Autofocus Nikkor 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 IF-ED AF-S VR Review


An AF-S and VR lens for under US$700, but you get what you pay for.

The focal range of of this lens makes it an immediate front runner in the minds of most casual photographers, as they believe that they're getting "everything they ever need" in a travel lens. Perhaps. But read this review carefully before making that determination.

Lens Formula
15 elements/13 groups; 2ED elements.
Filter Thread 72mm
Close Focus 1.6 feet (.5m)
Angle of View 2030'-8418' with 35mm, 1320'-6054' with D1
Other Features
hood provided, AF/MF switch, 7-blade aperture, VR
Weight
20.3 ounces (575g)
Price
US$520 (street)
   

The Basics

As I write elsewhere, I've never been a fan of the mid-range zoom, let alone Nikon's interpretations of it. The 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G AF-S did make me start looking at the mid-range zoom again, and since that lens is light and small, I often carry it with me, especially now that I'm shooting full-frame again (on a 1.5x view digital body, the 36mm equivalent wide end just isn't wide enough for me). That lens is sharp, inexpensive, and focuses well, so the 24-120mm has a big hurdle to jump over. And the only thing it has to do that with are the 85-120mm focal range and VR. Which may not be enough to justify almost 2x the price.

But since the number one question I get about lenses these days is "how good is the 24-120mm," I decided it was time to give it a long look.

This Nikkor has a variable maximum aperture that ranges from f/3.5 at 24mm to f/5.6 at 120mm. However, it's already f/5.3 by 70mm and f/5.6 by 85mm, so there isn't a lot of focal length range that has a "fast" aperture. This is a "slow" lens and the viewfinder will be dim most of the time. The minimum aperture is f/22 at the wide end, f/38 at 120mm. Since this is a G-type lens, there is no aperture ring. (G-type lenses are basically D-type lenses without an aperture ring.) Focusing can be as close as 1.6 feet (.5m) at any zoom setting. No depth of field or infrared focus index marks are provided. The IF in the name indicates that it is an internal focus lens, meaning the front element does not rotate during zoom or focus. The ED indicates that two of the elements are made of Nikon's unique extra-low dispersion glass. As with all ED lenses, the lens often focuses past infinity under normal temperature conditions.

The manual zoom and focus rings are separate, and easily distinguished. As seems to be Nikon's new custom with consumer lenses, the focus ring is the one closer to the camera (the zoom ring is at the front of the lens). The lens uses 72mm accessories, which is a hassle, as Nikon's standards for most lenses are 62mm or 77mm. That means you'll probably want to pick up a 72-77mm step-up ring if you use other serious Nikon optics. There are 15 elements in 13 groups. The lens formula is about average in number of elements for a modern aspherical design.

VR is single mode only; it can be switched on or off--there is no active mode. As with all Nikon VR lenses, panning is detected and motions then damped in only one direction.

The lens comes with the HB-25 hood, but you'll have to pony up extra cash for the optional soft lens pouch (CL-S2). Nikon claims that the lens is incompatible or works poorly with all teleconverters, but given the slow maximum aperture, I doubt you'd want to use one, anyway. Be very careful if you try to use a third-party teleconverter with this lens (why would you?)--the rear element of the lens can hit the front element of many converters, giving you a nice set of scratches exactly where you don't want them.

The size is modest: about 94mm in overall length and 77mm in diameter. As such, it is a little wider, longer, and heavier than the 24-85mm AF-S lens. Build quality is mostly plastic and not the textured metal you're probably used to with professional AF-S lenses.

Here's a worst-case flare example (there's a filter on the lens, which contributes to flare). Considering the extremes I'm dealing with here, the internal light reflections are minimal, though obviously present.

