The constant maximum aperture, mid-range Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR zoom lens is a major update to the Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G VR that was released back in 2003. The older, variable-aperture 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 had some optical problems that did not make it a popular lens among photographers, so Nikon decided to address those problems by releasing this highly-anticipated Nikon 24-120mm f/4.0 lens. Why highly-anticipated? Because the 24-120mm focal range is very useful for photographers who use full-frame cameras like Nikon D700/D3s/D3x and who find the 24-70mm f/2.8 either too short on the long focal end, or too heavy for everyday use. In addition, having VR on a mid-range lens like the 24-120mm is crucial for low-light photography, even on the wide end.
Did Nikon address all problems the Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G had in this new f/4 update? How does it compare to the legendary Nikon 24-70mm and the new 28-300mm lenses? Is it really on par with the 28-300mm when it comes to performance, making it a worse buy than the 28-300mm like some of the reviewers stated? In this review, I will do my best to provide a detailed analysis of the lens’ performance, including sharpness tests and comparisons against other mid-range lenses and answer the above questions.
The Nikon 24-120mm f/4G ED VR is a constant maximum aperture lens with a 5x zoom range that is designed for professional and advanced amateur photographers that need a mid-range lens with image stabilization to be used for many types of photography, including street, nature, travel and wedding photography. Unlike variable-aperture lenses that typically have an aperture of f/5.6 when zoomed all the way in, the Nikon 24-120mm stays at f/4.0 throughout the focal range, giving a one-stop advantage to the 24-120mm f/4 over variable-aperture lenses on the long end. For example, the older Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G lens has a maximum aperture of f/5.6 beyond 85mm and the new 28-300mm is at f/5.6 beyond 105mm.
In addition, the lens comes packed with plenty of new optical features from Nikon, including the latest generation of VR II (vibration reduction) technology, which offers camera shake compensation equivalent to a shutter speed increase of approximately four stops. Thanks to the AF-S silent-wave focus motor, the lens focuses quietly and accurately in various lighting conditions, and the 77mm filter thread makes it easy to use specialized filters (polarizing, neutral density, etc) without having to mess with adapter rings. The complex optical formula of 17 elements in 13 groups with two ED, three aspherical elements and Nano Crystal Coat all contribute to great performance throughout the zoom range.
1) Lens Specifications
- Compact and versatile 5X standard zoom lens with f/4 maximum aperture is perfect for landscapes, portraits, weddings and distant subjects offering a constant maximum aperture to maintain exposure settings throughout the entire zoom range and VR II Image Stabilization.
- Nikon VR II (Vibration Reduction), engineered specifically for each VR NIKKOR lens, enables handheld shooting at up to 4 shutter speeds slower than would otherwise be possible, assuring dramatically sharper still images and video capture.
- 2 Extra-low Dispersion (ED) elements offers superior sharpness and color correction by effectively minimizing chromatic aberration, even at the widest aperture setting.
- M/A Focus Mode Switch enables quick changes between manual and autofocus operation.
- Exclusive Nikon Silent Wave Motor (SWM) enables fast, accurate and quiet autofocus.
- Rounded 9-blade diaphragm renders more natural appearance of out-of-focus image areas.
- Nano Crystal Coat further reduces ghosting and interior flare across a wide range of wavelengths for even greater image clarity.
- 3 Aspherical Lens Elements virtually eliminate coma and other types of aberration, even when shooting at the widest available aperture.
- Internal Focus (IF) provides fast and quiet autofocus without changing the length of the lens, retaining working distance throughout the focus range.
- Nikon Super Integrated Coating (SIC) enhances light transmission efficiency and offers superior color consistency and reduced flare.
