Nikkor AF 20mm f/2.8 D : Review

Introduction

After a very long hiatus here’s my newest lens review, of the Nikkor AF 20mm f/2.8 D!
Many things have happened in my life recently, both personally and professionally, and because of the lack of time for “geeky” things such as testing and writing lens reviews, I have been spending most of my free time with my family – and obviously – taking photos of them. My favorite subjects have been my son and my wife 🙂

This was a big change in my “photography life”. Suddenly I wasn’t getting up early and spending an entire day outside taking landscape photos anymore, or simply walking around doing street photography or shooting insects… Now my priorities were two: portraits of my family and losing weight, well, not me but my photography gear.
I started the slimming program by dropping the heavy f/2.8 zooms and slowly substituting them with primes. At that time I also had a zoom lens which I liked a lot, the Nikkor AF-S 16-35mm f/4 G ED VR, which I regret not having the time to write a review of, and that had to go too. It wasn’t as heavy as the others, but it was nevertheless a long lens (and a speciality one which I used exclusively for landscapes). The slimming process went far: I still had the Nikon D700, one cheap zoom and two primes, but I added one new system to my kit: Micro Four Thirds, in my case an Olympus E-M10, two primes and the wonderful Olympus M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO zoom lens. I spent several months shooting and filming with the Olympus, and the Nikon was sitting at home unused most of the time.
But everytime I decided to shoot with the D700, mostly portraits, it was magic. I simply could not abandon the full-frame format. Then I thought that it didn’t make much sense to keep shooting with the 12-40mm, since it was a lens that wasn’t very well balanced with the E-M10, and sold it for a new Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8. Great lens, loved the rendering and AF speed, very compact and well built.

But I loved the look of full-frame… After some time I took the radical decision of selling all the Olympus gear and spent the money on the mighty Nikkor AF-S 58mm f/1.4 G lens. And what a treat is was! This is another lens I regret not writing a review of. It’s magic. I made so many beautiful portraits of my family with this lens, that I’m certainly we’ll admire them in the years to come. And now I don’t have this lens anymore, and why? Because I have migrated to a Sony A7s full-frame mirrorless camera, that’s why, and unfortunately there wasn’t any adapters that could AF with the 58mm, at least reliably. What a shame, I had to replace it somehow…

… but enough with the story and let’s get back to the Nikkor 20mm review!

This is a lens I never thought of buying when I had my D700, but now that I had a very small camera I needed small lenses, either native or adapted. Due to the lack of cheap ultra wide angle lenses for the Sony system, I had to look elsewhere for an adapted lens, and I saw the 20mm as a lens I was curious to try. So there it was at home, and even with the adapter it makes a nice combo with the Sony A7s:

This lens was announced in 1994 and is still being produced today, despite the release of the new Nikkor AF-S 20mm f/1.8 G and the now “ancient” aperture ring. It’s still the smallest ultra wide lens for the Nikon mount an can be bought cheaply today on the used market for about 300€.

Technical Specifications

Focal length 20mm
Maximum aperture f/2.8
Minimum aperture f/22
Field of view 94 degrees (on FX)
Weight 270g
Dimensions 43 x 69mm (46 x 69mm at minimum focus distance)
Optical construction 12 elements in 9 groups
Aperture blades 7, straight
Filter diameter 62mm
Minimum focus distance 25cm
Hood HB-4, optional
Mount F

Mechanical Characteristics

Zoom ring n/a
Focus ring Plastic with rubber finish, with infinity stop
Focus throw 93 degrees
Focus motor No
Optical stabilizer No
Front element rotation while zooming n/a
Front element rotation while focusing No
Internal focusing No
Lens extension while focusing Yes, 3mm
Lens extension while zooming n/a
Maximum magnification 1:8.3

Handling

The lens is very well built, and despite being all plastic on the outside it gives a very solid, dense feeling due to its weight and compactness. Since it’s so small even with the adapter, handling it with the Sony A7s is very easy and manual focus is nice for an AF lens. There’s a generous focus throw and, being an ultra wide lens, focusing is very easy. A nice bonus is the hard stop at infinity, just like the old AI lenses!
The front element doesn’t rotate while focusing, so using polarizers is not a problem.

Resolution

For the resolution test I shot two different targets, one sitting around 1 meter from the lens, and the other at “infinity”.
In both results, the first column shows a crop of the image center, and the second column shows a crop of the extreme corner. Each row represents an aperture setting, from maximum to f/22 in full stops.
Here are the results, first at the close target:

The center resolution is already on its maximum value, which I was kind of expecting from my experience with other old lenses, and only drops at f/22 due to diffraction. The corners, though, are a completely different matter; they start rather bad at f/2.8 and aggravated with huge vignetting, and resolution doesn’t improve much at f/4. Only at f/5.6 one starts to see sharp corners on full frame, but the very best apertures are f/8 and f/11 for homogeneous resolution corner to corner. Once again this is in line with the resolution characteristics with other old wide angle lenses, such as the 24mm and 28mm f/2.8 lenses.
When the target is located far away, the result is a little different:

The main difference is what happens at f/2.8 in the center. It’s very soft, and the corners are equally bad. But by f/4 there’s a big jump in quality in the center, despite the corners still being a little soft. Afterwards the behavior resembles what happened with the close target, but resolution in the corners is still rather soft even at f/5.6. Then, from f/8 and until f/16 the corners become very sharp and overall resolution only drops at f/22 because of diffraction.
Overall, this is still a great performance for an ultra wide angle lens and the resolution results are great for landscape photography when stopping down the aperture is the norm.

