Autofocus Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 IF-ED AF-S Review


An AF-S lens for significantly less than US$400?

The small size of this lens makes it a perfect partner for the modest-sized bodies, such as the D100 (shown here) or the F100. Even on the smaller bodies (N65, N75, N80) the lens still seems modest in size. This picture, by the way, shows the lens fully extended.

Lens Formula
15 elements/12 groups; 1ED element.
Filter Thread 67mm
Close Focus 1.2 feet (.38m)
Angle of View 2254'-7118' with 35mm, 1848'-6054' with D1
Other Features
hood provided, AF/MF switch, 7-blade aperture
Weight
14.6 ounces (415g)
Price
US$350 (street)

 

   

The Basics

"Unbelievable" was what everyone thought when they first saw the US$350 street price of this lens. But then they noticed the specifications: G-type with no aperture ring and a slow variable aperture. "Oh, that's the catch," they decided, and immediately dismissed the lens. Not so fast, I say. This is a respectable lens with a few very nice things going for it, as you'll see shortly.

I've never been a fan of the mid-range zoom, let alone Nikon's interpretations of it. The 35-70mm f/2.8 could be the sharpest zoom Nikon has made, but it's big and heavy and features a focal length range that is very limited. The 28-70mm f/2.8 AF-S is even bigger and heavier, but at least gives you a more useful angle of view at the wide end. In the consumer realm, we have the abysmal 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G and 28-100mm f/3.5-5.6G, the adequate 24-85mm f/2.8-4D and 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6D, and the pretty decent 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5D. But none of these lenses ever made it into my bag on a permanent basis. For a mid-range zoom to make it into use in my rotation it needs to give me at least 24mm at the wide end, fast focus, sharp optics, and it must be able to fit into one of the short slots of my Lowe Pro Trekker. Of the aforementioned lenses, only the 28-105mm comes close. But 28mm isn't wide enough for me, especially now that I'm shooting digital.

Thus, I looked at the 24-85mm AF-S with interest when it was introduced, and decided to give it an extended tryout at some of my recent workshops.

This Nikkor has a variable maximum aperture that ranges from f/3.5 at 24mm to f/4.5 at 85mm. The minimum aperture is f/22 at the wide end, f/29 at 85mm. 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 1.2 feet (.38m) 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 one of the elements is made of Nikon's unique extra-low dispersion glass. As with all ED lenses, the lens focuses past infinity under normal temperature conditions.

The manual zoom and focus rings are separate, and easily distinguished. Curiously, the focus ring is the one closer to the camera (the zoom ring is at the front of the lens). The lens uses 67mm 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 67-77mm step-up ring if you use other serious Nikon optics. There are 15 elements in 12 groups. One of those elements is a compound aspherical element, while another is ED glass. The lens formula is about average in number of elements for a modern aspherical design.

The lens comes with the HB-28 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 with all teleconverters, but given the slow maximum aperture, I doubt you'd want to use one, anyway.

The size is small: about 72.5mm in overall length and 73mm in diameter. Build quality is mostly plastic and not the textured metal you're probably used to with other AF-S lenses.

How sharp is this lens? Well, at the left is a handheld shot at 85mm, f/4.5 (!) and 1/60 second. Below, the detail at 100%. Actually, some of the blur in the close-up below is due to the chameleon moving during the exposure (the eye, for example). Look at the darker plate just behind the eye where the cursor is). This photo is sharp. And remember, this is at 85mm at nearly the minimum focus distance and wide open!

 

Handling

The focus and zoom rings are easily distinguished, but 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 "normal"). The zoom ring is a bit stiff, not quite the equal of the professional lenses. The focus ring is decent, but has the usual autofocus "looseness." Both the focus and zoom go from one extreme to the other in about a quarter of a 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 most zoom settings, but it, too, is exposed when the lens is zoomed to 24mm. You might want to zoom in prior to removing the lens from the camera.

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 is helped by a small white dot on both parts. Unfortunately, you won't see the dot on the lens unless you're behind the camera--if you try to put the bayonet on from the front, you can't see the alignment mark. On the plus side, you can leave the hood on and get the 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 anything wider than 28mm, 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. One thing that struck me as strange is that, 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 (nor is it something I've seen on any other Nikkor).

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 disappointed with this lens. Instead, I've decided to keep in my bag and use it regularly. Remember, I don't say that about the 28-70mm or 35-70mm AF-S lenses. (Why? Because both are large lenses with very small focal length ranges--you don't get a lot of flexibility with them, so I don't find using them much more convenient than having a 35mm, 60mm, and 85mm lens in my bag. And, as good as the modern zooms are, they're no match for the fixed lenses.)

Focusing is eerily silent and AF-S fast. Because of the slower, variable aperture, I was expecting to see some compromise here, but if the camera body can calculate the focus point, this lens will reach it nearly instantaneously, with no hunting. Even on the CAM900 sensor of the N65, N75, N80, D100, Kodak Pro 14n, and Fuji S2 Pro, this lens focuses fast and reliably. Whatever compromises Nikon made to keep the lens in the affordable range, focus speed wasn't one of them.

On a digital body from 24 to 85mm, from corner to corner, this lens turns in some impressive results, especially considering its price. I see little obvious to complain about other than a small amount of linear distortion at both extremes. Compared to the older 24-85mm f/2.8-4, the newer AF-S lens simply is in another (higher) class. On a full-frame body, you can see light falloff and loss of sharpness in the corners, but not nearly as much as I would have expected, considering the price. Optically, on a digital body this lens is excellent, while on a full frame body it still rates very good.

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

There's less barrel distortion than I expected at the widest focal length, but it's still there. Stick a horizon towards the top or bottom of the frame and you'll get a very slightly curved line.

While the lens focuses down to 1.2 feet at every focal length, this isn't a macro lens, and the results show that. When used at the close extreme at 85mm, 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.

Overall, the 24-85mm AF-S is an optical bargain from Nikon: sharp, crisp images that are obtained with fast, sure focus usually command double or triple the price in the Nikkor lineup.

 

Drawbacks

  • Build. Not a professional build, no aperture ring. Still, it's solid, and the focus and zoom rings are smooth, if not silky.
  • Filter Size. 67mm? What was Nikon thinking?.
  • 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.
  • Optics. No real issues, though not perfect. Use the hood and you should get sharp, contrasty images with just a bit of linear distortion at the extremes.
  • Price. No, it's not cheap, but for what you get, it's not expensive, either. At this price, you're expecting far less performance than the lens delivers.
 
Quick Evaluation

Highly recommended an excellent mid-range zoom that is well worth the modest price.

features
performance
build
value


Table of Contents
What about the 24-120?


Now that Nikon has also issued the revised 24-120mm with VR, many are asking whether they should get that lens instead. I prefer the 24-85mm AF-S. Here's the drawbacks of the 24-120mm:

  • Slow apertures. f/5.6 comes quickly on the 24-120mm, and that pushes the autofocus performance of the CAM900 cameras using the outboard sensors. Moreover, it makes for a dim viewfinder and not nearly enough depth of field control above 80mm.
  • Not as sharp. At least in the initial samples I've seen and used, the 24-120mm isn't as sharp at 24mm, especially on full-frame bodies. The VR appeals to the folks that think that tripods aren't necessary, but frankly, if you have to rely upon VR for everyday photography, you don't have good enough technique. VR is a godsend for shooting from vehicles and other situations where technique can be compromised, but it is not a substitute.
  • More expensive. While the 24-120mm isn't an expensive lens, it is more expensive than the 24-85mm by a good chunk of change. Enough to buy a flash or other accessory. Is there really something about the 24-120mm that you need? For most people, probably not.

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