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Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f2.8 Thomas, September 2012
 

Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 review

The AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED is Nikon's professional f2.8 standard zoom. It covers a 2.9x zoom-range and was announced August 2007. It's the successor to the AF-S Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8D ED and like its predecessor compatible with full-frame DSLRs. Its gold-ring, constant f2.8 aperture, and a price-tag of around 1500 EUR put it clearly in an upmarket / professional position although it is more affordable than the equivalent lenses from Canon or Sony.

While primarily designed as a general purpose bright zoom for full-frame models, you could equally use the Nikon 24-70/2.8G on a DX-body where it gives you an equivalent 36-105mm coverage plus future-proofing should you upgrade to an FX-body at a later date. Complement this lens with a DX 10-24mm wide-angle zoom and you can seamlessly cover a 7x zoom-range from ultra-wide-angle to short tele with only two lenses.

In this review I'll put Nikon's AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G zoom to the test on a Nikon D800 to see whether the lens is a good match for the highest resolution 35mm 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): 83 x 133 mm (3.3 x 5.2 in.). For such a short maximum focal length of 70mm it is surprisingly long (+24mm over the Tamron's SP 24-70/2.8 VC) albeit pretty slim (-5mm over Tamron's). The lens-hood adds another 52mm (to a total length of 185mm) and then the lens really looks conspicuous and people feel being "watched" with this lens. [0]

Weight: 900 g (31.7 oz.) vs. 825g of the Tamron 24-70/2.8 VC. Together with a full frame body you'll be schlepping 1.7kg around. [0]

Optics: 15 elements in 11 groups. That's pretty low in comparison but still: 11 groups have 22 air/glass-surfaces that produce a lot of opportunities for flares and ghosts. Nikon has applied their special Nano Crystal Coat on one element - and their so-called super integrated coating on others. We'll see how this works out in practice. The cross-section shows a lot of special elements: three aspherical and three extra-low dispersion elements. [+]

Closest focus distance/max. magnification: 0.38 m (1.2 ft.) / 1:3.7. In my tests I was able to confirm this. This is pretty useful for capturing nature close-up - see one of my images from the gallery. [+]

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

IS: No = a pity! Tamron's latest design has image stabilization (called VC) that works, Nikon's own 16-35/4.0G has VR. Sony's lenses all get image stabilization through body/sensor-based IS. So this lens will make you go for 4-8x shorter shutter speeds/higher ISOs than with alternatives if you don't want shake to ruin your shot. And shake you see: Just look through the viewfinder at 70mm! [-]

AF: AF-S with SWM (silent wave motor), so it does work on D60/3x00/5x00-bodies , manual-focus override by turning the focus ring [+]

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

Price: around 1500 EUR new (incl. 19% VAT) = expensive. The alternatives from Tamron and Sigma are 30-50% cheaper. [-]

Comes with a very nice semi-soft lens-case that is well padded, the lens-shade is included, reversible for transport, and has an interlock to prevent accidental loss, and the lens-caps are standard Nikon's. [+]

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 all alternatives too. [+]

Aperture ring = no, just like all competitors. [0]

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

The score in the "features-department" is 2[-]/3[0]/8[+]. The minus-points being the steep price and the missing image stabilization. But the price is only high compared to third party alternatives. If you compare the lens to offerings from Sony and Canon you could as well say that the Nikon is relatively cheap.

 

Motivation:

A 2.9x zoom with a focal range of 24-70mm may be your best choice for a full-frame/FX-body when you want to be prepared for many standard situations but want a larger maximum aperture and better image quality than you would expect from kit-zooms. It is arguably the best zoom range and focal ratio for wedding and portrait photographers.

At 24mm shortest focal length it lets you capture a crowd in tighter spaces or shoot architecture. And the 70mm on the long end gives you some reach and working distance for portraits and street-photography although you may find it too short on a FX-body in some situations. It has a one stop larger aperture than kit-zooms which can produce a shallower depth of field and lets you isolate your subject a little more.

Alternatives:

- The Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD: At around 1000 EUR it's not only considerably cheaper but it offers image stabilization too. Plus it offers good overall performance that earned this lens a Recommended rating, as you can read in my Tamron 24-70/2.8 VC review.

- From Sigma there's the AF 24-70mm f2.8 EX DG HSM. It's the cheapest alternative at around 750EUR. Non-stabilized and physically shorter than the Nikon with the focus ring in front and the zoom-ring near the camera. Some reports have shown it to have pretty poor border/corner-performance wide open.

