Long term lens review: the Nikon AF-S 24-120 f4 VR G

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Yes yes, I know I’m late to the party. Very late, in fact. The AFS 24-120 f4 VR G has been available for a good four years now, replacing the much-maligned AFS 24-120 f3.5-5.6 VR G. By a curious coincidence, I’ve actually owned and shot extensively with both versions. And even more curiously, my experiences have been fairly similar with both lenses. You could say you’d be glad you had them if you did, but you could also probably do without if you didn’t. And then there’s the 900-pound (or $1700 dollar) gorilla in the corner: why not just buy the 24-70/2.8 and be done with it?

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Butterfly bridge

The new 24-120 has been in my arsenal for some time. About three years, give or take. It was purchased for a job during which I knew changing lenses would be a bad idea. I needed something to cover a decent range, and something fast on the other body for available light cinematic-documentary grabs (part of the brief). It did the job without being any the worse for wear, it went back into the drybox afterwards and came out periodically when I needed a single camera-lens solution that would deliver better image quality than a compact, but wasn’t quite as cumbersome as carrying a whole system. It is, for most people, all the lens they will ever need. 24 is usually wide enough, and 120 is usually long enough. F4 isn’t super fast, but it isn’t that slow, either, and you’ve got the benefit of VR.

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Untitled cloud

Both the old f3.5-5.6 and new f4 versions have what I’d consider midrange build and weather sealing; the outer shell is plastic, but at least one of the telescoping barrels appears to be metal; I suspect weight might be quite unpleasant if they were to be all metal since the f4 version already weighs over 700g. I’ve used mine in unpleasant weather without any ill effects. The new one has a gold ring indicating supposedly pro grade or ED glass or whatever (certainly a higher price tag) whereas the old one didn’t. Focusing speed has improved a little between versions, though whether that’s a consequence of new motors or the faster maximum aperture is unclear.

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Oculus

VR is definitely better; it’s supposedly Nikon’s second generation implementation which is good for four stops with. In practice, I find 2-2.5 more reasonable. On the D810, it basically makes the difference between a 50-50 chance of ‘sharp-at-100%-pixels’ and definitely sharp. Think of it as insurance rather than a crutch, and you’ll be fine. The ‘active’ setting for shooting from a moving vehicle works pretty well. I actually found that from a helicopter or car, normal VR didn’t work so well, but active was amazingly stable, and made a noticeable difference at even high shutter speeds (e.g. 1/500s+) where the motion of the platform or wind buffeting would cause a slight bit of edge blurring in ‘normal’ or ‘off’.

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IFC

Optical designers generally agree that designing a lens to cover the wide-to-tele range is probably one of the toughest challenges because the types of aberrations that have to be corrected for at either end of the range are very different; the wider and longer you go, the worse it becomes. Judging from the alphabet soup on the bottom of the barrel, Nikon have thrown the book at this one: it’s a 17/13 design (!), up from the previous 15/13 (or 11, depending on where you read)
with Nano Crystal Coating (no doubt to minimise internal flare from the number of air-glass interfaces and elements), ED glass, internal focusing (uh oh: beware focal length shortening at close distances) and aspherical elements.

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Melting

Does all that technology work? For the most part, yes. We have a lens that delivers good sharpness across most of the frame most of the time; however, it’s at the expense of very high distortion of both kinds at either end of the zoom (though correctable with ACR’s built in profile), quite a bit of lateral chromatic aberration towards the edges of the frame (also fairly easily correctable) and odd contrast. Sharpness actually feels somewhat one-dimensional – as though we have definition in the vertical axis and not the horizontal one – simply because of the lateral CA smearing things out. Even if you remove the CA afterwards (usually by desaturation) you’ve lost microcontrast and the ability to resolve fine/flat details in those areas, which makes things look a little dull. It’s also the reason why at a given aperture and focal length, we don’t have anywhere near the same degree of background separation as say an Otus – the edge transitions are just a little smeared because of the different wavelengths not quite focusing at precisely the same point.

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Untitled breaks

Coming back to contrast: I say odd, because gross macro contrast is maintained fairly well, microcontrast is not bad, but…it feels sometimes like there’s a bit of clipping at either end of the histogram; as though some internal flare is robbing you of that last bit of sparkle. In all fairness, this is something I’ve seen with almost all of Nikon and Canon’s zooms – even the most advanced coatings aren’t going to help you if there are possibly up to 22 air-glass interfaces. Each one zaps transmission a little, sends that light bouncing around the internals of the lens, and back in places where you might not expect it later. It doesn’t flare overtly, but the flare can look a little odd, too – variously odd-shaped coloured blobs, which I assume must be related to the aspherical elements.

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Presentation

Performance seems to be weakest at both extreme ends of the zoom, and stronger in the middle – at least on my copy. Part of the problem with reviewing a lens like this is that since there are so many elements, there are also a huge number of places where slightly loose tolerances can make the difference between all of your ducks (or elements, in this case) in a row and bad astigmatism. My copy appears to be fairly symmetric, so we can assume that alignment is probably acceptable. This is one lens I’d encourage you to either buy from a seller that will do exchanges or returns, or try it out in person. Don’t write it off if your first copy isn’t sharp; mine appears sharp even at f4 on the D810 for a good portion of the range. Peak performance is between f5.6 and 8; after that, diffraction kicks in and robs you of microcontrast even further.

