THE NIKKOR 20mm ƒ/2.8

Maya Shaman conducts rituals in the cemetery in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Nikon D800, AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8D

Go wide!  Go wider!!  Go as wide as you can without going too wide!!!  This is how I think about the 20mm lens and, to be specific, the classic 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor in both auto and manual focus.  In my long experience with this lens — I have used it in its MF and AF versions as one of my primary working optics since around 2000 — I have found it to be a special lens in particular and generally as wide an angle as one can get without entering the realm of special effects.  Lenses wider than 20mm can come in handy for unique perspectives and situations, but rarely for every day use.

“There is a sort of mental illness among DSLR users that prevents them from using a single prime lens.”

20mm is a focal length generally defined as being on the edge of, “ultra-wide,” and I think this is fair.  I don’t believe there is any official governing board or regulatory agency of wide-angle lenses to declare things officially ultra or otherwise.  These categories are somewhat amorphous but have utility nonetheless. Is a 35mm lens within the “normal” lens family or is 40mm the wide end of normal?  Is 60mm “normal” or is it a wide portrait lens? Is 20mm at the narrow end of ultra-wide or the widest point of everyday wide? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?  All of these things make for interesting discussions but they don’t alter the essential nature of optics or the divine.

Men in Kamathipura, Mumbai, India, Nikon D800, AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8D
Andres Laughs, Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras. Nikon F3, MF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8, Ilford HP5

Any wide lens can be a tricky beast to manage.  Used incorrectly the photographer can introduce distortions or, worse, simply render a flat and faraway scene.  The wider one gets the more this tends to be true and the 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor is no exception. This is not a lens for the timid.  Used in almost any context other than as a landscape lens, you need to be right up in the action. Even as a landscape lens objects generally need to be put into the foreground.  

People often mistake ultra wide angle lenses as some sort of primitive substitute for a panoramic camera.  You can use them like this if you want to take stunningly boring pictures of mountains that look very far away.  Robert Capa may have admonished us to get closer but he was using a 50mm. To really give depth to a scene with the 20mm — to compose various objects and people at different distances within a scene — you usually need to be a foot or two away from the closest subjects (or 10 inches, the minimum focus distance for the 20mm f/2.8).  This takes some practice as well as a bit of steel. It is, in this, that you test the boundaries of your comfort, your subject’s comfort, and your own personal charm. I most commonly used this lens on its Nikon in concert with a 50mm lens on a rangefinder. I would begin a little further out with the rangefinder then, having established a connection with my subjects, move in closer with the 20mm.  Even the friendliest people can become unnerved with a lens right up in their faces. Frankly, almost everybody is unnerved by a lens placed 10 inches from their faces but if you spend a few moments establishing a rapport you’re much less likely to get punched in yours.

I have worked like that for years as a documentary photographer.  First with the 20mm f/2.8 MF Nikkor on a Nikon F3 or FM and a 50mm f/2 Summicron on a Leica M6ttl.  Today, in a more digital world, I do pretty much the same only with the 20mm f/2.8 AF Nikkor on a Nikon D800 and a 50mm Zeiss Planar ZM on a Leica M-P.  I have other lenses for both cameras but this particular set up seems to function very well for a certain type of work. I use these two cameras when I am in the middle of a scene, working the normal lens with the ultra-wide in concert with my feet, moving in and out, circling around, getting low, getting up above.  From a few feet away, right in the middle of a crowd, I can take a portrait with the 50mm and then capture a good portion of the scene with the 20mm without moving backwards.

“People often mistake ultra wide angle lenses as some sort of primitive substitute for a panoramic camera.  You can use them like this if you want to take stunningly boring pictures of mountains that look very far away.”

One thing I love about this 20mm lens, is that despite being an older design, I find it draws in a natural way.  It is clean, very sharp, and contrasty, delivering a high level of detail without being clinical. It begs to be used right in the middle of the action and its images make you feel like you are right in the middle of things.  It is a lens that doesn’t lie and has a certain indefinable charm. You can even use this lens for certain types of environmental portraiture. If you are careful to step back a bit and keep the subject and camera more or less on the same plane, there is very little distortion until the edges of the frame.  In other words, a person, placed near the center of the frame, and not too close, will be rendered in a natural manner that includes a fair bit of their surroundings.

The manual version of this lens, the AI-s, was introduced in 1984 and the current AF-D version in 1994.  In other words, this lens is somewhat Paleolithic. You can pick one up for a little under $500 but there is also a more modern 20mm f/1.8G Nikkor lens which, for around $800, gives you undeniably improved sharpness, less falloff and more than a full stop of speed.  Sigma also sells a 20mm f/1.4 lens for around $900 offering two full stops of speed over the older Nikkor and, by most accounts, incredible performance. Keep in mind, however, that both these faster, more modern lenses, in addition to costing more, are considerably larger and heavier.