Distortion

Not a brick wall, but this image allows to see the distortion characteristics of the lens:

The lens has very visible barrel distortion along with a mustache type characteristic, producing a very wavy shape to horizontal lines, and because of that should be used with care in architecture photography, especially regarding horizontal lines. For landscapes this is not very important unless there are things like horizon line on seascapes, and in this case the distortion characteristic might be hard to fix, but using the appropriate profile for this lens in post-processing does the trick with one click.

Vignetting

Vignetting is very strong at f/2.8 and affects the entire frame, making the center lose about 1/3 stops of light, but the corners get really dark. At f/4, falloff improves drastically but the corners are still very dark. Vignetting never goes away afterwards until f/16, and only at f/22 there’s finally an improvement. However, vignetting is very easy to correct in post-processing and shouldn’t present a real issue in most circumstances.

Chromatic aberrations

I couldn’t force the appearance of CAs whatever I did. Even at f/2.8 I could not see any traces of fringing, it’s really great.

Coma

Coma was tested using a LED source, at home in a dark room.
The three columns in the following image show the result at the center, APS-C corner and full-frame corner, respectivelly:

As expected for a relatively fast ultra wide angle lens, coma is very high in the corners at full aperture. This is normal and difficult to correct during manufacturing, and is impossible to fix in post-processing. In this matter, the lens disappoints for applications like astrophotography where negligible coma distortion is crucial.

Flare

For the flare test, I started shooting directly against the sun, then placed the sun at the corner and finally made shot with the sun just outside the frame.

Shot directly against the sun.
Shot with the sun placed at one corner of the frame.
Shot with the sun just outside the frame.

The lens has a very good resistance to veiling flare which is important to keep contrast high. The problem is that if the sun is in the frame or in the proximity, the internal reflections of light will be easily visible in the pictures, as tiny as those reflections may be. This characteristic is normal for old wide angle lenses, and the more the angle the worse ghosting becomes.
In conclusion, the best thing to do is leaving the sun at a safe distance from the frame.

Bokeh

This is a wide focal lens with 7 straight blades, thus bokeh has to be the last thing you think about when buying this lens.
This test is based on a defocused picture of the city lights and getting crops from the center and corner at three different apertures.

The lens produces a reasonable bokeh wide open, not in this test because of the very visible accentuated edges, but when the background has lower contrast areas. In real life shots, bokeh is not very distracting, though. Stopping down immediately shows polygonal shapes which are the result of the straight type diafragm blades. However, this is in line with every ordinary wide angle lenses I tested.

Macro/Close-up

This lens employs CRC (Close-Range Correction) technology by means of floating elements that help correcting optical problems when focusing very close. As a result, this lens has a very sharp center wide open at the minimum focus distance. This allows to focus as close as 25 centimeters from the front plane, resulting in a maximum magnification ratio of 1:8.3. It’s not bad, but I’ve seen much better from other (modern) wide angle lenses.
I shot a Sony battery and this is the entire frame at the minimum focus distance:

Summary

Build quality 7 All-plastic on the outside but very solid, dense feeling
Handling 7 Easy manual focusing and aperture selection with the ring
Resolution 8 Very good resolution for an ultra wide angle lens, but wide open good only at short distances
Distortion 5 Complex barrel and mustache distortion, not suitable for architecture
Vignetting 4 Very strong wide-open, and always there afterwards
Chromatic aberrations 10 Perfect, no issues here
Coma 7 Very noticeable in the borders wide open, well controlled afterwards
Flare 7 Contrast is always high but ghosts are too easy to catch with the sun nearby
Bokeh 4 Just acceptable wide-open
Overall 65% A sharp and very compact ultra wide angle prime lens, still a great buy today especially on the used market for mirrorless cameras

Samples

Here are some samples of pictures I made with this lens. Settings: native JPEG, picture control set to Standard mode, no post-processing applied except reducing to 600 pixel width.