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After the rain

If the optical report sounds dire, it’s worth taking them with two pinches of salt: most zooms exhibit similar performance – or worse, and this has been written from the point of view of somebody who has been shooting mostly with highly corrected apochromatic primes (Otuses, APO-Lanthars) or tilt shifts (24, 45, 85 PCEs) for the last year. I’d say a good copy of the 24-120/4 is actually pretty good as far as zoom lenses go; I wouldn’t have kept it otherwise. It is far, far better than its predecessor – which was already starting to show its limitations on the 12MP cameras.

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No right of way

I think it’s probably obvious what you’d use this lens for: a go-everywhere, do-anything optic you don’t have to think too much about when using; something that allows for a little bit of looseness when running and gunning thanks to VR. It pairs very well with the 16 and 24MP cameras – D4, D4s, D750 – you could probably add a 50/1.8G or 85/1.8G and be very happy for a long time. But then there will always be the niggling questions around whether you should just save some money with the AFS 24-85/3.5-4.5 VR G, or spend a bit more and go for the AFS 24-70/2.8 G. Or even a Sigma 24-105/4 OS Art. I can’t answer the latter question as I haven’t used that lens before, but I can give some insights into the former two.

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Isolation

The 24-85 is much lighter and smaller, and quite a bit cheaper, too. It’s about $600, which is cheaper than even the combo price of the 24-120/4 (about $750-800). You lose the obvious 85-120mm range, which is the difference between a bit of compression and what I’d start to think of as reach; effective working apertures are similar. The 24-85 felt optically weaker to me towards the edges especially at the wide end, though this could again be down to sample variation. I’d say only buy this if a) weight is paramount and/or b) price matters and you can’t find an open-box 24-120/4. The 24-70 is a trickier question: you give up a bit more range on the long end – 70-120mm, which is quite a significant perspective change and gain a stop in return for some additional size and weight. Personally, I don’t work wide open that much and would rather have additional range and the stability of VR, so I’d rather have the 24-120/4. There’s no point in buying a 24-70 and then using at f5.6 all the time. In situations where the extra stop might matter because the subject is moving, then I’d probably be shooting with the 1.8G primes anyway – and gaining 2 1/3 stops over the 24-120, and 1 1/3 stops over the 24-70. You’d probably even get a bit more than that in practice because the T stops of the zooms are much less than the f stops would suggest thanks to the large number of elements. I really only see two situations in which I’d want the 24-70: in extremely hostile environments where the metal build might make a difference, and if I was an event or documentary shooter using flash – then I’d want a larger aperture and more flexibility than primes.

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Support

In many ways, then, the 24-120/4 is the lens equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife for all seasons – not perfect for any one task, but pretty well built, optically good enough and highly versatile. It gets the job done without you really having to think much about what it’s doing – this really makes it an enabling tool rather than a restrictive one (despite what its zoom ratio and maximum aperture would suggest). I find it ideally suited to situations in which you want some flexibility to make the most of every scene, but don’t want to be encumbered by a large quantity of equipment – sometimes you want to follow your stream of consciousness. It’s a sort of visual journaling lens. I suppose then, it really fulfilled its objective rather well. MT

The Nikon AF-S 24-120 f4 VR G is available here from B&H and Amazon either solo or as a kit with the D750 or D810.

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Comments

  1. Hi Ming,
    What do you think about Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 VC vs Nikon 24 120 f4 image quality wise?

  2. Hi Ming,
    Amazing pics and great article. It’s quite rare to find such informative and unbiased writeup about photography gears. Please see if you get a chance to answer the below query.
    I have upgraded from Nikon d3100 ( 18-55 and 50-200 DX lens) to d750 last year and for last one year, I have only been using 50mm f2.8D. I believe in not to get into buying rut unless you crave for something for a long time and understand the limitation of current gear ( lens in this case).
    so now I want to add my second lens, As I shoot family portraits, landscape and want to be able to shoot wildlife occasionally.
    what do you think would be the right choice for me
    – 24 -120 f4 ( it is a wonderful all-purpose lens with few issues as you mentioned)
    or
    – Tamron 70-200 f2.8 VC USD?
    or
    – Nikon 70-200 f4

    I am ready to invest in the good lens rather than compromising now and sell it later

    Thanks in advance
    Ankit

  3. Thank you so much Ming for this informative article reguarding said lens . I purchased one off the bay because of the reduced price(half price) these seem to be going for since I think they were part of a kit . Following your advice I will definitely be testing out the 24-120 to make sure it’s a good one.

  4. I do have Nikon d610 and 3 primes: 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8

    I though this would be a perfect setup for a hobbyist but there are times, when changing the lenses is just not comfortable or I just need to little zoom in or out to compose better as there is no room to move physically.

    I read lots of reviews about Nikon lenses 24-85 and 24-120 and i am confused. Many times they contradict each other.
    So many perspectives. It seems like 24-120 is a sharper lens.

    Would you recommend 24-120 as an addition to my kit as a walk around lens.
    I would purchase a refurbish model as 1K is too much for me.

    I see you tested 24-120. Do you still use it or it is just way too cheap for you?

    thx

    • Sample variation abounds, as do reviewers of varying skill. I’ve tried several samples of the 24-120 and can say that they range from really bad to outstanding – unfortunately it is a mass produced lens with a large number of elements, and this in itself makes things variable. I managed to find a good copy of the 24-120, and believe it or not, it’s my go-to lens if I’m using the Nikon and don’t need a faster aperture.

      • Glad to hear that thx. How do i test it so i know i got the one that is outstanding? What would be the best testing routine?
        From what you say i might need to buy few and return few to get the good one.

        • Sharp wide open in the centre and symmetric around the edges (though won’t be as sharp as the centre). This should be true at all focal lengths.

