Zoom Lenses For Nikon 'F' Mount: Normal Range
Evaluations By Bjørn Rørslett
For rating criteria, please see the Lens Survey Page
Note: Many zoom lenses possess front filter threads that rotate while the lens is focused. This often is annoying if you want to use a polarising filter, for example. Whenever a zoom lacks this trait it is explicitly stated.
More frequently than other lenses, zooms do display product variability and you may have to test several before getting a perfect sample. This results because of their complex optical design. Remember that such lenses also would be more susceptible to knocks and blows than are primes, so treat them with real care.
[test lens version(s) given]
|AFS-Nikkor 18-200 mm f/3.5-5.6 VR G ED DX||
4(-), see text
wide-ranging zoom lens is a marvel of modern computer
wizardry and clever optical design, and at the same time
a difficult item to score with a single-valued rating.
You need to consider carefully your needs and shooting
habits before deciding that this lens is the appropriate
tool for you.
No less than 16 elements, of which three are aspherical and two are ED, go together to give a rather compact and surprisingly light-weight zoom lens. The filter size (72 mm) is odd these days when most Nikkors come with either 67 mm or 77 mm threads. It comes with a substantial scalloped lens hood and extends in a very obvious and nearly obscene fashion when it is zoomed out to the 200 mm mark. Despite all the glass inside, it handles difficult against-the-light shots quite well as zoom lenses go, so the coatings applied are top notch. Geometric distortion is complex, going from strong barrel at 18 mm, almost none at 24 mm, to end up with pincushion at the longer focal lengths. There are higher-order components involved too, so the curvature is non-linear and this is seen towards the periphery of the image. The "wave" or "moustache" distortion means you need to be careful shooting architecture or other subjects having straight lines, unless you confine the zoom setting at 24 mm.
The design is optimised for the smaller image circle needed for Nikon's current "DX" sensor, and the lens will not cover the 24x36 mm format anywhere. It is also telecentric and adding extension to this lens tends to bring the focus point inside the lens assembly, so using it for advanced close-ups is not recommended. You can add a close-up attachment on the front, though.
Image quality is remarkably good at the wide end and declines towards the telephoto end. This is the opposite behaviour compared to most modern zoom Nikkors. A fair amount of light fall-off into the corners of the image is seen towards the long end, too, and is present even at f/8-f/11 despite the telecentric principle of this lens. The very long lens barrel could be instrumental in giving this effect, acting like a mechanical vignette. Chromatic aberration (CA) is quite well controlled, but is easily seen for landscape subjects when you employ the longer end of the lens. Blue fringing occasionally was an issue for some high-contrast subjects, and is less easy to handle in your post-processing workflow than the traditional purple or red/cyan CA pattern.
Around 18-24 mm, you get high image sharpness already at f/4-f/5.6, whilst the long end may need stopping down to f/11 to deliver really sharp images. This further underscores that you need to consider the way you approach your subjects with this lens. It is not a question of staying put and just racking out the lens to get a proper framing, unless you are aware of the consequences.
The vibration-reduction (VR) technology allowed me to get quite sharp images down to 1/10 sec @200 mm, and to 1/5 sec @18 mm. So, Nikon's claim of up to four stops improvement is confirmed at least for the long end. On the other hand, to get the proper perspective on the matter, you start out at f/5.6, which costs you 2 or 3 stops compared to an f/2.8 or f/2 lens, respectively, so the actual benefit isn't quite as impressive as per Nikon's claims (which presumes of course you have access to a faster lens, which is my situation, but not everyone will be sharing that position).
The practical handling is easy and the amazing span in coverage comes in handy in a number of shooting situations. The AF action is snappy under normal conditions, but when light levels are low, the focusing speed slows down and towards the long end, some hunting may occur.
Is the 18-200 VR the ultimate "jack-of-all-trades" alternative, the one and only lens you need having mounted to your camera? The answer obviously depends on the end user. If you are satisfied with the inevitable constraints of this design, by all means go ahead and enjoy using it.