20mm, f/8.0, 1/125s, ISO 100 – Click here for original
20mm, f/8.0, 1/200s, ISO 100 – Click here for original
20mm, f/5.6, 1/640s, ISO 200 – Click here for original
20mm, f/11, 1/60s, ISO 1600 – Click here for original
20mm, f/2.8, 1/60s, ISO 200 – Click here for original
20mm, f/2.8, 1/60s, ISO 320 – Click here for original

Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 G II ED VR N : Review

Introduction

The 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto lenses have long been a first choice for social events and fashion photographers. The combination of versatile focal lengths, fast aperture, good target isolation, very fast autofocusing and high build quality, are qualities that few lenses can afford to have and absolutely needed for the professional who cannot go through the risk of getting less than acceptable results.
In this review I will describe my own experience, as a pure amateur, with the wonderful Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 G II ED VR, also known as “VR II” (which incidentally has Nikon’s Vibration Reduction implementation version II). Having previously reviewed the also professional level Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED lens of the “holy trinity” of zoom lenses from the current Nikon lineup, I can say that the 70-200mm feels even more rugged, perhaps due to having thicker metal in its construction, and the number of optical elements inside contribute to a lot of weight, 1540 g. By the way, I’ll be reviewing it with the D700 full-frame DSLR, which even if it’s a big camera with a nice round grip, it still benefits a lot with the addition of the battery grip for better balance with the lens for long periods of time. Now here’s how the D700 combines with the 70-200mm, without the battery grip:

This was a very welcome addition to Nikon’s lineup, especially in the forum communities, since the previous version of the 70-200mm was known for producing high amounts of vignetting and lack of sharpness in the corners, especially at the long end. When this lens was released, the alternatives on the market were the Sigma AF 70-200mm f/2.8 DG EX HSM II and the Tamron SP AF 70-200mm f/2.8 Di LD Macro. These lenses were good, had their own strengths but had a lot of weaknesses too, but of course they cost much less than the Nikkor. The Sigma was a fast focusing lens but had problems with chromatic aberrations and obvious lack of sharpness at the long end; the Tamron was the opposite, having great optical qualities but a very weak AF motor which was far from great for action, although it was known to be great for portraiture and could do very good closeups. But the best option was to opt for a used “VR I”, or even Nikon’s old AF-S 80-200mm f/2.8 D. Nowadays, the third-party makers put a lot of effort in their designs and the Sigma released a new version with OS (Optical Stabilization) and many improvements that contribute to better results, especially at the long end; Tamron, on another hand, produced an excellent lens with VC (Vibration Compensation) and USD (Ultra-Sonic Drive) motor. Both lenses finally seem to be good alternatives to the Nikkor.
The Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 G II ED VR is a complex design with no less than 7 ED elements to correct optical aberrations, and 1 Nano Crystal Coat to deal with flare and ghosting. The lens front element doesn’t rotate while focusing, so using a polarizer filter is not a problem. Typical for these kind of lenses, zooming is internal and therefore the length of the lens remains constant through the entire range. As said before, this lens introduces Vibration Reduction version II which is 4-stop effective, according to Nikon. The VR has two working modes – Normal and Active – Normal mode is best for static subjects and compensates for small low frequency movements, and Active mode is best for action where the lens tries to correct high frequency shakings in addition.
At about 1899€ today, this is a very expensive lens and still everybody have been raving about it. We’ll try to find out why.

Technical Specifications

Focal length 70 – 200mm
Maximum aperture f/2.8
Minimum aperture f/22
Field of vision 34 – 12 degrees (on FX)
Weight 1540 g
Dimensions 206 x 87mm
Optical construction 21 elements in 16 groups (7 ED elements, 1 Nano Crystal Coat element)
Aperture blades 9
Filter diameter 77mm
Minimal focus distance 140cm (104cm from the front element)
Hood HB-48, petal-shaped
Mount Nikon F

Mechanical Characteristics

Zoom ring Metal with rubber finish
Focus ring Metal with rubber finish, no infinity stop
Focus throw ? degrees
Focus motor Silent Wave Motor, allows full-time manual focus override
Optical stabilizer Vibration Reduction (version II), up to 4 stops capability
Front element rotation while zooming No
Front element rotation while focusing No
Internal focusing Yes
Lens extension while focusing No
Lens extension while zooming No

Handling

The Nikkor is a chunky piece of metal and it’s front-heavy with the D700, which is a heavy camera by itself, but balance can be restored by adding a battery grip, and shooting with this lens result in being very pleasant that way – I got only a bit of back pain after shooting and carrying the combo for about 8 hours at the races (the longest I shot with it so far). The zoom ring is thin and lightweight, isn’t damped and feels like rubbing metal against metal, but turns around very fast which is excellent for action photography where framing and getting the shot at the right moment is crucial. The focus ring feels a little heavier but allows for quick adjustments on-the-fly, since the lens supports manual focus override after auto-focusing. Speaking about focusing, the lens employs two different modes which are selectable via a switch on the side of the lens barrel – A/M and M/A. These namings may sound weird at first, and still sound strange after – A/M is a new mode that takes longer to recognize that the lens entered manual focus override mode (it takes a little more focus ring turning around by the user), which is useful for protection from accidental hits on the focus ring; M/A, in its turn, is the conventional auto-focus mode with manual override (it instantly enters manual mode at the slightest hit on the focus ring). The lens has a focus limiter for 5 meters which is nice to have when shooting outdoors for even faster AF. Speaking about speed, this lens is even faster focusing than the Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED, especially indoors in low light, and is also the most accurate of all lenses I have used until today. As long there exist the slightest contrast to grab on, the lens nails it, and low light AF performance is really impressive. According to other tests, this is probably the most eye-catching characteristic compared to the other current third-party offers. Another eye-catching characteristic, but on the negative side, is the well known focus “breathing” when shooting close distance objects, which result in less-than-expected magnification. This can be disappointing, for instance, to the wedding photographer who needs to take that close shot of the wedding rings and other small details. Personally I prefer to use a macro lens for that kind of work, since probably the magnification without the “breathing” issue would not be acceptable anyway.
The lens includes a non-removable collar and a removable tripod foot adaptor. The collar can be turned around with ease after loosening the knob, and the tripod foot can be removed also from loosening its knob and sliding it out. The tripod foot is all metal and doesn’t flex. The Nikkor has a short petal-shaped hood which protects the lens but not so much from the Sun rays and should be more effective.