          • Would you use any reference for such a test or just eyeball it?

            • There’s no absolute reference. Sharp at pixel level is probably as good as you’re going to get, so yes, just eyeball for the most part.

              • thx

              • I was wondering if you have any other suggestions for a walk around lens? I see Sigma makes 17-50mm F2.8 EX DC (OS)* HSM or 24-70mm F2.8 IF EX DG HSM. How would you compare these to the Nikon 24-120? I know those are not same focal length but optics wise what is your opinion? Would you even recommend other brands?
                I started to read all your past blog entries. What a resource. So much to learn. Cannot believe i missed it and discovered you so late.
                Next step is to get you PS tutorials and BW tutorials. I hope to learn and improve my processing skills.
                I was also wondering if somebody is your customer and gets your tutorials are you willing to look at their work and give your critiques and advice especially in the processing techniques and style.

                • I prefer the 24-120 – that extra stop of speed is less useful than the extra reach in most situations since you rarely really need to shoot wide open anyway, and when you do, you probably have to go even faster…

                  Unfortunately it’s simply unfeasible for me to critique/advise everybody who asks or buys simply because there isn’t that much time in the day, let alone enough time in the day to finish my commercial photography obligations, make a huge amount of free content here AND do that! 🙂 However, it sounds like perhaps the Email School or Weekly Workflow is closer to what you’re looking for?

                  • Bartosz Wegrzyn says:

                    thx, i will look into email school and weekly workflow after i am done with the ps classes and bw classes.
                    For now i got tons to read on your blog!!!

                  • Just on the side note, after i started to read your blog the though came to my mind that I am just lazy and trying to find an excuse with new lens to correct my photography. Truth is that I am very happy with my primes:35mm, 50mm and 85mm. I justify the need to have the zoom lens due to lack of room to move in order to correct the composition. I like to have minimalist gear. Like you say in one of the blog entries the more you have the harder it is to make good photos as you dont know your gear. I practice shooting with only one lens at the time. For example when i wake up i decide that today i will only use 35mm and shoot with that lens only. I believe this can teach me to see better and later when there is a need to switch lenses i will know it right away. I must admit that last time i was on vacation I felt like i needed that zoom. Many times 35 was not wide enough and 85 was not long enough. I always felt like i needed that extra adjustment. Do you think this is a good reason to get a zoom or it is just me complaining?
                    Your blog is great. You have great perspective on photography.

                    • I actually find a 28-85 combination to be enough for almost all situations. The zoom is mainly because I often work in very dusty/dirty environments and would rather not change lenses in those situations.

  5. Ranjan Kumar Mandal says:

    I am a new reader of your reviews & I am in a state of confusion, so I think,I have found the RIGHT person/expert, who can really clear off my confusion.Before starting though, I thank you for the fantastic review of 24-120 mm f/4 VR. I have read many expert’s reviews of this lens ,but your’s seems a bit more practical & I like it best.
    Introduction – I am into portrait,event & wedding photography.( an amateur turned to freelancer & now want to be professional). I own presently- *Nikon D 7100 with the Kit Lens 18-105 mmVR + 50mm f/1.8 + Nikon 70-300 VR. I generally shoot Indian Weddings with Elinchrome Strobes & Nissin Di 866 Mark II Flash.
    I am planning to get a FX ( D750 most likely) in near future. Now, I want to upgrade to a lens which will be a better one than the 18-105 Kit, must be a FX lens at the same time as I dont want to invest further in DX lens. I will retain my D 7100 as my second body,when I upgrade to FX.
    If not mistaken a lot, I think I have few options to choose from ( I have a budget concern too)-Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 ( non VR or VR,both are out of reach financially now), Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 VC & Nikon 24-120 mm VR.

    My CONFUSION / QUERRY –
    ** Which is better,in terms of reliability , quality assurance & service -Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 OR Nikon 24-120 f/4 VR ?
    ** Is there a HUGE Difference in the image quality/ bokeh / sharpness of both the above lenses,if suppose both are shot at f/4 ?
    ** Will Nikon 24-120 f/4 VR produce noticeably better result than the Nikon 18-105 mm in D 7100 ?
    ** Given that I mostly use external light sources like Elinchrome or Flash, will I miss the f/2.8 too much ?
    ** Is it wiser to invest in 24-120 VR + Nikon 85 mm f/1.8 G rather than one single 24-70 f/2.8 mm?

    I am anxiously waiting for your guidelines.
    Regards,
    Ranjan KM

    • Haven’t used the Tamron, so I can’t comment on that lens.

      Is it better than the 18-105? Probably, but it depends on sample variation, too.

      Can’t answer if you’ll miss f2.8 because it depends on how you shoot. I’d suggest checking your exif data. But given you don’t have that capability now, probably not. f4 on FX will have shallower DOF than f3.5 (at best) on DX anyway.

      And yes, I’d prefer the 24-120 and 85 combination over the 24-70. I don’t own a 24-70/2.8 because I personally don’t find it necessary, and VR more than makes up that stop. Most of the time I’d rather have more depth of field than more aperture.

      • I find the Sigma 24-105mm to be a wonderful lens and it just about lives on my D750, along with yes that Nikon 85mm f/1.8.

        I’ve rounded out my kit with the Nikon 35mm f/1.8, Nikon 20mm f/1.8 and the extraordinary Nikon 70-200mm f/4.

        Ming I recommend you try out that Sigma 24-105mm when you get a chance, if you find yourself needing that medium zoom. It shows much sharper on DXOmark than the Nikon 24-120 (see the measurement-sharpness-field menu path) and prior to purchase I read a number of reports from people who moved made this transition and were much happier with the Sigma. Also get the $60 dock so you can do adjustments if necessary, and firmware updates.

