Summary

Highly Recommended awardThe bottom line is if you’re looking for a quality general-purpose DX-format lens which zooms-out to an equivalent of 24mm, then the DX 16-85mm VR is the model to go for and easily comes Recommended. It misses out on our Highly Recommended award though due to a lack of really compelling advantages beyond existing models and the fact you can buy the DX 18-200mm VR for only a little extra. As such our advice is to think very carefully about what you really need from your general-purpose lens and how it might fit into a kit now and in the future.

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Nikkor AF-S DX 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR

Nikkor DX 16-85mm VR coverage

The Nikkor DX 16-85mm VR is designed as a general-purpose walk-around lens with a range that goes from decent wide-angle to short telephoto. With the 1.5x field-reduction of Nikon’s DX-format DSLRs, the DX 16-85mm VR delivers equivalent coverage of 24-128mm. To illustrate this range in practice we mounted the lens on a Nikon D90 body, attached it to a tripod and shot the same scene fully zoomed-out, then fully zoomed-in.

Nikkor DX 16-85mm VR coverage
DX 16-85mm VR at 16mm (24mm equivalent)
DX 16-85mm VR at 85mm (128mm equivalent)

The shots above illustrate the useful general-purpose range of the DX 16-85mm VR, capturing a large field-of-view when zoomed-out and delivering tighter detail when zoomed-in. If you’re buying a Nikon body only, it’s an ideal first lens, but the big question for owners of existing Nikkor general-purpose lenses is whether this range is more useful than what they already have.

The DX 16-85mm VR zooms both wider and longer than the DX 18-55mm VR kit lens supplied with the entry-level Nikon bodies, along with the earlier Nikkor DX 18-70mm. With these lenses, the coverage benefits of the DX 16-85mm VR are obvious, but compare it to Nikons other kit lenses and you’ll find both pros and cons to the range.

The D80 and D90 bodies were typically bundled with the DX 18-135mm and DX 18-105mm VR kit lenses, which may not zoom as wide as the DX 16-85mm VR, but both zoom-in noticeably further. This makes ‘upgrading’ from one of these to the DX 16-85mm VR a bitter-sweet experience which gains at the wide-end but loses out on the telephoto.

It should be clear by now the major differentiator between the DX 16-85mm VR and the other Nikkor general-purpose lenses (including the DX 18-200mm VR) is its wider-angle coverage of 24mm equivalent, so the question you have to ask yourself is just how much you want or need it – and if so, whether you’d be better off having it in a general-purpose lens, or an ultra-wide model like the Nikkor DX 12-24mm.

But what’s the big deal about 24mm coverage anyway? If you’ve not used a 24mm equivalent lens before, it may not sound a great deal different from 28mm, but in practice it actually delivers a comfortably wider field-of-view that’s preferred by many. Indeed the 24-120 (ish) mm range is considered by many to be perfect for a general-purpose walk-around lens, and you’ll find equivalent models for most brands, including the Sony 16-80mm (24-120mm equiv), Olympus 12-60mm (24-120mm equiv) and the Canon 24-105mm (equiv to 24-105mm on full-frame bodies only); interestingly Canon doesn’t yet have a 24-120mm equivalent range for its EF-S bodies. So the Nikkor DX 16-85mm VR may deliver ‘ideal’ coverage, but again the question is whether it’s sufficiently compelling compared to alternative Nikkor general-purpose lenses.

Nikkor DX 16-85mm VR stabilisation

The Nikkor DX 16-85mm VR is equipped with Vibration Reduction capabilities to counteract camera-shake. Like all of Nikkor’s VR lenses to date, this employs an optical system which means you see the stabilising effect while composing through the optical viewfinder. Seeing the image suddenly steady itself when you half-press the shutter release button is very reassuring, especially when you’re shooting at longer focal lengths. VR version II is implemented on this lens, which Nikon claims is good for up to four stops of compensation.

A switch on the side of the lens barrel allows you to set the VR on or off, while a second switches between Normal or Active modes. Active mode is designed for shooting from moving vehicles; we used Normal during our handheld tests. To put its effectiveness to the test we took a series of photos with the lens zoomed-into 85mm where it was working at an equivalent of 128mm and traditional photographic advice would recommend a shutter speed of at least 1/125 to eliminate camera shake.

Our sequence therefore started at 1/125 and reduced by one stop each time until 1/2. We performed this sequence twice, first without VR enabled, and secondly with VR enabled in Normal mode. Below are 100% crops taken from the non-VR and VR images at a shutter speed of 1/15.

Nikkor DX 16-85mm VR Vibration Reduction off / on (Normal mode)
100% crop, DX 16-85mm VR at 85mm, 1/15, VR off
100% crop, DX 16-85mm VR at 85mm, 1/15, VR on

Under the conditions of the day, the slowest shutter speed we could handhold the lens fully zoomed-in without any stabilisation was 1/125; anything slower resulted in visible camera-shake. With VR enabled though, we could match the sharpness under the same conditions at a shutter speed of 1/15. You can see examples taken at 1/15 with and without stabilisation above, and it’s clear how the version with VR is much steadier.

This corresponds to three stops in practice over our 1/125 shot. So while we didn’t quite achieve the claimed four stops in person, having three at your disposal is still very respectable and makes the DX 16-85mm VR usable in a variety of environments even when fully zoomed-in. Just remember though, Vibration Reduction cannot do anything about freezing a subject in motion – for that you’ll simply need a sufficiently quick shutter speed.

Now it’s time to see how the lens performs against alternative general purpose zooms in our Nikkor DX 16-85mm VR results pages.

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