- Mount Type: Nikon F-Bayonet
- Focal Length Range: 24-120mm
- Zoom Ratio: 5.0x
- Maximum Aperture: f/4
- Minimum Aperture: f/22
- Format: FX/35mm
- Maximum Angle of View (DX-format): 61°
- Minimum Angle of View (DX-format): 13°20′
- Maximum Angle of View (FX-format): 84°
- Minimum Angle of View (FX-format): 20°30′
- Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 0.24x
- Lens Elements: 17
- Lens Groups: 13
- Compatible Format(s): FX, DX, FX in DX Crop Mode, 35mm Film
- VR (Vibration Reduction) Image Stabilization: Yes
- Diaphragm Blades: 9
- Distance Information: Yes
- Nano Crystal Coat: Yes
- ED Glass Elements: 2
- Super Integrated Coating: Yes
- Autofocus: Yes
- AF-S (Silent Wave Motor): Yes
- Internal Focusing: Yes
- Minimum Focus Distance: 1.5ft. (0.45m)
- Focus Mode: Auto, Manual
- Filter Size: 77mm
- Accepts Filter Type: Screw-on
- Dimensions (Approx.): 3.3×4.1 in. (Diameter x Length), 84x103mm (Diameter x Length)
- Weight (Approx.): 23.6 oz. (670g)
- Supplied Accessories: HB-53 Bayonet Lens Hood, LC-77 Snap-on Front Lens Cap, LF-1 Rear Lens Cap, CL-1218 Soft Lens Case
2) Lens construction and handling
When compared to the older 24-120mm, the barrel of the 24-120mm f/4 is thicker, I would say about the same size as the barrel of the Nikon 28-300mm lens. Zoomed out to 24mm, it is certainly more compact than the 24-70mm or the 28-300mm lenses height-wise and also weighs much less than both. Here is how the Nikon 24-120mm f/4 compares against Nikon 24-70mm (left) and Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5-6G (right):
When extended to 120mm, the lens gets bigger and almost reaches the height of the fully extended 24-70mm (obviously not quite as tall as the Nikon 28-300mm):
The lens is built very similarly to the Nikon 28-300mm, with a plastic exterior and focus ring. The zoom ring is also made of plastic and is covered with rubber for resistance. Most of the recently-announced lenses by Nikon have a plastic exterior, which does not necessarily mean that the lenses are not solid – the interior of the Nikon 24-120mm contains plenty of metal (which obviously contributes to the weight) and the lens mount is also made of solid metal. When you zoom in, the first extension tube by the zoom ring is metal, while the second one that connects the front of the lens is plastic. The front part of the 24-120mm does not wobble when the lens is is fully extended either. In many ways, the construction of the lens is very similar to that of 28-300 – a very high quality build. The lens should be able to withstand cold and hot temperatures, but I would not leave it under rain, extreme moisture and dusty environments.
Weight-wise, it is not a heavy lens when compared to the Nikon 28-300mm or 24-70mm lenses. Weighing about 670 grams, it is 230 grams lighter than the latter, which is a big difference. The lens feels very solid in hands and the zoom action is smooth and easy to rotate from 24 to 120mm and vice versa – it takes a half turn to go from 24 to 120mm. The focus ring is made of plastic and is located on the back of the lens, which I find backwards. I am used to the zoom ring being close to the lens and the focus ring to be near the lens barrel. But if you have shot with other DX lenses before, you should have no problem with getting used to it.
The Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR lens comes with a relatively compact “HB-53″ bayonet lens hood that is specifically designed for the lens, which is about the same size as the “HB-25″ hood that comes with the Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G VR. The lens is shipped with the newly-designed LF-4 rear lens cap, which I personally like better than the old LF-1. For some reason, only the new Nikon 55-300mm and the Nikon 24-120mm are shipped with this cap – Nikon 28-300mm and Nikon 85mm f/1.4G are both shipped with the old LF-1 rear cap. When changing lenses, try to do it with the lens fully zoomed out to 24mm. The rear lens element moves deeply into the lens when extended to 120mm and you could end up with a lot of dust/debris inside the lens if you are shooting in windy and dusty conditions. This is nothing to be scared of – even some of the professional fixed-width zoom lenses such as Nikon 16-35mm do this.