Resolution

For the resolution test I shot the 5 Euro bill in the studio. Focus was achieved using Live View to avoid auto-focus imprecisions and to compensate for an hypothetical field curvature. They are followed by a long distance test shot of a target placed at around 100 meters.
The first column shows a crop of the image center, the corner crop is on the second column and the third column shows a crop of the extreme corner. Each row represents an aperture setting, from maximum to f/22 in full stops. Here are the results:

70mm

At 70mm the center resolution is already excellent right from f/2.8 and only deteriorates at f/16 due to diffraction, and the DX corner resolution follows the same behavior. The FX corners are much less sharp at f/2.8 but reach very good levels already at f/4, and by f/5.6 they reach excellent levels.

At long distances, the results are much better and reach already excellent levels at f/2.8 in the FX corners. Stopping down does nothing to improve resolution and only clears the vignetting.
The lens is excellent at 70mm, especially at medium to long distance shots where every bit of the images reach impressive resolution levels.

105mm

Just like at 70mm, by 105mm the resolution at the center and DX corners is excellent already wide-open and only drops a little at f/16. But now the FX corners are already very good wide-open at reach excellent figures by f/4.

There’s really nothing to say here in this test. The lens performs brilliantly at 105mm like in the previous test.
This is probably the lens sweetest spot, but let’s see what happens at 200mm below.

200mm

Surprisingly, where this is typically the weakest spot of all 70-200mm lenses, here at 200mm and on the short distance test the FX corner sharpness is even closer to the center level than on the previous test, and reach top quality levels. The FX corner is only a hair less sharp and is affected by some vignetting, but nonetheless this is an impressive performance. The resolution figures only lose a bit of “bite” by f/22.

The results from the long distance test reflect those at short distance – the FX corner is only marginally less sharp at f/2.8 and there’s some vignetting as well.

I didn’t expect this level of performance from a 70-200mm f/2.8. Usually the FX corners lack a bit of sharpness, have vignetting, and have a weak spot at 200mm where normally only the center portion of the frame is on a good level. This is not a problem most of the time because the subjects tend to be centered in the frame. But the Nikkor performs so well that it is now clear why it’s often compared with primes by users in forum communities. I may go a step further and say that few primes perform as good as this zoom lens, unless you’re comparing it to a 1899€ prime lens (but you’d lose the versatility of the zoom).

Distortion

For the distortion test I shot a brick wall, again:

70mm

105mm

200mm

The lens produces a bit of barrel distortion at 70mm which is negligible in real-world photos, and changes to pincushion at 105mm but also on a small amount and hardly visible. At 200mm the pincushion distortion level increases but now by much.

Vignetting

In this test I shot a white wall at home using tungsten white balance and setting exposure manually.

70mm

At 70mm, vignetting is very strong wide-open and much less so at f/4, before disappearing at f/5.6.

105mm

At 105mm, vignetting is strong at f/2.8 and decreases a lot at f/4. At f/5.6 it’s non existent.

200mm

At 200mm, vignetting reaches the weakest spot and is at a very strong level by f/2.8 which darkens the entire frame. At f/4 it’s still very strong but affects only the corners, and by f/5.6 it decreases a lot and practically disappears at f/8.

Chromatic aberrations

For this test I shot a car roof from above, on a very sunny day early in the afternoon.

70mm

200mm

The Nikkor employs no less than 7 ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements to reduce chromatic aberrations and the lens performs remarkably in this department. Aberrations are negligible at all apertures on every tests I did, including the always challenging shot of foliage against the sun. This is an excellent performance for any fast zoom lens.

Coma

Coma is an important requirement in astrophotography and usually affects the corners of most lenses. Lenses that are affected by coma produce comas (hence the name) instead of bright light points in dark backgrounds. One way to test coma is using a LED source of light at home in a dark room.
I put the light source at the center (first column), corner and extreme corner of the frame (second and third columns, respectively), at maximum aperture and stopped down.

