Lens Review - Nikon 20mm f3.5 - an affordable wide angle for full frame DSLR Video

The Nikkor 20mm f3.5 - an affordable super wide angle for your full frame DSLR for shooting video

Super wide angles aren't always needed in filmmaking. In fact, you don't see them very often in commercial films. There are some films that come to mind that use them, usually in a comic sense. "Raising Arizona" is a great example. Much of that film was shot with wide angles, probably around 20mm. 

24mm is one of the more common wide angle lenses for still photography, and it is a pretty extreme angle. 28mm is a standard wide angle, while 20mm gets you into super wide angle. 

A 20mm lens on a real, 35mm camera or a Canon 5D Mark ii, creates exaggerated, leave-nothing-out shots. Some people love this look, others don't. 


Getting 20mm affordably and with quality

Filmmaking is hard work and is brutal on equipment. I've seen lenses fall and survive and I've seen lenses fall and break into pieces. While I love Canon's best lenses and they do provide nice images, I've prefered Nikon's manual focus lenses for their durability and equal image quality for shooting video on my Canon 5D Mark ii. 


The Nikkor 20mm f3.5 is no exception. It's a heavy, robust little nugget of metal and glass that closely resembles Nikon's other manual focus lenses like the AI 24mm 2.8 or 28mm f2.8. At f3.5, it's not the best wide angle for low light, but as long as you're not shooting in the dark you'll be fine.


There are many options out there for 20mm. Many zooms now offer the 20mm and wider range and f2.8 or f4, like the Canon 20-35mm f2.8L or the Canon EF 17-40mm f4 L, but both of those lenses run around 500 or more.

I picked this 20mm up for $50 on Craigslist in mint condition. Used on ebay they go for around 200 or more. Still a bargain considering it provides great image quality, quality metal construction and small size.


Why shoot super wide angle?

From a composition standpoint, shooting super wide angles gives your audience more to look at. It's difficult to isolate your subject and therefore the audience can get distracted, but a good cinematographer and director don't worry about that. It creates a busy frame and gives the director more to work with. 


Telephoto shots are more handsome and they isolate the subject easily, drawing all the attention to one place in the frame. 

Here's an example of a wide angle shot which has multiple subjects in one frame, compared to a telephoto which directs attention to one thing (click them to see larger image): 








Same location, different angles. The second image (100mm telephoto shot) is obviously handsomer, and the first image (20mm) has obviously more going on. The trees are not the subject...maybe the grass is the subject, but we still see the trees and they are a big part of the image. I wouldn't say one is better than the other, it's all about what you want your image to look like and how it helps tell the story. 


Why shoot primes? 

One advantage of using primes is that if you're logging your shots during filming, you will easily be able to know the angle you're using if you're shooting with primes. With a zoom your angle may not always be exact. 

Primes are generally sharper, lighter, and these manual primes offer adjustable apertures on the lens itself.

They are also simpler to repair...lens repair technicians can fix these lenses, whereas they won't touch newer Nikon AF-S and Canon EF lenses, so you're out of luck for on-site repairs. I've had a technician come over within an hour at a film shoot and fix an AI lens on the spot.  


 Nikkor 20mm f3.5 AI

Colored f-stops indicate an AI lens

The Nikkor 20mm f3.5 is a manual focus, mostly metal-constructed lens from the 1980's. Nikon has made several other 20mm manual focus lenses and newer auto focus versions and zooms that cover the 20mm range. 


This f3.5 version is one of the less common lenses, and also pretty affordable. Many people want the f2.8 version so this one gets forgotten, but it's still very good. Obviously if you have the f2.8 version or really any Nikkor lens that covers the 20mm range, then you really probably don't need this lens. Except for if you have a zoom the size of a cantaloupe and you're tired of carrying it around. This lens is a tad smaller than a tennis ball and weighs 8.2 ounces, or half a pound. 


The focus ring is super smooth and dampened, not loose at all. A half turn of the ring takes you from infinity to minimum close focus at less than a foot. 

It has a seven-bladed aperture that should create some smooth bokeh, or out of focus area. 


In photos I've been very pleased with this lens. It's darn sharp for a super wide angle lens. At f3.5 it's not as sharp as f8 but still pretty crisp and the images are always nice. Lens sharpness is not as important in video, but still plays a role in image quality. Don't be afraid to use this lens for either, as it creates beautiful images. 


Attaching a followfocus is a breeze with this lens. If you're using other Nikkor primes you can easily switch them in and out because they're very similar in size. 


It takes standard 52mm filters. It won't vignette with one filter, even a standard 52mm circular polarizer. With two filters it vignettes. 


Using Nikkor lenses on your Canon DSLR

Just grab some of these quality adapters to use your Nikkor lenses on your Canon DSLR. Remember, this 20mm will be a 32mm lens on your Canon 7D, T2i, Nikon D90 or any crop-sensor DSLR. It's usable but won't create super wide angles like on a 5D Mark ii or iii. 


If you were to use only manual focus Nikkor lenses on your DSLR, you could obtain a kit of these lenses and be set for less than $1,000, depending on your luck on ebay, craigslist, dad passing down his old lenses, etc. 


Classic Nikon Nikkor manual focus lenses

20mm f3.5 - $50 - $200

28mm f2.8 - $100 - $200

35mm f2 - $200

50mm f1.8 or 1.4 - $50 - $250 

85mm f2 - $250

Nikkor 105mm f2.5 - $150 - $250

80-200 f4.5 - $200


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