Recently I’ve been experiencing one of those existential photo crises. Low motivation, cliché results, slumping Instagram likes. When I get bummed about my photography I do what any self-respecting unprofessional photographer would do – put on some soft jazz, pour myself a fine single malt, then pull out my favorite Zeiss lens chart results and pleasure myself. But even that didn’t make me feel better. What’s a listless soul-wrenched photographer to do? Ha, I know what will do the trick – no better way to demonstrate my photographic élan and self-assurance than to dis on a kit lens.
Kit lenses are generally known for their convenience, light weight, and optical inferiority. Because one lens replaces many, it’s a recipe to turn one into an slothful photographer. Not the kind of lens we like to talk about here at Photography Life, but as a matter of due diligence someone has to review them so I’m taking one for the team ;) Recently (well not that recently), Nikon released the Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR. This is the DX equivalent of Nikon’s popular full frame 24-120mm f/4. Both sport an equivalent 5x zoom range – very convenient for all-around photography. The 16-80mm has been bundled with the D500 as a kit, albeit a high-end DX kit. By itself the 16-80mm boasts a MSRP of $1069.95. Ouch, for less than the 16-80mm alone you can currently pick up a D7100 with the 18-55mm kit lens plus the 55-300mm lens. The good news is that Nikon currently is giving $500 off the D500 + 16-80mm kit (regularly $3069.95, now $2569.95). I was in the market for a D500 so I took the bait. If I didn’t like lens, I’d just use it to pound out schnitzels.
1) Key Features
The 16-80mm sports the coveted “gold ring” at the end of the lens barrel. Unlike the magic ring that turns hobbits invisible, the Gold Ring brings attention to you and your camera, announcing you are pro material because you only shoot the best. Besides the hefty MSRP, what gives the 16-80mm this distinction? It pretty much has most of Nikon’s top end technologies – fluorine coating on the front and rear elements (makes it easier to clean with a dry lens cloth), Nano-coating to control flare, electromagnetic diaphragm for consistent results and stepless adjustment (good for video), 4-stop Vibration Reduction, extra-low dispersion glass, aspheric elements, silent wave focus motor, and Beyonce’s unlisted phone number (just checking to see if you’re still with me). But do these add up to good pictures?
Because I like to photograph nature, I’m a much bigger believer in actual field test results than in how well a lens shoots a flat target at a fixed distance in a lab somewhere. What you’re going to see in this review are shots from the field at a variety of focal lengths, apertures and distances. If you want MTF diagrams go here.
Below are the lens specifications.
2) Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR Specifications
|Lens Type||Zoom Lens|
|Mount Type||Nikon F|
|Format||APS-C / DX|
|Compatible Format(s)||APS-C / DX|
|Compatible with Teleconverters||No|
|Maximum Reproduction Ratio||0.22x|
|Vibration Reduction (Image Stabilization)||Yes|
|Maximum Angle of View (APS-C or smaller format)||83°|
|Minimum Angle of View (APS-C or smaller format)||20°|
|Extra-Low Dispersion Glass Elements||4|
|Nano Crystal Coat||Yes|
|Super Integrated Coat (SIC)||Yes|
|Built-in Focus Motor||Yes|
|Silent Wave Motor (SWM)||Yes|
|Minimum Focus Distance||1.15 ft. (0.35m)|
|Accepts Filter Type||Screw-on|
|Weather / Dust Sealing||No|
|Dimensions||3.1 in. (80 mm) x 3.3 in. (85.5 mm)|
|Weight||16.1 oz. (480 g)|
|Available in Colors||Black|
3) Lens Construction
Here is the lens construction:
4) Build Quality
The lens body is plastic. This in some minds make a lens feel cheap, but in my mind it makes it feel light and I’ve never had a problem with any of Nikon’s plastic lens bodies. I don’t reminisce about the days of all-metal bodied lenses except when I feel my hernia scar. The 16-80mm at 16.1 oz. (480 g) is almost nine ounces lighter than the Nikkor 24-120mm f/4 – hallelujah.
Out on a hike you’ll appreciate the light weight. There are three switches – M/A-M auto-manual focus switch, on-off VR switch, and normal-active VR switch. All three have nice positive secure action. The lens hood is a squared petal style. Along with the Nano-coating it controls flare quite well. The lens hood has a lock button – seems like an improvement on the old twist on/click hoods that would eventually wear out the click stop.