IR performance: Seems to be very acceptable, but I will have to do more testing before I assign a rate to the lens.
|AFS-Nikkor 24-70 mm f/2.8 ED G FX||
introduced with the new Nikon D3 and its FX
("full-frame") format, is a state-of-the-art
design and will likely replace the older 28-70. It is a
little longer than the old lens, weighs about the same,
and is significantly more narrow. Its shape and outline
means it rests very comfortably in your hand and it
handles great on the D3 and D2x bodies despite its
"G" disadvantage. To offset the latter, there
are improved sealings and a rubber gasket to the rear to
alleviate ingress of dirt and moisture. The newcomer uses
a huge scalloped (petal-formed) lens shade like its
The optics comprise 15 elements, 3 of which are ED, 3 aspherical, and one has nano-crystal coating. Nine blades in the aperture makes for nice out-of-focus backgrounds. Unlike the 28-70, it has a fixed rear lens element so the tendency for the lens to act as a "suction device" is eliminated. In fact, the element is fixed both for focusing and zooming, very neat and clever. When you zoom either side of the 50 mm setting, the front assembly moves to expand or contract just like the 28-70. Normally you won't notice this since all the action takes place inside the lens hood.
In terms of geometric distortion, the 24-70 shows very low pincushion towards the long end on D2X, a little more on the D3. Towards the 24 mm end, almost no distortion at all could be seen, just vestiges of a barrel type. It is obvious when you swap the lens between DX- and FX-cameras that the distortion pattern is somewhat wave-shaped across the frame so the nearly straight lines in the corners of the DX frame can be curved a little more on the D3, and vice versa. However, levels of distortion are so low that they encroach on those found in fixed-focal length territory. You can shoot architecture with this zoom lens. Simple as that, really.
Compared to the older 28-70, the 24-70 handles adverse light conditions much better and flare and ghosting are rarely an issue. The "micro-contrast" of image details is much better too. It focuses a little closer as well, 0.4m (0.38-0.41m depending on the zoom setting) to give approx 1:3.7x magnfication. Not "macro" of course, but very useful for flowers and larger objects, and image quality held well up into the nearest range.
The 28-70/2.8 has long been recognised as among the best ever made by Nikon. I'm happy to report that the new 24-70 takes this quality even further. It has a very modest amount of field curvature at 24mm and virtually none at 70 mm, so you can approach your subject without fear of the corners going unsharp. Light fall-off can probably be measured in a research lab but is undetectable within the frame of a DX camera. On the FX:D3 some corner fall-off is detectable when the lens gets toward 24 mm setting. This by and large is gone by f/4.
Very sharp images result on-axis at 24 mm even at f/2.8 and the contrast was good all over the frame with corners ever so slightly softer. At f/4 the entire frame at 24 mm appears sharp and crisply defined with excellent contrast and colour saturation. Stopping down further changed little of these traits until you got near f/16, where lowering of contrast and the onset of loss of detail commenced to be more visible. Still, I would not hesitate shooting at f/16 even on the wide end of the range.
For the long end, f/2.8 delivered sharp images across the entire frame and this improved further at f/4. Absolutely state of the art optical performance and the enhanced acuity and better micro-contrast compared to the identical capture with the 28-70 were plainly visible. Image quality held up well to beyond f/16, even f/22 looked very acceptable, a most unusual finding.
Both in test chart shots and in the field, I had a hard time detect any CA nasties with this lens. When the lens was used for close-ups on high-contrast subjects, very slight CA (chiefly blue fringing) could be detected but not to any level that judicious post-processing couldn't remove entirely. So again this is state of the art performance. Nikon themselves claim that the image quality of current lenses result from a three-sided approach involving camera sensor technology, lens design, and software. I wrote the same in my 12-24 DX and D2X reviews years ago, by the way.
I have used several randomly acquired samples of this lens and they all have behaved in a very similar fashion. However, some users complain about severe light fall-off or field curvature. Since these reports are at variance with what I could observe, there is always the possibility of QC issues. But personally I consider the new 24-70/2.8 Nikkor to be the reference for all other midrange zoom lenses. There is absolutely no doubt that the new lens trounces the old favourite, the 28-70 AFS, in terms of sheer image quality.
IR: performance on the D200 (modified) was impeccable in the IR range. Very sharp images resulted and no issues with hot spots and other nasties could be found. In common with all other lenses in IR, you'll see more ghosting and flare compared to that in visible light.
|Zoom-Nikkor 28-45 mm f/4.5
|This, the world's first
true wide-angle zoom,
had a short production run in the mid 70's before being
replaced by the 25-50 in 1977. It shares many of the
virtues of the latter zoom, however. Additionally, it had
a stationary front while focusing so making it easy to
apply a polariser. Image sharpness is excellent at all
focal settings and colour fringing is quite well
controlled, so it gives a nicely defined DOF. From f/5.6
to f/16 quality images are obtained. Its weak spot is the
strong tendency to flare under less than ideal
conditions, and ghosting can be detrimental to image
quality. The restricted zooming range and the dark view
it gave in the viewfinder never made it a popular lens,
so is scarce and difficult to locate today. It is
probably best suited for an F2 camera with the 'R'
viewfinder screen installed.
