Things I Use: Nikon 24mm f/1.4G

It wasn’t that long ago – 21 months, to be exact – that I joked that Nikon’s updated prime lenses seemed to be for people who were made of money.  But as I mentioned when starting to blog at all, one of the great things about it is having to look back and eat my words or laugh at my own foolishness. I just thought it’d take closer to a decade for that to happen, but it looks like I’ve already reached that point.

If you’ve followed what I’ve posted here the last couple of years, you’ll already have noted that I’ve some hypocritically moved from having amateur skills and decent but amateur equipment, to having amateur skills and professional level gear. What led to this? No, I didn’t glance down and realize that I was actually made of money and that I could thus lose weight by spending it (though that would be nice). In large part, it was the realization (such as with selling my 10-24 ultra-wide lens) that lenses really are a capital investment, and that even buying new you don’t lose that money. A related factor was buying everything used in the first place off of craigslist. Finally, living in the U.S. has the double benefit of lower taxes and a much wider range of highly competitive online merchants.

So, in July of last year, when a 24/1.4 showed up on craigslist (a relatively rare occurrence) at a good price, I did what I thought I’d never do and bought one:

Did I really need this lens? Definitely not – it’s overkill for a non-photographer, especially since I already had the fantastic 24-70 f/2.8 zoom lens that has awesome image quality and is just a couple of stops slower. That said, the 24/1.4 has quickly become one of my most used lenses, in large part because going to f/1.4 or even to f/2.0 really crosses that threshold of being able to take low light shots with no flash at reasonable shutter speeds – especially in combination with a full frame camera. Indeed, 36% of the shots I’ve kept from this lens have been at f/2.0 or wider; that increases to 42% if I exclude one batch of 100 photos at my cousin’s wedding tea ceremony  (which were all taken at f/5.6 with a flash).

Here’s one example, of my friend Ahmad holding his young daughter:

Even at a relatively slow 1/80th of a second, the above was already at ISO 800 even at f/1.4.  Even a big f/2.8 zoom would have pushed things up to ISO 3200; a kit lens would have cost another stop beyond that. Of course, conditions get much more extreme than that – for example, the following from my cousin Mike & Jackie’s wedding this past summer:

While I did play with the color, the shot itself was outside, hand-held, close to midnight, at a 1/40th shutter speed and ISO 6400 (the highest native ISO that the D800 supports). With a slower lens, I’d simply have needed a tripod – and I never take one with me, so I wouldn’t even try and take things like the above. Finally, here’s one of Olivia, with identical settings to the above:

Twice a week (on “no dessert” days), at bedtime, Olivia’s allowed to read a book herself on the tablet instead of reading a paper book with me – and when I say “read”, what I’m actually talking about the “Read To Me” mode of Dr. Seuss books on Android that read the story while highlighting the words. The only source of light above is what’s coming from my Nexus 7 – which is already on the lowest possible brightness settings since there’s zero ambient light. It’s no lie to say that the camera sees much better in the dark than I do.

So far, I just talked about how amazing it is to have an f/1.4 lens to shoot with; you could do much of the above with a vastly cheaper 50/1.4, unless you really did need to be wide (which sometimes you do). The 28/1.8 which is also 1/3rd the price is pretty darn close too (and I almost went with that option). But between truly getting wide, having an amazing close-focus distance, great AF in general, and really nice (for a wide prime) bokeh, I’ve been really happy with the the lens. As a final example, here was a quick test shot in the garden soon after I got the lens:

While that’s not the best bokeh example by any stretch, for a 24mm focal length I thought it was pretty decent.  But even more impressive, and the main reason for using this photo as an example, is how darned close I actually was to the bee – remember that this is equivalent to a 16mm lens on a crop camera! A crop from the above might provide a better idea:

It feels totally absurd to live at a time when you can stick a very wide angle lens on a camera, shove it right in the face of a bee, depend on auto-focus to get everything right – and get something with the detail of the above, but hey, I’m not complaining!

Ultimately, you have to be pretty crazy to get a lens like this for casual snapshots in the middle of the night with only a tablet as a light source, but I’ve used it more than anything else I own since buying it.  And it helps when I tell myself that I can probably sell it for pretty much what I paid for it – even after I get a few thousand shots with it!

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