3) Focus acquisition speed and accuracy
Similar to other modern lenses, the autofocus motor of the Nikon 24-120mm f/4G VR is quiet and accurate even under challenging lighting conditions, thanks to the AF-S Silent Wave Motor. Autofocus speed is quick, certainly much quicker than on the 28-300mm lens. If you took 24-70mm, 24-120mm and 28-300mm lenses and tested AF speed on all three at the same time, the 24-70mm would be first (blazing fast), with the 24-120mm second (fast) and the 28-300mm last (slow). If you measure the AF speed and compare against the 24-70mm, the 24-120mm is about 2x slower, while the 28-300mm is about 3x slower than the 24-70mm. Focus tracking works very well, with the lens getting accurate focus almost every time in continuous mode. Unlike the turtle-speed AF on the Nikon 28-300mm, the lens reacquires focus instantly, I would say on par with the new Nikon 85mm f/1.4G. I took many shots of my fast-moving kids with this lens and I had no problems getting accurate focus.
4) Lens sharpness, contrast and color rendition
As I reveal in my sharpness tests in the subsequent pages of this review, the performance of the 24-120mm is outstanding. Center sharpness is top notch, even wide open, while the corners start out a little weaker at f/4.0, but get much sharper by f/5.6 and f/8.0, with the best results between f/8.0 and f/11.0. Unfortunately, there is plenty of vignetting and distortion at all focal lengths, which is a nuisance, but certainly fixable in post-processing. Contrast and colors are superb and the lens does not suffer from any major chromatic aberration issues. You can see many lens sharpness examples in the next page with comparisons against other lenses.
Click here to download the full-size version of the file (7.1 MB).
5) Vibration Reduction – VR II
I am a big fan of Vibration Reduction (VR) lenses – I wish every lens had VR in it, because it is one of the most useful lens features for low-light photography. VR certainly does work very well on zoom lenses and the Nikon 24-120mm f/4G VR comes with the latest version of Vibration Reduction called “VR II”, which is supposed to deliver sharp images up to four stops the shutter speed. What this means, is that you might be able to get sharp images at 1/8th of a second when shooting at 120mm (general rule of thumb is to keep your shutter speed at your focal length and 4 stops from 1/120th is 1/8th) – VR II certainly does work as advertised.
If you have used the Nikon 24-70mm in the past for hand-held, low-light work and try the 24-120mm, you will suddenly realize how useful VR would be on the 24-70mm. When Nikon released the 16-35mm lens (which was the first image-stabilized short-focal zoom lens in the world) so many photographers at first stated that VR for such short focal lengths would be useless. Those who tried out the 16-35mm quickly discovered that VR actually works great even for short focal lenses.
Here is a shot that I captured hand-held at 1/6th of a second zoomed out to 24mm with VR turned on:
Click here to download the full-size version of the file (4.8 MB).
When it comes to bokeh, the Nikon 24-120mm yields a somewhat busy bokeh, similar to how other zoom lenses render the background. Obviously, it is not a portrait lens and the lens’ maximum aperture of f/4.0 is very limiting in terms of subject isolation, but overall, the results are very comparable to those of the 28-300mm. Here is a quick comparison with the Nikon 24-70mm shot outdoors in daylight (50mm @ f/4.0 on both):
Looks about the same, doesn’t it? However, when shooting bright light sources in the background, the situation is a little different:
The Nikon 24-120mm here looks busier or “dirtier” than the 24-70mm.
Here is another example with some bokeh:
Click here to download the full-size version of the file (3.2 MB).
Another bad similarity to the Nikon 28-300mm is also in heavy vignetting that is visible throughout the zoom range. Here are some vignetting tests shot at 24mm, 35mm, 70mm and 120mm:
Vignetting seems to be worst at 24mm when shot wide open, but as you can see, it is quite evident at all focal lengths. At 35mm, it gets a little better, but the problem returns at longer focal lengths. Another thing you have to be careful with, is using filters when shooting at 24mm, just like on the Nikon 24-70mm. Take a look at what happens when I used a polarizing filter on the 24-120mm:
As you can see, the corners are even darker with a polarizing filter attached, so just be a little careful when shooting at the shortest focal lengths with thick filters attached (using a regular clear filter did not seem to make a difference). Please note that the Nikon 24-70mm also has a similar problem when using thick filters – if you want to shoot at the widest focal length with a polarizing filter, my advice is to use slim versions of polarizing filters. This problem is gone once you zoom in a little. At the 28mm focal length, I could not see much additional vignetting when using a thick filter.