 

As I note in the review text, this is not a perfectly sharp lens, nor is it a macro lens. This is a 100% view from a Pro 14n flower closeup taken at f/16. There's just a touch of softness all around.
Here's a slight crop from a Pro 14n image taken at 4500 x 3000 pixels. The lens was at 24mm and f/22. Unfortunately, it's a JPEG original, so it's got a bit of Kodak "processing" in it, so when we get to the detail, below, you'll see some stairsteps and the mosaic like noise reduction effects in play.

And here's a small section at 100%. As I note in the Performance section, the lens performs adequately. This is relatively near the center, but there's still a tiny bit of chromatic aberration starting to come into play, most noticeable on the differing colors at the edges of the horizontal branch.

Handling

The focus and zoom rings are not easily distinguished, as their size and feel are similar; they're also reversed from what you're probably used to. This makes the lens feel "foreign" the first few times you use it (well, maybe always if you keep switching between this and other Nikkor zooms where the rings are more readily distinguished and reverse of these). The zoom ring is a bit stiff, not the equal of the professional lenses. The focus ring is actually better and a little "tighter" than some of the other consumer autofocus lenses, which tend to have loose rings. The zoom ring goes from one extreme to the other in about a quarter of a turn, the focus ring takes almost a half turn.

The front element is not recessed, and the supplied hood isn't particularly deep, so it's easy to accidentally touch the glass or bump it against something, so be careful where you point the camera. The rear element is recessed at some zoom settings, but it is very exposed when the lens is zoomed to 24mm. Be careful handling the lens when it's off the camera, as you can easily ding the rear element.

The butterfly-style lens hood bayonets onto the front piece, and as is usual, is made of cheap, flexible, plastic. Getting the bayonet lined up isn't easy, as there's no visual indicator on the lens to match up against the one on the hood! On the plus side, you can leave the hood on and get the supplied lens cap on and off if you have small fingers.

If you've got a body with an internal flash, be aware that the lens cuts off some of the light from the flash at almost anything wider than 35mm, especially when the hood is on.

As with all AF-S lenses, you can manually override autofocus at any time. The lens also has an easy-to-find AF/M switch if you want to turn off the autofocus on the lens. Like other recent consumer Nikkors, when fully extended, there's a bit of side-to-side play to the front-most element. I haven't noticed any optical problems due to this, but it isn't confidence inspiring.

There are some handling limitations that interfere with the use of the lens on some cameras:

  • N90s, F4, N70, N8008, and N6000 users: Aperture priority and manual priority exposure modes aren't available (you have no way to set an aperture!).
  • F3AF, N6006, N2020, and all manual focus bodies (except the N6000): All exposure modes are unavailable. Essentially you can use the lens at its given aperture and use an external metering system.

Performance

I was prepared to be very disappointed with this lens. The previous 24-120mm is one of my least favorite recent lenses, with substantive compromises all over the place, and barely adequate performance at the extremes. Fortunately, this new version manages to crawl over that low hurdle and provide some reasonable, if not outstanding, performance. So I'm not disappointed, but I'm also not overly impressed.

Focusing is silent and AF-S fast. If the camera body can calculate the focus point, this lens will reach it quickly, with no hunting. Even with the CAM900 sensor used by the N65, N75, N80, D100, Kodak Pro 14n, and Fuji S2 Pro this lens focuses fast and reliably in bright light or with the central autofocus sensor. Whatever compromises Nikon made to keep the lens in the affordable range, focus speed wasn't one of them.

On a 1.5x digital body from 24 to 120mm, this lens is a decent though not exceptional performer. There's obvious barrel distortion and a slight amount of visible chromatic aberration at 24mm. And at 24mm and f/3.5 the image is somewhat soft. The telephoto end fares better, with slight pincushion distortion, no real chromatic aberration, and pretty decent edge-to-edge sharpness from f/8 onwards.

On a full-frame or 35mm body, you can see light falloff and loss of sharpness in the corners at all focal lengths when wide open. At 24mm chromatic aberration is obviously present and the image is perceptably soft at f/3.5 through f/5.6. Again, the telephoto end fares much better.

