Hands-on review: Nikon 16-35mm f/4.0 AFS VR G zoom lens

L to R: 14-24mm f/2.8, 16-35mm f/4 and 17-35 f/2.8 Nikkor zooms

I received my copy of the much-anticipated 16-35mm f/4.0 AFS VR G zoom Nikkor lens last week, and I have done some preliminary testing.  My basic tests fall into the following categories:

  • Build/Handling
  • Optical Performance
  • Comparisons with other lenses

For this test, I compared the new super wide-angle zoom with its Nikon competition for FX:

Both of these lenses are generally considered to be high-end “pro” glass, and they each cost significantly more than the 16-35mm VR.

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Build and handling

The 16-35mm f/4 VR is longer and slightly lighter than either the 14-24mm or the 17-35mm.  In fact, this lens handles a lot like the 24-70mm f/2.8 AFS G zoom Nikkor.  As with the Nikon pro lenses, the zoom ring is nearest the base of the lens and the focus ring is towards the distal end of the barrel.  There seems to be a bit more plastic in the construction of the lens housing than in the 17-35mm, but I’m not sure.  Nevertheless, the lens has a good feel and handles well on my D3s body.  The addition of Nikon’s VR II system allows hand-holding down to very slow shutter speeds.  I can get sharp images at 1/15s with this lens with little difficulty.  That helps make up for the slower f/4 aperture as compared to the 14-24mm and 17-35mm Nikkors.

Optical Performance

My initial quickie test shots caused me to more formal testing.  Suddenly, my 17-35mm looked mushy anywhere but the center of the frame, even though the 17-35mm has an extra stop of performance wide-open.  At f/5.6, the 16-35mm was clearly sharper than the 17-35mm beyond the center of the frame.  At 16mm wide-open, the extreme corners of the image are distinctly soft, but these clean up quickly past f/5.6.  Since I intend to use the 16-35mm as a landscape lens, this doesn’t bother me at all.  I did a more formal test and included the 14-24mm f/2.8 as another comparison.  Clearly, there is a reason why people consider the 14-24mm a “legendary” optic.  The 14-24mm is absolutely amazing, even wide open, in sharpness across the frame and minimal distortion.  The 16-35mm f/4 has some light fall-off wide-0pen (pretty minor, though) and noticeable barrel distortion.  I don’t make a living shooting brick walls or interiors, so the distortion is not that big a deal to me.  CA is very well controlled on the 16-35 f/4, CA was pronounced on the 17-35mm, and nearly absent on the 16-35mm.  Not surprisingly, the 14-24mm handles CA exceptionally well, too.

Test shot: 16-35mm at 16mm and f/4.0 (wide-open) Notice the barrel distortion and slight light fall-off in the upper corners.
17-35mm f/2.8 AFS at 17mm and f/4.0. Notice the edge softness and light fall-off.
The 14-24mm f/2.8 Nikkor shows very little distortion or light fall-off at 16mm and f/4.0.

To see the full suite of full-size test shots I made with all three lenses, click here.

Conclusion: Comparisons with the 14-24mm f/2.8 and 17-35mm f/2.8

The new Nikkor 16-35mm f/4.0 AFS VR G lens is the least expensive of the three super-wide FX zoom options.  Its performance, however, exceeds that of the 17-35mm in my testing.  It has better sharpness, handles CA better and has better contrast than the 17-35mm.  The 14-24mm f/2.8, however, is still the hands-down winner in terms of optical performance.  Note that the 14-24mm f/2.8 also costs $600 more, won’t accept front filters, and has a zoom range that only goes to 24mm (which is still quite wide, even for landscapes).  The 17-35mm f/2.8 Nikkor is at a disadvantage against either of these two lenses, unless you need a fast (f/2.8) lens that has an aperture ring.  Older cameras (film bodies) will not work with “G” Nikon lenses, so the 17-35mm is the best choice there.  Also, because the extreme edges of slide film are often not preserved (unless you scan unmounted slides), the corner performance drop-off of the 17-35mm might not be a big deal to film shooters.

Performance Round-up: 16-35mm f/4.0 AFS VR G zoom Nikkor

Strengths

  • Excellent optical performance at f/5.6 and above– sharpness and CA control are excellent
  • Good contrast and color saturation
  • VR system enables hand-holding at slow shutter speeds
  • Accepts 77mm front filters
  • Significantly less expensive than the 14-24mm or 17-35mm Nikkors

Weaknesses

  • Barrel distortion at short  focal lengths
  • Maximum f/4 aperture won’t help freeze action in low-light conditions
  • Longer than the 17-35mm and 14-24mm
  • Cost– even though the price is much nicer than the 14-24mm and 17-35mm, it is still a $1250 lens.