        • I’m happy with my copy of the 24-120, though sample variation plays a huge part in this. I don’t see the need to replace it in this case (and gain weight and lose range at the same time).

      • Ranjan Kumar Mandal says:

        Thanks Ming ! Your words are encouraging. I would like to request you to explain kindly about your suggestion to check my exif data (quote your words-‘ I’d suggest checking your exif data. But given you don’t have that capability now, probably not. ). Do you mean that at which f/ no, focal length, do I shoot most often ?

        • Yes.

          • Ranjan Kumar Mandal says:

            Thanks Ming for your response so promptly.Actually, out of search for deciding upon which lens to get & that if I use 24-120mm in my DX body(D7100),how much I shall miss the wider range of 18-105 mm’s 18-36 mm range ( as obviously 24 in FX means 36 mm in DX body), I have started doing a home work of preparing a chart of focal length mostly used by me. I have prepared three columns-18-35mm / 36-69 mm/70mm & above & I am checking exif data of all my shots in CS 6. Once I complete the task, I will probably be in a better position to decide. Yet,one thing is obvious till now,that about 60% of my shots of wedding & events are shot above 36 mm focal length. In events as I used mostly 18-105 mm lens & the f/stop used is more 5.6 / 6.3.
            My main concern is that shooting at above 36 mm focal length, will I get much better results/image quality,sharpness,colour/contrast etc.,with the 24-120 mm VR than with the 18-105 mm VR in my DX Body or not.

            • You should get better results with the D750/24-120. It is of course somewhat operator dependent.

              • Ranjan Kumar Mandal says:

                Thanks once again ! Yes, I do understand that I will definitely get better results with D 750/24-120,but as of now,till I own the D750,I was very curious to know if this 24-120 (in D 7100) will be producing better results than the 18-105 mm,in terms of image quality,given that I shoot with the same exif as I had been doing with 18-105.I searched a lot in the internet but very conclusive matter is not available probably. I am sure, out of your vast experience & sharp IQ/ knowledge of Optics, you can definitely conclude in anticipation if the 24-120 f/4 will be better than 18-105 ( even if you might not have tested to details the 18-105). I am almost closing in to take a final decision & will stop further speculations ,once I get a reply from you. Please respond.

                • I own the 24-120. I don’t own the 18-105. You need to make your own decisions.

                  • Ranjan Kumar Mandal says:

                    Super Fast response ! I am impressed Ming !!!
                    Anyway I did mention in my querry that ” I am sure, out of your vast experience & sharp IQ/ knowledge of Optics, you can definitely conclude in anticipation if the 24-120 f/4 will be better than 18-105 ( even if you might not have tested to details the 18-105).”….So what I meant to ask was your personal views based upon your exclusive knowledge of optics. Thanks Ming. You helped me a lot & responded always so promptly .

  6. One thought that always pops into my head when thinking about this kind of ‘universal’ zooms: if you choose to software-correct the distortion at the extreme ends, you loose field-of-view. The internal focusing means you loose more f-ov at the long end when focusing closely. So wouldn’t it be preferable to have, say, a 28-85 zoom that had less distortion in the first place? It would make it easier to frame a tight shot for sure, or reduce the number of surprises in post-processing.

  7. Malte Obbel Forsberg says:

    Hello Ming,

    Thanks for keeping up with your amazing blog entries with both thoughtfully written texts and beautiful pictures to illustrate your points. I’m an avid reader, but this is the first comment I’ve made. 🙂

    I just picked up a D750 with the 24-120mm lens and have only had time to spend a couple of hours shooting with it so far. I’ve noticed that, on my copy, 24-80 is tack sharp but above that range it gets a bit fuzzy. At 120mm it’s not so sharp anymore.

    Do you know what could cause this? Is it normally something that Nikon would/could fix under warranty?

    Many thanks,
    Malte

    • There are a lot of elements in this lens, which means a lot of potential alignment issues and sample variation. My copy is definitely weaker towards the 120 end, but not fuzzy. You can still use it wide open if need be; the centre is sharp and the sides are symmetric. It only takes one element slightly out of plane that matters at infinity to cause issues… Honestly, the simplest thing to do is exchange it if you can.

      • Malte Obbel Forsberg says:

        Many thanks for the reply Ming! I guess fuzzy might be my overreacting a bit, but it’s definitely less sharp at 120mm… I don’t really have a good reference though, so I don’t know what is acceptable. It is possible my copy is no worse than yours I guess.

        Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be able to easily exchange the copy, which is the downside of buying from certain places of course. I’ll keep this in mind for the future.

        Regards,
        Malte

  8. Romy Klein says:

    Beautiful images!
    I just got my d750 and using a 24-120 VR lens, love the lens, however, yes I noticed vignetting, not pleasant and also sometime I have to raise my ISO, because the image is a little too dark even when outdoors and in the middle of the day. Any suggestions?

  9. Hello, i will only say thanks for all the information and beautiful pictures. I have a Nikon D750
    and 24-120 lens. I am very satisfeid.

  10. Giella Lea Fapmu says:

    Dear Ming Thein, since you have tried both can you give your opinion on how a FF camera with this lens compare with the Sony RX10. They are both compromises but I have the feeling that in the end they might produce actually quite comparable images.

    Thanks.

    Giella Lea Fapmu

    • Sorry, no. Not even close. A D810 with a 24-120 is miles ahead of an RX100. Even if you’re shooting it with shaky hands in the dark at ISO 3200 and the RX10 is a tripod at base ISO.

