Review: An unprecedented Nikkor lens
I’m consistently impressed by the Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S lens that I use with my Nikon Z 6 camera body. So I was anxious to see how the new, faster Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S lens compared. I also wanted to try the latest AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8E ED-IF VR DSLR lens mounted with the FTZ adapter. What I found amazed me in a number of ways.
The new 24-70mm f/2.8 S is clearly targeted to the professional (and perhaps the enthusiast with deep pockets). It’s both larger and heavier (by about a half-pound) than the f/4 lens. But in keeping with the mirrorless camera promise, the lens is more than an inch shorter (depending on focal length) and nearly 18 ounces lighter than the DSLR lens. With the FTZ adapter it’s slightly over a pound heavier. The extra weight of the f/2.8 S lens is noticeable compared to the f/4 S, and the system is front-heavy for carrying. Given the large grip on the Z cameras, however, the combo is still comfortably held when working.
Weather sealing is consistent with the needs of professionals, but the new lens has the advantage of an anti-reflective coating Nikon dubs ARNEO (AR for anti-reflective and “neo” from the Greek for “new”), which suppressed flare and ghosting from light sources in the field of view. It has nano crystal coatings and an outer fluorine coating for dust- and smudge-resistance.
But two things really separate the 24-70mm f/2.8 S from the others: features and image quality. In a first for a Nikkor, the lens has three control rings. Closest to the front is a manual focusing ring. You make large focusing changes by turning the ring quickly and small changes by turning slowly. This is great for still photographers, but videographers would likely prefer a more linear operation. The focusing ring is not programmable, nor can it be disabled.
In the middle of the lens is a larger rubber-coated zoom ring, and at the rear is a customizable control ring. This rear ring can be set to adjust aperture or exposure compensation, or can be disabled. Videographers will appreciate the silent and click-free operation, but still photographers prefer audible clicks to signal aperture changes, so I’d have appreciated an additional custom setting to make that choice. Each ring delivers the smoothness and grip that I feel is perfect for its intended use.
The lens has two additional features that are new for a Nikkor. The first is a clear window that covers an OLED display controlled by a DISP button next to it. Pressing the DISP button cycles the display through readouts for the set aperture, the focal length, and the focusing distance with depth-of-field bars. These are likely more useful for videographers than still photographers as the aperture is visible elsewhere, the focal length (close enough for still photographers) is on the barrel, and the focus distance is too rough to be of much use. The depth-of-field indications are nice. A long press on the DISP button allows you to change meters to feet and to adjust the brightness of the display for better visibility in sunlight.
The other new feature is the L-Fn button, conveniently placed where your thumb naturally falls when holding the lens. You can program this button for 20 different functions (or off) through the custom settings. I use the grid display for landscapes, the bracketing burst mode for HDR captures, and other settings based on what I’m photographing. It’s a handy control.
There’s an autofocus/manual focus switch on the lens but no switch for vibration reduction. Vibration reduction in five axes is a function in the Z camera bodies. Control is handled with Normal, Sport, and Off settings in the Photo Shooting menu. While I couldn’t hold the lens as steady as the f/4 S, I was better off than with the DSLR lens/FTZ adapter on the Z 6.
All these new features would be for naught if the lens didn’t perform. And it does. Having tested many Nikkor, Tamron, and Sigma lenses that were outstanding for their time, the Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S delivers the highest image quality I’ve ever seen.
The latest DSLR 24-70mm f/2.8 Nikkor is rightly regarded as one of the most outstanding examples of lens design. The new Z camera lens blows it away, both in the center of captures and especially at the edges and corners. The f/4 lens falls between these two in image quality, but it’s closer to the new lens than the DSLR lens. Wide open—which is why you’d pay more than twice as much for the f/2.8 than the f/4—the new lens is remarkably sharp and contrasty.
Vignetting, distortion, and lateral chromatic aberrations are non-existent. These are corrected by settings in the body’s Custom menu and incorporated into the raw settings of the image file. Adobe Raw Converter ignores these settings and treats them as if the default Normal setting is selected, but it does provide a good lens profile for automatic correction, as does other software with a profile for this lens. To get the most out of the lens and the Z camera custom settings in general, use Nikon’s ND-X software for processing.
There are a couple of small things not to like about the lens. It seemed a little slower to focus than both the f/4 and DSLR lenses. Not that it was hunting for focus. It just didn’t seem to snap the subject into focus as quickly. And the new lens doesn’t focus quite as closely as the f/4: 1.25 feet versus 0.98 feet. On the other hand, there are little things like a well-designed locking lens shade (the f/4’s doesn’t lock) and the solid feel that make up for other slight shortcomings.
The question becomes, do you need the additional aperture stop and other features, or can you make do with the f/4 lens and instead buy a spare body for the Z 70-200mm f/2.8 S that I hope is in the late stages of pre-production? That’s the $2,300 question.
Stan Sholik is a writer and photographer in San Clemente, California.