This is an in-depth review of the new professional Nikon AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR lens that was released in February of 2010. The Nikon 16-35mm VR lens is a professional-grade constant aperture lens for enthusiasts and professional photographers that need an ultra wide-angle zoom lens with the latest generation of VR II (vibration reduction) technology for both FX and DX cameras (equivalent of 24-52mm on DX). Being the world’s first ultra wide-angle zoom lens with vibration reduction, the lens is ultra-fast with AF-S silent-wave focus motor, has Nano crystal coating against flare and is sealed against tough weather conditions. Unlike the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G lens, the new 16-35mm f/4G VR has a 77mm filter thread, which is great news for landscape photographers.
While the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR is a new generation lens in its own class, I will be reviewing it as a lens that is in a way replacing the older 17-35mm f/2.8D AF-S lens that was due for an update. In this review, I will be making direct comparisons between these two lenses, in addition to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G and will do my best to provide a thorough analysis of this lens, along with image samples and comparisons against other Nikon lenses.
1) Lens Specifications
- Ultra wide-angle zoom lens that covers focal lengths from 16mm to 35mm
- Vibration Reduction (VR II) enables sharper pictures while shooting at shutter speeds up to four stops slower than would otherwise be possible
- The adoption of Nano Crystal Coat effectively reduces ghost and flare
- An ultra wide-angle zoom lens that, while offering a wide angle view of 107°, is compatible with 77mm screw-on filters
- Fixed maximum aperture of f/4
- ED glass and aspherical lens elements are utilized for a new optical design that achieves high resolution
- Quiet focusing with built-in Silent Wave Motor (SWM)
- Two focus modes selectable – M/A and M
- Focal length: 16-35mm
- Maximum aperture: f/4
- Minimum aperture: f/22
- Lens construction: 17 elements in 12 groups (with two ED glass and three aspherical lens elements, and Nano Crystal Coat)
- Angle of view: 107° – 63° (83° – 44° with Nikon DX format)
- Closest focusing distance: 0.29 m (1.0 ft.) at a focal length of 16mm or 35mm, 0.28 m (0.9 ft.) at a focal length between 20mm and 28mm
- Maximum reproduction ratio: 0.25x
- No. of diaphragm blades: 9 (rounded)
- Filter/attachment size: 77mm
- Diameter x length (extension from the camera’s lens-mount flange): Approximately 82.5 x 125 mm
- Weight: Approximately 680 g/24.0 oz.
- Supplied accessories: 77mm Snap-on Front Lens Cap LC-77, Rear Lens Cap LF-1, Bayonet Hood HB-23, Flexible Lens Pouch CL-1120
Detailed specifications for the lens, along with MTF charts and other useful data can be found in our lens database.
2) Lens Handling
Just like all Nikon professional lenses, the new Nikon 16-35mm VR lens is built to last a lifetime. While some parts of the lens are made of plastic, it feels just like the expensive Nikon lenses made of solid metal. It is designed to withstand tough weather and is well-protected on the outside against dust and moisture. It has a total of 17 optical elements within the lens and weighs a total of 680 grams, making it very easy to carry and handle. Compared to the Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8D lens, it is a little longer in size (see the comparison below) and 65 grams lighter in weight. The lens feels very solid in hands and the zoom ring is easy to rotate from 16 to 35mm and vice versa (it goes from 16 to 35mm in a half turn). Just like on the Nikon 17-35mm, the focus ring is conveniently located on the front of the lens, making it easy to reach it with fingers for manual focus. Just like the 17-35mm, the lens does not extend in/out when zooming. The lens comes with the same “HB-23” lens hood as in 17-35mm.
3) Focus acquisition speed and accuracy
I have tested this lens for a while and took it with me along with the 17-35mm on multiple trips and I found the autofocus performance to be instant and accurate, even in low-light conditions. The lens autofocus system with SWM (Silent Wave Motor) is quiet and very close to the performance of the superb Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G. My real tests were done in very dim environments and focus was acquired correctly almost 100% of the time on an FX body. Here is a good example of how the lens focuses in an extremely dark environment:
Click here to see the full JPEG version of the shot (80% Quality @ 3,8 MB).