Testing: Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration

With lenses offering an aperture of f2.8 or larger I test for longitudinal CA (loCA, a.k.a. "axial color" or "bokeh CA"). The Nikon 24-70mm f2.8G shows some loCA. There are some magenta coloration on the left and greenish hues on the right to be seen. That is clearly worse than the results from Tamron's equivalent, but it is still not too obvious in real-life shots. Note: The alternating colorations of the vertical marks on the right are a sign of color-moire only and have nothing to do with loCAs.

 
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration (loCA)
100% crop, 70mm, f2.8, left=closer, right=farther away

 

Sharpness and contrast

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

 
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G MTF
at 24mm, f2.8
  at 70mm, f2.8

   

These charts show the lens-performance at the largest aperture f2.8. 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 on a pretty high level regarding overall contrast. But sharpness is another thing with a sharp dip in the FX-corner but also within the DX image-circle at 24mm focal length. Astigmatism also seems to play some role on the short end. So on paper Nikon's latest design looks like a mixed bag - and not the sure-fire winner that you'd expect from a lens positioned for the professional market. But 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.

The following are all 100% crops!

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

Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
24mm, f2.8, 100 ISO
24mm, f2.8, 100 ISO
24mm, f2.8, 100 ISO
         
   
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 good but profits from stopping down. The FX-corners show a clear drop in performance with some astigmatism, haloing, and very visible distortions. Even stopping down to f8 brings the FX-corner only up to good levels.

 

Performance at 35mm:

Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
35mm, f2.8, 100 ISO
35mm, f2.8, 100 ISO
35mm, f2.8, 100 ISO
         
   
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

At 35mm the lens improves in the DX image-circle but FX-corner performance deteriorates even further and needs stopping down to f8 or even f11 to satisfy. Distortions are on a very low level.

 

Let's move on to 50mm:

Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
50mm, f2.8, 100 ISO
50mm, f2.8, 100 ISO
50mm, f2.8, 100 ISO
         
   
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

At 50mm the lens improves visibly in the FX-corner albeit with the DX-corner becoming a tad softer: only at f8 does it offer excellent performance. The FX-corner now offers quite some resolution even wide open, although the contrast is only weak. Stop down to f5.6 to get some decent performance.

 

Performance at 70mm:

Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
70mm, f2.8, 100 ISO
70mm, f2.8, 100 ISO
70mm, f2.8, 100 ISO
         
   
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 the performance wide open is pretty even across the frame with a slight dip in performance in the DX-corner. Needs stopping down to f5.6 or f8 to give good to very good results. Remember corner performance may not be important to you if you're shooting typical portraits with a shallow depth of field.

 

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.

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 clearly see some vignetting:

Unremarkables at 24mm: Infinity shots with Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G on a D800
24mm, f2.8, 100 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
24mm, f2.8, 100 ISO, center
 
24mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, center
  24mm, f8, 100 ISO, center
 
   
24mm, f2.8, 100 ISO, border
 
24mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, border
  24mm, f8, 100 ISO, border

The infinity-shot at 24mm confirms the lens's very good performance at the center. And border performance is pretty good from f4 onwards.

Same story at 35mm, albeit with less vignetting: Center-performance is excellent even wide open and the border performance is much better than corner-performance from the Siemens-star target would have made one expect:

Unremarkables at 35mm: Infinity shots with Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G on a D800
35mm, f2.8, 100 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
35mm, f2.8, 100 ISO, center
 
35mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, center
  35mm, f8, 100 ISO, center
 
   
35mm, f2.8, 100 ISO, border
 
35mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, border
  35mm, f8, 100 ISO, border

At 50mm focal length performance stays on a very high level with border-performance benefiting from stopping down to f4.0 again:

Unremarkables at 50mm: Infinity shots with Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G on a D800
50mm, f2.8, 100 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
50mm, f2.8, 100 ISO, center
 
50mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, center
  50mm, f8, 100 ISO, center
 
   
50mm, f2.8, 100 ISO, border
 
50mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, border
  50mm, f8, 100 ISO, border

At 70mm border definition falls a bit behind. Even stopping down to f8 does not bring it up to the same level as with the shorter focal lengths:

Unremarkables at 70mm: Infinity shots with Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G on a D800
70mm, f2.8, 100 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
70mm, f2.8, 100 ISO, center
 
70mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, center
  70mm, f8, 100 ISO, center
 
   
70mm, f2.8, 100 ISO, border
 
70mm, f4.0, 100 ISO, border
  70mm, f8, 100 ISO, border

 

 

 
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G with Nikon D800 in contra-light
Shot at 36mm, f11, 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 where the effects show pretty clearly.

It was not easy to produce this effect (2 out of 22 shots) but other shots showed slight flares and ghosts. And the blacks mostly stayed very black, so glare did not generally reduce the overall contrast.

So all-in-all this result is pretty good.

