The 28mm focal length is an interesting one, sitting within the range classic landscape-friendly zooms like a 24-70mm or a 16-35mm. The 28mm focal length is longer than the typical wide-angle lenses loved by landscape and nature photographers. It is, though, a standard focal length found on compact travel cameras, and for good reason. The 28mm length is just long enough to create relatively-wide-angle shots without a lot of corner distortion or subject warping. Used in the right way it is also an excellent environmental portrait choice, giving photographers the ability to make a portrait that takes in a lot of a subject’s location.
With a maximum aperture of f/1.4, Nikon’s AF-S Nikkor 28mm 1.4E ED lens gives photographers a greater range of flexibility with depth of field and background blur than does the 28mm focal length in typical 16-35mm f/4 or 24-70mm f/4 lenses. Since a lens is usually sharpest a few stops from wide open, a 28mm f/1.4 will theoretically be sharper at f/2.8 than a 24-70mm f/2.8 at its widest settings. As a result, images shot with the 28mm f/1.4 should have excellent sharpness when stopped down to f/2.8 or above.
Nikon’s Nikkor 28mm f/1.4D first hit the market in 1999 and was in production until 2006, consistently considered one of Nikon’s best lenses. This newest incarnation is a ground-up redesign of the optics, which are housed in a plastic body (versus the metal body of the previous lens). The new lens has 14 elements in 11 groups, which includes three aspherical elements and two ED elements. Nikon has also used its Nano Crystal Coat and Super Integrated Coat to reduce ghosting and flaring—common problems with wide-angle lenses as they’re more likely to have bright light sources or the sun in the frame than with a telephoto where the sky can be framed out of the photo.
To smooth out the background blur and create beautiful bokeh, the lens has a rounded, nine-blade diaphragm. Bokeh wasn’t a significant design consideration in the 1990s when the previous lens was designed, but manufacturers have recently been engineering this soft-focus characteristic into their lenses.
The newest Silent Wave motor drives focusing on the internal elements, making for a quiet, smooth lens. The lens is internally focused, which means that the lens doesn’t increase from its nearly-four-inch length during focusing.
The AF-S Nikkor 28mm 1.4 E ED is fast and quiet, exactly as advertised. Subjects lock quickly. Coupled to the Nikon D850 (read our review at digitalphotopro.com/reviews/anniversary-present-nikon-d850-review/), a camera that we’ve found has exceptional autofocus performance, the lens was particularly impressive. In one shoot I needed to single out a small white flowering desert plant from a sea of red ones, all the exact shape, and texture, and the lens had no problem isolating precisely what I wanted to frame.
The background blur in the lens is equally exceptional. In the same image, the lens rendered the neighboring buds with just enough detail to see the similarity between them, but quickly through the background softly out of focus. Thanks to the wide f/1.8 aperture, I could try a variety of different compositions just by changing the depth of field.
The lens was a perfect fit for astrophotography as well, with a wide enough angle to capture both stars and foreground. Because most lenses are sharpest a few stops down from wide open, I could do night photography with confidence about the sharpness of my images around f/2.8 to maximize sharpness, yet still, have an impressive amount of light entering the lens.
On a full-moon night, I set up the lens to capture a foreground of buildings with a background of stars, which required me to stop down and focus on the structures and increase my exposure time. Both the stars and the buildings are tack-sharp, and there was little or no instance of coma—a type of distortion typical in wide angle lenses that would cause the stars to appear to have small tails.
Because the lens uses a modern focusing system, the focus ring is “fly by wire” which means that turning the focus ring sends a signal to the camera to adjust the focus motor, rather than moving a physical element in the lens. As a result, focusing at night on the building was a bit tricky, having no focus distance indicators on the lens, so I turned on a flashlight, used the low EV autofocusing power of the D850 to lock onto the building and then switched to manual focus so the lens wouldn’t drift.
There is very little (to no) chromatic aberration with the 28mm f/1.4E lens. I shot quite a bit of high-contrast subject matter with the bright sky behind a colorful edge, and there’s almost no indication of CA at the edges. The coatings Nikon employs to reduce flaring do a great job—many of my test images were shot directly into the sun, with a burst of bright light in the corner of the frame, and there are only a few images with any hint of flare. There is some vignetting, though that’s difficult to avoid at these wide angles, and easily correctable in software, should you want to. I like the slight vignette added by a wide-angle lens, so usually leave it in my shots.
The 28mm focal length might not be the perfect choice for every photographer, but it’s a versatile one, which offers a wide range of possibilities, from landscape to portraits. The Nikon Nikkor 28mm f/1.4 E ED is an exceptional example of what modern lens design and engineering can achieve. It’s an excellent lens to pack along on a shoot, even if you don’t anticipate using it, although the nearly $2000 price tag makes is a lens that will make it attractive mostly to those with a business need for this focal length. For landscape and astro photographers, it’s a must-have lens, and a great successor to Nikon’s previously vaunted 28mm lens.