This past July I photographed a friend’s wedding exclusively with my favorite manual-focus prime lenses. The results were as good as everyone had hoped, but it got tedious for me after few hours at such high intensity. After reflecting on the subject I decided that next time I would rent a top-grade normal zoom and relax. Not long after that I was invited to work at GTC to supplement staff photographers – I accepted and immediately placed an order for a rental lens.
The 24-70mm lens is at the center of professional outfits from Nikon, Canon and Sony. It is not as popular among amateurs as the 70-200mm lens, or as exotic in looks and images as the 14-24mm lens, but it is the one that holds the product line together. Contrary to its siblings it is entirely reasonable for one to use only this lens and still be a whole photographer/person.
This review pertains to the latest version of the lens from Nikon that launched the same day as the historic D3 camera. The optical design shows very little resemblance to its predecessor after the first three elements. The number of elements and groups is the same however, and in this incarnation the surface most prone to flare (presumably) has been coated with Nikon’s “Nano” coating. In an interview on Nikon’s PR website their engineers relate this technology to T* in spirit, more on this later.
At first blush the 24-70mm looks and feels like a shorter version of the 70-200mm VR. There are some differences: this lens changes dimensions while zooming, and the focus ring is a lot shorter for example. The presentation is the same however, in that this is a solidly built lens but not at all a light or compact one – I find it too long for taste anyway. Balance on the D700 is close to ideal but the combined weight is not, even though this lens has ample amounts of plastics in it (sigh). I can use this combination comfortably and nimbly for hours, but I get punished the next day with sore arms.
This lens doesn’t have VR but I think it should. Its raison-d’être is photojournalism, which is to capture people in their usually dark and cave-like contexts. For this task a maximum aperture of f/2.8 without VR barely meets minimum requirements. Of course this lens launched on the same day as the D3 camera and I can see how Nikon thought that it gave them a free pass.
The zooming action on the 24-70mm is cleverly designed to work with its deep flower-shaped hood but it is not always so smooth in action. The lens extends significantly while zooming at the wide end so that the lens can “peek out” and avoid hard vignetting. This extension combined with the weight of the moving train means that the force required to zoom varies a lot with the angle to Earth’s gravity. When perfectly horizontal the motion is very fluid, but aim at an angle and your zooming fingers are holding the weight of the lens.
As with most lenses these days, manual focus is an option but a half-baked implementation relegates that to a backup purpose only. The focus ring is too light, doesn’t stop at infinity and there is no depth-of-field scale to support range focusing (which is an real option at 24mm). At least with this lens you can expect some depth of field to hide errors. Auto-focus is snappy but otherwise unremarkable.
If it's not clear already, I was quite disappointed with the physical implementation of this lens.
The 24-70mm produces sharp and contrasty images under basically all conditions. This is the short and simple summary of its drawing properties. I was not disappointed here.
Let me clearly answer some obvious questions now: no it is not as sharp as modern prime lenses, and no it is not as contrasty as Zeiss T* lenses. It is quite simply a very good lens that overcomes an important handicap in its construction – that it is a zoom lens. I might even say that while it is not as good as my favorite lenses, it is basically "good enough" for everyone (me included).
Overall the drawing at f/2.8 is a bit soft, particularly in the corners, yielding good but not great results. At this aperture fringing is evident in many pictures where focus wasn’t spot-on and a few where it actually was. At f/4 the lens improves considerably and by f/5.6 the remaining aberrations are no longer field relevant. Detail reaches almost fully to the far corner at the smaller apertures, with only the last few pixels of the frame taking on a mild blur on FX sensors. I shot this lens almost exclusively at f/5.6 – f/8 for my own personal work and was thrilled with the results.
Bokeh is good, being almost neutral at most settings of the lens. I was quite pleased by this. Chromatic aberrations are under control, and fringing artefacts aren’t a problem except at full aperture. In my limited usage the lens appeared to be very strong against veiling flare, this is both an excellent performance and exactly what I expected from Nano coating (as it relates to T*). If all of Nikon’s new lenses used the Nano coatings the line-up would be pleasant to use indeed.
Simply put the Nikkor 24-70mm is a good lens. There are better, faster, smaller and lighter lenses out there, but none that are all of these at once and cover this whole focal range too. In this respect the 24-70mm is a truly excellent zoom lens which deserves its high reputation.
Would I recommend this lens to other photographers? Yes, but I am never going to buy one myself. The size of it scares me away and I enjoy better quality already in smaller primes. I might rent it again, but I’m not even sure of that.
Once again I wish I could recommend an alternative. My most desired wish from Nikon is to see a 24-??mm f/4 VR lens. Usually people will chime in “24-100mm f/4 VR” but personally I would be thrilled to see “24-70mm f/4 VR” if it were of a reasonable size and weight. This is what I would like to recommend.
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