The lens mount is metal (not plastic like some cheap kit lens – remember the 18-105mm?). There’s a rubber seal around the lens mount to keep dust out of the camera body.
Filter size is 72mm, so not compatible with the 77mm filters that most of my other Nikkors use. Still, I’d rather buy a couple extra filters than lug a heavier lens around. I didn’t check to see if a step-up ring would fit inside the lens hood. It’s manufactured in Thailand. Cool – Nikon makes some really good lenses there.
The 16-80mm balances well on a D500 or D7200 (the two bodies I had available). On the D7200 if you have sausage fingers it’s a bit of a pinch between the lens and the camera grip (and likely as well with the D3400 or D5500 as they are even narrower bodies). No such issue with the pro-size D500. The zoom ring works fairly smooth and requires a fifth of a turn to encompass the whole range so in one twist I can get from 16-80mm no problem. There’s a slight bit of resistance zooming out past 28mm.
The 16-80mm suffers from zoom creep, but only from 28-80mm in my experience. Point the lens down to chimp at your last shot and if you were shooting at 28mm or longer and shake the camera a bit it will extend to 80mm potentially forcing you to recompose. From 16-28mm it doesn’t tend to creep.
The manual focus ring is narrow, can be hard to locate and is not as aggressively knurled as the zoom ring. It also has a slightly grinding feel to it. Perhaps this grinding is a sample issue, but I’ve heard another reviewer also mention this. It takes a third of a turn from infinity to minimal focus distance (I had to re-grip once between twists for the full range).
6) Autofocus Performance
The autofocus is accurate, but like it’s big brother the 24-120mm, not in a hurry (the 24-120 actually seems just a hair slower). Not that either are painfully slow, but they can’t keep up with quick or erratically moving subjects like Hank here.
If Hank had not been mesmerized by the burger bounty before him I would never have got this shot. Instead, most of my shots of Hank were out-of-focus images on an express path to the deletion bin. The 16-80mm is not a good choice for quick or erratically moving subjects. In comparison, the Micro-Nikkor 105mm prime seems to focus nearly twice as fast.
The AF is also louder than on other Silent Wave Motor lenses I’ve owned. It has a slight grinding noise to it. Again this could be a sample issue and I’ll update this if I get to shoot another copy.
7) Vibration Reduction (VR) / Image Stabilization Performance
All the shots in this review were done with the VR on and on Normal Mode. Everything was handheld except the star/light painting shots. I consider my hands to be a tad shaky, but even so realized three stops of improvement over the 1/focal length rule. Nikon claims four stops and for those with steady hands I’m guessing this is accurate. I got one in three shots acceptable at 4 stops under 1/focal length. When shooting low shutter speeds I’ll take multiple shots to up the odds of getting a crisp one.
At 4 stops under this was the one I considered acceptable of 5 shots. The VR has a “tripod mode” which detects the different frequency of tripod vibration (versus other camera movement) and corrects for it. As I was not shooting from a moving platform I didn’t use the Active Mode.
8) Optical Characteristics
Without further ado let’s go out to the field.
NOTE: I’ve post-processed these shots to my liking. Some might be cropped a bit (but only for aesthetics, not to crop away soft corners) and most have my default sharpening applied (50/0.8/50 in LR). Anything more than default sharpening is noted. These were all shot in RAW and contrast, clarity, color, white balance, dodging, burning, etc. has been done but I’m not a heavy post-processor. You are not seeing RAW images straight from the camera because what is important is can this lens deliver files detailed enough to produce good final results. If you want unretouched in-camera images of someone’s bookshelf there are plenty of other reviews out there that provide such shots.
The Toadstools looked cool in postcards so I headed out there. Problem is, it’s a 3/4-mile hike out there with almost 100 feet of elevation gain. Did I want to lug my standard landscape kit (D810 with 20mm, 50mm, 105mm and tripod) out there? Or just go lazy and take the D500 and 16-80mm and count on the VR to give good handheld results?
Lazy wins! Here’s a toadstool and at 80mm I didn’t need to hike any closer. At f/5.6 the main formation is looking darn sharp.
Getting closer to the subject still looking good in the center at 80mm and f/8 but some softening around the edges (some from shallow depth of field).
Another mid-range 80mm shot, this time at f/16 and without any sharpening beyond Lightroom’s 25/1.0/25 default. Diffraction is creeping in as expected with any lens at f/16.
Same shot but with 75/1.0/50 sharpening and some contrast added. Looking fine.
