Remarkable Images, Risky Design: Nikon Z 20mm F1.8 S Review

The Nikon Z 20mm f1.8 S delivers some impressive images, but in a minimal package.

Just 4 mm from the more standard 24mm, the 20mm lens offers a happy medium between ultra-wide distortion and the narrower view of a 24 or 35mm. The Nikon 20mm f1.8 S blends in with a growing list of Z mount lenses. On the outside, the 20mm looks nearly indistinguishable from all other f1.8 primes in the series. But, on the inside, the lens hides a new dual-motor autofocus design.

At a $1,050 list price, the Nikon Z 20mm f1.8 S is one of the more expensive f1.8 lenses in the series. The widest Z prime is significantly more expensive than the 35mm, but just $50 more than the 24mm. The question is whether an f1.8 is prime worth all that cash. I tried out the Z 20mm on some landscapes and environmental portraiture to find out.

Too Long, Didn’t Read

The Nikon Z 20mm f1.8 S delivers excellent images with ideal sharpness and great bokeh. But, the design of the lens itself isn’t as excellent: it’s big and has minimal controls for such a pricey lens.

Nikon Z 20mm f1.8 S Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Excellent sharpness
  • Good color and bokeh
  • Minimal distortion
  • Dust and moisture-sealed

Cons

  • Lacks separate control ring and focal distance scale
  • Larger than the similar F mount
  • Pricey

Gear Used

I used the Nikon Z 20mm f1.8 S with the Nikon Z 6 II.

Innovations

The Nikon Z 20mm f1.8 S is the first Nikkor lens to use a new multi-focus system. This design uses two autofocus motors that work in sync. Nikon says this design helps speed up autofocus as well as reducing aberrations. Since the launch, Nikon has also added the design to the new Z 50mm 1.f2 S.

Nikon Z 20mm f1.8 S Tech Specs

These tech specs were taken directly from the Nikon USA website:

  • Mount Type: Nikon Z Mount 
  • Focal Length: 20mm 
  • Maximum Aperture: f/1.8 
  • Minimum Aperture: f/ 16 
  • Format: FX 
  • Maximum Angle of View (DX-format): 70° 
  • Maximum Angle of View (FX-format): 94° 
  • Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 0.19x 
  • Lens Elements: 14 
  • Lens Groups: 11 
  • Diaphragm Blades: 9 Rounded diaphragm opening 
  • Nano Crystal Coat: Yes 
  • ED Glass Elements: 3 
  • Aspherical Elements: 3 
  • Super Integrated Coating: Yes 
  • Autofocus: Yes 
  • AF Actuator: STM (stepping motor) 
  • Internal Focusing: Yes 
  • Minimum Focus Distance: 0.66 ft. (0.2m) from focal plane 
  • Focus Mode: Autofocus, Manual 
  • Filter Size: 77mm 
  • Approx. Dimensions (Diameter x Length): 3.4 in. (84.5 mm)  x  4.3 in. (108.5 mm). Distance from camera lens mount flange, based on CIPA guidelines 
  • Approx. Weight: 17.9 oz. (505 g) Based on CIPA guidelines 
  • Lens Type: Prime

Ergonomics

The Z 20mm f1.8 S follows the standard set by several earlier Z lenses. It has a streamlined, modern look, but it’s actually larger than the comparable F mount lens. The Z lens is quite long for a wide-angle lens at 4.3 inches, nearly as long as the Z 24-70mm f2.8. At 17.9 ounces, it’s also a little heavy for the category. In comparison, the Nikon F mount 20mm f1.8 is 3.17 inches long and about 12.5 ounces, and Sony’s 20mm f1.8 is 3.33 inches long and 13.16 ounces.

The controls on the lens are bare bones. The lens houses just an auto to manual focus switch and a single control ring. Nikon advertises that control ring as a custom control ring — and it is. But it’s also how the lens focuses. If you customize that control ring, you lose the ability to use manual focus. The lens is more than four inches long — why couldn’t Nikon fit another control ring on the barrel? Nikon uses a similar minimalist design in the 24mm f1.8, 35mm f1.8, 50mm f1.8, and 85 f1.8.

The front of the lens accepts 77mm filters. Thankfully, this wide-angle doesn’t have a dramatic curve at the front that would prevent filters.

Build Quality

Nikonians who aren’t picking up their first Z lens will feel right at home with how the 20mm feels in the hand. It’s a plastic barrel, but it still feels sturdy. That’s likely thanks in part to the weather sealing. Nikon says the lens is sealed against dust and moisture. I shot with this lens in a snowstorm and also gave it a good splash with no consequences. The single control ring turns smoothly, and the autofocus switch is easy to use.