Images acquired with this lens mounted on a D2X have a very pleasant, "rounded" feeling to them, and are tack sharp even with the lens set wide open. Colour fringing is seen, but occurs in moderate amounts as long as the lens isn't stopped down too far.
IR: performance is let down by a tendency to give a central hot spot. Besides, image sharpness seems to suffer ever so slightly in IR too.
|Zoom-Nikkor 28-50 mm f/3.5 AIS||
compact zoom lens that is not familiar to most Nikon
users, it was presented in the early '80s likely as a
supplement to the 50-135/3.5.
In use it is uncomplicated and reliable. Image quality is excellent and chromatic aberration (CA) is kept well under control. Geometric distortion is very low, going from slight barrel at the short end to slight pincushion. Flare and ghosting are moderate compared to most other zoom lenses. Set the lens between f/5.6 and f/8 to get optimum results.
There is a "macro" setting as well, more a practical joke, but you never know if it could be used for something.
IR: performance is marred by a strong hot spot occurring even when the lens is set wide open.
|AFS-Nikkor 28-70 mm f/2.8 ED IF||5
|For its limited range of focal settings, the new AFS 28-70 might seem a tremendous overkill. It's very expensive, heavy and surprisingly bulky. Add its huge scalloped lens hood and people think you are the proverbial paparazzo. That don't impress me much - I bought this lens solely for its outstanding optical quality. It having non-rotating filter threads helped too. The stunning results delivered by this lens would indeed be expected from its sophisticated optical design that employs several aspherical and ED elements, and IF focusing. Its silent-wave motor gives blindingly fast AF focusing with D1, F5 or F100 bodies. Compared to the vast majority of wide-angle zooms (and most wide primes too), the AFS 28-70 convinces by its extreme sharpness, total lack of colour fringing (an effect due to residual chromatic aberration and coma, the bugaboo of retrofocus-designed wide lenses), low vignetting even used wide open, and nice rendition of out-of-focus areas thanks to its nine-bladed aperture. It is among the few modern zooms that match the 25-50/4 for landscape photography. However, flare can be a serious problem when shooting into the sun, much more so than with the 20-35 f/2.8 Nikkor, and there occasionally is some ghosting too when scene contrast is high, but the latter can be largely avoided by stopping the lens down. Sharp images are produced even when the lens is shot wide open, and this holds when extension tubes are added. Stopping the lens down to f/5.6 yields sharp pictures corner-to-corner and there is negligible field curvature as well. It shows only a small degree of barrel distortion. An outstanding lens if it suits your shooting habits.|
|AF-Nikkor 28-70 mm f/3.5-4.5||4||This is a humble lens with an aspherical element up its sleeve, so optical performance is surprisingly good for its modest 8-element design. Also it ranks among the best zooms for its low flare and ghosting levels. Set at f/8, quality images can be produced. Guess one has to live with the plasticky feel of the lens and a rotating front, though. You can't always win.|
|AF-Nikkor 28-80 mm f/3.5-5.6||
|This featherweight lens, all plastic even down to the lens mount, isn't exactly my preferred optical choice. However, if I concentrate on the pictures produced by it, the situation changes for the better. Pictures are rendered with good sharpness and rich colours, although clearly not with the "bite" of the better lenses. However, for amateur use the lens would be an excellent choice. Set the aperture to f/8 for the best results, and shield the front element from bright light sources.|
|AF-Nikkor 28-100 mm f/3.5-5.6 G||
is plastic on this lens, down to the lens mount itself.
The lens likely self-destruct if dropped, due to the
internal construction in which Scotch tape plays an
important rôle. Manual focusing is next to impossible
since only a narrow collar, located inconveniently in
front of the lens, is provided and the focusing pitch is
rough. AF works quite well, but is noisy.
Despite the awful plasticky feeling, images were delivered with good quality although contrast is lower than on the better lenses, and so is image saturation. Geometric distortion is evident towards the extremes of the zooming range, and as usual goes from barrel at the wide to pincushion at the long end.
|Zoom-Nikkor 28-85 mm f/3.5-4.5
|3||The focal range of this zoom extends from moderate wide-angle to short tele and thus would suit the needs of many people. At the longer end, it gives quite sharp images from f/8, but at the short setting there is a general problem with corner sharpness. Flare and ghosting do their part to reduce image quality despite the multi-coated lens elements. The front rotates when the lens is focused.|
28-105 mm f/3.5-4.5 IF
have asked me to review this lens, so I finally yielded
to popular demand.