Zooming out through the range.
66mm about 3 feet from subject – looking good from corner to corner.
65mm from roughly 40 feet away – excellent corner to corner
50mm from 50 feet – terrific corner to corner sharpness. Something the 24-120mm lacks.
46mm ten feet away – again great from corner to corner.
46mm 3 feet away – ditto.
38mm from 6 feet – that’s right.
28mm from 20 feet. Yummy.
26mm from 8 feet. Anyone know of a state where you can legally marry a lens?
24mm from 20 to 70 feet. Tried this one at f/20 to push the diffraction, but sharpened to 75/0.98/50 looks better than I expected – certainly acceptable up to 11”x17”.
At 20mm this lens measures up impressively. Something tells me the indigenous folks might have a different name for this place. So tests from the toadstools left me wowed with the consistent corner-to-corner sharpness of the 16-80mm regardless of focal length or distance to subject. If there was any weakness it was slightly soft edges at the long end, but I mean just slightly soft, not “hit delete” soft. Bear in mind all these are handheld to boot. I’m liking this lens. Let’s have more fun.
Aware that the presence of a kit lens on my pro-DX body could lead to both image and moral decay, I decided I’d better head somewhere free from sin. What better locale than the Utah/Arizona borderlands in the vicinity of Colorado City?
It’s working – the photo gods send clouds. Going near-to-far with this one. 16mm f/10 and looking crisp throughout.
At 22mm and f/7.1 some slight softness along the bottom edge. f/8-9 would likely clean this up.
38mm and doing this fine landscape justice.
56mm, f/6.3 and a tad soft on the left side – maybe a very slight decentering issue? At f/8 I can’t discern this.
At last, an inferior shot sharpness-wise. Real soft along left edge. Right edge only a bit better. Stopped down to f/10 it got better but nothing I’d waste ink on printing out. Sharpness holds up well in my field tests. What about other optical issues?
With it’s Nano-coating flare is reasonably well controlled. Only with the light source in the frame did I have issues of which the above were typical.
Zoomed toward the long end and shooting into the sun would create some overall flare, but easily to eliminate by putting a hand out to extend the lens shading. Sunstars come out pretty fuzzy like the ones above unless you “pinch” the sun between objects.
So far we’ve been looking at Group f/64 style shots stressing sharpness throughout. Let’s shrink the depth of field and see what happens.
Now you know why I don’t shoot a lot of portraiture, but the out of focus areas look pleasingly soft in this 80mm shot.
Like father, like son, but this time at 44mm.
30mm and even closer.
Here we have some tiny donuts (doughnettes?) around the specular highlights off individual quartz grains in the sandstone this butterfly is perched on, but the background looks smooth.
Nearly wide open we get some hard-edged bokeh from the specular highlights, sometimes I got onion bokeh. I guess we have to thank the aspherical lens elements for this. This is crunchiest bokeh I managed to get.
At 16mm there’s quite noticeable ravioli/mustache distortion.
None of this is a big deal as they are all easily corrected with one click of the lens profile button in Lightroom as above.
From 24-50 there’s not much distortion and around 65-80 there’s slight pincushion distortion…
There’s quite a bit of vignetting with the 16-80mm. On 99% of my shots this was quickly fixed with one click in Lightroom. However, I came across a couple files where it wasn’t so simple.
Here’s an example:
Here’s my horribly underexposed RAW image with zero post-processing by me. Oops.
Now I’ve lightened and adjusted contrast but haven’t clicked the lens profile button.
Here I’ve clicked the lens profile button and it attempted to fix the vignette but left a strange white ring which I then jacked the contrast way up so it’s easier to see. Ughh.
I tried to fix it with manual adjustments of the vignette and midpoint but this wasn’t enough. I ended up having to carefully burn in the ring to get an even sky. I wonder if this uneven vignette might have something to do with some of the lens elements. Whatever the case, I didn’t notice it until I had processed scores of files from this lens so it isn’t a prevalent issue.
Stop down beyond f/11 and diffraction starts creeping in as it will with any lens. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot this lens at f/16 and just add some extra sharpening in post.
This was at f/18 and 80/1.0/50 sharpening applied. I wouldn’t want to print this at 11”x17” but wouldn’t hesitate at 8”x12”. If you don’t print big or print at all (just share on the web) then this is a non-issue.
Closer than 2 feet to the subject I had mixed results. This is likely user error on my part.