70mm

200mm

Like most telephoto zooms, the Nikkor isn’t much affected by coma and the only distortions visible are in the halos around the center, where they stretch the more the points are closed to the borders, but the points themselves remain perfectly circular. Curiously, those halos seem to stretch a little more at f/4 than at f/2.8 on the FX corner.

Flare

In this test I shot the top of a small building against the sun, to see if I could get any flare vestiges. I started shooting directly against the sun, then placed the sun at the corner and finally made a shot with the sun just outside the frame.

Shot directly against the sun.
Shot with the sun placed at one corner of the frame.
Shot with the sun just outside the frame.

Typical for any telephoto zoom lens, the Nikkor is affected by flare in every situation with the sun nearby. Despite having one Nano Crystal Coat element to reduce flare and ghosting, flare affects negatively the images when the sun is at the center of the frame, reducing the overall contrast. When the sun is at one corner, the multiple internal reflections of the sun rays are clearly visible towards the opposite corner, and the overall contrast of the image is still affected badly. Finally, when the sun is just outside the frame, the overall contrast returns to normal levels but there’s still few internal reflections visible in photos.
Notice that this test was made without the supplied hood, but even with the hood there’s still few reflections visible in pictures but the overall contrast certainly benefits with its use. Perhaps performance with the hood on could be better if it were a bit longer, just like the one of the “VR I” version lens.

Bokeh

Thanks to the 9 aperture blades, we can expect circular out of focus highlights from this lens. I took a defocused picture at the widest aperture of the city lights and got crops of the center, corner and extreme corners. The test was repeated for the subsequent two stops.

70mm

200mm

Bokeh from this lens is perfectly circular at the center and suffers from the cats eye distortion in the extreme corners, and the out of focus highlights are a bit nervous on the inside at 70mm but get perfectly smooth at 200mm, at f/2.8. By f/4, we start to see some polygonization which is more visible at 200mm, but still the edges aren’t accentuated and produce smooth transitions and backgrounds that are soft and not distracting at the longest focal length. This characteristic doesn’t change much at f/5.6.
All in all, the lens has superb bokeh characteristics (for a zoom lens) which are surely amongst the best in class.

Macro/Close-up

The Nikkor was capable to focus as close as 140 centimeters from the sensor plane, or 104 centimeters from the front element. I shot an 1 Euro coin and this is what to expect at the minimum focus distance:

70mm

200mm

This shows clearly that the lens maximum magnification is too small for closeup work, due to the well known issue of focus “breathing” in this very lens.

Image stabilization

This lens introduced Nikon’s new version of VR (Vibration Reduction), which is advertised as giving an advantage of 4 stops. This means that at 200mm, one can shoot at speeds as slow as 1/13 seconds.
To test it, I shot the back of a street lamp from my window. The first column shows crops of the subject shot with VR off, and the second column shows them with VR on for comparison. Here are the results at 200mm starting at 1/200 s:

The results shows clearly that the VR II works as advertised and better, resulting in sharp images at 1/13 seconds with ease, and adding a battery grip I managed to shoot sharp pictures at 1/6 seconds, benefiting with the improved balance, though the percentage of keepers suddenly decreased. Of course, one has to build some technique to hold the camera and lens steady, so that the benefits of this technology can be applied. The image taken at 1/6 s is softer but that’s the result of shooting at f/20 which is greatly affected with diffraction. Surely VR version II works as advertised, and this versatility is amazing as long as your subject remains perfectly static.

Summary

Build quality 10 Built like a tank with tight precision
Handling 10 It’s obviously heavy but has perfect ring placement, and AF is extremely fast and accurate in every situation even in sports and very low light, catching the least amount of contrast to lock on
Resolution 9 Almost perfect, the only drawback is not so good FX corners wide-open at 70mm
Distortion 9 Very small amounts of barrel distortion at the wide end and pincushion thereafter, but not noticeable in most pictures
Vignetting 8 Very strong at widest apertures especially at 200mm
Chromatic aberrations 10 Never encountered issues, even on most challenging situations
Coma 9 Halos can be found on FX corners but they don’t affect negatively applications like astrophotography
Flare 3 Very weak resistance against flare and ghosting, the supplied hood isn’t very effective and should be longer
Bokeh 8 Very smooth at widest apertures, but gets polygonal early by stopping down
Overall 84% A fantastic lens and a truly reliable workhorse that delivers beautiful results, and the only disappointing features are weak flare resistance and the focus breathing issue

Samples

Here are some samples of pictures I made with this lens. Settings: simple RAW convertion with Nikon View NX2 at default settings (unless noticed), picture control set in-camera to Landscape mode, no post-processing applied except reducing to 600 pixel width.