This quite lightweight Nikkor has the current nondescript plastic finish of which I'm no big fan, but is less wobbly than many of its consumer AF relatives. Thanks to an IF design, the lens is kept quite short and its focusing throw is quite short ensuring fast focusing on an AF-enabled camera.
Optically speaking, this lens has a number of surprises up its sleeve (or helicoid?). Firstly, the inevitable geometric distortion, often quite nasty on consumer lenses, is kept under impressively strict control as zoom lenses go. There is just a trace of barrel distortion at the wide end and slightly bigger amounts of pincushion distortion at the long setting, but neither is of any practical value except for the really nit-pickers amongst us, and such people wouldn't touch a zoom lens by a ten-feet pole anyway. Secondly, the curvature of field is insignificant thus allowing the lens to capture buildings and other flat subjects in sharp focus across the entire frame even at wide aperture settings.
However, the levels of flare and ghosting are slighly more "normal" for a zoom lens, thus care should be taken when shooting into the sun. At the 105 mm setting, lens flare prevails, unless the sun is at a grazing angle to give a nasty big ghosting spot.
The 28-105 delivers very sharp images with just a trace of softening by internal flare set wide-open, and this is cured by slightly stopping the lens down. Image contrast and sharpness are excellent by f/8 and hold up well to f/16, from which point onwards diffraction will gracefully degrade image quality. I could not detect any significant light fall-off towards the corners when the lens was deployed on a D1, and the fall-off seems to be well controlled on the F5 too. Colour fringing was virtually undetectable despite the fact that this lens lacks ED glass.
The so-called "macro" feature of most zooms typically is worse than useless, not so on the 28-105. You can get into "macro" mode within the 50-105 mm focal range, and the lens will focus to around 1:2 (half life-size), which is quite impressive. Even more impressive is the excellent optical rendtion of the close-ups, still with colour fringing kept well under control. This lens is not a true "macro" flat-field design, but even so field curvature is quite low for the close-up setting. My impression was that the best quality of close-ups were obtained at the 50 mm setting, but if you are after maximum subject magnification, the 105 mm setting should be used.
The 28-105 justify its popularity by delivering quality results in a small, handy package. It would constitute a perfect travel lens if you can live with the angle of view of a 28 mm (a separate wider lens can always be added to your setup).
|AF-Nikkor 35-70 mm f/2.8 D||4.5
|This bulky and impressively sharp 'normal' lens was released in the late 80's to attract the attention of photojournalists. It is a nice handling lens on an F4 or F5, although the rotating front end is a little annoying when a polariser is used. Barrel distortion and corner fall-off are kept at negligible levels. At f/5.6 to f/11 it delivers excellent images at all focal settings. It flares visibly under adverse light conditions but ghosting, although plainly visible, rarely is detrimental to image quality. There is a 'macro' setting for people wanting to get a little closer with a concomitant loss of sharpness, particularly in the corners. Reversing this lens to get high magnification yields mediocre quality so is not recommended.|
|Zoom-Nikkor 35-70 mm f/3.3-4.5
|3.5||A small and
modest lens targeted at the lower end of the market, this
zoom can be obtained at throw-away prices and is a real
bargain, despite its traditional rotating front.
Sharpness is surprisingly good at f/8 or so, and there is
a useful close-focus setting at the long end of the zoom
range. I suspect the AF version to be similar in quality,
but never had the opportunity to test it.
It can be used for close-up photography the same way as the 35-70/3.5 (see below), but its smaller filter size means a 4T close-up lens is needed and the BR-5 is superfluous.
|Zoom-Nikkor 35-70 mm f/3.5 (62 mm
|3.5||The last version of the
35-70 f/3.5 had a much slimmer outline thanks to its 62
mm filter size, it also boasted the first 'macro' setting
for a Nikkor zoom and kept the rotating front of its
sister lens. Because this 'macro' feature occurred for
the long end of the focal range, some useful results
could be obtained. Just don't expect anywhere near the
quality attainable with a Micro-Nikkor lens. In terms of
sharpness, this lens isn't quite up to the standard of
its predecessor although it doesn't exhibit the same
problems with flare and ghosting. Expect f/8-f/11 to
yield best sharpness.