      • Giella Lea Fapmu says:

        Thank you for answering (and for the useful reviews, of course) and…I am not sorry at all, had you answered “yes” I would have had to consider yet another gear.

        Giella Lea Fapmu

  11. Anthony says:

    Hi Ming,
    Thank you for this nice review.
    Many users deplore heavy vignetting with this lens : is this correctable with Lightroom ? totally ou partially ?

  12. Sorry to ignore the topic at hand (the lens) and wander off (to one of the images), but Presentation strikes me as a stunning example of what I believe I’ve seen categorized here as a “painterly” photograph (or some similar term). The thing that triggers that response from my eye is that there’s a dramatic gradation of light and shadow with elements of each so perfectly offset against each other and so perfectly composed within the frame that such scenes don’t often occur in nature — but they’re so pleasing to the eye that an artist with a brush would understand the benefit of constructing them just so. Thanks for sharing it.

  13. This is my primary standard zoom lens. The 24-70 was too big and expensive and the VR on the 24-120 was an attraction.

    The primary way I’ll criticize this lens is in VR. From 24 to about the mid 60s, it’s awesome. It then starts to fall apart, so much so that I find to get a reasonable rate of return from it at 105-120, I have to induce a slight tremor or some other bad handholding technique. I found exactly the same thing on multiple copies of the 70-200/2.8 VR series 1, by the way. Still, where it goes up against the 24-70, it’s very impressive . . . and sharp. Only the vignetting is a problem, and on a D800, not much of one with all the shadow recovery.

    Use a fast enough shutter speed at the long end and it’s optically fine, if not as sharp as the 24-70 range. Although I do think there’s a very slight focus shift towards 120 at close distance.

    Any suggestions on the VR? Is this normal to have it kind of fizzle out with good technique toward the long end, or does it need adjustment?

    Lovely “after the rain” trees shot, by the way, Ming.

    • Doesn’t sound normal to me. Mine works pretty consistently throughout the range, though there’s no easy quantitative way to tell for sure.

  14. Kai Loke says:

    Hello Ming, as always love your reviews and love your photos! Elsewhere, you have also reviewed the 28-300 vr, another all-in-one lens solution, just wondered what your thoughts are on how that lens compares with the 24-120 vr, especially in terms of IQ at their shared focal lengths. Cheers.

    • The 24-120 is much better. All zooms are optical compromises because it’s difficult to correct for a very wide variety of aberrations at all focal lengths; the wider the zoom range, the bigger the compromise.

      • Kai-Loke says:

        Thank you Ming for your reply and thoughts. I’ve been thinking about what you’ve written and re-read both this review and your review of the 28-300 VR. You use the analogy of the swiss-army knife in both reviews, and I recall going into a local camera store not knowing which of these two lenses to buy, but walked away with the 28-300 VR because they had a refurbished one at a lower price and also gave me a reasonable trade-in for my 70-300 Tamron VC and Tokina 28-70 2.8 that I was using to do the trade. I have never regretted choosing the superzoom, until recently. I was also surprised that many of my favourite compositions were below 135mm, and didn’t feel I needed the longer focal lengths that much. Do you still have and use the 28-300 VR? Or, do you now go with the 24-120 VR and 70-200 f4 VR combo, as a sort of twin swiss-army knife combo?

  15. Dennisg says:

    Hi Ming,
    I’m interested in cinematic style. Will the lens 24-85 f3.5 4.5 has enough seperation ? Currently I’m using OMD EM5 paired with 12-40 f2.8 and tempted to switch gear to full frame for the aforementioned style

    • Nope, not enough separation. Only the tele zooms will. The wider you go, the faster you’ve got to get (or have near foregrounds and very distant backgrounds).

  16. I have to echo all the other comments that these are some really lovely images Ming, and really shows what can be done with a “kit” lens. I have Oculus as a print, and it holds up pretty good there too.

  17. Hi Ming. I currently own a Nikon D810 with a host of lenses. I’ve had the Nikon 24-70 f/28 and both 24-120s both of the latter’s were soft in the corners, even at f/8. Sigma has a 24-105 which clearly outperforms all 3 of the aforementioned Nikon lenses. In the past, I had always thought Sigma was a “budget” lens maker and therefore inferior to Nikon & Canon. Not so. In a recent trip to China, I shot most of my D810 images with the Sigma 24-105 “Art” lens and the results were excellent—I do large prints, 20×30″ being my smallest so high quality is essential. I have several other Sigmas (the 35mm f/1.4 “Art” Series) and the 180mm ApoMacro which are excellent. The 35mm f/1.4 equals or surpasses Leica’s 35mm Lens for it’s S camera which I own but am selling since in my opinion the D810 with its Zeiss lenses in particular is superior and, of course, is a dream to handle. I am also selling my PhaseOne IQ180 camera with its 8 lenses since my recently purchases Pentax 645Z with certain specific lenses gives the PhaseOne a run for the money and, like the Nikon, is a dream to handle.

    In another vein, notwithstanding my formal name of “Meredith” Wood would suggest I’m female, when I was born, Meredith was a man’s name & that’s what I am. Regards, Scott “Meredith” Wood.

    • There’s a lot of sample variation going around with this lens – I did try a few before picking this particular copy, and mine isn’t soft in the corners. But I can see where the (bad) reputation comes from. Sadly no opportunity to try the Sigma; nobody seems to have them in stock here.

      The Leica S is overpriced and very, very under spec’d. Not only does the D810 sensor leave it in the dust, but the Zeiss primes are more than up to the task. And a stop faster.