125mm, f/4.0, 1/1600s, ISO 200
170mm, f/4.0, 1/2500s, ISO 200
155mm, f/4.0, 1/1250s, ISO 200
150mm, f/3.5, 1/2500s, ISO 200, out of camera JPEG
165mm, f/2.8, 1/4000s, ISO 200, out of camera JPEG
70mm, f/2.8, 1/640s, ISO 200, out of camera JPEG

Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED N : Review

Introduction

I’ve been shooting with the Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED standard zoom lens on full-frame for several months now, and since I already know this lens pretty well I decided to write yet another review of this lens. This is a widely known lens and has been very well regarded as a reliable workhorse of many professional photographers out there, being particularly popular amongst photojournalists and event photographers. These last words are easily associated with the focal range of this lens, which allows to take a variety of shots from groups of people to full body portraits and even head shots.
The camera used in this review is a Nikon D700 full-frame DSLR. Here’s a couple of images of lens and body:

This lens was introduced in 2007 and has been untouched since then, both in performance and price, basically because the third-party alternatives failed to deliver in crucial aspects for professional photographers: AF speed, toughness and optical characteristics such as sharpness wide-open and bokeh, except for, maybe, the previous professional zoom lens Nikkor AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8 D ED that was a very good lens already and only needed an update. Only very recently has emerged a new contender from a third-party maker, the Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD, which I had with me for less than a week – I was ready to buy the Tamron but exchanged it for the Nikkor – and couldn’t review for such short period of time, but it was a very nice lens and throws image stabilization as a bonus. Maybe Nikon is planning an update with VR? Since this lens was mainly designed to shoot moving subjects and the latest Canon addition doesn’t have IS as well, I’m not sure if VR is such welcome feature for pros.
The Nikkor employs 15 elements in 11 groups, with 3 of these elements being of ED type to reduce color aberrations and another element equipped with Nano Crystal Coat to take care of internal reflections. On the outside, the lens is a looker; such well crafted piece of metal gives you confidence for the roughest scenarios and it’s a pleasure to use in the field. The downside is that it is very heavy even on a body like the D700, but according to other users it seems to balance very well with a battery grip. Personally I don’t use a battery grip because I’m not a heavy shooter and don’t use the combo in portrait orientation very frequently, but I might add a grip in the future for the sake of the experience.
At a steep price of about 1600€, it’s about one third more expensive than the Tamron offer, but does the performance of the Nikkor gives the price any justice?

Technical Specifications

Focal length 24 – 70mm
Maximum aperture f/2.8
Minimum aperture f/22
Field of view 84 – 34 degrees (on FX)
Weight 900g
Dimensions 133 x 83mm (155 x 83mm extended)
Optical construction 15 elements in 11 groups (3 ED elements, 1 element with Nano Crystal Coat)
Aperture blades 9, rounded
Filter diameter 77mm
Minimal focus distance 38cm (19.8cm from the front element)
Hood HB-40, petal-shaped
Mount Nikon F

Mechanical Characteristics

Zoom ring Metal with rubber finish
Focus ring Metal with rubber finish, no infinity stop
Focus throw 74 degrees
Focus motor Yes, Silent Wave Motor
Optical stabilizer No
Front element rotation while zooming No
Front element rotation while focusing No
Internal focusing Yes
Lens extension while focusing No
Lens extension while zooming Yes, up to 21mm
Maximum magnification 1:3.7, at 70mm

Handling

The Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED is a huge lens for walking around on the streets and screams pro and expensive anywhere. It wasn’t designed for the amateur shooter, the tourist or the hiking afficionados, but instead, was developed for the event and photojournalism photographer with speed and optical performance in mind. I’m speaking about this because it seems that I did the wrong choice: I’m not a pro, I rarely shoot events or other “high responsability” services, and I’m basically a walk around shooter that loves to travel and doesn’t love carrying heavy weights very much. That said, I had sold many of my cheap lenses and had funds, so I wanted the best possible lens for my most used focal lengths in the last years – from about 28mm to 70mm. So that’s when the Tamron offer arrived; I tried it for less than a week but I ended finding it not very ergonomic because it’s a big fat lens, always felt that I had paid too much for the plastic build, and didn’t like the 82mm filter size. The VC was a nice feature for an amateur like me but I lived well until then without image stabilization, so it wasn’t crucial to me. In the performance area I found that it was something better than the zoom lenses I had before, but things like AF speed and bokeh left some buyers regret in my mind; for the money I guess I was expecting more. So I decided to take the plunge and ended paying 500€ more on the Nikkor and returned the Tamron back to the store.
The Nikkor felt more comfortable on my left hand due to its compact size and that way I seemed to have better shooting technique, because I could have a firm hold on the lens that never did with the Tamron. The Nikkor is very long for a standard zoom lens but the real problem is its weight. At 900g the lens alone, it’s not anymore the friendliest travel lens that I had before with the Nikkor AF 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 D, but now it’s a complicated beast to carry around and I quickly had to forget walking around with a wrist strap, or I might end injured. Now I carry the combo with a nice leather strap put diagonally around my body and support it with my right hand just in case if something goes wrong. As I said, the length of the lens is not a problem but the weight is. If you’re thinking of getting this lens for your new D600, you could be in for an unpleasant surprise of severe front-heaviness. Anyway, whenever I come home after a day shooting out there and watch the results on my monitor, I quickly forget all the sacrifice because the output is so fine looking.
When using the Nikkor with the supplied lens hood, the overall length remains constant because the lens hood is attached to the fixed part of the lens. The moving part of the lens extends when zooming towards 24mm and towards 70mm. The length is lowest at 50mm. Nikon were clever about the way they designed the zoom mechanism, because since the lens extends much more towards 24mm that towards 70mm, in the end it is the right thing to do because that way it minimizes the risk of adding vignetting at 24mm due to the lens hood. By the way, the hood is a sturdy piece of quality plastic that is very hard and doesn’t bend. The Tamron design is the regular one: the length is lowest at 24mm and highest at 70mm, and the hood is attached to the moving part of the lens; hence, its total length varies with the zoom setting.
The Nikkor is a very fast lens regarding AF speed and never hesitates even in low light. It will focus on the subject in the lowest light available until there’s nothing to focus on, and only then the lens begins to hunt. It’s a joy to use it in continuous focus tracking when following people on the streets or other moving objects. Therefore, if you absolutely need a fast standard zoom lens (and I don’t mean the aperture), this is the lens you need.
So now let’s find out below more in deep what this lens is about.