Autofocus

The Nikon Z 6 II isn’t the fastest focusing mirrorless camera, but the dual autofocus motors helped the lens perform better than some other Z lenses. Working with well-lit portraits, only about 14 percent came back a bit soft. That’s similar to how the lens performed with a moving subject. Roughly 16 percent of photos taken at a walking pace were soft.

The lens-camera combo had the most trouble focusing on a dark silhouette. Shots taken in an open car wash had a lower hit rate, with a few more soft photos than even the moving subjects.

The autofocus is quiet. You won’t have any trouble using this lens in a wedding ceremony or inside a library. However, it can be picked up in a video if there is no other noise to drown it out.

Ease of Use

There’s one positive to the Z 20mm’s lack of extra controls: simplicity. This lens would be simple even for a beginner to just mount and shoot. You can’t reach for the wrong ring or switch because there’s no other ring or switch.

Image Quality

While the design of the 20mm may be a little lacking, the images are anything but. The lens delivers excellent sharpness, color, and bokeh, with a little wiggle room for some character.

Bokeh

While a 20mm wouldn’t be my go-to lens if I wanted great bokeh, the f1.8 still delivers a soft background that helps the subject stand out. At f1.8, background colors and details bleed together with no hard lines.

Points of light are rendered into soft, round bokeh balls. I didn’t spot a soap bubble or onion ring effect.

Sharpness

I’ve been impressed by the sharpness of every Z series lens that I’ve shot with so far, and the 20mm is no exception. Even wide open, the center is perfectly sharp. The corners are a little soft at f1.8. But, the sharpness covers enough of the frame that you can place the subject nearly anywhere.

Lens Character

The lens keeps chromatic aberration in check. I did spot a small amount of green on some backlit trees in the background. But, colored fringing was rare.

The lens has the ability to create a little flare — keyword being little. Shooting towards a golden hour sun, I could get some small, almost charming, little rainbow balls and an occasional tiny rainbow arc. The lens will also create some white, streaky flare.

Wide angles are known for their distortion. Thankfully, the Nikon Z 20mm f1.8 keeps barrel distortion at a minimum. There’s only the slightest bend in lines towards the very edges of the frame. That’s one major reason to consider the 20mm over the Nikon Z 24mm f1.8 S.

Color Rendering

Edited RAW

Colors from the Z 20mm are excellent. The tones feel accurate. Shooting at golden hour, the JPEGS had gorgeous golden tones.

Extra Image Samples

From day one, The Phoblographer has been huge on transparency with our audience. Nothing from this review is sponsored. Further, lots of folks will post reviews and show lots of editing in the photos. The problem then becomes that anyone and everyone can do the same thing. You’re not showing what the lens can do. So we have a section in our Extra Image Samples area to show edited and unedited photos. From this, you can make a decision for yourself.

Edited

Unedited

Conclusions

Likes

  • Photos are sharp, without being too sharp.
  • The color and bokeh are excellent for a 20mm.
  • Barrel distortion is minimal.
  • The lens is dust and moisture-sealed.

Dislikes

  • The controls are minimal.
  • The Z lens is larger and heavier than the F mount 20mm f1.8.
  • The lens is more expensive than the F mount, as well as Sony’s 20mm.

The Nikon 20mm f1.8 is arguably one of the best wide-angle lenses for the Z mount system. The image quality is spectacular. Photos are tack sharp, barrel distortion is minimal, and bokeh is soft and round. Even the autofocus performance is a little better than some other Z lenses. The sharpness, colors, and even the design of the lens itself is quite similar to the Nikon Z 24mm f1.8 S, but the 20mm does a better job keeping lines straight.

But, the lens design is very minimal. Like the other f1.8 primes in the Z series, there’s no secondary dial, shortcut buttons, or focal distance scale. The 20mm is priced higher than those other primes and, for $1,050, I would have loved to see the lens display panel and the second control ring that Nikon includes in other lenses. Even the budget-friendly DX lenses include a second control ring. The lens is larger, heavier, and more expensive than the similar F mount and Sony’s mirrorless 20mm.

But, if image quality is paramount, the Nikon Z 20mm f1.8 is a good choice for Z-mount photographers. I’m giving the lens four out of five stars.

Hillary Grigonis

Hillary K. Grigonis is a photographer and tech writer based in Michigan. She shoots weddings and portraits at Hillary K Photography. A mother of three, she enjoys hiking, camping, crafting, and reading.