While Nikon has long been a master at making exceptional wide angle lenses, it’s surprising just how much better their latest 20mm ultra-wide is when compared with its predecessor. Nikon’s Nikkor Z 20mm f/1.8 S is a pretty amazing lens.
Filling the space for a dramatic ultra-wide in Nikon’s higher-end S series of lenses for their mirror-less system, the 20mm f/1.8 offers top-level performance and everything we’d expect from a “professional lens.” It’s superbly sharp. It’s amazing in low light. It controls flaring, ghosting, chromatic aberrations, and coma better than any lens I’ve ever used, and it’s weather-sealed and built to last. Yes, it’s a wonderful lens.
But it’s also big. And at $1,045, it’s one of the most expensive prime lenses in Nikon’s Z system (out-priced only by the $8,000 Noct Nikkor Z 58mm f/0.95 S and the $2,100 Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.2 S).
Nikon Nikkor Z 20mm F/1.8 S Lens Specifications
- Mount Type: Nikon Z Mount (not usable on any other camera mount)
- Focal Length: 20mm
- Maximum Angle of View (Full Frame): 94°
- Aperture Range: f/1.8 to f/16
- Aperture Blades: 9 (rounded blades)
- Lens Formula: 14 elements, 11 groups
- Special Lens Elements: 3 Aspherical, 3 ED (Extra Low Dispersion)
- Nano Crystal Coating
- Super Integrated Coating
- Electronic Diaphragm
- Weather and Dust Sealed
- Focus: Internal focusing; Auto focus with STM Stepping Motor; Manual focus optional
- Minimum Focus Distance: 0.2m (0.66 ft)
- Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 0.19x
- Mount Material: Metal
- Filter Size: 77mm
- Dimensions: 84.5 x 108.5 mm (3.4 x 4.3 in.)
- Weight: 503 g (17.9 oz.)
The Nikkor Z 20mm f/1.8 S is a physically simple thing. It’s minimally styled and about as elegant as a plastic-encased camera lens can get. All black, nicely textured for grip in certain places, and with a beautifully long knurled rotating control ring, it’s simply sleek and clean. The only flourish being a couple of minutely chamfered edges to offer a bit of reflective contrast between segments of the lens body.
There’s very little in the way of physical controls. There’s an auto focus / manual focus toggle on the side, marked A/M, and a rotatable electronic control ring around the barrel of the lens. This rotatable ring can be set to control various things – manual focus is its most natural control, but it can also be set in-camera to change the lens aperture silently, adjust ISO, or exposure compensation.
When using the ring in its manual focus mode, the lens focus is adjusted electronically. While not as direct as a mechanical focusing action, the Nikkor’s electronic focusing works well (if not being a bit too sensitive for ultimate precision). I’ve found that I simply rely on the camera’s excellent auto focus. Only when shooting video have I used the lens’ manual focus option (this precludes the camera hunting for focus mid-shot in a stationary recording). The ring is probably better left as an aperture adjustment, especially for those of us who have become accustomed to using older manual focus lenses on older film cameras. But the nice thing is, we can choose our favorite methodology in the Z series cameras’ menu.
The lens is big, and a bit heavy. But it’s a modern lens. It’s packed with lens elements and incredibly advanced auto focus motors, weather-sealed, etc. We can’t expect a modern camera lens to be as light and small as the older manual focus Nikkors. That would be nice, but it’s just not realistic.
Despite its weight and size, the 20mm Nikkor Z balances beautifully on my compact, full frame Nikon Z5. I control my parameters with the dials on the camera, near-instantly adjusting aperture, shutter speed, and exposure compensation to quickly achieve whatever I can with every shot.
My lens reviews aren’t the most technical that you’ll find on the internet or in print publications. I don’t do laboratory testing or MTF charts. You can find those elsewhere if you need them. But I’ve studied them, and to briefly summarize what the scientists have found in the lab – the Nikkor Z 20mm f/1.8 S is a much more optically sophisticated lens than the Nikkors that preceded it. I mean, it better be. It’s got 14 lens elements, three aspherical elements, three ED elements, and nano-crystal coatings. That’s a lot of stuff.
Compared to the lens’ closest predecessor, the older Nikkor 20mm f/1.8G for F Mount DSLRs, the new Nikkor Z 20mm is far sharper. In the center of the frame, even wide open, the lens absolutely trounces the old glass. For reference, shooting the new 20mm WIDE OPEN we get sharper results in the center of the frame than we would get from the old 20mm WHEN THAT LENS IS STOPPED DOWN TO F/4! That’s simply stunning, especially when we consider how good the old 20mm was (and is). I used that lens a lot. It’s an amazing lens. The fact that this one is sharper by such a large margin simply boggles the mind.
The only caveat that should be noted about the sharpness of the new 20mm is that it doesn’t continue to improve as far up the aperture scale as some other lenses I’ve used. By f/4 we have reached absolute peak sharpness across the entire frame. After f/4, diffraction begins to lower sharpness. For this reason, aperture adjustment beyond f/4 should only be used to control depth of field or light, not simply to increase sharpness.
