Hard-tested lens review: Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G

If you’re into photography, you’re probably familiar with the common format of lens reviews: Walk around with it for a few days, subject it to lab tests, shoot some brick walls to test distortion, and pass judgement.

Well, most of us don’t actually shoot brick walls for fun or profit, so I decided to be slightly more thorough with my testing of Nikon’s 24-70mm f/2.8G. Here was my method: Use it for 20 months on countless assignments, take nearly 200,000 photos with it, and grind it down from overuse until it began to fall apart in my hands, the rubber zoom ring falling off, and then the lens breaking entirely. So I know a few things about this lens.

When the 24-70 came out, it was overshadowed by the more shocking announcements of the Nikon D3 and the 14-24mm f/2.8. Whereas the 14-24 seemed to break the laws of physics, 24-70 is a fairly pedestrian range, and it may have seemed like catch-up to Canon’s, which was released in 2002.

This is unfortunate. The 14-24 is amazing, and helped win me a major award, but let’s face it — on a full-frame sensor, it’s a novelty lens with insane perspective distortion, and with a heavy, fragile front element. 24-70mm, though, is a range where the actual work gets done, where you can take photos that are more about the scene and less about wide-angle distortion or extreme telephoto compression. On a DX camera, it acts like a 36mm-105mm. That’s a range that lens-makers deliberately make anymore, but it makes for a fantastic range for portraits, from full-body to head-and-shoulders.

So, if the range is useful, how is the lens itself? Darned well one of the best lenses I have ever used, absolutely astonishing for a zoom. Let’s get into why.

For samples, here are hundreds of images I’ve taken with the 24-70.

The Bad:
(I’m listing this first, because the good list is way too long.)

•It’s a big, heavy beast. Slimmer and longer than the 28-70 it replaced, it’s still something that instantly will cause wrist strain if you hold a camera with one hand. It’s too big to be well-balanced on cameras like the D700 without an integrated vertical grip, so either a big camera or attaching a separate grip is recommended.

•Barrel distortion at 24mm, particularly when close-focusing. It’s not awful, but is definitely noticeable. If you’re shooting architecture or you really are into brick walls, you’ll need some software to straighten out your lines.

Also, I’m not the only person who’s had the rubber zoom-ring problem, though I’ve only heard of it from among seriously heavy users.

The Good:

Focus acquisition: Holy cow. This of course depends on the camera you’re using and your technique, but with the excellent system of the D3 as a baseline, this lens focuses more quickly and accurately than anything else I’ve used except exotic, extremely expensive telephotos like the 200mm f/2. The focus locks immediately and is deadly accurate. The error rate even in challenging conditions for me is well under one percent.

Color: I have never even given a serious thought to lens color transmission before using the 24-70. For me, either a lens was bad and turned your images muddy or yellow or it worked right. But right from the first picture, and across a number of different cameras, the color of photos taken with the 24-70 has been vibrant and accurate.

Build quality: Admittedly, began to stick on me — after I’d banged it into hundreds of walls, tossed it into my bag countless times, shot in the cold, in ludicrous humidity, on the beach, and done everything you’re never supposed to do with expensive gear. It’s a tank.

Sharpness: Very, very sharp, even wide-open. Certainly enough for the D3’s 12-megapixel sensor, and stopped down it should match even the megapixel monster that is the D3X

When you put lens sharpness and focus acquisition together, you get something that you can’t see in lab tests — your images of challenging scenes will tend to be sharper than any other similar lens I’ve used. The Nikon 17-55 is pretty good, but the 24-70 schools it in accuracy. Whether this lens will make your pictures better is up to you and your composition, but it will definitely make them sharper and more colorful.

The final word is this: I don’t like zooms. They’re too big, they’re not light-sensitive enough, and they don’t have the depth-of-field control I crave. But I cannot ever let this lens out of my bag.

Nikon D600 Review » Ryan Brenizer — NYC Wedding Photographer. Problem solver, storyteller. - […] without a vertical grip, I find it poorly balanced with heavy-but-not-gigantic lenses like the 24-70mm f/2.8G, since too much weight gets put onto one wrist (luckily there’s an optional vertical […]