      • The 24-105 Sigma ART just has a quality I can’t put a handle on. I had it for 1 month before I sold it though. It was heavier than most 24-70mm F2.8 from any maker. Wrist breakingly heavy but excellent lens. Try getting it from Singapore if you’re visiting, I think they should be quite common the last I checked.

        • I assume it was an good quality; was weight the only reason you sold it?

        • I can’t image how anyone could consider the Sigma Art 24-105 heavy. If you want heavy, try the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 or the Otus 85mm lenses (about 2.5 lbs each) on the Nikon D810 body and even these are not heavy by my standards, and I am 81 yrs old. Even the Pentax 645Z body at 3.5 lbs is manageable and it becomes over 7 lbs with some of their most recent lenses—still well-balanced though. Getting high resolution images involves a little weight, at least for now. incidentally, my quality requirements are pretty high: I’ve bought 4 Sigma lenses from B&H and have yet to find a lemon. I think their manufacturing standards and quality control may be superior to Nikon’s.

          • You’re preaching to the choir; I’m shoot with the Otuses most of the time, on a D810 with a vertical grip and Zacuto finder. 🙂 As for QC – completely agree; the latest Nikon releases have been all over the map. Nobody beats Zeiss QC though…I’ve shot with up to a dozen samples of the same lens, and performance is 100% consistent every time.

  18. Beautiful shots! I adore this lens. It came with my D750 and I really love it.

  19. Nice set of images! I sold my 24-70/f2.8 and was able to purchase the 24-120/f4 AND the Olympus 12-40/f2.8. Both were used but for my purposes I feel my shooting envelope is much wider for my style on both my D700 and E-M1. I photograph a lot of children and the extra 70-120 focal length is very valuable. (And the 12-40 is just sharp AND flexible when compared to using my Oly primes).

    • I find the VR more than makes up for the lost stop most of the time, and if note, you’re going to need a lot more than a stop! No question about flexibility, though.

  20. Crazyp says:

    Not a lens for me, prefer primes below 70 and have the 70-200 f4 for reach.

    But some lovely images here, especially ‘butterfly bridge’ and ‘after the rain ‘. And another well written review!

  21. Daniel Boyd says:

    Your reviews are meaningful and educational. And your images, Ming, your images are awesome! Thanks for sharing them.

  22. 1st post. Thanks for the review…great timing, 1 week ago I moved from Canon 5D 1st gento D750 24-120 kit. I have existing Nikon Film (F and FM) lenses including:
    – older 28-70 2.8
    – 70-180 4.5-5.6 Micro (which I used for closeup and general use)
    -manual 50 1.4
    -manual 28 3.5

    As to the 24-120, 28-70, 70-180 Micro: should I ditch one or use all for their designed purposes? Maybe the real questions here are a) how does the 70-180 Micro perform on D750, b) is the older 28-70 fundamentally up to par with its newer replacement and thus meet or beat the 24-120?

    If you’ll give a little 1st post leeway 😉 may I add: After viewing your Outstanding Images series, on a D750 do you still generally recommend spot meter for highlights, or does “standard” metering protect the highlights given the camera’s dynamic range and electronics? Is this helped by adjusting picture mode settings to a flat jpg preview (assuming Nikon uses that setting for histogram and preview/postview)

    Off to Amsterdam next week (from Boston) to have some fun with the gear…

    I’m a new but huge fan of your site/work/videos/workflow/approach/knowledge/generosity!!

    Thanks

    • No question the kit option represents the best value – the lens is effectively heavily discounted and worth every penny.

      The 70-180 micro has a great reputation even on the 36MP cameras, so I don’t see why it wouldn’t also work well on the 750.

      Highlights – the picture controls only affect the jpeg preview; RAW files are all the same. I found matrix to meter just a little hot; spot is always safer because it’s precise, but matrix -0.5 or -1 worked quite well most of the time too. Not much penalty in recovering shadows because it’s a very linear camera in tonal response.

      • Thanks. Brief follow-up (on my off-topic inquiry) as to d750 metering: yes, but isn’t the histogram calibrated to the selected picture mode and thus doesn’t a customized “flat” mode better match the raw file rendering of highlight latitude than a “standard” picture mode. In other words, won’t my histogram be more accurate if forced to a portray a flat/custom picture mode? If so, does the metering similarly adjust, or are metering and histogram not connected?

        • I find the flat mode does some strange things and masks channel clipping – I prefer to use neutral or standard and turn the contrast as low as possible. It might show you less DR than ‘flat’, but you won’t accidentally clip a channel.

          Metering is metering and baked into exposure. The histogram only shows what the preview JPEG renders. So, yes and no.

          • Thanks

            yes, by ” flat” I meant a customized mode with user-lowered contrast. I haven’t owned the camera long enough to understand there is a built-in flat picture mode. Good to know one should be careful of its use/selection.

            As to histogram vs exposure: interesting… I (apparently mistakenly) assumed metering/exposure-calibration was influenced/impacted by picture mode (built-in or customized). I stand corrected. That’s an important distinction. Thanks!! That said, if metering is fixed shouldn’t we all ” calibrate” the histogram to that fixed metering, so preview/post-view histograms most accurately describe the captured raw image?

            Thanks again!!

  23. Your review is pretty much in line with my experience with this lens. I got it as a one lens solution, primarily for travel and event work. It is a plenty good lens, but large and heavy for what it is.

