Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 VR review: Theory of relativity

by | Jan 7, 2016

Is greatness absolute, or can it exist only in the presence of mediocrity? If lens technology today had not evolved beyond the camera obscura, perhaps we wouldn’t know enough to be dissatisfied. And if this were Nikon’s first 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, maybe we would fearlessly label it an extraordinary achievement. Alas, it is not the first, and my opening question was rhetorical: greatness is absolutely relative. (Wait, does that even make sense?) The problem with replacing a legend is that the successor must do more than stay the course: it has to be better in every possible way. Nikon’s latest professional lens fails in this regard; the status quo remains intact. And yet, it offers compelling new features that make it the better choice for many photographers. As always, the truth lies not in resolution charts and photos of brick walls, but in real world use, where I would choose this lens over the old version every time.

As I discovered in reading other reviews, the new 24-70 is actually less sharp in the center of the frame than the original, at least for close-ups at f/2.8. Additionally, it has similar distortion and vignetting characteristics (perhaps even slightly worse). Interestingly, it is sharper in the corners and may have better flare control with less chromatic aberration, depending on who you ask. For what you shoot, that lack of center sharpness could be a huge red flag, but for me it wasn’t an issue. I will call it a bummer, though, because the original 24-70 came out in 2007, when digital photography was in its infancy and the idea of a 36MP camera wasn’t even a dream yet. Given the demands of the modern day photographer (be they justified or not), it’s a wonder that maximizing sharpness wasn’t Nikon’s primary goal with the new lens design, especially when the company’s other recent optics (like the 70-200mm f/4) have been incredible in this regard.

Sharpness, however, isn’t the most important element of image quality for all of us. Furthermore, it’s important to consider the competition: this lens is pitted against one of the most celebrated lenses in photographic history, the centerpiece of Nikon’s “holy trinity” of f/2.8 zooms. Compare it instead to the consumer-friendly 24-120mm f/4, and it’s absolutely sharper. The bigger concern, in my opinion, is the distortion, which was always my annoyance with the old 24-70. I don’t mind the barrel distortion at 24mm as most people simply regard this as the “wide-angle look,” but the pincushion distortion at 70mm is annoying. This is where portrait photographers will spend much their time, and compared to other popular portrait lenses, like the 85mm f/1.4 or 105mm f/2.8 Micro, it’s a little disappointing.

Of course, the true benefits of any 24-70mm are in its flexibility as a workhorse lens. This is where Nikon has taken a giant leap forward. The vibration reduction system is a welcome addition, especially when shooting at the telephoto end. It does more than allow you to shoot at slower shutter speeds, it stabilizes the image in the viewfinder so you can accurately frame your shot. This makes a big difference when you’re shooting in freezing temperatures and your hands (which you can’t feel anymore) are shaking like crazy. The second noticeable improvement is in the autofocus performance, which is incredibly fast and accurate. I had very few focus errors, and the ones I did have were arguably my own fault (note the aforementioned shaky hands). Finally, the lens is simply constructed better than the old one, with smooth focus and zoom rings and a very solid body. It is larger and heavier, yes, but I honestly didn’t notice the extra bulk while shooting. Paired with a D810, the size felt right. On smaller bodies (or perhaps during longer shoots), I can see why people would complain about the weight, however.

At the end of the day, I was definitely satisfied with the results from this lens—yes, even the center sharpness. Back when I shot weddings, the 24-70mm was the lens that saw the most use, and I wouldn’t hesitate one second to replace it with this new version. However, if your work involves product photography, or anything else where close-focusing on fine detail is paramount and AF speed and VR don’t matter, then I can’t in good conscious recommend this lens over the old version. But to be honest, I probably wouldn’t recommend the old version, either—both lenses distort and vignette too much. You’re better off with a prime, specifically the 60mm Micro or 105mm Micro. Or, if you need a wide angle, take a look at the 28mm f/1.8, which, despite being priced in the midrange, is at the top of the list for optical quality.

When the dust settles, Nikon’s new 24-70mm f/2.8 VR may not become the new legend, but that won’t stop it from being a superior workhorse lens in the field compared to the original. I can’t say I’m not disappointed by the lack of optical improvements, but superior build quality, stellar AF performance, and the addition of VR make it the practical choice for wedding, portrait, and sports photographers. You won’t have bragging rights for owning the sharpest 24-70mm lens ever, but chances are, you’ll get better pictures despite that.

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