Optically, on a digital body this lens is very good, while on a full frame body it rates as only fair to good, depending upon how you use it. In neither case would I want to be using this as a low-light lens; it's only at f/8 through f/16 that this lens turns in strong enough optical performance that it should be considered over the 24-85mm (and then only because of the extra telephoto oomph coupled with VR).

As a so-called all-in-one travel lens I was left wanting. Optical performance isn't exceptional, and you're going to not like the dim viewfinder and slow apertures in low-light conditions. Yes, the focal range and VR are very tempting, but these don't come without trade-offs. If you always shoot at f/8 to f/16, have good shooting discipline, use ISO 200 or faster, then you'll probably be happy with this lens. But if you sometimes need more light coming through the lens you'll be relying upon the VR, which may simply not be enough to compensate for the lackluster optical performance wide open. Pros won't like the compromise. Amateurs are likely able to live with it.

Flare hasn't been a problem, especially when the supplied lens hood is used.

While the lens focuses down to 1.6 feet at every focal length, this isn't a macro lens, and my shooting results show that. When used at the close extreme at 120mm, for example, the results on my sample aren't quite as sharp and contrasty as they are at longer distances. You have to look carefully at prints to see the difference, but it's there.

VR is rather quiet on this lens--it doesn't seem to have to work as hard as it does on the extreme telephotos. I've managed decent 1/8 second shots, which is a stop better than what Nikon claims, but VR is merely helpful, not something you should be relying upon instead of a tripod or good technique. I suspect a lot of amateurs will think that this feature gives them a license to always handhold, but given the modest optical performance of the lens, if you treat image-taking casually with this lens you may find the results aren't as crisp as you need them to be.

Overall, the 24-120mm AF-S VR is much better than its predecessor, but not by enough to make me sit up and pay attention. Personally, I wish they had added VR to the 24-85mm AF-S instead of making this lens. Even so, it has found a place in my casual travels when I want to travel as light as possible (e.g., one lens, one body, no tripod).

Drawbacks

  • Build. Not a professional build, no aperture ring. Still, it's solid, and the focus and zoom rings are smooth, if not silky.
  • Optics. Could be better. Not up to the quality level of the 24-85mm AF-S, in my opinion.
  • Filter Size. 72mm? Can we please just have 62mm or 77mm?
  • Zoom and Focus rings are reversed. The lens feels "wrong" when you first go to zoom.
  • No depth of field scale. We don't even get cut-out depth of field charts in the manual, let alone anything on the lens. At least give us one set of markings for the widest angle, Nikon.

Positives

  • Focus Speed. Yes, it's an AF-S. Yes, it's silent. Yes, it's fast. Yes, you can override the focus manually. Despite the price, there are no AF-S compromises here.
  • VR. Yes, VR is very helpful in some situations. It's not a crutch, but a trekking pole.
  • Price. For AF-S and VR the price is reasonable. But you're getting those things at the expense of better optical performance.
 
Quick Evaluation

Recommended with reservations; for some, this lens will be adequate, but it's not a pro caliber lens.

features
performance
build
value

Lens no longer produced

Table of Contents
What about the older 24-120?


Now that Nikon has also issued the revised 24-120mm with VR, some are asking whether a used 24-120mm of the original design is a good buy, since it's dropped considerably in value.

  • Not as sharp. Whatever optical changes Nikon made, they have somewhat improved the 24mm end and significantly improved the telephoto end at f/5.6.
  • Slower focus. There's just no contest: the new lens is hands-down faster.
  • No VR. If you're going to try to handhold 120mm at f/5.6--and I know a lot of you are going to try that--the VR helps enough to make a dramatic difference.

bythom.com | Nikon | Gadgets | Writing | imho | Travel | Privacy statement | contact Thom at thom_hogan@msn.com


All material on www.bythom.com is Copyright 2007 Thom Hogan. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized use of writing or photos published on this site is illegal, not to mention a bit of an ethical lapse. Please respect my rights.