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Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm Thomas, August 2012
 

Nikon Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G ED VR review

The Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G ED VR is a 5x zoom that's compatible with full-frame Nikon FX bodies. Announced in August 2010 with its gold-ring, constant f4.0 aperture, and a price-tag of around 1000 EUR it defined a new kind of zoom-class for Nikon right between the affordable general-purpose zooms (like the newer Nikon AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR) and the professional f2.8 zooms like the Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G. It's the successor to the Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED VR from 2003 and now sports improved Vibration Reduction and Nano Crystal Coating in addition to the constant f4.0 aperture.

While 24-120mm is an ideal general-purpose range for full-frame bodies, there's no reason why you can't use it on a DX body where it will deliver an equivalent of 36-180mm coverage and of course offer future-proofing should you upgrade to an FX body at a later date. Indeed the 24-120mm makes a lot of sense for DX bodies when complemented with, say, the DX 10-24mm, seamlessly covering a 12x range from ultra-wide-angle to decent tele-reach with only two lenses.

The AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR is sort of the "middle child" in the current set of three stabilized FX general-purpose zooms starting at a decent wide angle and zooming in to various degrees of tele-coverage: there's the latest 24-85mm, the 24-120mm I'm reviewing here and 28-300mm FX-superzoom. As the only lens of this trio with a gold-ring (and a price-tag to match) it will be interesting to see how the 24-120mm performs under the tough demands of a 36MP FX-sensor. So in this review I'll scrutinize Nikon's AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR to see whether it is a good match for Nikon's highest resolution DSLR.

   
   


Facts from the catalog

As usual I'll have a look at the technical data first. I've rated the features with a [+] (or [++]), when it's better than average or even state of the art, a [0] if it's standard or just average, and [-] if there's a disadvantage.

   
 
   
   

Size (diam. x length): 84 x 104 mm (3.3 x 4.1 in.). Diameter grew by 7mm and length by 10mm over its predecessor, the AF-S 24-120/3.5-5.6G VR. Only 10mm shorter than the AF-S 28-300/3.5-5.6. [0]

Weight: 710 g (25 oz) = 135g heavier than its predecessor which did not offer a constant f4.0 aperture. Well balanced on an FX-body but you notice its weight on a lighter DX-body. [0]

Optics: 17 elements in 13 groups. The older sibling has a 15/13 design. Flares and ghosts can result from too many air/glass-surfaces and Nikon has added Nano-coating to reduce this. We'll see in my test how well this works. The cross-section shows three aspherical and two ED-glass elements. [+]

Closest focus distance/max. magnification: 0.45 m (1.5 ft.) / 1:4.2. In my test I was able to go down to 1:3.7. This is pretty useful in capturing flowers close-up. [+]

Filter-thread: 77mm = standard with most pro-lenses [+]

IS: Yes = helps a lot [+]

AF: AF-S with SWM (silent wave motor), so it will autofocus on D60/3x00/5x00-bodies, and there's manual-focus override by simply turning the focus ring [+]

Covers full frame/FX or smaller = very good [+]

Price: around 1000 EUR new (incl. 19% VAT) = pretty hefty. Especially as its predecessor, the Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G VR, can be had for as little as 600 EUR now. [-]

Comes with a flexible lens pouch, lens-shade is included and reversible for transport, and the lens-caps are standard Nikon's. [0]

Distance information is relayed to the camera, so the Nikon body can do all the advanced exposure-related stuff with this lens. But this is true for most alternatives too. [+]

Aperture ring = no, just like all Nikon G-lenses. [0]

Sealing: yes! A rubber grommet at the lens-mount. [+]

So the score in the "features-department" is 1[-]/4[0]/8[+]. All-in-all the lens sports many good features. For prospective buyers the question boils down to whether they'll be willing to pay a hefty premium for the constant f4.0 aperture and Nano-coating.

 

Motivation:

A stabilized 5x zoom with a focal range of 24-120mm may be your to-go lens on an FX-body when you want to be prepared for many standard situations. At 24mm shortest focal length it lets you capture a crowd in tighter spaces or shoot landscapes and architecture. And the 120mm on the long end gives you enough reach and working distance for portraits and street-photography. Although it has a one stop smaller aperture than 24-70/2.8 zooms its image stabilization should compensate for 2-4 stops over a non-stabilized alternative. That gives you a 1-3 stop advantage of hand-holding power under dim or fading light. Be aware though that image-stabilization is no advantage for fast-moving subjects like children or sports. In the latter shooting situations you should crank-up the ISO to get faster shutter-times.

