read elsewhere about this lens. I like a lot of the features – size, weight, filter thread and so on – but I’m not sure if the compromises you have to accept with the image quality are worth it.

  2. Joe Hayhurst
    May 10, 2019

    Sounds like a decent lens. As an amateur though my concern would be the price – why are lenses so expensive nowadays? If the advantage of the wider mount is simpler design then that should make them cheaper, no? I’ll not be going for the Z series for a while due to that reason, although I totally see the advantages of the bodies. As a comparison I got the Tamron 17-35mm 2.8-4 F mount for about £700 cheaper – I know there’ll always be a difference between OEM and 3rd party, but Nikon could be shooting themselves in the foot a bit I feel.

    One other thing, I don’t understand why Lee put the polariser on the end of the filter system. The Formatt Hitech one is up against the lens and therefore the whole thing is much more compact – I wonder if you’d get no vignetting even at 14mm with that system?

  3. MikeP
    May 11, 2019

    Cheers Richard, that’s exactly where I am at the moment. IF what I see so far is representative of the normal performance of this lens then I’m not sure it succeeds at all. I need to understand whether I’m expecting too much, failing to get the best or have a poor copy. More to follow as I update.

  4. MikeP
    May 11, 2019

    I think there’s a few things going on here. Such lenses are filled with very high tech high cost glass, coatings, electronics and manufacturing techniques. There’s always been a huge manufacturing cost between 14mm and 17mm, those few mm never come cheap. Currently you can order this lens for nearly £400 less via the grey imported so that probably represents a fairer price. Reading Nikon’s latest financial reports they are definitely moving towards a picture of selling fewer items but at higher unit costs, I’d guess most of the others will move this way also as the market changes. They will be making a cheaper line of Z lenses but we’ll have to wait to see how they turn out. I’ve used front and rear mounted Polarisers (rear from kase) and I’d always choose front mounted. I don’t want to have to take the whole filter set off the lens to add or remove a polariser.

  5. John Miskelly
    May 12, 2019

    Interesting findings Mike. I got mine just over a week ago now and have just returned from a trip to Berlin, where I used it extensively for architecture shots. The additional coverage of the 14mm is often important with architecture in cities, where getting everything in the frame is compromised with other buildings being ‘in the way’! Anyway, like you, I found that sharpness is good, but not stunning. Certainly not as good as the 24-70 f4 lens, which is superb. This is a bit disappointing, especially at this price point. I was wondering if it was just my sample, but from what you’ve said, it looks like this is the ‘normal’ performance of the lens. So, the bottom line is that it’s acceptable when a very wide lens is required, but I’ll be using the 24-70 zoom whenever possible as my first choice.

  6. MikeP
    May 12, 2019

    Oh dear….Thank you for that John, really not the news I wanted to hear! I hoped it might be just my technique or my sample but the evidence seems to be building up that either these aren’t so good or there are a great many poor samples around. As far as I’m concerned, mine is not sufficiently good to be used routinely. I’m considering options for a way forward right now.

  7. MikeP
    May 13, 2019

    John, Have you tried focus stacking with the 14-30mm? I haven’t had one decent stack yet, I keep getting double images in parts of the frame using PS. I’m beginning to wonder about the whole aspect of the software correction profile.

  8. Rodney Campbell
    June 17, 2019

    Thanks Mike – just as an FYI I also found heavy vignetting with the Lee 100mm filter holder with a front CPL attached (I have the older original holder). However I recently purchased/tested the NiSi V6 holder with my 14-30 and with that holder I found I could have no noticeable vignetting even down to 14mm with the CPL (which is on the inside of the holder near the lens instead of out the front) and three filter slots – which for me was awesome news
    If you’re interested I posted my testing and some test shots here http://www.rc.au.net/blog/2019/05/08/z-14-30mm-lens-with-the-nisi-v6-filter-holder/

  9. MikeP
    June 19, 2019

    Cheers Rodney and many thanks for the update. That’s definitely worth knowing.


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