The 20mm f/2.8 contains 12 elements in 9 groups and uses a 62mm filter.  It is small and weighs very little and thus provides the photographer the option of an excellent, ultra-wide lens that takes up very little space in a bag.  The 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor doesn’t have the absolute perfection of its faster, larger, more modern brother, but I maintain that it has a unique visual signature that, to my eye, makes me feel more in and of the scene.  Counterintuitively, I think the older lens, not quite as razor sharp, with a little more vignetting wide-open, ends up delivering an image of greater verité.

Sister of Charity and Microcephalic Boy, Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras. Nikon F3, MF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8, Ilford HP5

Keep in mind, however, that this lens is of the older auto-focus system that needs a camera with an focusing motor in the camera body.  Nikon’s lower-end models will not, therefore, auto-focus with this lens. On pro and prosumer bodies, however, the lens focuses without issue and is, indeed, very, very fast.  Keep in mind, as well, that this lens’ smaller size gives you benefits beyond mere weight and camera bag real estate. DSLRs, particulalrly full frame DSLRs, are big, heavy, and rather obtrusive.  Sometime, if you get a chance, pick up a Nikon FM/FM2/FE etc. Minus the prism at the top, these cameras are almost identical in size to a Leica of the same vintage.

Single lens reflex cameras are having something of a crisis as of late.  Their newer, shinier, ever more smart-phone-like mirrorless cousins are taking an increasing amount of market share which has led too many hacks to pronounce the SLR’s imminent death.  I will maintain, however, that it isn’t the essence of the SLR itself that is the problem. In fact, the experience of looking optically through the lens that takes the picture cannot be replicated by electronic means. It is not antiquated simply because it was invented a long time ago.  To the contrary, it is a brilliant technology that has endured because of how perfect it is. The essential problem is that camera manufacturers are unable or unwilling to design digital SLRs with the mechanical elegance and pure function of their ancestors from the 1970s and 1980s. This is what has seriously hurt the DSLR’s market share, not the fallacious notion that the technology itself is inherently flawed.  

Nikon makes many incredible DSLR’s but they are all too large (at least the full frame models).  One way to mitigate this is to use small prime lenses.  Even a D3 was almost fun to use when mounted with a 50mm f/1.8 and when you take a pro f/2.8 zoom off your D800 in exchange for a prime there is a (brief) moment when you feel almost stealthy.

There is a sort of mental illness among DSLR users that prevents them from using a single prime lens.  Far too few people can even limit themselves to a single zoom like the incredible 24-70 f/2.8 Nikkor. A D800 with a 24-70 would cover almost any normal situation in a large but, by itself, manageble package.  Yet it seems like DSLR users have been convinced that not carrying everything is a sin against the ethics of DSLR ownership. I will remind you that no one is watching. There is no regulatory agency concerned with how many lenses you carry.  No one would question a Leica user for only carrying a single lens. In fact, that person would be praised for their purity and dedication. DSLR users seem to panic at the thought of carrying less than two zooms, a prime, and a flash unit. I will argue that the experience of combining the purity of a prime lens or two (or maybe three) with the optical purity of the SLR’s operating system is a joy that should not be overlooked in favor of the often joyless electro-digital wizardry of mirrorless (non-rangefinder) world.

I think it is time to rediscover what a technological and tactile joy it can be using an SLR.  It is also time for camera manufacturers to develop the next generation of SLRs. The technology is mature and now it is time to perfect the ergonomics.  Make models that are smaller, models with manual controls, models with the finely machined elegance of a Leica or of the SLRs of 30 years ago. When you buy a full frame Nikon DSLR (or film body for that matter).  Drop that machine into your Domke bag with a 50mm (maybe an 85mm) and a wide angle. If you follow this path then the 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor should be a serious contender for your wide-angle optic. FP

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All Images © A. Tonn

2 thoughts on “THE NIKKOR 20mm ƒ/2.8”

  1. Well written opinion and review. I just snagged the AF version myself. I’m loving the use of small primes on my D780.

    1. Russ, thanks for reading! It really is one of the great classic Nikkor lenses and using the small primes on larger FF cameras makes them far more nimble. I remember changing out a 2.8 zoom on my old D3 for a 50mm f1.8 and, while it didn’t make the camera seem small exactly, it did make using it an entirely different experience.

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