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?
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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