review: Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8E VR Lens
One of my favorite lenses ever was Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 AF-S, also widely known at the time as The Tank because of its bulk. I was surprised then by just how much the follow-up, the stellar Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G (B&H / Amazon) improved on it. Now in turn, that lens has been updated with the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR (B&H / Amazon). The new lens offers Vibration Reduction (VR), and is also said to offer better edge-to-edge sharpness. This comes at a price though – the new VR version is larger and bulkier, and also needs an 82mm filter instead of the regular 77mm filter.
Currently both these lenses are still on the market, with a bit of a jump in price:
I’ve seen a number of internet discussions which said the older version has better center sharpness, even though the new version has better edge sharpness. This might be a bit of a concern then for anyone spending that amount of money, with the eye on the appeal of Vibration Reduction, and improved edge-to-edge sharpness. One would hope that everything would be improved, and that this wouldn’t be a case of two steps forward, and one step back.
Is the Vibration Reduction really necessary?
This is something you can only answer for yourself, whether you really need it. To some it might seem superfluous for the wider angles, but it might come in handy. One of the examples I showed in another article – bounce flash outdoors with a reflector – showed these images, shot at 1/20th and with this lens, had razor sharp images, hand-held. This lens allowed me to shoot faster, without the hindrance of a tripod.
This next image is an impressionistic view of the hectic pace in a New York subway station as commuters hurtle between platforms on this escalator. To show the movement as a blur, I shot at 1/5th @ f/8 @ 800 ISO with the Nikon D810. The 100% crop will show how sharp the central portion is … hand-held at this slow shutter speed! I did brace my elbows to my side, and checked my breathing. I shot several sequences here, and the majority of images were this sharp. Again, keep in mind that you’re looking at a 100% crop of a massive 36 megapixel file.
Looking at the 100% crop, yes, the Vibration Reduction works. For me, this is a useful addition to this mid-range zoom.
Edge-to-edge sharpness at wider apertures
With these comparisons, keep in mind that we’re looking at massive 36 megapixel images, so the differences might appear negligible when printed, or shown as smaller web-sized images. Also keep in mind that this test is based on single copies of these lenses, and the G-lens had been a workhorse for several years already.
The summary on the sharpness comparisons, for those who are too eager to wade through to the end of the article:
The new Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR definitely has the edge, so to speak. A noticeable improvement for edge sharpness. Keep in mind that this is with high resolution and viewed at 100% … which might not be noticeable when printed at smaller sizes.
In terms of center sharpness – there is a difference that I noticed, where the older non-VR G lens is sharper in the center. But this also seems to vary depending on which focal length you’re working at, as well as the focused distance. Look at the examples for 35mm – the older lens is clearly better (at open aperture), than the new lens in this scene at the memorial site. Yet, there is another comparison for 35mm where the difference isn’t all that apparent, and my vote would swing towards the new VR lens being slightly sharper in the center.
For the first series of comparison tests, I took photographs of a model in the studio, using studio lights. I used the two zoom lenses at 70mm only. I used a tripod to keep distance the same. For the sequences shot in the studio, I manually focused, using Live-View on the Nikon D810. This of course removes the potential for the auto-focus to bring in small errors … but it also now brings in the uncertainty of manual focus and user error.
One thing you’d immediately notice, is that at the shorter focused distance, the older Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G lens doesn’t zoom as tight as the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR lens for the same zoom length. In other words, the older non-VR G lens is a bit short of 70mm. Well, definitely shorter than the new lens.
The first image is the centered test shot with the VR lens, but I was off in how I framed the model. The image is not quite centered. For the 2nd photo, her right eye is in the center, as intended. So the comparison isn’t quite as specific as I intended, but the results are similar to what I found for the larger part of various tests – the older non-VR lens is sharper in the center than the new lens!
Now, comparing image sharpness about half-way to the right-hand edge – our model’s right eye. (My farming was better for this series.) As you can see in the 100% crop images, image sharpness fell off very noticeably already for the older non-VR G lens.
The Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR lens maintained sharpness better as we moved away from the middle of the frame.
The test sequences were shot at the memorial site – there is plenty detail to be resolved along the center line. To simplify this test, I didn’t look at the corners – just the center, the left and the right hand edge. I zoomed from 24mm to 28mm, 35, 50 and 70mm. I shot at f/2.8 and f/4 and f/5.6 to specifically see how the lenses compared at the wider apertures. The camera was set to 64 ISO.
For brevity, I am showing just a few comparisons here to show the typical results for f/2.8 aperture. You can view more 100% crop images via this link, for a more complete comparison. The naming convention of the files should be self-evident.
The left- and right-hand comparisons for the view shown in this image, shot at 24mm:
Zooming to 35mm:
Zooming to 70mm:
I’m showing the edges here, since the central portions where indistinguishable in sharpness.
For test sequences on the first day when I shot these types of comparison photos, I shot with two D750 bodies, of which one was a rental camera. (The other test images shown elsewhere here, were all done with the Nikon D810.) I hand-held the cameras (at high shutter speed), to shoot quickly. The non-VR G lens was on the rental body. The central portions for 35mm and 50mm were softer for the older, non-VR lens. But for the 24mm and 70mm zoom settings, the lenses looked equally sharp to me. So this difference for central sharpness for this range, might be an anomaly due to the one camera being less precisely calibrated. Still, I want to show the comparison here, even if only as an illustration of the close tolerances in doing these types of comparison.
Specifications of the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR
The classic standard zoom now features Vibration Reduction image stabilization, helping to reduce camera shake by up to four shutter speed stops. This helps considerably with handheld shooting in low-light situations.
Internal focusing design maintains the overall lens length during operation and contributes to a lighter overall weight.
An electromagnetic aperture mechanism is integrated into the lens design to provide greater exposure control stability that is especially beneficial when working with faster continuous shooting rates.
A revised optical design incorporates a unique aspherical extra-low dispersion element, in addition to three aspherical, two extra-low dispersion, and one high refractive index elements, to help reduce chromatic aberrations and distortions throughout the zoom range in order to achieve high image sharpness and clarity. The Nano Crystal and Super Integrated Coatings further benefit image quality by reducing lens flare for improved contrast and color accuracy and fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements protect against dust, moisture, and smudging.
A unique aspherical extra-low dispersion element is incorporated into the optical design, along with three aspherical, one high refractive index, and two extra-low dispersion glass elements, to reduce chromatic and spherical aberrations, distortion, coma (comatic aberration), and flare for consistent edge-to-edge sharpness and illumination.
Silent Wave Motor autofocus mechanism provides quick, quiet, and precise autofocus performance that is ideal for photographing fast-moving subjects.
Specialized electromagnetic aperture mechanism provides greater exposure control stability that is especially beneficial when working with fast continuous shooting rates.
Nano Crystal and Super Integrated Coatings have been applied to lens elements to minimize surface and internal reflections for a marked reduction in lens flare and ghosting.
Fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements afford protection to the optical system.
The new Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR definitely has noticeable improvement for edge sharpness than the older lens. Keep in mind that this is with high resolution and viewed at 100% … which might not be noticeable when printed at smaller sizes.
However, the older non-VR G lens appeared sharper in the center for many of the test images shot at wide open aperture. This wasn’t always consistently so in all the tests that I shot – the discrepancy could be user error or mismatched cameras, as noted in the review. It also seems to vary depending on which focal length you’re working at, as well as the focused distance.
So where does this leave us? If you have the older Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 then you can rest easy – you have a spectacular lens. If you bought the new version, then you can relax, you really have a superb lens. If you have the extra money, I would recommend the new VR lens. But either way you end up a superb lens.
My personal decision – I am staying with the upgraded lens with VR. The sharper edges will benefit me more with group photos which will be shot at medium apertures anyway.