Resolution

For the resolution test I shot the 5 Euro bill as usual. Focus was achieved using Live View to avoid auto-focus imprecisions and to compensate for possible field curvature issues.
The first column shows a crop of the image center, the corner crop is on the second column and the third column shows a crop of the extreme corner. Each row represents an aperture setting, from f/2.8 to f/22 in full stops. Here are the results:

24mm

At 24mm the center resolution is already excellent at f/2.8 and only starts to get worse at f/16 due to diffraction. The corner and border resolution never reach the same level and sharpness is even slightly disappointing at this focal length at the corners. The edge-to-edge resolution is acceptable but nothing to rave about, and stopping down doesn’t improve things much around here.

I was curious and thought that usually my real world photos are better than this, so maybe it could be an issue related to the focus distance. So I decided to test the resolution on long distance shots. I will follow up the short distance test with a new long distance test shot to check for any differences.

It seems that after all the resolution at the corners is really lower than at the center, even when stopping down to f/8, but the good thing is that it’s slightly better than in the short distance shot. From f/8 and down, the sharpness is acceptable for landscape photography but the resolution levels are far from any prime lens especially in the corners. Another thing is that long distance shots never have so much vignetting.

35mm

At 35mm the lens delivers excellent sharpness in the center and borders, but never reach the same level at the extreme corners in the short distance shot.

It can be seen that in the long distance shot the resolution across the board is excellent but suffers a little only at f/2.8 in the extreme corners. Overall it’s still better than at short distances.
The resolution in this focal length increased very much compared to the resolution at 24mm and it’s very good already at f/4 across the board.

70mm

At 70mm the sharpness at f/2.8 is excellent in the center but there’s a penalty in the borders that only recovers at f/8. The extreme borders are very good from f/11 and beyond.

Once again, the sharpness difference from center to extreme corners is not so noticeable in the long distance shot and the main differences from f/2.8 to f/8 are mainly in the amount of vignetting.

In summary, the resolution characteristic of this lens clearly indicates that this lens is clearly geared towards events and photojournalism professionals with excellent rendition from medium to telephoto ranges and less so at the widest focal lengths. There’s also much more vignetting problems on very short distance shots even using moderate apertures, but in real world photos, which most of the time mean medium to high distance targets, both resolution and vignetting are very well controlled.
The Nikkor is widely known to be a lesser performer, or even described as being quite bad from some users, at 24mm. That is my experience too. If find that the sharpness across the board improves a lot from about 28mm and peaks at 50mm. In my real world shots I’m always pleased with sharpness at the center at every focal length and I just make sure I stop down to at least f/8 on general landscape photography.
If I need to shoot at f/2.8 at 24mm I do it without thinking twice. Here’s an example at 24mm and f/2.8 that I took recently inside a church:

The photo was taken at ISO 640 and has been resized only.
Personally, I which that this lens were better at 24mm than at 70mm because I shoot wide most of the time. In the few days I had the Tamron, it seemed to perform better at 24mm than at 70mm, so watch out the focal lengths you use more and what are most important to you.
If you absolutely need superb sharpness at 24mm, any prime will do it even the oldies. It’s up to you to decide if you need the convenience of the zoom lens.

Distortion

Here are the brick wall shots:

24mm

35m

70mm

The Nikkor produces a considerable amount of barrel distortion at 24mm that evens out at about 28-30mm. Above that, the distortion characteristic switches to pincushion type and remains constant up to 70mm.
Beware when shooting architecture at 24mm, especially horizontal lines. Above that there’s not much to complain about.

Vignetting

In this test, I shot a white wall at home using tungsten white balance and set exposure manually:

24mm

At 24mm, vignetting is very strong wide-open and down to f/4. By f/5.6 the light loss is acceptable and improves greatly afterwards.