Focus shift when closing or opening the aperture is so minimal as to be a non-issue. Best practice with most cases is to choose your aperture before focusing, anyway, which will naturally happen in AF shooting. But even if you’re some sort of weirdo who chooses aperture after half-pressing the shutter release button, you’ll be okay. There’s not enough focus shift to harm your shot.
Image stabilization is handled in the body of the Z series camera, rather than in the lens. Which is probably a good thing, given how large this lens is already. Adding optical image stabilization would only make it larger. As it is, the camera offers about five stops of image stabilization, and this, coupled with the Nikkor Z 20mm’s very fast aperture, should allow the most caffeinated and jittery of photographers enough stabilization and light to shoot the 20mm in low light situations without suffering motion blur.
Close focusing distance is very close, at 0.66 feet. This allows for some creative use of perspective and interesting close-quarters portraiture (if one is so inclined). Just be aware that the ultra-wide nature of the 20mm naturally creates a sort of distortion when shooting up-close subjects. It can be a bit unflattering, in the traditional sense of portraiture. However, many excellent photographers have used ultra-wides for decades to make interesting shots of up-close subjects. Don’t be a slave to convention.
The lens shows barrel distortion close to 2%, which is admittedly a lot, and worse compared to the 20mm F Mount lens. But this can be fixed with a single correction in Photoshop or Lightroom. For users not using Adobe products, you’ll need to rectify this distortion manually (still easy).
The lens does vignette heavily, worse (of course) when shot wide open. Like the just-mentioned distortion, however, this is easily repaired in post processing. (So easy is it to fix vignetting on the computer, in fact, that I’m almost reaching the point where I don’t want to mention vignetting in lens reviews anymore…).
Ghosting and flaring are controlled beautifully. Shooting directly into the sun poses no problems for this lens. There’s no bright blasts of light, reflections, and virtually zero veiling flare (a lowering of contrast across the whole image caused by internal reflections in the lens).
Bokeh (the quality of the blur in out of focus areas of a photo) is, well, it’s a 20mm lens. We aren’t buying this lens to blur the background like a 50mm f/1.2. But with the lens’ impressively close minimum focusing distance, we can get decent subject isolation (even if the backgrounds can be, at times, a bit busy).
Coma performance is incredible. Unfortunately, you’ll have to trust my word on this or cross-reference with other reviews, because the shots that I made which showed how well the lens handled coma are gone. I lost the memory card on which I’d stored the astro-photography that I made with this lens, along with an entire week’s vacation worth of family photos from the woods of New Hampshire. In addition, the computer that held these shots failed catastrophically when my beautiful daughter dropped it down a flight of stairs. Very sad. And the lens was long ago returned to my friends at B&H Photo, who had lent it to me for review. When I inevitably buy this lens for myself (which I will do) I will update this review to show off its astro capabilities (which are great).
So, yeah, the Nikkor Z 20mm is optically amazing. As close to perfect as any of us will need. It’s a much better lens, optically, than anything that came before it in the Nikon F Mount range. This is perhaps due to the Z Series cameras’ incredibly short flange distance, which puts the back of the lens so close to the cameras’ sensor. But don’t quote me on that. I went to school for word typing, not light science-ing.
Should You Buy It?
It must be said that the 20mm focal length isn’t for everyone. I imagine that some users will find the lens’ ultra-wide focal length a bit needlessly extreme. It’s easy to get lost framing such a wide shot. We need to get close to our subject to fill the frame, but getting too close creates a perspective that can be a bit unnatural, even jarring.
For astro photographers or landscape artists using Nikon’s Z Series cameras, it’s a no-brainer. This is the ultra-wide lens to own. It’s wider and optically better than the Nikkor 24mm F/1.8 S (and it only costs $50 more than that lens). And compared to Nikon’s zoom lenses of similar focal lengths, these being the Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S ($1,350) and the Nikkor Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S ($2,500), it’s less expensive and has a much faster maximum aperture.
Sure, $1,050 is a lot of money for a camera lens (you can get one slightly cheaper, used, on eBay). But this is a lens that a buyer will own for, what, ten years? Twenty? Nikon seems pretty committed to their Z series cameras. My Nikon Z5, already a slightly older model in the range, shows no signs of its age. This is a camera that I will easily use until 2030. And given Nikon’s history with the F Mount, it’s pretty clear that the company cares about ensuring that their lens systems will still be relevant and usable for fifty, sixty, seventy years. (Nikon’s F Mount was first created in 1959 for the original SLR, the Nikon F – and it’s still going.)
By the end of my time with this lens, I’d come to the same conclusions that I’ve come to every time I’ve used any of Nikon’s newest range of Nikkors. It’s amazing. The high end Nikkor S line of professional mirror-less lenses are better than I am. The Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 S is a tool so precise and capable that my creative ability is dwarfed by its technical ability. It’s just another phenomenal ultra-wide, and any Z Series user looking for a dramatic and special lens need look no further.
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