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Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm Thomas, August 2012
 

Nikon Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR review

The Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR is an affordable general-purpose zoom that's compatible with full-frame Nikon FX bodies. Announced in June 2012, it's arguably the successor to the Nikon AF 24-85mm f/2.8-4D from 2000. It's optically a little slower but now sports Vibration Reduction to counteract camera shake and as an AF-S model it'll autofocus on any Nikon body.

An affordable general-purpose zoom for expensive full-frame bodies may seem like an odd combination, but the AF-S 24-85mm provides a useful range without breaking the bank and could complement an existing selection of primes. You could equally mount it on a DX body now and enjoy 36-128mm equivalent coverage with an upgrade to full-frame penciled-in for the future. It also intriguingly suggests a more affordable full-frame body may be in the pipeline, with this presumably being the natural kit lens.

With the addition of the AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR, Nikon now offers three stabilized FX general-purpose zooms starting at a decent wide angle and zooming in to various degrees of tele-coverage: the 24-85mm, 24-120mm and 28-300mm. The big question though is whether this new "kit-zoom" performs adequately on the 36MP FX-sensor of a D800 or is it a combination that can't be recommended? So in this review I'll have a look at Nikon's newest FX zoom, and find out whether the lens can deliver the goods on 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): 78 x 82 mm (3.1 x 3.2 in.). A pretty compact package - practically the same size as the Nikon AF 24-85mm f/2.8-4D. [0]

Weight: 465 g (16.4 oz) = 80g lighter than the Nikon AF 24-85mm f/2.8-4D. But that older model offers a larger aperture. [0]

Optics: 16 elements in 11 groups. The older sibling has one less optical element. Flares and ghosts can result from too many air/glass-surfaces and I'll have a closer look at performance in this regard - especially in the absence of Nano-coating. The cross-section shows three aspherical and one ED-glass elements. [0]

Closest focus distance/max. magnification: 0.38 m (1.25 ft.) / 1:4.5. In reality I was able to go down to 1:3.8. This is close to what I often need in nature (1:3-1:5). [+]

Filter-thread: 72mm = a cheaper standard than with the larger pro-lenses [+]

IS: Yes = helps a lot [+]

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

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

Price: around 500 EUR new (incl. 19% VAT) = reasonable. The old Nikon AF 24-85mm f/2.8-4D is around 660 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 0[-]/5[0]/8[+]. This lens ticks almost all important boxes with the only annoyance being the slightly brighter aperture of its predecessor. But to put it in perspective, f2.8 on the old 24-85mm is only two thirds of a stop brighter than f3.5 on the new model when both are zoomed-out to 24mm, while f4 on the old one is only one third brighter than f4.5 on the new one when both are set to 85mm.

 

Motivation:

A reasonably priced 24-85mm zoom may be your first lens on an FX-body and you want it to cover many standard situations. And it does: at 24mm shortest focal length it lets you capture a crowd in tighter spaces or shoot architecture. And with 85mm on the long end you're right up into the realm of light tele-lens capable of offering a good perspective and working distance for portraits and street-photography. Although not equipped with a large aperture like 24-70/2.8 zooms it offers image stabilization to compensate for 2-4 stops over a non-stabilized alternative. That should make the lens usable even under dim lighting conditions. Be aware though that image-stabilization allows you to shoot longer exposures that are a no-no with fast-moving subjects like children or when shooting sports. In the latter shooting situations you should crank-up the ISO to get faster shutter-times.

Alternatives:

- The old Nikon AF 24-85mm f/2.8-4D: That lens does not have VR, nor does it auto-focus on drive-less bodies like the D3x00 or D5x00. It is more expensive too but offers up to 2/3 of a stop larger aperture on the wide end plus a macro-mode that let's you get down to 1:2 magnification.
- Then there are the 24-70/2.8 zooms from Nikon, Sigma and Tamron (the latter even offering image stabilization) but prices are much higher, starting at 750 EUR and going up to 1500 EUR.
- The only cheaper alternative is the SP AF 28-75mm 2.8 XR Di LD Asp IF Macro from Tamron for around 350 EUR. It offers a constant larger aperture but covers a smaller band of focal lengths with its 2.7x zoom (compared to the 3.5x range of the Nikon zoom) plus it's not stabilized and has no AF-motor built-in.

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 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR MTF
at 24mm, f3.5
  at 85mm, f4.5

   

These charts show the lens-performance at the largest aperture, in this case for f3.5 at 24mm and f4.5 at 85mm. 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 over the complete range than its predecessor, the AF 24-85mm f/2.8-4.0D. Although this comparison is a bit unfair as the older lens has a 2/3 larger aperture on the wide end (resp. 1/3 of a stop on the long end). But still the new design shows some pronounced roll-off to the corners at the wide end and the question will be how much you have to stop down or zoom-in to get good corner performance for either landscape or architecture photography. 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 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 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
24mm, f3.5, 100 ISO
24mm, f3.5, 100 ISO
24mm, f3.5, 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. Resolution is so high indeed that you can easily see the effect of diffraction setting in at f11. The performance in the DX-corner is also very good even at f3.5 but suffers from clearly visible distortions. But there's a clear drop in performance towards the FX-corner with even more pronounced barrel-distortions. Contrast suffers from a veiling glare and resolution is limited too especially in the meridional orientation. Stopping down to f5.6 recovers some of the lost contrast, but sharpness does not really ever come close to DX-corner levels. Still a respectable result overall.

 

Now let's move on to 35mm:

 

Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G 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

This lens continues to impress with very good center performance. And remember: the star-targets and the concentric circles on the left all 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 quite good wide open but does not sharpen-up to crisp performance even at f8. The biggest improvement in the FX-corner is the much reduced distortions. But resolution still suffers from astigmatism and/or spherical aberrations up to f11.