8) Ghosting, Flare and Distortion
Ghosting and flare are controlled very well, thanks to the Nano Crystal Coat. I shot images with the sun in the center and different corners of the frame and could not get any images with nasty flare/ghosting. Take a look at this example with the sun on the right top:
Besides seeing two small ghosts on the top right and bottom left corners of the frame, I do not see anything else. No color changes due to flare either! Obviously, Nano Crystal Coat does not completely eliminate ghosting and flare, so you just have to be careful how you position the sun in your frame. Using filters might also potentially introduce more flare and ghosting.
As you can see form the last image above, barrel distortion is very noticeable at the widest focal lengths. Once you zoom in, like most other lenses, barrel distortion changes over to pincushion. Take a look at the following example at 58mm, where strong pincushion distortion is visible on the top:
These kinds of distortion issues are present across the focal range with the strongest effect at 24mm (barrel) and beyond 35mm+ (pincushion) and weakest at 28mm. Distortion is something that is easy to fix in post-processing. As of Lightroom 3.4 version, the Nikon 24-120mm lens profile is included in Lightroom Lens Correction sub-module, which means that you can quickly fix the above issues with a single click of a button.
9) Chromatic Aberration
Chromatic Aberration (CA) is controlled quite well, with a little bit of purple fringing present in the corners. Here is an extreme example with some purple CA in the corner frame:
Gladly, chromatic aberration can be quickly fixed in Lightroom or Photoshop.
10) Focus Breathing
This lens does NOT suffer from the focus breathing problem the Nikon 28-300mm has, which means that you get the “true” 120mm focal length on the long end. What this also means, is that if you were to shoot a very close subject with this lens at 120mm and with the 28-300mm at 300mm, you would only get a very marginally enlarged image with the 28-300mm…talking about usefulness of the long focal length of the 28-300mm! Obviously this is not true for subjects shot at infinity, so the comparison depends on how close you get to your subjects.
Click here to download the full-size version of the file (3.3 MB).
Let’s now move on to the good stuff – Sharpness tests. Select the next page below.
11) Sharpness Test on FX Sensor
Some technical junk:
- White Balance: Auto, changed to “Custom”: 3100 Temp, +9 Tint in Lightroom
- ISO: 200
- EXIF information is preserved in the images
- Lens was mounted on Nikon D3s Camera and Gitzo tripod
- Focusing was performed through Live-View Contrast Detect. After each successful focus acquisition, focus was switched to manual to prevent camera refocusing
- Mirror Lock-Up mode with Exposure Delay set to “On” and remote cable release to completely eliminate camera shake
- VR on the Nikon 24-120mm was set to “Off” position
- Long exposure NR: Off
- Image Format: RAW
- Lightroom settings: Default settings, but exposure had to be slightly adjusted (-.20 to +.033) to make sure that all images have the same brightness level
- Lightroom export: sRGB JPEG Quality 80
- Testing was performed at f/4.0, f/5.6, f/8.0 and f/11.0 apertures
- Nothing was moved during testing
12) Sharpness Test – Nikon 24-120mm @ 24mm Center Frame
13) Sharpness Test – Nikon 24-120mm @ 24mm Corner Frame
14) Sharpness Test – Nikon 24-120mm @ 35mm Center Frame
Superb performance all the way!
15) Sharpness Test – Nikon 24-120mm @ 35mm Corner Frame
16) Sharpness Test – Nikon 24-120mm @ 70mm Center Frame
17) Sharpness Test – Nikon 24-120mm @ 70mm Corner Frame
18) Sharpness Test – Nikon 24-120mm @ 120mm Center Frame
19) Sharpness Test – Nikon 24-120mm @ 120mm Corner Frame
These image samples are meaningless without a comparison against other lenses. Let’s compare now!
Compared to Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR
Let’s see how the Nikon 24-120mm compares against the Nikon 28-300mm. If you are impatient and want to see my conclusion, skip over to the bottom of the page.
20) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 28-300mm @ 28mm Center Frame
Wide open in the center, the difference is very clear – the Nikon 24-120mm buries the Nikon 28-300mm. The Nikon 28-300mm clearly has less contrast and the sharpness difference is quite evident. What about stopped down to f/5.6? Let’s take a look:
21) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 28-300mm @ 28mm Corner Frame
22) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 28-300mm @ 50mm Center Frame
At f/8.0, both lenses perform equally well:
The difference in corner sharpness @ 50mm is about the same as @ 28mm, with a slightly better sharpness by the 28-300mm this time around.
23) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 28-300mm @ 105mm Center Frame
Now here is an interesting comparison. As I have stated before, the Nikon 28-300mm quickly gets to f/5.6 at around the 135mm mark. At 105mm, the lens is at f/5.3 already. Take a look at the below comparison between the two lenses with a one stop difference (Left: Nikon 24-120mm @ f/4.0, Right: Nikon 28-300mm @ f/5.6):
Both images look about the same, which means that the 24-120mm at longer focal lengths has a one stop advantage over the 28-300mm. At smaller apertures beyond f/8.0, both lenses look almost identical, which is expected:
24) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 28-300mm @ 120mm Corner Frame
Due to the focus breathing issue on the 28-300mm, it was difficult to do proper testing and I had to move my setup back and forth and adjust focal lengths when necessary. Since I was testing so many lenses, I forgot to do a 120mm test on the 28-300mm, so I’m showing the below crops from 200mm on the 28-300mm (Left: Nikon 24-120mm, 120mm @ f/4.0, Right: Nikon 28-300mm, 200mm @ f/5.6):
Once again, the difference is very clear – the Nikon 24-120mm has sharper corners on top of having a one stop light advantage.
25) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 28-300mm Conclusion
As you can see, the difference is quite clear. Not only is the Nikon 28-300mm worse in both center and corner sharpness, but it also about a stop slower at the longer focal lengths. Wide open at f/4.0, the Nikon 24-120mm often beats the Nikon 28-300mm @ f/5.6. The performance at short focal lengths up to 50mm is also much better on the Nikon 24-120mm – take another look at the center performance at 28mm and compare the crops. And this is with a very good copy of the 28-300mm that one of our readers was kind enough to send me for testing!
The above test results are what I was expecting and there is nothing surprising about my findings. In fact, my test results are on par with the MTF results provided by Nikon and I’m sure other people that conduct their tests will reveal very similar results. Take a look at the following MTF charts provided by Nikon:
As my tests have confirmed, both center and corner sharpness on the 24-120mm should be better than on the 28-300mm.
Although the 24-120mm lens build and quality seems to be on the same level as the Nikon 28-300mm, here are eight key differences that make the 24-120mm a better lens:
- Autofocus Speed – as I have pointed out earlier, the Nikon 24-120mm focuses much faster than the 28-300mm. Not only does it focus faster, but it also recovers from loss of focus much faster, where the 28-300mm simply crawls.
- Autofocus Accuracy – not only is the Nikon 24-120mm faster, but it is also more accurate. My first sample of the 28-300mm had a hard time focusing at f/5.6 beyond 135mm and the 24-120mm always focuses dead-on, even in challenging light situations.
- 4mm difference is huge – those 4mm of difference (it is actually a little more than that, because the wider side of the 28-300mm is more like 30mm) are significant, especially for landscape and architectural photography. The Nikon 24-120mm has the maximum angle of view of 84°, while the 28-300mm is 74° – a whopping 10 degree difference.
- Nikon 24-120mm is coated with Nano Crystal Coat – after shooting for 3-4 weeks with both the 28-300mm and the 24-120mm, I can tell you that there is certainly difference between lenses that have and do not have Nano Crystal Coat. It seems to me that Nano Crystal Coat does not only reduce ghosting and flare – it certainly has an effect on colors too. I found the 24-120mm to be much more pleasing to work with for nature and landscape photography as well.
- Sample variation – being a consumer lens, the quality of optics on the Nikon 28-300mm vary greatly from sample to sample. I have received many emails from photographers that complained about their 28-300mm sharpness and some of our readers even tried three different samples without much luck. The Nikon 24-120mm is made better than the 28-300mm, because I tested two samples and both of them performed equally well with a very minimal difference in performance. So far, I have received similar feedback from other 24-120mm owners.