Alternatives:

- The new Nikon AF-S 24-85/3.5-4.5G VR: Shorter, lighter, cheaper (at around 500 EUR currently). Not of constant aperture but close. A pretty good performer, see my Nikon Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR review.
- Then there are the 24-70/2.8 zooms from Nikon, Sigma and Tamron (the latter even offering image stabilization) with prices starting at 750 EUR and going up to 1500 EUR. All offer a larger aperture but are missing 50mm on the long end. That is a lot and you would have to crop 1.7x with a 70mm focal length to get the same angle of view as with a 120mm lens. That would reduce a full resolution image from a 36MP D800 to only 12MP!
- The other alternative is Nikon's AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR for around 850 EUR or the cheaper Tamron AF 28-300mm 3.5-6.3 XR Di VC. Both offer the broadest zoom-range at 11.7x giving you 2.5x more reach on the long end but starting only at 28mm. That may not be wide enough for your purposes.

Sharpness and contrast

Let's have a look at the theoretical performance (MTF-charts) at the wide and the long end first:

 
Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR MTF
at 24mm, f4.0
  at 120mm, f4.0

   

These charts show the lens-performance at the largest aperture f4.0. Higher values are better and the closer the dotted and the continuous lines of each color are together the less astigmatism (= resolution depends on the orientation of the test-pattern) the lens has. The x-axis displays the distance from the optical axis (=center of the sensor) in mm. I'll show you the real-life performance at 4 mm (center), 13 mm (DX-corner), and 20 mm (FX-corner) on a D800.

From the charts the new lens should perform better than its predecessor, the AF-S 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G, especially in the DX image-circle on the wide end. On the long end progress is not so easy to identify and can mostly be found in less astigmatism. Although this comparison is a bit unfair for the new constant aperture lens as the older lens only offers f5.6 at 120mm. Let's see how this theoretical performance translates into real life results in the sharpness test based on Siemens-stars.

What follows are near-center results (first column) followed by DX-corner results and FX-corner results on a D800. The D800 results from the DX-corner should be a very good approximation for performance on a 16MP DX sensor (like the D7000), because the pixel-pitch of both sensors are the same. But differences in the AA-filter and micro-lens-design of a D800 and a D7000 might yield different end-results.

Processing was done in Lightroom 4.1 from RAW at camera standard settings. Noise-reduction is set to 0, sharpening to 70/0.5/36/10, with no extra tone, color, or saturation-adjustment. White-balance was adjusted to a neutral white and I did some exposure compensation to make the brightness match. CA-removal is ON.

These are 100% crops!

Let's have a look at the performance at 24mm first:

Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikkor 24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
24mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
24mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
24mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
         
   
24mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
24mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
24mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
         
   
24mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
24mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
24mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
         
   
24mm, f11, 100 ISO
24mm, f11, 100 ISO
24mm, f11, 100 ISO

These 100% crops directly from a 36MP D800 sensor show that this lens performs very well in the center with diffraction setting in at f11. The performance in the DX-corner is also very good even wide open and suffers only a little from distortions. But there's a clear drop in performance towards the FX-corner with astigmatism and haloing. Even stopping down to f8 brings the FX-corner only up to good levels.

 

Performance at 35mm:

Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
35mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
35mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
35mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
         
   
35mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
35mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
35mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
         
   
35mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
35mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
35mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
         
   
35mm, f11, 100 ISO
35mm, f11, 100 ISO
35mm, f11, 100 ISO

Center performance continues to excel. And remember: the star-targets and the concentric circles on the left are already 4-5 mm off center, defining a broader sweet-spot of 8-10 mm diameter than a simply dead-center target could measure. The DX-corner is a bit soft wide open and profits from stopping down to f5.6 or f8. The FX-corner is disappointing wide open with prominent astigmatism even at f8.

 

Let's move on to 50mm:

Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
50mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
50mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
50mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
         
   
50mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
50mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
50mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
         
   
50mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
50mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
50mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
         
   
50mm, f11, 100 ISO
50mm, f11, 100 ISO
50mm, f11, 100 ISO

The performance is similar to 35mm with the DX-corner becoming a tad softer. But the aberrations in the FX-corner react more positively to stopping down: f8 already produces good results with less prominent astigmatism than at 35mm. Pincushion-distortions are now clearly visible in the FX-corner.

