About Lens Reviews

It seems that my review of the 14-30mm f/4 S Nikkor for the Z mount set off a wave of questions and comments. In particular, many pointed to my seemingly contradictory statement that landscape shooters might very well like it but I wasn't unequivocally recommending it. 

Let's start with that last bit: when I recommend a lens, I believe that it performs as promised and expected, and that its performance exceeds a threshold that puts it clearly above some implied reference line. Very rarely do I give a Highly Recommended rating, and in those cases I simply believe that the lens in question excels and is in the upper tail of the bell curve when it comes to all competitors.

Turning things around, though, if one of you bought a lens that I recommend, I'd be surprised if you found it wanting in some meaningful way that I haven't described. The most likely scenario if you buy a lens I recommend and you find it lacking is that you got a bad sample. That happens. More rarely today than previously due to automated manufacturing and test procedures, but it still happens. No two lens elements are polished perfectly the same, for example.

My lack of a recommendation for the 14-30mm f/4 S didn't happen because I thought it was a bad lens. It was because I felt that a number of you would find it a bit wanting in some way, particularly at 14mm (and possibly at the other end of the focal range, 30mm). I tried to be clear about what those things might be, but I left it to you to put all the pieces together (as opposed to repeating myself in my review summary).

I should point out that I'm still using the lens in question. It's part of my three-lens Z travel kit. I like it. While the 14-30mm f/4 S is not the "miracle wide angle zoom" we've all been hoping for, I find a wide range of situations where it works just fine for my purposes. That's why there were statements such as "landscape photographers and those that spend most of their time at the wide end at smaller apertures are probably going to like this lens" and "I can see the landscape, cityscape, and travel folk really liking this lens" in the review.

Notice I didn't include architectural or interior photography in that last bit. I don't think the high degree of linear distortion you'd have to correct coupled with the corner issues warrants the 14-30mm f/4 S being used for architectural use: there's just too many issues at the extremes that might show up.

There's another thing that went unsaid in my review—and I'm going to have to reevaluate whether I need to add it—and that's the best lens you'd use for landscape photography on a Z7 is almost certainly a prime. In the Nikon world, the 19mm PC-E comes to mind.

So there's another thing that was going unsaid in many of the comments I received: you perceive that a convenience lens (small, light zoom) is capable of landscape photography that stands up against the best. Read the paragraph above this one again: use a prime if you want best results for landscape work. But if you want convenience while shooting landscapes, then the 14-30mm f/4 S very well might be the lens you're looking for. 

You'll probably note that I did give a recommended rating to the Sony 12-24mm f/4G, a lens that would be competitive with the 14-30mm f/4 S. I'd say that was a very close call. The Sony snuck just above the bar, the Nikkor fell slightly below the bar. Some of that has to do with what other products are available in the mount (or fully capable via adapter). Some has to do with what the balance of liabilities in the lens. For instance, the Sony's biggest fault is its annular flare, though that can generally be avoided with slight positioning differences. 

You'll also note that when I give Recommended ratings now, they're labeled with the year(s) in which I recommended them (I try to perform a re-evaluation of those yearly recommendations annually; haven't done it yet for 2019). Yes, that's correct, a lens can be recommended at one point in time, but fall below my hypothetical line over time. I've yet to adjust a lens upward in category over time, but it isn't impossible for that to happen given how I define my ratings and the fact that I fairly constantly re-evaluate my thoughts as I use a product more.

I've got a ton of additional lens reviews pending, which will appear over the summer as I get time to finish up my thoughts. I try to be consistent in my assessment and wording, and as to whether I ultimately give a lens a Recommended rating or not. 

Wide angle lenses are the most difficult to come to grips with, particularly wide angle zooms. That's because we're trying to flatly render a huge portion of a 3D world, and the optical challenges are immense. All wide angle zoom lens designers find themselves in a quagmire of conflicting design decisions. 

These days, a lot of those designers are counting on "lens corrections" in software to work themselves out of the conflicts. Typically, that means letting linear distortion (and maybe vignetting) go rampant. I think that in Nikon's case, they got a little too dependent upon this. Without correction, at 14mm the zoom in question performs a lot like the old Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D: though not quite a full frame fisheye, it shows a very large and un-ignorable amount of inherent barrel distortion. That's the design of the Nikkor 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5, too. But it's more appropriate for that lens, as that lens is actually trying to be a fisheye, not a rectilinear lens.

The observant among you may have noticed that I haven't been calling out any wide angle zoom lens as being the one to get lately, for DSLR or mirrorless, for any mount. That's partly because of the design conflicts I just wrote about. Every wide angle lens I've tested in the last five years has design choices in it that emphasize one trait over another, then balances those out in some fashion, typically via software corrections.

Thus, one problem in reviewing wide angle zooms becomes trying to ascertain fitness-to-purpose, when said purpose for some may be widely different than for others. And that's exactly where my recommendations start to come in: the more purposes I believe a lens performs well for, the more likely it's going to get my recommended label.

I continue to use the 14-30mm f/4 S, and the more I use it the more it's grown on me in small ways. But only a bit. I'll continue to re-assess it over time, but at present I don't think I'll change my mind on whether to give it the recommended label or not.

To quote Thomas Dolby's lyrics:
You came close/
Close but no cigar/
You didn't miss by far/
You know you came this close/
Close but no cigar.


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