- Constant maximum aperture vs variable aperture – as you have seen from the above tests, the Nikon 24-120mm has about 1 stop advantage over the Nikon 28-300mm at longer focal lengths.
- Nikon 24-120mm is sharper – as I have demonstrated above.
- Nikon 24-120mm is a pro-level lens – there is a reason why Nikon put a gold ring around the front of the 24-120mm and did not on the 28-300mm. The Nikon 28-300mm is considered to be a high-quality consumer lens, while the Nikon 24-120mm is considered to be lower-end professional lens (due to its maximum aperture of f/4.0).
Lastly, do you really think Nikon would have announced the 24-120mm together with the 28-300mm if their performance was the same? :)
Let’s move on to a comparison with the legendary Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G.
Compared to Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G
This comparison is very important for those who are looking at both Nikon 24-70mm and Nikon 24-120mm to purchase or want to replace their 24-70mm with a smaller/lighter/more useful lens. Let’s see how the lens compares against the Nikon 24-70mm in terms of sharpness.
26) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 24-70mm @ 24mm Center Frame
I cannot see any difference between the two images, which basically means that the 24-120mm @ 24mm f/4.0 in the center is as sharp as the Nikon 24-70mm @ 24mm f/2.8. The Nikon 24-70mm is so good in the center, that there is practically no difference in sharpness between f/2.8 and f/8.0. Since the sharpness is equally good on both lenses wide open, the Nikon 24-70mm has a one stop advantage over the Nikon 24-120mm. At f/8.0, both lenses again look the same:
Thus, the center sharpness on the 24-120mm @ 24mm is superb!
27) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 24-70mm @ 24mm Corner Frame
Now the corner performance at 24mm is not 24-70mm’s forte – as you can see the Nikon 24-120mm beats the 24-70mm when both are shot wide open. When both lenses are at f/4.0, they perform about the same:
A very impressive performance by the Nikon 24-120mm I must say! Here is what happens at f/8.0:
Both lenses perform about the same at f/8.0 in the corners.
28) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 24-70mm @ 35mm Center Frame
Once again, the performance is very similar to that of 24mm – both lenses look about the same wide open! The Nikon 24-70mm is superb at f/2.8 and stopping down to f/4.0 yields about the same sharpness. What about f/8.0?
This is getting boring! Once again, the Nikon 24-120mm looks very strong against the Nikon 24-70mm.
29) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 24-70mm @ 35mm Corner Frame
Since Nikon 24-70mm needs to be stopped down to f/4.0 to match the 24-120mm at f/4.0, I would say there is no performance difference in the corners between the two. Another big plus for the Nikon 24-120mm!
30) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 24-70mm @ 70mm Center Frame
Similar to other focal lengths, both lenses perform about the same, with a very slightly better performance by the 24-70mm. When stopped down to f/8.0, the difference goes away:
31) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 24-70mm @ 70mm Corner Frame
Besides having different levels of distortion, both look about the same to me in terms of sharpness, which means that the Nikon 24-70mm has a 1 stop advantage in the corners at 70mm.
At f/8.0, once again, the results are equally good.
32) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 24-70mm Conclusion
To be honest, I did not expect the Nikon 24-120mm to stand so well against the Nikon 24-70mm. The slower Nikon 24-120mm demonstrated exceptionally good results in my lab tests and I am very impressed about how well it compares to the 24-70mm both in the center and in the corners. The Nikon 24-70mm obviously has a one stop advantage, but if you add VR to the mix, I believe the Nikon 24-120mm actually has an advantage over the 24-70mm. One stop of light loss versus three to four stops of vibration reduction. Additional 50mm of focal length which I found to be very useful – I do quite often regret not having more than 70mm on my 24-70mm for my landscape work. During my last trip to San Juan mountains, I had to switch over to the heavy 70-200mm to shoot distant mountains at longer focal lengths. I then found out that the focal lengths I used the most were between 70mm and 135mm. If I had the Nikon 24-120mm with me, I could have easily worked with a single lens instead of carrying so much weight. Those 230 grams of difference between the 24-120mm and 24-70mm are huge for long and painful hikes, where every gram counts.