 

Performance at 70mm:

Nikkor AF-S24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
70mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
70mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
70mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
         
   
70mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
70mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
70mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
         
   
70mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
70mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
70mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
         
   
70mm, f11, 100 ISO
70mm, f11, 100 ISO
70mm, f11, 100 ISO

At 70mm center performance becomes clearly softer and the DX-corner shows strong haloing wide open. Fortunately both center and DX-corner benefit considerably from stopping down to f5.6. The FX-corner is getting into pretty usable territory with good sharpness albeit at lower contrast - which improves visibly with stopping down to f5.6. So at f5.6 this lens produces good image quality across the board.

 

And finally, performance at 120mm:

Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
120mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
120mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
120mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
         
   
120mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
120mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
120mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
         
   
120mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
120mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
120mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
         
   
120mm, f11, 100 ISO
120mm, f11, 100 ISO
120mm, f11, 100 ISO

Compared to 70mm the (near) center performance at 120mm stays on a similar good to very good level while the DX-corner barely reaches good performance and the FX-corner shows clearly less definition than at any other focal length: Even stopping down to f8 or f11 produces only so-so results.

 

Performance at large distances

The Siemens-star test-targets are shot at a distance of 40x focal length (i.e. at 2m for 50mm f.l.). But performance of lenses also depends on the shooting distance. Therefore I do another series of test-shots of a landscape dubbed the "Unremarkables" where you can measure distances in km, not meters. In the morning, when the weather is clear and the sun is up I use this scene to show you how the lenses perform, when almost everything is at infinity. I set White Balance to a standard daylight value to make them comparable across lenses shot at the same day and also try to make exposure comparable. There's no tinkering with vignette-control so you see it here as it is produced by the lens. Focus was acquired at the largest aperture in contrast-based AF and not changed for other apertures, VR was off.

You can click on each image to access the large original. Please respect our copyright and only use those images for personal use.

The main image shows the complete scene at maximum aperture to give you an impression of the angle of view and to judge vignetting). This is followed by one row of 100% crops at different apertures each from the middle and the right (FX-)border. Let's start with 24mm focal length where you can see some heavy vignetting:

Unremarkables at 24mm: Infinity shots with Nikon Nikkor 24-120/4.0G VR on a D800
24mm, f4.0, 100 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
24mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, center
 
24mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, center
  24mm, f8, 100 ISO, center
 
   
24mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, border
 
24mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, border
  24mm, f8, 100 ISO, border

The infinity-shot at 24mm confirms the lens's performance from the synthetic test-target. You can even see that center performance is best wide-open: incredible! Border performance is not bad wide open but does not really profit much when stopping down.

Same story at 35mm, albeit with only little vignetting:

Unremarkables at 35mm: Infinity shots with Nikon Nikkor 24-120/4.0G VR on a D800
35mm, f4.0, 100 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
35mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, center
 
35mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, center
  35mm, f8, 100 ISO, center
 
   
35mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, border
 
35mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, border
  35mm, f8, 100 ISO, border

At 50mm focal length the corner clearly profits from stopping down:

Unremarkables at 50mm: Infinity shots with Nikon Nikkor 24-120/4.0G VR on a D800
50mm, f4.0, 100 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
50mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, center
 
50mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, center
  50mm, f8, 100 ISO, center
 
   
50mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, corner
 
50mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, corner
  50mm, f8, 100 ISO, corner

85mm shows a similar performance but the border does not improve much when stopping down - and vignetting is creeping back in:

Unremarkables at 85mm: Infinity shots with Nikon Nikkor 24-120/4.0G VR on a D800
85mm, f4.0, 100 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
85mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, center
 
85mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, center
  85mm, f8, 100 ISO, center
 
   
85mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, border
 
85mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, border
  85mm, f8, 100 ISO, border

Compare these border-crops to the results from the Nikon AF-S 24-85/3.5-4.5G VR to see what a well defined roof should look like.

At 120mm the mushy borders continue to disappoint:

Unremarkables at 120mm: Infinity shots with Nikon Nikkor 24-120/4.0G VR on a D800
120mm, f4.0, 100 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
120mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, center
 
120mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, center
  120mm, f8, 100 ISO, center
 
   
120mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, border
 
120mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, border
  120mm, f8, 100 ISO, border

 

 

 
Nikkor AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR with Nikon D800 in contra-light
Shot at 34mm, f8, 100 ISO
 

Flare/ghosting

Shooting normal or wide-angle lenses always runs the risk of catching a strong light-source like the sun shining directly into the lens. This could produce strange colorful ghosts-images or reduce contrast considerably through flare and glare.