If I employed best practices and shot on a tripod and focused with live view this wouldn’t be a problem, but handheld I had trouble getting sharp focus. The 16-80mm has a 0.22x close-up ratio which translates to a subject about 3.5 inches wide horizontally filling the frame at 80mm and minimum focusing distance.
8.7) Astrophotography and Coma
For star shots it’s nice that the 16-80mm has a maximum aperture of f/2.8. At f/2.8 and 16mm, hyperfocal distance is about 15 feet and you get ~8 feet to infinity in focus for results like this:
At 100% view and scanning the corners of the frame I can see teardrop shapes with some of the brighter stars so this lens displays a touch of coma. The above stars have a bit of motion blur. Below are some crops from shots at a shorter shutter speed:
Dedicated astrophotographers will likely prefer one of the short list of minimal coma primes out there, but for folks like me who only grab a star shot occasionally, the 16-80mm does a passable job.
9) Lens Comparison
In its price range the obvious comparable is the Nikkor 24-120mm. This, however is comparing an FX offering with a DX offering. The following uncropped shots are done on the 20.9 MP D500 (with 16-80mm) and the 24mp D750 (with the 24-120mm). All have my identical default sharpening applied.
Despite the D750’s higher resolution, the D500 with 16-80mm looks sharper at all these focal lengths.
10) Summary and Recommendations
I went into this expecting to bash on a poor defenseless kit lens but came away with quite the crush on this offering. The 16-80mm is a great all-around lens for static subjects. It encompasses a 5x zoom range with an equivalent of 24-120mm which covers most subjects except super wide landscapes and long shots of wildlife or sports.
Need wider than 24mm? Just start stitching.
As far as sharpness goes, the 16-80mm is impressively well balanced throughout its range. What softness does appear is mostly in the corners at the longer focal lengths and wide apertures and improves quickly when stopped down between f/8 – f/11. The 16-80mm’s main weakness is slow autofocus which makes it a poor choice for quick or erratic action. Its other drawbacks (noisy AF, small focus ring, zoom creep) are quite minor and would not deter me from owning this lens. If you shoot lots wide open with lots of specular highlights you may not like the bokeh. For what I like to shoot, landscapes and intimate landscapes (nature details/abstracts) it’s a great choice.
This is a DX lens, hence won’t work on full frame bodies unless shot in 1.5x crop mode. DX files are noisier than their full frame siblings, but then again (at least at the wide end) the 16-80mm is a stop faster than the 24-120mm so you can shoot at lower ISO.
Many early reviews of this lens were critical, saying it was overpriced and not a spectacular performer. Its MSRP is $30 lower than the 24-120mm, which doesn’t get the same criticism, yet in my opinion is the lesser lens (I’ve shot three copies of the 24-120 – all consistently soft in the corners, but Nasim says his 24-120mm is excellent, so the sample variance is surely an issue with that one). Over a grand is a lot to pay for any lens so you should expect a lot in return. The good news is those early negative reviews may have inspired the deep discounts now available when this lens is purchased as part of the D500 + 16-80mm kit. These discounts have been in place for months now and hopefully will persist, but no guarantee.
If we compare both kits, the D500 + 16-80mm versus the similarly priced D750 + 24-120mm, I prefer the former for the nature photography I do. I’d rather have a bit more noise shooting DX, than soft corners that will never be sharp shooting the 24-120. At lower ISOs I think the D500 + 16-80 wins easily. If you shoot in a lot of dim light, then the advantages of the full frame sensor make sense, but for nature photography I’d skip the 24-120 kit lens and invest in some primes instead and commit to lugging the whole shebang around. If you shoot quick paced action then neither kit lens is appropriate. If you’re into portraiture/street photography/events then sharp corners probably aren’t your biggest issue so either lens will do, but if you’re shooting at high ISOs then the D750 + 24-120mm kit gets the edge.
Both kits are on sale as I write this. The Nikon D500 + 16-80mm kit, regularly $3069.95, is now $2569.95 and weighs in at 43.0 oz. The D750 + 24-120mm kit, regularly $3099.95, is now $2399.95 and weighs in at 51.5 oz. Both the D500 and the D750 are terrific camera bodies with the D500 having more pro features (in particular, higher frame rate, bigger buffer and more advanced AF module).
11) Additional Sample Images
Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR
- Optical Performance
- Bokeh Quality
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Stabilization
Photography Life Overall Rating