The Nikon 20mm f/1.8 G was released back in the fall of 2014.
I originally ordered this lens way back in the spring of 2015, but due to production delays at Nikon, I didn’t get my hands on one until just a few weeks ago – which ended up being a great deal on an open box / store demo copy from B&H.
In this hands of review of the Nikon 20mm f/1.8 G Nikkor ultra-wide prime lens I am going to review why I purchased this lens in the first place, where this lens excels, and my hands on experience of using the Nikon 20mm f/1.8 G in the field.
(You’re not going to get any full resolution crops, resolution charts or test graphs – so if you’re looking for that kind of a lens review, check out the DxO Mark review here.)
Why I Purchased The Nikon 20mm f/1.8 G Lens
I am a commercial photographer, so most of my work is with prime lenses. My shots are planned well in advance including lighting setups, camera position and lens selection. I don’t often need that quick change-it-up on the fly ability offered by zoom lenses (and when I do, I rent one).
When I look through my Lightroom catalog, the vast majority of my work is at 50mm or wider – for whatever reason, I tend to rarely shoot telephoto.
I briefly thought about picking up the Sigma ART 24mm f/1.4, but to be honest, I really don’t like 24mm very much – its never quite wide enough.
So to round out my lens selections, I decided to skip 24mm all together and go with the 20mm ultra-wide instead.
The Nikon 20mm f/1.8 G is the second widest prime lens available from Nikon. If you want to go even wider, there is still the 14mm f/2.8 D (or the awesome 14-24 f/2.8 ED zoom – more on lens options in a moment).
However, my main reason for purchasing the Nikon 20mm f/1.8 G is for underwater photography.
Right now, I use a flat port underwater housing. The flat port introduces around a 1.3 to 1.4 magnification factor, so underwater with a flat port, a 20mm lens is roughly equivalent to a 28mm (as far as field of view goes anyway – chromatic aberration and pincushion distortion are amplified).
20mm (28mm equivalent) is a great focal length for underwater – any wider and there is too much wide angle distortion – any longer and you can’t get close enough (you generally have to be very close underwater).
The Nikon 20mm f/1.8 G also has a flat front element and takes standard 77mm diameter filters – meaning I can use it with my flat port underwater housing without vignetting.
It also means that you can use it for landscape photography with all your standard filters (like the polarizer I used for the photo below). I have even used this lens with Cokin P series square filters without vignetting (although you have to take off your UV filter first – if you use one).
Build Quality and Specs
The Nikon 20mm f/1.8 G is mostly plastic and hence feels very plasticy.
I suppose this could be seen as a good thing because it is pretty lightweight – but honestly, it just feels a little cheap for an $800 lens.
This lens doesn’t feel nearly as solid at the Canon 20mm f/2.8 USM that it is replacing or the Sigma ART 35mm f/1.4 and Sigma ART 50mm f/1.4.
As far as the specs go, according to DxO Mark, this is the best 20mm lens available at f/1.8. In other words, it is very sharp even wide open at f/1.8.
An anecdotal comparison to images from the Canon 20mm confirms that the Nikon 20mm is much sharper, has much less vignetting and less apparent distortion too.
Overall I would say that the build quality is average, but the optics are excellent.
Where the Nikon 20mm f/1.8 G Lens Excels
Obviously this lens is for full frame cameras. If you are using Nikon’s DX format – there are much better ultra-wide angle DX lens options available for you.
Like I previously mentioned, the Nikon 20mm f/1.8 is a great choice for underwater photography.
However, it is also a great choice for landscape photography.
Time lapse photography is another area where having an ultra-wide prime is a great option.
And finally, the ability to open up to f/1.8 for astrophotography is invaluable!
It might not sound like much, but going from f/2.8 to f/1.8 lets in about one and a half stops more light – or in other words – the difference between shooting the milky way, northern lights and meteor shower scene below at f/1.8, ISO 3200, 20 seconds and f/2.8, ISO 6400 (much more noise), 30 seconds (stars start to blur).
Other Ultra-Wide Lens Options
First of all, the sticker price on the Nikon 20mm f/1.8 G is $800 – that’s pretty good value for a high quality, fast prime lens in my books.
Now, if you wanted to go even wider, there is the Nikon 14mm f/2.8D ED. However, the 14mm is $2000 – so in my mind this is a rental if I ever need one.
If you wanted to cover the entire focal range with a zoom there is the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 G ED zoom. This is another $2000 lens – so if you really need to go down to 14mm, going with the Nikon 14-24 would be better value than going with both the 14mm f/2.8 and the 20mm f/1.8 – with a little bit of a compromise on aperture.
The Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 has a reputation as one of the best ultra-wides on the market – zoom or prime. I have used one on a number of occasions and if it wasn’t for the gigantic bulbous front element, I probably would have opted for the 14-24 instead.
The 14-24 f/2.8 is also a massive, heavy lens – whereas the 20mm f/1.8 is surprisingly compact and light weight.
On the Canon side, there is the Canon EF 20mm f/2.8 USM. I have used the Canon 20mm f/2.8 for years on my Canon rig, and to be perfectly honest – the Nikon 20mm f/1.8 is a much much better quality lens (at least optically – not so much on build quality).
I found the Canon 20mm f/2.8 to be soft with heavy vignetting and really bad distortion – of course it is about $300 cheaper.
And finally, there is the Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L. I’ll admit to being a little jealous about this lens – 11mm – 11 freakin’ mm!
With a domed port, this is probably the best underwater lens available. However, it also has a massive bulbous front element so you could only use it with rear filters (not really as much of a problem as it may seem)…and it is $3k.
At f/4 its also not really suited for astrophotography – unless you’re image stacking.
Overall, the Nikon 20mm f/1.8 G is a very high quality lens with great value for $800.
The build quality is not as good as Nikon’s more expensive ultra-wide angle options – or Canon’s $500 20mm f/2.8 either for that matter, but for the price, I can’t complain too much.
Optically, ultra-wide primes don’t get better than this – very sharp, even at f/1.8, minimal vignetting and minimal distortion.
The Nikon 20mm f/1.8 G with its compact, lightweight size and flat front element is ideal for landscape photography and time lapse. The ability to go to f/1.8 is great for astrophotography – and of course it’s great for underwater photography too.
If I have one complaint – I often find 20mm isn’t wide enough!
However since any options to go wider cost significantly more, when I do need to shoot ultra-ultra wide angle, I rent.
What Ultra-Wide Angle Lens Would You Buy?
What do you think?
What is the best ultra wide angle lens option?