With the release of the Z mirrorless system, Nikon promised to deliver lenses with far better optical characteristics when compared to their F mount counterparts, thanks to the advantages of the Z mount. As the first professional-grade Z-mount zoom lens, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S had quite a bit of pressure on it, considering how well the “kit” Z 24-70mm f/4 S performed when compared to the F-mount 24-70mm f/2.8E VR. After spending a considerable amount of time with this new lens, we decided to finally publish our findings of perhaps the best 24-70mm lens ever created.
We know, that’s quite a bold claim to make for one of the many 24-70mm lenses out there. However, that’s the conclusion we came to after testing most 24-70mm lenses on the market (with the exception of the Canon RF 24-70mm f/2.8L IS USM and Panasonic Lumix S PRO 24-70mm f/2.8). Before we go into discussing the optical characteristics of the lens, let’s see what makes the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S so special.
Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S Overview
As you probably already know, a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens is considered to be a workhorse for many professional photographers out there. With its wide-to-telephoto zooming capability and a fast f/2.8 aperture, it is a truly versatile lens that can be used for many types of photography. Unfortunately, designing such a lens while maintaining high levels of performance across the whole focal range is no easy task. Because of this, most 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses we have seen in the past either showed optical compromises, or performed reasonably well at the expense of huge size and heavy weight. Take a look at the below chart that shows every modern 24-70mm f/2.8 lens on the market today:
|Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM||89x113mm||805g||17/15||7/10||$1,899|
|Canon RF 24-70mm f/2.8L IS USM||89x126mm||900g||21/15||N/A||$2,299|
|Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED||83x133mm||900g||15/11||7/10||$1,799|
|Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR||88x155mm||1070g||20/16||8/10||$2,399|
|Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S||89x126mm||805g||18/13||9/10||$2,299|
|Panasonic Lumix S PRO 24-70mm f/2.8||91x140mm||935g||18/16||N/A||$2,199|
|Pentax HD 24-70mm f/2.8ED SDM WR||89x110mm||787g||17/12||7/10||$1,299|
|Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Art||88x108mm||1020g||19/14||6/10||$1,299|
|Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM||88x136mm||886g||18/13||8/10||$2,199|
|Sony T* 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II||83x111mm||974g||17/13||7/10||$2,099|
|Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2||88x109mm||899g||17/12||7/10||$1,199|
|Tokina AT-X 24-70mm f/2.8 PRO FX||90x108mm||1010g||17/12||8/10||$1,199|
The Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is quite a unique offering when compared to other 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses, because it is relatively compact at 89x126mm (comparable to Canon’s RF 24-70mm f/2.8L IS USM) and only weighs 805 grams, making it the third lightest lens after the Pentax HD 24-70mm f/2.8ED SDM WR (which is nearly identical to the original Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD). Nikon engineers designed the Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S from scratch specifically to take advantage of the short flange distance, which resulted in a drastically smaller and lighter package when compared to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR, but with much superior optical characteristics.
As you will see from the next page of this review, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is optically superb, offering the most consistent performance we have seen among all similar class zoom lenses. What’s impressive, is that Nikon was able to reach such astonishing levels of performance with less number of optical elements compared to its predecessor – only 18 elements in 13 groups vs 20 elements in 16 groups on the 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR. Even Canon’s newest RF 24-70mm f/2.8L IS USM (which we also expect to be remarkable optically) has a more complex optical design with a total of 21 elements in 15 groups, which made it almost 100 grams heavier in comparison.
The lens features some of the most advanced technologies we have seen to date from Nikon. In addition to having four aspherical and two extra-low dispersion elements, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is coated with four different coating technologies – ARNEO, Nano Crystal Coat, Super Integrated Coating and Fluorine Coating. While the latter three are common to see on modern high-end Nikon lenses, ARNEO is a brand new coating technology that can reduce reflections from incident light in vertical direction. The Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is the first Z mount lens that comes with such coating.
In addition, the Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is also the first Nikon lens to feature two separate AF drive units that utilize stepping motors to deliver fast, accurate and quiet autofocus operation. Another batch of “Nikon’s firsts” are the addition of an OLED information panel that can contain such information as lens aperture, focus distance and depth of field figures, as well as an assignable L-Fn button for adjusting camera settings. On top of the typical zoom and focus rings, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S also comes with a programmable ring that can be used to adjust focus, lens aperture or exposure compensation. Similar to other high-end pro-grade lenses, the lens features both dust and moisture resistance.