As can be seen from the picture, the lighting conditions were extremely poor – I had to shoot at 1/10th of a second at ISO 3200 to get the right exposure. The lens focused fast and dead-on, wide open at f/4.0.
4) Lens Sharpness and Contrast
I won’t talk much about lens sharpness – you can see the image samples in the next several sections. One thing I will say, however, is that this lens is one of the sharpest lenses I have ever held in my hands. I was stunned by its performance. This lens performs so well at f/4.0 in the center throughout the zoom range, that you wouldn’t want to shoot it at higher apertures, unless you need to increase the depth of field. Corners on the wide end are a little soft, but still better than on the 17-35mm. Color and contrast are truly amazing and top of the class.
5) Vibration Reduction – VR II
As I have pointed out before, the Nikon 16-35mm VR is Nikon’s (and World’s) first ultra wide-angle lens with a vibration reduction (VR) technology. Back in the old days, it did not make much sense to put VR into ultra wide lenses, because vibration is not as big of an issue on short focal lengths compared to long/telephoto focal lengths. Plus, it was expensive to add VR on professional lenses, due to the already complex lens optics and design. By adding VR to an ultra wide-angle lens, Nikon is setting a new standard in lens technology and we will be soon seeing many other manufacturers add this very useful feature to their line of ultra wide lenses as well. VR proved itself effective on consumer “wide to tele” lenses such as Nikon 18-200mm VR and it was just a matter of time until Nikon started adding VR to its professional line.
The new vibration reduction system (VR II) on the Nikon 16-35mm f/4.0 VR is truly amazing. I have never been able to produce a sharp hand-held shot at 1/2 of a second on a wide-angle lens and I was able to get quite a few good shots even at a shutter speed of 1 second @ 16mm! Zooming in to 35mm makes it a little difficult, but even then I was able to get good results at 1/4 – 1/8th of a second. Take a look at this shot:
Unbelievable! Tack sharp at 1/3th of a second hand-held! Good luck trying the same on the Nikon 17-35mm!
Click here to get the full JPEG (80% Quality @ 1 MB). The new vibration reduction system really works and you can get some magical shots with this lens. Yes, wedding and event photographers will absolutely love this lens!
Just like many other ultra wide-angle lenses, this lens is not really designed to yield beautiful bokeh, due to its small maximum aperture and large depth of field. After doing a couple of test shots at 35mm f/4.0, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the quality of bokeh this lens is able to produce on the long end. Check out this image shot wide open at 35mm:
Not bad at all – bokeh looks round and pleasant to look at.
There is a heavy amount of vignetting present when shooting wide open (f/4.0) at 16mm, as seen below. Stopping down the lens to f/8.0 almost completely gets rid of it:
Much less vignetting visible at 24mm:
And at 35mm, it is almost gone:
The vignetting issues can be quickly corrected in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, so it is not a big problem.
8) Ghosting and Flare
Ghosting and flare are not an issue for this lens. I shot against bright light sources on multiple occasions and did not see any harsh flares or ghosting. Although both 16-35mm f/4.0 VR and 17-35mm f/2.8D share the same hood, one thing for sure – the “N” (Nano-Coating) glass inside the lens definitely helps, making it a good candidate to shoot against the sun.
Here is an extreme example of shooting directly at the sun:
One of the things I noticed immediately, was the amount of distortion on the wide end of the lens. This is not unexpected, because we are dealing with a very short focal length that is prone to distortion, but it is definitely a lot more noticeable than on the Nikon 17-35mm at 17mm. Barrel distortion at 16mm goes away at 24mm and slightly comes back as pincushion distortion towards 35mm. When you use this lens for architectural work and for photographing textures and patterns, you can fix the distortion in Photoshop very easily by using the Lens Correction filter. At 16mm, values between +5 and +8 seemed to work pretty well for me.
Let’s now move on to the good stuff – Sharpness tests.
10) Sharpness Test
Here are some MTF charts for the lens, measured by Imatest:
Sharpness is excellent in the center and the mid-frame throughout the zoom range. The corners suffer a bit when zoomed in to 35mm, which is pretty typical for a lens like this. The Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G has the same problem at 35mm.