The Nikon 24-70mm obviously focuses much faster, but then the focus speed is not that critical for my photography. If you shoot concerts, the Nikon 24-70mm might serve you better, but for everything else, the AF speed is good enough. The Nikon 24-120mm has more distortion and vignetting than the 24-70mm, but ever since Adobe introduced the lens correction feature in Lightroom, it has been getting easier to address those problems without having to go through one image at a time. The biggest difference between the two lenses, where the Nikon 24-70mm has a big advantage is construction – the Nikon 24-120mm is built well, but if you shoot in challenging conditions or travel a lot, you would be better off with the 24-70mm that will survive pretty much any weather – the Nikon 24-70mm is built like a tank for all kinds of abuse. I don’t think the Nikon 24-120mm will live that long if you don’t take a good care of it.
Looking back at the images I shot outside compared to lab results, the Nikon 24-70mm seems to produce slightly sharper images in the corners when shot at infinity between f/4.0 and f/8.0. This could be a sample variation issue though, since most of the images I shot outside were done with a single lens (I only had the second sample for two days). I will wait for others to provide some feedback on this.
Compared to Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G VR
Many of the Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G owners are probably wondering how well the new Nikon 24-120mm compares against it and others might be considering and evaluating both lenses. Let’s take a look at how the lenses compare and see if Nikon was able to address many of the problems the older 24-120mm had.
33) Nikon 24-120mm f/4 vs Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 24mm Center Frame
The Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G suffers from sharpness issues when shooting at f/3.5. Let’s see how well it stands against the Nikon 24-120mm at f/4.0 (Left: Nikon 24-120mm f/4 @ f/4.0, Right Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 @ f/4.0):
Ouch, the Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 does not stand a chance against the Nikon 24-120mm f/4.0 in the center. Let’s see if the situation changes by f/8.0:
Even at f/8.0, the older 24-120mm is not as sharp as the new 24-120mm in the center!
34) Nikon 24-120mm f/4 vs Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 24mm Corner Frame
Similar to the center sharpness, the corners on the Nikon 24-120mm f/4.0 are also sharper. And the situation does not change for f/8.0 either:
35) Nikon 24-120mm f/4 vs Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 50mm Center Frame
Again, the Nikon 24-120mm is much sharper wide open.
Even at f/8.0, the Nikon 24-120mm f/4.0 is still sharper.
36) Nikon 24-120mm f/4 vs Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 50mm Corner Frame
37) Nikon 24-120mm f/4 vs Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 120mm Center Frame
And yet again, the Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 just never gets sharp enough even stopped down to f/8.0:
The corner results at 120mm are good on both lenses, with slightly better results by the Nikon 24-120mm f/4.0.
38) Nikon 24-120mm f/4 vs Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 Conclusion
As you can clearly see from the above image samples, the new Nikon 24-120mm f/4.0 is much better than its predecessor. Not only does it beat the older 24-120mm at both center and corner frames, but it also provides up to 1 stop advantage at long focal lengths, outperforming it even at f/8.0. In addition, the Nikon 24-120mm f/4.0 focuses faster and more accurately than the older 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 and also renders better colors at all focal lengths. The Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G is kind of “cloudy” compared to the Nikon 24-120mm f/4.0. Size-wise, the older Nikon 24-120mm is not only shorter and thinner, it is also lighter – weighing about 95 grams less than the 24-120mm f/4.0. I personally do not mind the extra 95 grams and larger size for the added performance gain…
If you are trying to decide between the two, it all boils down to cost – the Nikon 24-120mm f/4.0 is currently selling for $1,299, while the older Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 is only $575 at B&H. If money is not an issue, I would certainly get the much better 24-120mm f/4.0.
Compared to Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II
I am including this last test against the Nikon 70-20mm f/2.8G just to show you how well the Nikon 24-120mm performs at focal lengths above 70mm. Obviously, it is not a fair comparison, but I believe it could be interesting for those who tend to shoot more on the long end.
39) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 70-200mm @ 70mm Center Frame
The Nikon 24-120mm is as sharp as the Nikon 70-200mm at 70mm wide open, which means that similar to the Nikon 24-70mm, the Nikon 70-200mm has a 1 stop advantage over the Nikon 24-120mm. I’m obviously only counting differences in stops for sharpness – changes in apertures also mean shallower depth of field and other optical differences (see conclusion on the bottom of this page).
The center performance at f/8.0 is almost identical on both lenses.
40) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 70-200mm @ 70mm Corner Frame
I would say both perform about the same in the corners, with a slightly better performance by the Nikon 24-120mm. When stopped down to f/8.0, the Nikon 70-200mm is sharper.
41) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 70-200mm @ 120mm Center Frame
Can you see any difference? Because I can’t – the Nikon 24-120mm looks as sharp at f/4.0 as the Nikon 70-200mm wide open at f/2.8. The same is true for smaller apertures such as f/8.0.
42) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 70-200mm @ 120mm Corner Frame
While the Nikon 70-200mm seems to be a tad softer at f/2.8, stopping down the lens to f/4.0 makes it much sharper:
43) Nikon 24-120mm vs Nikon 70-200mm Conclusion
As you can see, the Nikon 24-120mm performs incredibly well against the ultra-sharp Nikon 70-200mm telephoto lens at focal lengths between 70mm and 120mm. The center frame is very sharp and the corners are quite comparable. Once again, I only provided this comparison to show you sharpness results. When it comes to practical use, the Nikon 70-200mm can do what the Nikon 24-120mm cannot do well – yield beautiful bokeh at large apertures. The Nikon 70-200mm is designed to be for portraiture/subject isolation, while the Nikon 24-120mm is an everyday lens for many different uses. When it comes to AF speed, the Nikon 70-200mm is obviously faster for both subject tracking and low-light work.
Summary and Image Samples
I am very impressed by how well the Nikon 24-120mm f/4G VR performs. It is a sharp lens that is very comparable to professional lenses such as Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, yielding great results throughout its focal range. During my lab and field tests, my goal was to see how well it performs against the Nikon 24-70mm lens, since many readers have been asking about it (I also wanted to find out for myself, whether I should be looking at potentially replacing my 24-70mm or adding it to my bag for travel and everyday use). After shooting with this lens for about 3 weeks and capturing over 1,800 images, I can say that the lens exceeds my expectations and I found it to be more useful than my favorite Nikon 24-70mm lens not only due to longer focal range, but also due to Vibration Reduction that is extremely useful for low-light situations. I managed to get sharp images hand-held while shooting at extremely slow shutter speeds of 1/2 seconds at 24mm – try that with the Nikon 24-70mm!
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Lola and I shot a wedding with this lens and as you can see from some of the shots I posted here, the images are sharp and colorful. While the lens suffers from heavy vignetting problems, I actually found it to be quite pleasing for wedding photography. For other use, vignetting can certainly be a pain, especially when using thick circular polarizing filters. The extreme corners get too dark with such a filter. Distortion can be problematic, but don’t sweat over it too much – if you are shooting straight lines or a horizon, simply fix it in Lightroom or Photoshop and you are good to go. Sure, it would have been great if the lens did not have distortion and vignetting issues, but we also have to understand that it would have been much more expensive.
When compared to the older 24-120mm, the new 24-120mm is sharper at all focal lengths and apertures, so Nikon will probably discontinue the older variable-aperture version soon. Compared to the Nikon 28-300mm, as I have stated in the comparison page, the Nikon 24-120mm is a much better lens. Not only does it produce sharper images, but it also offers the extra 4mm of wider coverage, which is huge for me, since I use those 4mm a lot. The AF speed is also much faster and AF accuracy is dead-on, while the 28-300mm crawls and does not always focus accurately at long focal lengths.
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45) Where to buy and availability
46) More image samples
Please note that most of the images in this review are posted as examples of the lens performance only.
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Click here to download the full-size version of the file (3.2 MB).
Click here to download the full-size version of the file (3.3 MB).
Click here to download the full-size version of the file (5.2 MB).
Click here to download the full-size version of the file (4.8 MB).
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.