As the results depend on many factors including the aperture, focal length, and the angle the light hitting the lens the effect is not easy to reproduce faithfully. So I did a series of shots under conditions that provoke glare and ghosting. The image shows one of the shots from this series.

It was easy to produce the effect and other shots showed a similar amount of ghosts and flares. But the blacks in this image stayed very black, so glare did not reduce the overall contrast. Zooming in towards the long end does reduce flares and ghosts become less prominent.

So the lens produces some mixed results in this category, even though it has Nano-coating. The Nikon AF-S 24-85/3.5-4.5G VR with its standard coating produced less flare and ghosting in my tests.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f4.0G VR sample images

The following images were taken with the Nikon AF-S 24-120/4.0G VR on a D800. Each image was recorded in RAW and converted with Lightroom 4.1 at Adobe Standard settings. Noise-reduction is set to 0, sharpening to 70/0.5/36/10, no extra tone, color, or saturation-adjustment was used. Some images have White Balance set to a standard daylight value to make them comparable. You can click on each image to access the large original. Please respect our copyright and only use those images for personal use.

The first shot should give you an impression of the bokeh that this lens can produce wide open. The 50% crops are from the background, the sharpest point, and the foreground in the overall image and demonstrates the rendering of out-of-focus elements.

Flowers: bokeh shot with Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR at 120mm f4.0 on a D800
 
Main image and all 50% crops: 120mm, f4.0, 100 ISO

You can't expect too much bokeh from any lens at f4.0, the 24-120G VR being no exception here. What little bokeh it shows suffers from some outlining in the foreground and background which produces a "nervous" effect.

The second shot shows an architecture-shot at 70mm. This shot was taken with the first copy of the lens I tested that showed some decentering on the right side (in landscape orientation) respective to the upper side (in portrait-orientation). But that part of the image shows only the sky. So not to worry. Contrast against the bright sky is very good and the details of the church are reproduced faithfully.

Church: architecture shot with Nikon AF-S 24-120/4.0G VR at 70mm f5.6 on a D800
 
Main image and all 100% crops: 70mm, f5.6, 1/320 sec, 100 ISO, VR=ON

The next image shows the wedding-bouquet on a car captured at 85mm. Again captured with the first copy of this lens, but the critical upper part of the image is out-of-focus anyway.

Bouquet: street shot with Nikon AF-S 24-120/4.0G VR at 85mm f5.6 on a D800
 
Main image and all 100% crops: 85mm, f5.6, 1/60 sec, 100 ISO, VR=ON

The lens managed to reproduce the flowers in sharp detail and renders the reflections in the car's body and the gleaming chrome without ringing or color-aberrations.

Check out all my high-resolution Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f4.0G sample images.

 

Focus, build quality, and image stabilization

Focus accuracy and repeatability is critical to consistently produce sharp shots. Repeatability (the accuracy of focus on the same subject after repeated focus-acquisition) of this lens is excellent with no outliers over a series of 20 shots. And there is almost no performance variation whether the lens focuses coming from infinity or from minimum focus distance. The lens focuses reasonably fast: around 0.8 sec from infinity to 0.45m, from infinity to 0.85m it's around 0.5 sec.

The focus ring has quite some slack/play between its movement and the focus-action, which makes accurate focus wide open at the long end a hassle. The focus ring is very small and movement is not very smooth but AF-operation is quiet. Zoom-Action is pretty smooth and consequently the lens does suffer a little from zoom-creep. The double zoom barrel extends 45mm and wobbles slightly in the fully extended position. Shaking the lens does not produce any suspicious sounds. In general the impression of build quality is that of a better Nikon kit-lens: A mixed plastic/metal construction combined with a weather sealed metal lens-mount, and nine rounded aperture blades.

VR-operation is also very quiet. To test the effectiveness of the image stabilization I did a series of over 40 test-shots hand-held at 120mm with VR=ON at 1/25 sec and with VR=OFF at 1/100 sec. Rating the sharpness of those images at 100% magnification on a scale from 0...5 the sample of images with VR=ON was similarly distributed as the sample with VR=OFF, although that sample had the benefit of a 4x faster shutter-speed. So VR on this lens gives you an advantage of around two stops.

Now, let me wrap things up in my Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/4.0G VR verdict.

 
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