As you can see, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is the most feature-packed 24-70mm lens on the market.
While the first S-series lenses were designed to be light and compact for Nikon’s mirrorless cameras like the Z6 and the Z7, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is designed with performance and build quality in mind. Thanks to its tough shell comprised of a mixture of hard plastic and metal, the lens can withstand quite a bit of abuse in the field. It has excellent weather sealing that protects the lens from dust and moisture. The rear part of the lens features a rubber gasket to reduce the potential of dust getting into the camera.
We used the lens in a number of different weather conditions, from cold mountains of Colorado, to very wet conditions of Faroe Islands. The lens survived it all without any issues, even after being subjected to continuous rain and extreme levels of humidity. Fluorine coating on the front lens element was particularly helpful in rainy conditions, as it reduced the chance of rain drop accumulation.
When it comes to handling, despite its relatively big size (especially when compared to other compact Z-series lenses) the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 handles extremely well on the Z6 and Z7 cameras. It balances nicely on hands, even with the barrel fully extended, and does not become too front-heavy. When compared to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR, the lens is 25% lighter and 18% smaller, which makes a huge difference handling the lens in the field.
There are a total of 5 focal length markings on the lens: 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 70mm. The zoom ring is easy to rotate and is very smooth, even right out of the box. Unlike some lenses that show different resistance at different focal lengths, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S seems to be very consistent across the whole range, making it easy and precise to pick a particular focal length. The same goes for the focus and the control rings. Since the lens has a focus-by-wire AF mechanism, both focus and control rings can be customized through the camera to perform different functions, as seen below:
In addition, as pointed out earlier, there is a dedicated L-Fn button on the lens that can be customized to perform specific functions such as preview depth of field or lock focus. Basically, any function you can program to the Fn1 or Fn2 buttons can be assigned to this L-Fn button as well, so it technically extends your camera’s function buttons by one.
The built-in OLED information panel is quite neat, because it can toggle different types of information when you press the DISP button, such as a moving focus scale, focal length or lens aperture. If you would rather not emit any light from the lens, you can turn off the information panel completely.
Due to the relatively large size of the front element, the lens features an 82mm filter thread, which is what most high-performance 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses have today as well, including the F-mount Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR. Mounting and dismounting filters is quite easy, although polarizing filters can be painful to rotate with the lens hood attached.
Speaking of which, the included plastic petal-shaped hood is easy to mount, and has a locking mechanism to prevent it from accidentally detaching. It adds a bit of length to the lens when mounted, but can be very useful in reducing the chance of strong light rays from reaching the front lens element (it also helped out when shooting in the rain). While storing or transporting the lens, you can conveniently reverse the hood and it won’t take up any additional space.
Overall, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S handles extremely well and has superb build quality. This lens really shows what the future line-up of pro-series glass from Nikon is going to look like, and that’s very exciting.
Autofocus Speed and Accuracy
As I have previously mentioned, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S has a brand new “multi-focus system” that consists of two synchronized AF drive units. This allows the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S to not only focus incredibly fast, but also deliver superb AF accuracy that we have never previously seen from Nikon before.
I have already written about the superior AF accuracy of Z mount lenses in my Nikon Z7 review, but the short version is that the new AF algorithm delivers much better accuracy when shooting stationary subjects when compared to the F mount. This was very visible when I was testing lenses with Imatest – Z mount lenses focused consistently more accurately, requiring little to no adjustment after autofocusing. I observed similar behavior when testing the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S. The lens focused spot-on each and every time on my test target, which was very impressive.
When it comes to autofocus noise, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is extremely quiet. If you put the F-mount 24-70mm and the Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S side-by-side, you can definitely tell the difference.
Similar to the other high-quality S-series lenses, the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S is designed to minimize focus breathing. Focus breathing can be painful to deal with, because there is a visible change in field of view during focusing, which can be particularly damaging when shooting video or focus stacking.
This makes the Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S a highly desirable lens for those who like to shoot at larger apertures and focus stack, a technique that can yield much sharper results than using a small aperture in a single exposure (due to lens diffraction, which is much more visible at pixel-level when using high resolution sensors).
Let’s take a closer look at the specifications of the lens before moving on to optical characteristics of the lens.