Nikon's New AF-S 20mm 1.8G Review
Keywords: wide_angle, prime, nikkor, 20mm
A Long Overdue Digital Update
It’s been 30 years since Nikon updated its 20mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens and this new version, announced in September along with the Nikon D750 and SB-500 Speedlight, is sharp and capable. The AF-S NIKKOR 20mm f/1.8G ED is priced around $799 and is optimized for Nikon’s FX digital imaging system. With that maximum aperture of f/1.8, it joins the elite company of other distinguished Nikon primes - the 28, 35, 50 and 85mm ED lenses. If you shoot architecture, astrophotography or landscapes, the nagging question becomes - is this a lens I need in my bag?
With 13 elements in 11 groups, the 20mm is lightweight, ergonomically balanced and a real comfortable fit in the palm once connected to your camera. If you are accustomed to a wide-angle zoom, this lens seems downright stubby without the lens shade. At 12.5-ounces, this 1.8G ED lens is similar in size to my 50mm/1.4G and feels right at home among other prime G lenses in most small camera shoulder bags or backpacks. The HB-72 bayonet lens shade reverses on the lens barrel for a trim profile when packing for travel.
If you shoot landscapes and favor outdoor photography as an interest, the 20mm functions as a lower cost alternative to the robust, yet heavy, 14-24mm/2.8ED or 16-35mm/4VR. Comparing a wide prime to wide zoom lenses is unfair but it’s important to really assess the ways in which this new 20mm differs in scale and feel to the 16-35mm and 14-24mm. To keep it simple, the 20mm is lighter, smaller, more compact and significantly easier on the wallet with the tradeoff being that you are sacrificing the flexibility of multiple focal lengths offered by a zoom.
AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm/4
AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm/2.8
AF-S Nikkor 20mm/1.8
3.2 in x 4.9 in
3.8 in x 5.2 in
3.2 x 3.1 in
Unlike the 14-24mm, the 77mm thread on the polycarbonate barrel of the 20 makes it easy to attach a UV, polarizing filter or graduated neutral density filter system. Keep in mind that the quality of your circular polarizer matters as only thin, higher end glass will mitigate uneven polarization in the sky which can be more problematic in vertical rather than horizontal compositions. Given that many of Nikon’s key telephoto lenses (24-70mm and 70-200mm) utilize the 77mm thread, you will be able to seamlessly make use of your existing filter kit.
When shooting riverine scenes with the objective of long exposures in midday light, I often use a Singh Ray variable neutral density filter as it allows me to dial in two to eight stops of density and extend my shutter speed. I noticed that this filter, due to its thickness, caused a vignette in the corners along the right side of the frame (see sample image). This was really the only shortcoming that I experienced when out in the field with the 20mm but this is not an uncommon scenario with a thick filter. While there is slight fall off at 1.8, this shortcoming is minor relative to the overall performance of the lens at common apertures in the majority of shooting situations.
When mounted on an FX body, the 20mm offers 94-degrees of coverage and is the equivalent of 30mm and 70-degrees when mounted on a DX system. Chromatic aberration and distortion are minimal as a result of the ED (extra low dispersion) Nikon glass.
Whether you shoot stills or use Nikon’s DSLR systems for time lapse or video capture, the 20mm is sharp at capture with a quiet Silent Wave Motor that close focuses to an unexpected 7.8 inches. This quieting technology represents one of Nikon’s major updates relative to its ancestor, as the 20mm/2.8 AF seems clunky now in comparison.
A common option on most new Nikon lenses grants the user the option to manually override autofocus to tack up a shot. I found that autofocus was accurate for the majority of all of my shooting and rarely did I need to go manual.
The Nano Crystal coat on the lens is highly successful at mitigating lens flare when capturing backlight scenarios or forcing a shot into the sun for creative effect. At its smallest aperture of F16, the seven interior blades render dramatic sunbursts with minimal flare (see sample image). When shooting at night or targeting long-exposure star photographs, the 20mm’s optical system portrays stars as pinpoints rather than tails, an indication of the lens’ excellent coma (comatic aberration) performance. This can be a critical nuance when targeting the North Star and working astrophotography.
Bottom Line – Would I Buy It?
A fixed 20mm lens is not a must-have essential piece for your camera bag but this new update from Nikon is an ideal, lightweight performer at an affordable price. If you enjoy outdoor photography and often take your gear along for the adventure, the weight and size of this lens make it a must-have piece of glass.