Performance at 50mm:

 

Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
50mm, f4.2, 100 ISO
50mm, f4.2, 100 ISO
50mm, f4.2, 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 center produces crisp results from the beginning and the DX-corner looks good too. But on an FX-body with more than 12MP the corners show substantial haloing (i.e. light bleeding into darker areas) up until f11. Pincushion-distortions are pretty prominent in the FX-corner and still visible in the DX-corner.

 

Performance at 70mm:

 

Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
70mm, f4.5, 100 ISO
70mm, f4.5, 100 ISO
70mm, f4.5, 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

Center performance continues to impress, but for best results overall at 70mm you might want to stop down to f8 - even on a DX-body.

 

And finally, performance at 85mm:

 

Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
85mm, f4.5, 100 ISO
85mm, f4.5, 100 ISO
85mm, f4.5, 100 ISO
         
   
85mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
85mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
85mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
         
   
85mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
85mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
85mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
         
   
85mm, f11, 100 ISO
85mm, f11, 100 ISO
85mm, f11, 100 ISO

Interesting observation: Performance at 85mm wide open is clearly better than at 70mm - although 85mm is only 21% longer. At 85mm the DX-corner is simply sharper and the FX-corner shows less aspherical aberrations and astigmatism than at 70mm.

 

Performance at large distances

The Siemens-star test-targets are shot at a distance of 40x focal length (i.e. for 50mm f.l. at 2m). But performance of lenses also depends on the shooting distance. Therefore I now regularly do another series of test-shots of a landscape where you can measure distances in km, not meter. In reference to Gordon's classical test-shot of the Remarkables surrounding Queenstown I've dubbed the hills behind the town of Neumarkt the "Unremarkables". 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:

Unremarkables at 24mm: Infinity shots with Nikon Nikkor 24-85/3.5-4.5G VR on a D800
24mm, f3.5, 100 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
24mm, f3.5, 100 ISO, center
 
24mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, center
  24mm, f8, 100 ISO, center
 
   
24mm, f3.5, 100 ISO, border
 
24mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, border
  24mm, f8, 100 ISO, border

At f3.5 the lens performs pretty good center to border. At f5.6 contrast improves and the lens shows its peak-performance with very sharp center and quite good definition at the FX-border. At f8.0 performance already degrades due to diffraction.

Here's the view at 35mm:

Unremarkables at 35mm: Infinity shots with Nikon Nikkor 24-85/3.5-4.5G 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

Better performance at the center wide open than at 24mm. Stopping down to f5.6 increases center-resolution and contrast but leaves the border essentially unchanged. Again f8 is already beyond peak performance.

Now onto 50mm focal length:

Unremarkables at 50mm: Infinity shots with Nikon Nikkor 24-85/3.5-4.5G VR on a D800
50mm, f4.2, 100 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
50mm, f4.2, 100 ISO, center
 
50mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, center
  50mm, f8, 100 ISO, center
 
   
50mm, f4.2, 100 ISO, corner
 
50mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, corner
  50mm, f8, 100 ISO, corner

Center performance at 50mm improves slightly when stopping down to f5.6 but the border does not profit equally.

And finally at 85mm:

Unremarkables at 85mm: Infinity shots with Nikon Nikkor 24-85/3.5-4.5G VR on a D800
85mm, f4.5, 100 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
85mm, f4.5, 100 ISO, center
 
85mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, center
  85mm, f8, 100 ISO, center
 
   
85mm, f4.5, 100 ISO, border
 
85mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, border
  85mm, f8, 100 ISO, border

85mm seems the only focal length that could profit from stopping down to f8. It gives another slight boost in definition and crispness. But performance wide open is not too shabby either.

 

 
Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR with Nikon D800 in contra-light
Shot at 50mm, f5.6, 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 not easy to produce the effect and other shots showed only minimal or no ghosts. So I think the lens performs quite well, even though it has no Nano-coating.

 

Nikon AF-S 24-85mm f3.5-4.5G VR sample images gallery

The following images were taken with the Nikon AF-S 24-85/3.5-4.5G 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 24-85/3.5-4.5G VR at 70mm f4.5 on a D800
 
Main image and all 50% crops: 70mm, f4.5, 100 ISO

You can't expect too much bokeh from any lens at f4.5, the 24-85G VR being no exception here. What little bokeh it shows seems OK in the foreground and suffers from some outlining in the background which produces a "nervous" bokeh.

The second shot shows a street-scene. I had to go close to get through the crowd and thus used a focal length of 32mm to capture the whole scene. The image below is cropped to 18MP to focus on the two women.

Spinning: portrait shot with Nikon AF-S 24-85/3.5-4.5G VR at 32mm f5.6 on a D800
 
Main image and all 100% crops: 32mm, f5.6, 100 ISO, VR=ON

The lens captured all the details with tiny fibers and hairs being faithfully reproduced.

Check out more Nikon AF-S 24-85mm f3.5-4.5G 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 0.38m, from infinity to 0.85m it's around 0.6 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. In general the impression of build quality is that of a typical Nikon kit-lens: A plastic construction combined with a weather sealed metal lens-mount, and seven 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 85mm with VR=ON at 1/15 sec and with VR=OFF at 1/60 sec. Rating the sharpness of those images at 100% magnification on a scale from 0 to 5 the sample of images with VR=ON was clearly distributed towards better sharpness than 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 that is clearly beyond two stops. Very good!

Overall the latest Nikon standard zoom delivers a pretty compelling overall performance, which only leaves me to wrap things up in my Nikon AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G VR verdict.

 
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