A couple of important things to note about the 16-35mm, when using on high resolution cameras like Nikon D800. There is a noticeable amount of focus shift and field curvature at 16mm, similar to what I saw on the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G. In order to get the above results, I had to reacquire focus at each aperture. As you zoom in towards 24mm, focus shift pretty much disappears. Field curvature is at its strongest level at 35mm, which is why the corners look considerably worse compared to other focal lengths. To avoid these optical problems on high resolution sensors, I would recommend to shoot at small apertures like f/5.6-f/8, where the effect of focus shift and field curvature is least pronounced.
Compared to Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8D
11) Nikon 16-35mm f/4.0G VR vs Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8D MTF
The MTF data charts from the Nikon 16-35mm f/4G and the older Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 suggest that the new Nikon 16-35mm has more contrast on both wide and telephoto side. The same is also true for sharpness and better handling of chromatic aberrations.
Nikon 16-35mm f/4.0 MTF:
Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 MTF:
Now let’s see how the lenses compared in my tests. Here is the center of the image at 17mm f/4.0:
The image on the left is Nikon 16-35mm VR and the image on the right is Nikon 17-35mm. The lenses start out almost identical in terms of performance at 17mm in the center. However, the situation is quite different in the corners, especially towards 35mm – that’s where the 16-35mm rips 17-35mm apart:
Wow, what a great performance by the Nikon 16-35mm VR! At large apertures, the Nikon 16-35mm is clearly better, both in contrast and sharpness. By f/8.0 and onwards the lenses perform about the same across the frame.
Compared to Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G
12) Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR vs Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G
I decided to run another test comparison with a legendary lens – the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G, my favorite lens for landscape photography. I decided to test both lenses at 24mm and 35mm – the focal lengths I use the most for landscapes.
The lenses both perform extremely well in the center frame, so there is no point to provide sample images. Let’s see how the lenses compare at 24mm in the corners:
As you can see, the 16-35mm is sharper wide open than the 24-70mm stopped down to f/4.0.
And here is 35mm corner:
Corners are still sharper on the Nikon 16-35mm at 35mm.
Can I call this lens a breakthrough? Absolutely! As you can see from the sharpness comparison tests, the Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR beats both the legendary Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8D and my favorite Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G, especially in the corners. The 17-35mm and the 24-70mm lenses have been known as some of the best Nikon zoom lenses ever produced and the new lightweight Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR proved to be better than both wide open at f/4.0. As can be seen from my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G Review, the Nikon 16-35mm is very close in the center and only weaker in the corners.
After weeks of testing the Nikon 16-35mm VR, I am very impressed with its performance and contrast. I do not see a reason to buy the more expensive Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8D anymore. Another big plus to the Nikon 16-35mm is Vibration Reduction, which truly does help when you shoot hand-held in dim environments. I took this lens for a real challenge and shot in very dark corners of Denver and VR worked beautifully, allowing me to shoot at extremely slow shutter speeds of 1/10th of a second and slower – something I have never been able to do with the 17-35mm or the 24-70mm lenses.
The lens is not without problems though. Although center sharpness is superb at all focal lengths and apertures, the corners are soft at 16mm f/4.0 on FX. Corners get a little better at smaller apertures and zooming in to 24mm+ yields much better results. Heavy distortion and vignetting are also a tad annoying, although they can be easily fixed in Photoshop. I bet this lens would have been twice the price if it did not have these issues. After shooting thousands of images with this lens, I am still very happy with the results and the above problems are barely noticeable in the field. If you are looking for a lens with a longer range to complement the Nikon 16-35mm, I highly recommend to look into the Nikon 24-120mm f/4G VR lens, which has very similar characteristics at an affordable price.
14) Where to Buy and Availability
B&H is currently selling the Nikon 16-35mm f/4G ED VR lens for $1,256.99 (as of 07/15/2013). The Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 sells for approximately $1,800, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 is $1,900 and the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 is $2,000, which makes the Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR the cheapest of the group.
15) More Image Samples
Here are some sample images that I have captured during my last trip to Utah:
Click here to download the full version of the file in JPEG format (4.5 Mb).
Click here to download the full version of the file in JPEG format (5.2 Mb).
Click here to download the full version of the file in JPEG format (4.9 Mb).
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.
Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR
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