35mm

At 35m there’s still an hefty amount of vignetting wide-open but almost vanishes at f/4.

70mm

At 70mm, the lens vignettes badly wide-open but quickly improves already at f/4. From f/5.6 and later there’s nothing to worry about.

The lens suffers from heavy vignetting at f/2.8 on both focal ends but the amount is very acceptable stopping down to f/4. This is particularly visible in short distance shots, but everywhere else it’s a lesser problem and some photographers like to add a touch of vignetting in post-processing, thus in the end it might be a non issue. For landscape photography be prepared to remove it in post or in camera.

Chromatic aberrations

For this test I shot a car from above on a bright sunny day early in the afternoon:

24mm

70mm

This lens employs three ED elements in its optical construction to reduce chromatic aberrations, and as expected it doesn’t disappoint in this matter. Sometimes there’s a small glimpse of purple fringing in the extreme corners at f/2.8, mainly at 24mm, but only if you’re shooting foliage against the sun or other extreme situations. This lens is amazing in this regard.

Coma

Coma was tested using a LED source, at home in a dark room.
I put the light source at the center (first column), corner and extreme corner of the frame (second and third columns, respectively), at maximum aperture and stopped down.

24mm

70mm

The lens suffers from a small amount of coma distortion wide-open at 24mm but it’s almost perfect at any other setting. This is perfect for astrophotography, you just have to remeber to stop down at 24mm.

Flare

My usual building shot for evaluating flare is no longer in construction, so this time I shoot foliage against the sun to see if I could get any flare vestiges. I started to shoot directly against the sun, then placed the sun at the corner and finally made some shots with the sun just outside the frame.

Shot directly against the sun.
Shot with the sun placed at one corner of the frame.
Shot with the sun just outside the frame.

This lens has one element with Nano Crystal Coat to reduce flare and ghosting and, contrary to what I found on the Micro-Nikkor AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G ED lens I reviewed, flare is well controlled to a minimum and contrast is always kept in high values. When shooting against the sun there’s a halo around it but it doesn’t occupy the entire image as happens with the Micro-Nikkor, and contrast is high in the rest of the image. Placing the sun in the corner of the frame makes the worst case possible revealing the internal reflections, but the worst thing is that blue tinted ray that ruins the shot. Mind you that I did this test without the lens hood, and in fact I can confirm that the hood is very efficient eliminating flare and ghosting. When the sun is just outside the frame there are vestiges of ghosting but there’s no veiling flare at all.
I can judge this lens based on using it with hood or not. Without the hood, flare can easily ruin a shot if you attempt to put it in a corner, and with the hood on the lens is simply superb.

Bokeh

The lens has 9 rounded aperture blades, thus it’s expected to get circular out of focus highlights. I took a defocused picture at the widest aperture of the city lights and got crops of the center, corner and extreme corners. The test was repeated for the subsequent two stops.

24mm

70mm

The bokeh produced with this lens is already quite good at 24mm in the center of the frame even stopping down, although can be a little distracting due to the edges at f/2.8. Another problem is that the corners may reveal some polygonal shapes. This level of performance is already amazing for a zoom lens and incredible for such low focal lengths. Zooming in to 70mm makes perfect out of focus highlights with only a slight amount of nervousness, and once again might produce some polygonization in the corners.
Overall, this is a superb performance for a standard zoom lens and leaves any other current contenders to dust.

Macro/Close-up

The Nikkor was capable to focus as close as 38 centimeters from the sensor plane, or 19 centimeters from the front element, resulting in a maximum magnification ratio of 1:3.7 at 70mm.
I shot an 1 Euro coin and this is what to expect at the minimum focus distance:

24mm

70mm

Summary

Build quality 10 A bulky piece of metal that gives you confidence wherever you are
Handling 9 Except for the weight, it’s a compact lens with all rings in the right place and has lightning fast AF
Resolution 8 Great resolution overall, but its Achilles heal is the wide end
Distortion 7 Noticeable barrel distortion at 24mm and a little pincushion then
Vignetting 8 Strong at f/2.8 at any focal length but well controlled otherwise
Chromatic aberrations 9 Occasionally visible a glimpse in the extreme corners
Coma 9 Some distortion at 24mm and f/2.8, and that’s about it
Flare 5 Use the hood and the score becomes a 10
Bokeh 9 Stunning for a standard zoom lens, even at 24mm versus some primes
Overall 81% A sharp and reliable standard zoom lens for the professional that just delivers the goods, anywhere and anytime

Samples

Here are some samples of pictures I made with this lens. Settings: native JPEG, picture control set to Landscape mode, no post-processing applied except reducing to 600 pixel width.

24mm, f/8.0, 1/500s, ISO 200
70mm, f/2.8, 1/160s, ISO 200
70mm, f/11, 1/160s, ISO 200
70mm, f/5.6, 1/80s, ISO 400
36mm, f/8.0, 1/400s, ISO 200
35mm, f/11, 1/125s, ISO 200