    • Oops, pushed the post button accidentally. Anyway, it is plenty good on my D800, but I never used it, because if I was going to carry something that large and heavy, I might as well take the 17-35/2.8 and 70-200/4 combo that was just…better. When I decided to sell my less used Nikon lenses to pay for a E-M1 and 12-40/2.8 combo, this is one of the lenses that got sold.

      • I’m not sure I agree on the 17-35; my copy had to be at f5.6 to work well on the D800E, and that one got sold…

        The 70-200/4 is a really excellent lens though.

        • Interesting. Tthe 17-35 is one of my favorites. It may not be the most technically perfect lens around, but the images have a lot of life o them, something I never got with the 24-120.

          • I think it might have something to do with field curvature. I find the same thing with the Zeiss 2/28 – technically not great, but a great rendering – and a very curvy focal plane.

    • Sadly there are no compromises in the weight/size and quality relationship: just look at the size of the Otus 55 compared to say a Nikon 50/1.4 AI…

  24. Stephan says:

    Interesting read as always. I wish I could live with this lens as a one lens only solution on my D750. Would make it so much easier if I could eliminiate lens swapping entirely. But for two reasons I went for the AF-S 24-70/2.8 + AF-S 70-200/4 VR solution:

    1. I want at least 200mm at the tele end. Sometimes I even see the need for 300mm but for these rare occasions cropping will have to do and I sure hope that I don’t end up with a picture that might be worth printing large with only 10,5 MP left 😉
    2. Since I really dislike changing lenses but sometimes want a shallow DOF the extra stop of the 24-70 over the 24-120 is very welcome. Of course I still lose 1 1/3 stops over the f/1.8 primes but there’s always a price to pay.

    I could see myself using the 24-120 as a lazy one lens solution if there were decent primes that would cover let’s say 35-85-150 (the latter could be f/4 instead of f/1.8 for weight reasons) for when I want a faster aperture and better image quality. But there is sadly only the 35 and 85 from Nikon. Sure there is the Sigma 150mm Macro but that thing is massive…

    Long story short: I am glad the 24-120mm/4 works out for you as I definitely can see the advantages.

    P.S.: IFC is my favorite in this series. I really like the composition.

    • There’s also the Voigtlander 180/4 APO, which might fit the bill 😉

      • Stephan says:

        Oh yes, but unfortunately hard to come by and only manual focus. I don’t know if I had nailed the focus wide open as I did with the seagulls and the AF-S 70-200/4 @200mm and 2m distance in Porto two months ago.

        By the way: Porto was one of my favorite cities so far. When you travel to Europe next time I would consider visiting it if you haven’t been there yet 🙂

  25. Since you have been using this lens for approx. 3 years, I assume you have used it both on D800E and D810. In this context have two questions on your statement “On the D810, it basically makes the difference between a 50-50 chance of ‘sharp-at-100%-pixels’ and definitely sharp”:

    1) Like many other reviewers, in your D800E review you suggested one should not follow the reciprocity rule for handheld shots in order to get sharp images on a 36 MP sensor.

    Would you say VR offset this challenge and allow users to follow the reciprocity rule?

    2) In your D810 review you mentioned the improvement on the shutter and mirror box mechanism.

    a) Would you say the improvement is to such an extent that D810 users can the reciprocity rule for handheld shots even without a VR lens?

    b) Would you say D810 user can safely follow the reciprocity rule for handheld shots with a VR lens? (which is what I deduce from your article)

    PS. Regarding the 24-85 VR and 24-120 f/4 VR comparison, one may also consider the former does not have an Active VR mode, but, according to Nikon, better VR.

    • 1) Yes. 1/fl, or as low as 1/0.5x fl if you’re steady are both workable.
      2a) No. It’s 1/2-2.5x instead of 1/3x. This big falloff in acuity has been documented by several people already.
      2b) Most of the time, yes. Active VR is very necessary when shooting from a moving platform like a boat or helicopter – makes an enormous amount of difference, actually.

  26. Alex Robinson says:

    Nice to see someone talking positively about this lens, it tends to cop a bad wrap which I’ve never understood. Not only do I much prefer it to the Canon 24-105L (t feels better made and the Canon’s have a highish flex cable failure rate) but it’s pretty much the perfect bit-of-everyting focal length. I used it quite a bit on the D3s and loved it, with that kind of ISO performance the F4 didn’t matter so much. When I tried it on the D800 a few years ago it was a mixed bag, perfect discipline and a tripod resulted in good results, bad discipline meant I may as well have just used a D3s instead. I’m a massive fan of this focal range having also owned two Nikon 16-85 lenses and used them extensively travelling with the D200 and D300, I kept one just incase there’s ever a D400 (wishful thinking). I’d love to see a lens in this range for Micro 4/3, it’s a glaring omission for a system that seems to be geared perfectly for travel photographers. I’d love to have a nice F4 or 12-60mm on my Olympus E-M10.

    • The 24-120 has a complex optical design, and I suspect there was more than one bad sample that somehow made it out for review, and an inexperienced or lazy reviewer who didn’t bother to check whether behaviour was typical or exceptional. There are plenty of ‘experts’ on the internet 🙂

      There’s always the 12-40/2.8 for M4/3; it’s optically better or comparable to the 24-120 and a stop faster, too.

      • madmurphy says:

        I know, I’ve used the 12-40 many times but whenever I use a 24-70 or 24-80 range lens I desperately miss that range up to 120mm equiv. I often found that when shooting the 24-120 or 16-85 Nikons I mostly used the extremes of the zoom range. I tried the Olympus 12-50mm but F6.3 at the longe doesn’t do it for me. Here’s hoping one comes sooner or later rather than just more mk.1234 kit zooms and super zooms. A lens like that on a body would be my day to day set and forget conbo.