 

Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 sample images gallery

The following images were taken with the Nikon 24-70/2.8 on a D800. Each image was recorded in RAW and converted with Lightroom 4.1 at Adobe or Camera Standard settings. Noise-reduction is set to 0, sharpening to 70/0.5/36/10, no extra tone, color, or saturation-adjustment was used. 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 24-70mm f/2.8G at 70mm f2.8 on a D800
 
Main image and all 50% crops: 70mm, f2.8, 100 ISO

An aperture of f2.8 is not really optimal for good bokeh, but it is a better starting-point to throw background and/or foreground subjects out-of-focus than with many kit-lenses that offer only f4.5 or worse at 70mm. What little bokeh the Nikon shows exhibits some signs of outlining and nervousness especially in the foreground - which is normally not as critical as the background rendering.

The second image shows an architecture-shot at 70mm. Contrast against the bright sky is very good and the details of the church are crisp and well defined.

Church: architecture shot with Nikon 24-70/2.8G at 70mm f2.8 on a D800
 
Main image and all 100% crops: 70mm, f2.8, 1/1250 sec, 100 ISO

The next image shows the wedding-bouquet on a car captured at 70mm and f5.6.

Bouquet: street shot with Nikon AF-S 24-70/2.8G VR at 70mm f5.6 on a D800
 
Main image and all 100% crops: 70mm, f5.6, 1/80 sec, 110 ISO

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 and only little color-aberrations.

Zooming back to 29mm you can see that you can capture city-scapes in excellent detail:

Tower Millenium Pier: city scape shot with Nikon 24-70/2.8G at 29mm f5.6 on a D800
Main image and all 100% crops: 29mm, f5.6, 1/250 sec, 100 ISO
 
   
left border, f5.6, 100 ISO
 
center, f5.6, 100 ISO
  right border, f5.6, 100 ISO

Shot of a market square at 35mm f2.8. The crops are from the left border, the center and the right border. As you can see the lens performs pretty sharp at these points even wide open.

Market place: architecture shot with Nikon 24-70/2.8 at 35mm f2.8 on a D800
Main image and all 100% crops: 35mm, f2.8, 1/2000 sec, 100 ISO
 
   
left border, f2.8, 100 ISO
 
center, f2.8, 100 ISO
  right border, f2.8, 100 ISO

But there are limits to what this lens can do that you can clearly see in the FX corner. The following crops are from the same image and go progressively closer to the upper right corner:

   
upper ri. corner, f2.8, 100 ISO
upper ri. corner, f2.8, 100 ISO
upper ri. corner, f2.8, 100 ISO

Here you can see what the test-shot from the Siemens-star at 35mm already showed: Corner-performance at 35mm is disappointing. But remember: this is a zoom lens wide open at its worst focal length. The interesting observation from this image is that the lens produces good performance up to the FX-border and even a little further (i. e. 18-19mm from the optical axis). Just the last 2mm of the FX image-circle suffer at large apertures.

Next shot is a close-up at 70mm f5.0 with a magnification of around 1:4. It shows that you can capture quite some detail of small subjects at a decent quality. Stopping down further helps improve definition of small details.

Flowers: close-up shot with Nikon 24-70/2.8G at 70mm f5.0 on a D800
Main image and all 100% crops: 70mm, f5.0, 1/640 sec, 100 ISO
 
   
f5.0, 100 ISO
 
f5.0, 100 ISO
  f5.0, 100 ISO

And finally a close portrait of a cat at about 1.5m distance, shot at 70mm, f5.6. The fur is finely rendered and the background-blur quite pleasing:

Cat of the Day: portrait shot with Nikon 24-70/2.8G at 70mm f5.6 on a D800
Main image and all 100% crops: 70mm, f5.6, 1/250 sec, 100 ISO
 
   
f5.6, 100 ISO
 
f5.6, 100 ISO
  f5.6, 100 ISO

For more examples check out all my high-resolution Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G sample images.

 

Focus and build quality

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 40 shots. And there is no performance variation whether the lens focuses coming from infinity or from minimum focus distance. The lens focuses very fast: around 0.4 sec from infinity to 0.38m, which is very good.

The focus ring has no slack/play between its movement and the focus-action and a throw of around 80 degrees, which makes accurate focus wide open at the long end easy. The focus ring is easy to grip and movement is very smooth. AF-operation is pretty quiet on the outside, but if you record video with the built-in microphone every focus-movement produces an audible "clack". Zoom-action is smooth, still the lens does not suffer from zoom-creep. It does not wobble in the fully extended position but shaking the lens does produce some noise. In general the impression of build quality is that of a pro-level lens: A high quality metal/plastic construction combined with a weather sealed metal lens-mount, and nine rounded aperture blades.

Now, let me wrap things up in my Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G verdict.

 
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