Nikon has two S-line 24-70mm zooms for their mirrorless Z system – one of which is an f/4 lens, and the other is f/2.8. I’ve used both lenses side-by-side extensively. In fact, I’ve owned the 24-70mm f/4 S since I pre-ordered it along with my Z7 back in 2018! But which lens is better? That’s what I’ll answer today! You can also check out our full reviews of the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S and of the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S for more details.
The obvious difference between these two lenses is, of course, the maximum aperture – f/4 versus f/2.8. Many of the other differences between these two lenses – size, weight, price – stem from that.
You’ll see later in this article that there are some image quality differences which favor the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S. But I believe that isn’t the main reason to choose it over the f/4 version. Instead, you’ll get the 24-70mm f/2.8 S if you need f/2.8. (By the way, if f/2.8 is a must-have, you’ll want to read my separate comparison between the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 Z and the Nikon Z 28-75mm f/2.8.)
Nikon has historically given their f/2.8 zooms their highest level professional treatment, both in terms of image quality and in handling features. The Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is no different. It has an impressive set of handling features, much better than those of the Z 24-70mm f/4 S. Specifically:
- The 24-70mm f/2.8 has three control rings (zoom, focus, and custom) while the 24-70mm f/4 has two (zoom, focus)
- The 24-70mm f/2.8 has an EL display, while the 24-70mm f/4 does not
- The 24-70mm f/2.8 has a custom function button (L-Fn) while the 24-70mm f/4 does not
- Both lenses have just one switch, M-A, for manual and autofocus
- However, the f/4 lens is collapsible, while the f/2.8 lens is not
The only big advantage of the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S – aside from price – is that it’s smaller and lighter. The weight of the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S is exactly 500 grams (1.10 pounds), while the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is 805 grams (1.77 pounds). Also, the filter thread size on the Nikon Z 27-20mm f/4 S is 72mm, compared to the 82mm filter thread size of the 24-70mm f/2.8 S.
Both lenses extend when zoomed. In terms of weatherproofing and build quality, I don’t notice any major differences. I’ve now used my 24-70mm f/4 S for years throughout harsh environments with zero issues. Likewise, the 24-70mm f/2.8 S is built to extremely high standards, including extensive weather sealing that will hold up to years of professional use.
This is one area where I’ve never been super happy with my Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S – it has a bit more vignetting than I’d like. In any case, here are the two lenses side by side as measured in our lab:
Even though the highest measured vignetting (about 2 stops) is similar on both lenses, keep in mind that it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. The Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S reaches those numbers at f/2.8 – no surprise there – and it improves by about 1/2 stop if you narrow the aperture to f/4. Meanwhile, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S has quite high vignetting at f/4 but improves dramatically upon stopping down.
At a given aperture and focal length, the two lenses perform very similarly, with the exception of f/4, where the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is clearly ahead. Make of that what you will. For event photography, I definitely see it as an advantage for the 24-70mm f/2.8 S.
Nikon (and not just them – most companies right now are doing the same thing) is really pushing a new type of lens design these days. Rather than aiming for low distortion and sacrificing sharpness as a result, they are allowing distortion to creep into their lens designs, with the knowledge that it’s easy to correct in post-processing. Meanwhile, they are releasing some of the sharpest lenses we have ever seen! I think it’s a reasonable tradeoff now that we’re no longer shooting film, where distortion could not be easily corrected.
In any case, here are the distortion profiles of the two lenses:
The winner here is definitely the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S – even though both lenses have significant levels, and even though it may not matter because of how easy it is to correct distortion in post!
That said, extreme distortion corrections can lead to some stretching in the corners of an image that harm its sharpness, at least slightly. As you can see, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S has more distortion (especially at 24mm and 70mm), so it would be more prone to this minor effect.
3. Axial Chromatic Aberration
Nikon has been designing extremely well-corrected lenses with low levels of chromatic aberration recently. These two zooms are no exception. Personally, even though CA is fairly easy to correct in post, I still much prefer lenses with low levels. Extreme chromatic aberration is not fully correctible, and even moderate levels can leave some unsightly haloing artifacts in the corners of your image, at least when shooting high-contrast subjects like tree branches against the sky.
The highest values on these two lenses are very similar: 1.22 pixels of CA on the 24-70mm f/4 S, and 1.14 pixels of CA on the 24-70mm f/2.8 S. Neither value is high enough to concern me at all, or even to need correction in most photos (regardless of how high-contrast the subject is).
The relative strengths and weaknesses appear at different focal lengths and aperture values, but since CA is so low regardless, it’s not a concern on either lens.
Now the moment you’ve been waiting for – sharpness! I tend to think that sharpness is overrated these days, considering that almost every new lens is so much sharper than the lenses we shot with for years and years in the DSLR days (and before). We still got sharp images back then, because we knew how to take sharp photos!
Nevertheless, if you do everything right – including using at least a 45 megapixel camera – some of the sharpness differences between lenses will matter in large prints. So, here are the sharpness results as I measured in the lab on both the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S and the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S, starting with both lenses at 24mm. Since the two lenses have different maximum apertures, make sure you are comparing the same aperture values if you want the most direct comparison:
And finally 70mm:
What does this tell us? Well, if you look at the same aperture values and compare them directly, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is clearly sharper. The difference is especially apparent in the corners of the frame at the shared aperture of f/4, but it persists to a lesser degree almost everywhere you look.
As expected, stopping down to narrower aperture values – especially f/11 and f/16 – pretty much equalizes the sharpness, although it’s lower due to diffraction.
How much do these differences matter in real-world photography? If you do everything right, you will get less blur in the corners on the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S, assuming that the corners are in focus in the first place (hardly a given when shooting with a midrange zoom, especially for something like event photography). At common landscape photography apertures like f/8 and f/11, the differences are too small to be of much concern, except possibly at 24mm, where the 24-70mm f/2.8 is especially strong.
Value and Recommendations
Now you’ve seen what sets these two lenses apart. But is it worth the price difference?
When not on sale, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S is $1000, and the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is $2400. Not to mention that the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S is very commonly sold as a kit lens when you buy a Nikon Z camera – so you can easily find it for less (and on the used market, it’s especially cheap).
That is a serious price difference. In terms of image quality, yes, the 24-70mm f/2.8 is the better lens. But more than twice as good? Definitely not. That’s why I said what I did at the start of this article: get the 24-70mm f/2.8 only if you need f/2.8 for your work rather than f/4.
Even then, remember that Nikon also has a 28-75mm f/2.8 non-S lens available for the Z system at $1200. It’s a step down in image quality, but still very good in terms of central sharpness. For event photography on a budget, I would definitely give it some consideration instead of the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S.
Basically, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 is like a sports car. You’re paying a premium for Nikon’s best-ever midrange zoom, even when there are other products that can also get you from Point A to Point B.
My general recommendation is to go with the 24-70mm f/4 S if you’re on the fence, as it definitely represents the better value to most photographers. That’s what I did and don’t regret it – it’s a seriously great lens. But if you’re a professional who needs every possible edge, or a hobbyist who simply wants the best of the best, you already hear the 24-70mm f/2.8 S calling your name. If you can afford it, you’ll love it.
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/4 at B&H – Check prices and current sales
- Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S at B&H – Check prices and current sales
Let me know in the comment section if you have any questions about these two lenses! I’ve used them both in the field extensively and would be happy to help.