Two of Nikon’s higher-end midrange zooms for their mirrorless Z system are the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S and the Nikon Z 24-120mm f/4 S. Granted, there are major differences between the two lenses – not least of which are the focal length and apertures! – but both are professional, S-line lenses with huge popularity among Nikon Z photographers. If you’re looking for a top-notch midrange zoom, which one of these two lenses is right for you? Having used both of them extensively in the field (plus testing all their image quality metrics in the lab), I think I can answer that question!
Before I go into all the details on image quality, let me say one thing first. If you’re seriously considering both of these lenses, I urge to you to make your decision based on their focal length and aperture, not based on small image quality differences. You’ll ultimately be happier with a lens that fits your focal length/aperture needs, rather than having the sharpest lens that sits on your shelf all day!
To that end, it’s pretty clear to me that the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 is the better choice for handheld, low-light photography, especially things like event or documentary work. Meanwhile, the Nikon Z 24-120mm f/4 has a better range of focal lengths for things like travel and landscape photography, where 70mm can be kind of limiting.
If your only midrange lens is a 24-70mm, you’ll probably need to pack along a telephoto much of the time as well, so just be aware of that. With a 24-120mm, on the other hand, you can usually get away without throwing a separate telephoto in your bag if you’re trying to travel light.
Speaking of traveling light, how portable are these two lenses? While neither one is tiny, they’re not huge, either – I had no issue carrying them around for a full day of photography using a backpack or a sling bag. The Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 weighs 805 grams (1.77 lbs), while the Nikon Z 24-120mm f/4 is a bit lighter at 630 grams (1.39 lbs).
As for things like build quality and handling, the two lenses are surprisingly similar. Both have a lens function button, an extra control ring, and an A-M switch. Beyond that, both lenses extend when zoomed, but they have extensive weather sealing so that dust and water will have a hard time getting into the lens. The only major difference is that the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 has an electronic display for focusing distance/aperture information. Other than that, it’s hard to think of any two lenses that handle more similarly than these two!
Both lenses have pretty high levels of vignetting, although their exact vignetting profiles are a bit different:
As you can see, the worst performance of both lenses occurs at 24mm when shooting at maximum aperture – no surprise there. The good news is that vignetting performance improves significantly upon stopping down and/or zooming in.
The “winner” really depends on the focal length and aperture that you’re using, though. At f/4 and 24mm, I’d definitely take the 24-70mm f/2.8. But zoom into 35mm or 50mm, and the 24-120mm f/4 suddenly has less vignetting. It’s probably the most accurate to say that they’re on pretty even footing here.
Here’s an area where the two lenses definitely aren’t on even footing – distortion!
It’s not really a surprise that the lens with a wider range of focal lengths has more distortion, but boy does it have some distortion! 5.01% barrel distortion at 24mm is really high, even by the standards of midrange zooms. The good news is that this is one of the easiest lens issues to fix in post-production, although note that fixing distortion does lead to a bit of sharpness loss in the corners when stretching the image back into place.
I also don’t want to let the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S off the hook completely here. 2.64% barrel distortion at 24mm and 2.93% pincushion distortion at 70mm are still higher than ideal. Again, it won’t cause any major problems in post-processing (most software fixes this automatically anyway), but that doesn’t mean I can give either lens full marks here.
3. Lateral Chromatic Aberration
Both lenses are pretty well-controlled for chromatic aberrations, although we do record a slightly higher level on the Nikon Z 24-120mm f/4 S overall:
To me, any CA under about 1.5 pixels can be corrected very easily, and usually doesn’t even need corrections at all. Meanwhile, any CA under 1 pixel is basically negligible. Both of these lenses cross that threshold (even the stricter 1.0 pixel value) at most focal lengths and aperture values. However, the Nikon Z 24-120mm f/4 S does have a bit more chromatic aberration than I’d prefer at the wider focal lengths. In the highest-contrast situations (like tree branches against the sky), doing CA corrections with the 24-120mm f/4 S may leave a very slight halo behind.
Still, I’ve seen much worse than this, especially from other midrange zooms.
Now for the part everyone was wondering about – sharpness! These are both sharp lenses, but the 24-70mm f/2.8 S does have the edge. Make sure that when you compare the values in the charts below, you compare the same apertures against each other if you want an apples-to-apples comparison.
We’ll start with 24mm:
As you can see, in central and midframe sharpness, the two lenses are almost completely neck-and-neck in the shared aperture range. However, the corners are a different story. There, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is clearly ahead throughout the zoom range, and especially at the wider focal lengths. Even though the differences are most striking at the wider apertures of f/4 and f/5.6, corner sharpness doesn’t really equalize until f/16 at most of the focal lengths.
I will emphasize, the Nikon Z 24-120mm f/4 S is not performing badly here by any stretch. It still beats almost every other midrange zoom in sharpness – including in corner sharpness. The Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S just takes it a step further.
Value and Recommendations
Now that you’ve seen how the two lenses perform, how do the price differences strike you? After all, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S costs $2400, while the Nikon Z 24-120mm f/4 S costs $1100 (although both lenses go on sale periodically, so these numbers will fluctuate).
To me, the Nikon Z 24-120mm f/4 S represents a better value. It’s not that the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is overpriced, considering that it’s a pro-level f/2.8 midrange zoom. It’s more that the 24-120mm f/4 S is priced unusually well!
Granted, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is optically stronger in the shared range of focal lengths. If image quality is your main consideration, it actually beats all other Nikon midrange zooms that have come before it. Not to mention that if you need f/2.8, you need f/2.8.
But for most photographers, I would recommend the Nikon Z 24-120mm f/4 S instead. First, it’s still really impressive optically. Even making wall-sized prints, you won’t lack for sharpness (and yes, that includes corner sharpness). Second, the ability to zoom into 120mm is very useful to a lot of photographers – maybe more useful than having an f/2.8 maximum aperture, depending on what you shoot. Finally, in terms of value, the 24-120mm f/4 S is quite simply priced better than the 24-70mm f/2.8 S.
If you’re still on the fence, I’ll go back to what I said earlier: Choose based upon the maximum aperture and focal length, not the image quality differences! Event and wedding photographers should absolutely get the 24-70mm f/2.8 for its low-light capabilities, whereas most travel photographers and landscape photographers are better off with the Nikon Z 24-120mm f/4 S because of its huge range of focal lengths.
I can’t make your decision for you, but I hope this helped. Luckily, these are both great lenses – at least you can’t go wrong either way.
You can check the current prices, and support my testing efforts at Photography Life, at the following B&H affiliate links:
- Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 at B&H – Check prices and current sales
- Nikon Z 24-120mm f/4 S at B&H – Check prices and current sales
As for used prices, the same thing applies! You’ll find some surprisingly good prices for either lens second-hand:
Let me know in the comment section if you have any questions about these two lenses. I’ve used them both extensively and would be happy to help.