The Best Wide-Angle Lens for Night Photography and Kyle Arrington’s Worst Nightmare

In the last post, I stated that at present the Nikon D3S is the best camera available for night photography. I’m not one to throw out absolutes casually, so when I say something like that without a qualifier such as “among” or “one of the”, you can darn well bet that I’ve done my homework.

Well, here’s another one for you. The Nikon 14-24mm lens is the best wide-angle lens available for night photography, and depending on your criteria, perhaps the best wide-angle lens for ANY photography. That’s quite a statement, but anyone who owns this lens knows it’s true.

Before I go any further, let me assure all of you who are not Nikon shooters and those who don’t care to spend $2K on a lens, I’m not suggesting that you have to have this lens to make good photos. That’s simply not true with any gear in any situation. Also, we’ll talk about some things to look for in a lens, regardless of brand. And trust me; you’ll want to hear about what happened to Kyle Arrington. So read on…

Google most any kind of camera gear and you’re going to find a lot of opinions, both good and bad. With the 14-24, however, you’ll find the comments overwhelmingly positive, with the only negatives being price, size, weight, and lack of front filter threads. I haven’t read anything negative about the construction quality or optics and even if I had, I would have to brush it off as a fluke because my lens is superb in this regard. I even know of people who have switched from Canon to Nikon precisely because of this lens and other Canon shooters who bought a Nikon body so they can use it.

The features that make it so good for night photography are its optical quality, professional build, its 14mm angle of view on the wide end, its wide aperture of f/2.8, and the fact that it is a zoom lens.

Milky Way

I used the Nikon 14-24mm lens to capture the Milky Way shining above the mountains of western North Carolina.

Optical quality should be at the top of the list when considering any lens and night photography is certainly no different. In fact, in some cases, taking pictures after dark magnifies weaknesses in a lens. Among the issues to watch out for in a wide-angle lens are chromatic aberration, flare, and coma.

Chromatic aberration is the inability of the lens to focus the colors of light on the same plane and results in color fringes around the edges of contrasty lines. You can correct for CA in post processing, but it’s always better if you can avoid it in the first place. My Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 is horrible with CA, but the 14-24 is acceptable, even though wider-angle lenses tend to suffer from it more.

Flare is an issue for night photographers because we are often pointing our cameras at streetlights or other direct sources of light. Any lens with a front element as large as the 14-24 is going to be prone to flare, regardless of its coatings or design, but the 14-24 is more than acceptable in this regard.

Some reviews of the 14-24 say its optics are essentially perfect, with no noticeable aberrations whatsoever. I wish this were true, but unfortunately, it isn’t and I doubt it is for ANY lens ever made. The 14-24 does suffer from a fair amount of coma when shooting wide open. Coma is the inability of the lens to focus off-axis points of light correctly. In general photography, you’d never notice it, but when you shoot a night-sky photo, it can be obvious when you magnify the image. Stars at the edges of the frame look like little snow angels instead of pinpoints of light. Coma is much worse with big apertures and every wide-angle lens suffers from it to some extent when shooting wide open. With most lenses, you have to stop down to f/5.6 or even f/8 before it becomes much less noticeable. The 14-24 gives pretty good results at f/4 and with f/5.6 coma is not an issue.

Professional build is obviously an important consideration for night photographers, as we are often shooting in the cold and damp of the night and sometimes leaving the camera set up all night long and exposed to the elements. The 14-24 is built like a tank and I’ve never had any issues with it.

The lens’ 14mm focal length and the fact that it’s a zoom lens are other obvious positives. You don’t want to be changing lenses in the dark any more often than you have to, and for wide-angle night scenes, the difference between 14mm and the more common 17mm is huge. With night sky scenes, you often don’t have the issue of perspective distortion to deal with as you would when shooting during the day, so you can shoot that wide without worry. The distortion is there, but it doesn’t show up as much in the final image because you often don’t have elements in the photo that exhibit it as much and when you do, they are often very dark and not as noticeable.

So on the positive side, the 14-24 stacks up very well. On the negative side, besides being heavy and ridiculously expensive, the lens has another quality that night photographers need to be concerned about. It has a HUGE front element that acts as a giant dew collector at night. It’s impossible to shield it from dew without causing vignetting, so the only viable option when leaving it set up for star trails or time lapses is to use dew heater straps that operate on 12-volts. I’ll be making a post soon about combatting dew.

The fact that the lens doesn’t have front filter threads is not an issue for night photographers. You usually don’t need to use a polarizing filter at night, nor any other filters for that matter.

After evaluating the positives and the negatives, my conclusion is that the only reason for Nikon night photographers NOT to own this lens is if they can’t handle the price tag. It took several years before I could swing it and I had to sell some other gear to help pay for it, but it was worth the wait. Without question, it is my favorite lens.

Okay, so who is Kyle Arrington? Kyle’s a student in the online night-photography class I’m teaching for PPSOP. He just bought the Nikon 14-24mm lens from Amazon. Trouble was, he didn’t get the Nikon 14-24mm lens from Amazon. Instead, he got the Nikon 24-70mm COFFEE MUG! Most of us Nikon shooters have had our little fun with these coffee mugs that look just like lenses, but this is the first time I’ve heard of anyone paying $2K for one of them! Kyle suspects that someone ordered the 14-24 lens and then sent it back for a refund. Only they didn’t send back the lens and sent the coffee mug instead, after filling it with something heavy and gluing the cap on. So, without checking to see even if it was the right lens being returned, Amazon put it back on the shelves as new and sold it to the next customer. To Kyle’s credit, he has remained reasonably calm and, I believe, unarmed.

Fortunately, Amazon is doing right by Kyle, but this does remind us that we should be careful when we buy our gear, especially with something as expensive as this. To be sure, Amazon has a good record of customer satisfaction. When my local camera store closed shop many years ago, I started buying gear from either Adorama or B&H. The only issue I had was with Adorama trying to sell me stuff I didn’t want, so I switched exclusively to B&H for a while. For the past 10 years, I’ve purchased my gear from the one and only Gary Farber of Hunt’s Photo & Video and I couldn’t be happier.

Only problem with Gary, though, is that he doesn’t sell coffee to go in my mug!    

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2 Responses to “The Best Wide-Angle Lens for Night Photography and Kyle Arrington’s Worst Nightmare”

  1. Sai C Says:

    Nice article Kevin!! This is one lens i’ve been dreaming about. However, I’ve still not made the transition from DX to FX. I’m curious about how this lens works with DX cameras like the D300 & D200. One of my main concerns on the smaller sensor size is vignetting. I’ll have to admit that I’ve not researched this on the forums or any other source as yet. But its always good to get an opinion from someone you know and trust and I’m glad that this one has got your vote of confidence. If you’ve run tests with the D300/D200 can you please share your thoughts on the performance of this lens with those bodies?

    Thank you!

  2. Kevin Adams Says:

    Hey Sai! Nice to hear from you!

    The 14-24 won’t vignette on a DX body. It will just act as a longer focal length lens, something like 21-36. If you will be switching to FX in the future, I would definitely consider going ahead and getting the 14-24 and using it on your DX body for now.

    BTW, the vignetting comes from putting DX lenses on FX bodies, not the other way around. When you put an FX lens on a DX body, it usually works fine, but the focal length is increased.


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