Whether shooting stills or motion, it functions as a fast wide angle adept in a variety of contexts. It is right at home when capturing the entirety of a church from the overhead balcony during a wedding ceremony, working with long-exposures in astrophotography or layering content for a dramatic mountainous landscape. It’s truly an affordable and well-built professional grade offering from Nikon that is well worth it if you are looking to replace the older 20mm/2.8 or add a compact wide-angle lens to your existing arsenal. If you have the means, I’d go get it.
You might be interested in another user review on the 20mm f/1.8G AF-S FX Nikkor as well.
Sample images (Click the images for larger view)
Originally written on January 22, 2015
Last updated on May 22, 2015
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Dan Wong (danlwong) on January 14, 2016
I have the older 20mm AF-D lens...it does the job for me. Hopefully, this iteration will have repaired the problem with stuck aperture blades (I've had my 20mm in twice to Nikon Service Centers to unjam the blades).
Peter Milton (miltonpics) on September 5, 2015
I love my 20mm f1.8G lens and use it all the time, particularly with landscape (both natural and urban). I don't understand the comments about it being small though. I think all the modern Nikon lenses are massive, the 20mm included. But is is light and pleasant to use.
Rick Jobson (Rickjobson) on April 24, 2015
Thanks for the review Joseph. I bought the lense when it was released and agree with all your comments. Re Anne's query. My 17-35mm (bought new when first released) has squeeked for years and still takes terrific shots, so if the noise doesn't interrupt your shooting just ignore it. I did buy the 20mm for the size (small) and speed (F1.8), very nice and useful lense. You really need to decide if you use the 17-35mm at 17mm often or is 20mm is enough? You would travel lighter with the 20mm and your 24-70mm.
User on March 17, 2015
Does anyone know how it compares to the 17-35mm? I purchased a used 17-35mm a couple of years ago, at half the cost of a new 17-35mm. It developed a very loud squeak (bird chirp) shortly after I purchased it (a little embarrassing in quiet indoor locations). The lens takes amazing photos though. So, the camera store that sold it to me offered to send it to Nikon for repair and give me a 2-year warranty. Within a half a year, the squeak began again. It is now at Nikon for the third repair (to replace the same part that keeps going bad) and my warranty is about to expire. I have no doubt that the squeak will return, but I really like the lens otherwise. The camera store is offering to buy it back (or take a trade-in) after the repair. I am considering buying a brand new 17-35mm, but am wondering if I should consider the 20mm, f/1.8 prime lens. I don't want the 14-24mm, because I want the ability to use filters. I use a wide angle for artsy landscapes and architecture -- not for people. I also have a 24-70mm. Thanks for any thoughts!
Phillip Jones (jediwebdude) on March 8, 2015
Nice review. Enjoying mine on the D750. Was definitely surprise at how light its lightness.
Gerard P (slalom002) on January 29, 2015
Very helpful review. The older model is too soft for high MP sensors, but I have had a copy of 14 years. It is rugged and was great in film days. I find that the 1.8 prime lenses to be more affordable than their f/1.4 counterparts and are generally lighter. As we can see from the reviews here this one (and the 85) are sharper than zooms at the same focal length. Now if I could just get my order filled (5 weeks on the waiting list so far).
Min Chai Liu (mcliu19) on January 29, 2015
This is the lens my brother has recommended me .. ..though at this point of time I am in conflict between Nikkor 70 -200 mm f/2.8 and Nikkor 70 -200 F/4.. . Now your work has force me to give it a second look... :-)
Marcus Adams (Kiwimac) on January 28, 2015
I am actually about to sell my 14-24 and replace it with a 17-35 which is a much more useful lens for my work. I have a 24 f1.4G which I rarely use and cannot quite bring myself to sell. I don't think I would consider this as any sort of replacement. 20mm is not a focal length I would want often. I wish they would stop making all these curious focal lengths and do something useful like revamp the ageing 17-35 f2,8.
User on January 28, 2015
Good writen review on an interesting lens to be used in lightweight conditions. Thnx JP
Peter Geran (gearsau) on January 28, 2015
No thanks. Since I purchased my Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 some years ago, I have never touched my 20mm f2.8 and 24mm f2.8. In fact, recently I purchased a Nikon 24-70mm f2.8, My Nikon 28mm f2.8, 35m f2 and 50mm f1.4 will stay buried in the cupboard :-)
User on January 28, 2015
Replaced my 16-35 with this since I also have the 24-70 and there was too much overlap. Really like the 20mm f/1.8. I owned the 2.8 years ago and was extremely underwhelmed by it, had the worst color of any Nikon lens I'd ever owned and was not soft. This lens is a whole other story. Look forward to using it for video once winter lets go of this miserable gray landscape. Great review, helped convinced me to buy.
Louis Leib (louleib) on January 24, 2015
Thank you for an informative review.