Tip: This lens can give an excellent macro setup, when a 6T close-up lens is added and the lens then is reversed using the BR-2/2A and BR-5 adapters. Adding the close-up lens is necessary to yield top results, do not reverse the zoom on its own. Zooming in the reversed position conveniently alters image magnification that can go up to 3X.
|Zoom-Nikkor 35-70 mm f/3.5 (72 mm
|The oldest version of the
35-70 came with a 72 mm filter thread and is a great
performer in terms of the sharp images it yields.
However, don't even consider shooting into the sun
because flare and ghosting are terrible under such
down the lens won't help in this situation either.
Otherwise, setting the lens to f/8 will give tremendously
sharp images. Used with care, this zoom is a perfect
travel companion for an F2, F3, or F4.
On the D2X, very crisp images with saturated colours result, geometric distortion across the frame and along the zooming range is very low, and CA is negligible. However, the propensity for excessive flare and ghosting still is troublesome, and this is the reason I won't rate the 35-70 higher than a healthy 4.5.
IR: The 35-70 behaved in an exemplary fashion when I tested it for IR. No hot spots or other IR nasties.
|AF Zoom-Nikkor 35-80 mm f/4-5.6 D||
|A true treat
for any lover of plastic-fantastic items, this humble
lens accompanies the low-end SLRS such as F/N60/65. I've
taken apart this lens to extract its matrix chip print,
and shudder by the very thought of its poor internal
construction quality (in fact, the lens barrel is just
kept together with sticky tape!!).
As an optical device, you actually get more than you have bargained for. The performance is not that bad and at f/8, quite decent images result. However, don't drop the lens because it certainly won't survive the impact. (Why do you think I get all those lenses for free?)
|Zoom-Nikkor 35-200 mm f/3.5-4.5
|Opinions are highly
divided on this 6X zoom design. Likely there is
significant sample variability present and this can
explain why people disagree on this lens. My sample,
however, is an excellent lens that gives sharp results
even wide open.
There is some barrel distortion at the short end that changes into mild pincushion towards the 200 mm setting. Flare lowers image contrast unless the lens is stopped down to f/8, which incidentally is the optimum aperture setting for this lens anyway. Ghosting can hardly be avoided when shooting backlit scenes. The 35-200 is capable of delivering great close-ups when the 6T auxiliary lens is added to it and then reaches nearly 1:1 magnification.
On digital bodies this lens performs even better and I have used it with great success on my D1X. However, it didn't like D2X or vice versa.
Physically the 35-200 is a long lens and the barrel may have a weak point towards the rear end, where a sleeve is kept in position by 3 small set screws, any of which may work loose to make the lens wobble and get out of focus. They need to be checked and preferrably tightened down and locked with Loctite. This issue might help explain the widely different opinions of the 35-200, which incidentally is among the few MF Nikkors still manufactured.
IR: Nothing to brag about, image quality deteriorates and there is a tendency for a hot spot. Massive focus shifts further underscore that this lerns is not a viable IR alternative.
|Zoom-Nikkor 43-86 mm f/3.5
|1-1.5 (early version)
||This beautifully built 43-86 mm zoom lens was immensely popular in the early Nikon years, although image quality admittedly was poor. Thus it served to give zooms a reputation of bad quality that tenaciously survives even to this time. However, many people are unaware that Nikon replaced the first 9-element version with a markedly improved new 11-element design in 1976. The last optical version had serial numbers starting at 774 071 and continued into the AI epoch. I have used it extensively with or without a close-up lens and it really gives good results stopped down to f/8 or so. Even with the newest design, pincushion distortion is a bit on the high side compared with modern lenses so the 43-86 shouldn't be used for architectural photography. Moreover, its bokeh isn't great. In fact, it is terrible! Easily the worst of all Nikkors in this aspect.|
|Zoom-Nikkor 50-135 mm f/3.5
|This compact and
extremely well-made lens is among the few zooms that have
a non-rotating front thread thus making life easier if a
polariser is applied. Very sharp and contrasty images are
produced by this design, that unfortunately was
discontinued after a short period. It yields great images
with a 6T close-up lens, too. Optimum results occur at
f/8, but even at f/22 a good image quality remains. It is
a one-ring zoom that handles extremely well on all Nikon
cameras. Flare is well controlled and ghosting is
negligible as a zoom goes. Set to the 'macro' mode, image
quality deteriorates and colour fringing occurs.
I recently put this zoom to good service on my D2X and was rewarded with stunningly sharp images. What a little gem this old-timer zoom lens proves itself to be. You should not stop down way beyond f/11 if top quality is wanted, though.
IR performance: Not good at all, largely due to the pronounced central hot spot and a loss of image detail.
Last Update 22 February, 2008