        • The 12-50 is a bit of a disaster, unfortunately. There are a few 14-140/150 options, but optically they leave a lot to be desired. I used to either use the 12-40 paired with a 75, or the 12-32 paired with a 45.

        • The 12-40mm paired with the 60mm Macro is my go-to combo, since the 60mm is very light and small diameter, making it well suited for pocket carry. The 75mm is heavier and larger, but an excellent choice if you want a bit more reach and larger aperture. I do agreee that m4/3 would really benefit from having a 12-60mm f/4 that was optically as good as the 12-40mm and offered similar maximum magnification.

  27. Isolation, oculus, and melting — whoa. 🙂

  28. Great review, as always, Ming. Spot on assessment; it’s well suited to general travel and event work. Still think it’s a great match to a D7200 for traveling, perhaps with a single fast prime in the bag for good measure. Less vignetting and distortion concerns with DX, too.

    • Thanks – perhaps not quite wide enough on a DX body, though?

      • I love this lens on my D7100. It’s sometimes not wide enough and I’ll carry the 10-24 but as a do all lens it’s fantastic. The vast majority of my shots come from this lens simply because it gives me the versatility to capture most things at an instants notice. I have heard the 18-140 is great with the D7100/7200 but haven’t tried it yet. Gives extra wide angle coverage and length, newer VR, and loses 0.5lb. Of course it gives up some speed as result

  29. Rainer says:

    Your images are like always superb! Not on your 24-120mm zoom lens are the both ends the weakest, and the middle range the best part, this happens on more or less, every zoom lens. But it is possible, that the middle range of an zoom lens, can be even optical better, as an similar focal length, on a single focal length glass!

  30. I’m using D-5300 with a basic lens (18-55mm) for the moment and was hoping to get a new lens.
    Thanks for suggesting some and do’s and dont’s.

    https://knowherephotography.wordpress.com

  31. bruce hansen says:

    It’s one of my go to lenses. I bought it because of your recommendation. thanks

  32. “And then there’s the 900-pound (or $1700 dollar) gorilla in the corner: why not just buy the 24-70/2.8 and be done with it?” Why not indeed? I am not sure why I should feel compelled to answer to some random gorilla about my choice of lenses but since he is nearby and interested here goes. “See here Gorilla; cast your eye upon the excellent analysis and sample photos above. Can you not see that in the hands of a master this lens produces astonishing results? What more do I need? Indeed! What more do any of us need? Still unconvinced eh? Well In that case I wish to bring to your attention that the money I save could be spent on a not insignificant quantity of peanuts and bananas that I would be willing to share with like minded fellows.” I suspect he will see the wisdom in this. After all, an average adult male gorilla in the wild weighs between 300 – 400 lbs and at 900 lbs he seems an exceptionally fine copy who no doubt appreciates an afternoon snack. “So what do you say my hirsute chum? Shall we toddle off arm in arm to the camera store and stop by the fruit stand along the way?”

  33. Wonderful images Ming!

  34. Gary Morris says:

    Isolation… Grand Slam! Thanks for including this image in this review.

Trackbacks

  1. […] the 35-90mm and 24mm when on-site or in places where I had setup time; otherwise, the Nikon D810, 24-120/4 VR and 24/3.5 PCE when I had to run and gun. There was quite a bit of the latter – I had to get […]

  2. […] lenses mentioned in this post are available from B&H or Amazon: Nikon AFS 24-120/4 VR** – review B&H Amazon Nikon AFS 85/1.8 G** – review B&H Amazon Nikon PCE 85/2.8 Micro** – […]

  3. […] Nikon AFS 24-120/4 VR** (review B&H Amazon) With caveats: if you get a good copy, it should be very good everywhere at f4, […]

  4. […] a lens I’ll add to the arsenal though – I have the D810 and a good sample of the 24-120/4 VR for that general purpose application. Rather, what I did land up buying on impulse after a trip to […]

  5. […] D810 – like the 45 PCE and 85 PCE – are starting to show their limitations. The humble 24-120/4 VR does well, but the 16-80/2.8-4 was a disappointment. Lastly, the Sigma 18-35/1.8 reveals itself to […]

  6. […] series was shot with a Nikon D810, mostly the 24-120/4VR and processed with Photoshop Workflow […]

  7. […] of you will know I’m a big fan of the Nikon 24-120/4 VR for its versatility – if you don’t need the speed and can find a good sample (it is yet […]

  8. […] series was shot with a Nikon D810, D800E, 24-120/4 VR, 80-400/4.5-5.6 VR, Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus, Zeiss 1.4/85 Otus, and Ricoh GR. […]

  9. […] series was shot with a Nikon D810, D800E, 24-120/4 VR, 80-400/4.5-5.6 VR, Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus, and Ricoh GR. Postprocessing was […]

  10. […] Rethinking my travel kit, I’m fairly sure it’d be something around a Leica Q, D810/ 24-120VR, 5DSR/ 70-300L and one or two fast primes – perhaps the 40 STM and 85 Otus. With a tripod, is […]

  11. […] series was shot in several countries with a Nikon D810, 24-120/4 VR, 45 PCE, 85/1.8G and Voigtlander 180/4 APO lenses. Postprocessing and color management was done […]

  12. […] challenging dynamic range situations and things that must be straight. I’d like to have the 24-120VR for when I see something I need to grab quickly, and I’d like to have my fast AF primes for […]

  13. […] series was shot with a Nikon D810 and 24-120/4 VR, which is probably about as flexible as you can […]

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