These lenses are all available at B&H Photo

53 thoughts on “Hands-on review: Nikon 16-35mm f/4.0 AFS VR G zoom lens”

  1. Thanks for taking the time to post this. I need a new Super Wide and it’s between the 16-35 and 14-24 but I feel I will regret if I don’t go for the 14-24…

  2. Jason,
    Could I leave you some sugestions?
    1.Check flare&ghost control and contrast with the new lens. Compare it to the 17-35/2.8. (but don`t place the sun inside the frame for any testing shot as others like to do in their useless tests!)
    2.Check the new lens for the maximum handholding speed using the VR feature.
    IMHO this are the only important things to be tested on the new lens. Pixel peeping is for non-ohotographers interest… we all know this new lens should be more AND less like the 17-35/2.8.
    I`m truly interested in this new lens, but I don`t find anybody testing it from a realistic point of view. Sincerely.
    Thanks, JA.

  3. As I mentioned, “optical performance” is merely one aspect of rating a lens. I make no claims about Nano Crystal coat other than it probably explains the better CA handling and contrast performance of the new lens as compared to the 17-35mm I’ve used the lens hand-held with VR to get sharp shots at 1/15s, which is perfectly good enough for me. As for “realistic” testing– you are absolutely correct. I don’t personally dwell on MTF charts other than to get a starting point of view as to what the lens is theoretically capable of. My test was only intended to compare sharpness, distortion and CA across the three super-wide FX Nikkors.

    At this point, I’m more than happy with the 16-35mm, and any further “testing” will be informal at best.

    -Jason

  4. Bodies that do not have an aperture control dial on the body will be very limited with G-type lenses, as you’ll only be able to operate at f/22 or so.

  5. Thank you, Jason.
    In your landscape work, do you find 16 to be a significant liability compared with 14 mm?

  6. Not at all. In fact, for landscape work, I’d rather have the 35mm at the long end than 14mm at the wide end. Only a very small proportion of my landscape shots require anything wider than 18mm.

  7. I just finished testing this lens and generally agree with your findings. However, my sample had a serious problem. Shooting a medium tan/brown building side in direct sun I was amazed at the corner color shift at f4 on 16mm and less so on 35mm. Using the Info tool in PS CS4 I went from 194-192-188 at f11 to 184-194-205 at f4 (same identical area). That’s a very noticeable color shift!!! This was on the left side mostly, but also on the right side. Then testing 16mm I got the same weird results. There was some vignetting, as would be expected, but not this color shift!

  8. Steve, you are everywhere with your non-issue, seriously. Go out and shoot and stop worrying about brick walls.

  9. Hey Jason, thanks for the quick hands on. I purchased this lens and I am very happy with it. Do you have any idea when Capture NX2 will support it in distortion control. Again, thanks.

  10. Nice review, Jason. One minor detail needs fixing near the top: you have the 17-35mm f/2.8 as a ‘G’ lens. It’s a ‘D’ lens (which you mention in the text further on).

  11. This lens did not preform very well on the Photozone testing. If you already own the 17-35 or 14-24 I see no reason whatsoever to buy the new lens.

  12. Jason:

    Thanks for the review sounds like a great and almost affordable addition to my camera bag. I shoot Architectural photography, and would love to see how it shoots a interior room at its widest and at f-11. I use a tripod so the VR is just bling-bling to me.

    Again thanks

    Dick Wood

  13. I love the feel of the 16-35 and the optical performance is as explained above. I use it for landscapes and travel more than my 14-24 becasue it is lighter, takes a filter and has a nice feel on my D700. Nikon has a winner with this lens. Now if they would update the 24-120 VR.

  14. Thanks for the review Dr. Odell. After using this lens for a few weeks, I think I generally agree with your findings.
    I sold my 17-35 after I went FX because I didn’t thing I’d need to go that wide. Have since changed my mind so tried the 16-35. One not on handling: I think it balances much better on my D700 than the 17-35 did on my D200.
    Regarding the optics, I find it excellent from f/5.6 at all FLs and from f/4 from 20mm-35mm.

  15. Very good test, complies well to my limited experience (no 17-35). Going from DX to FX two month ago a tested my major lenses from the film days and decided to buy the 16-35, having already the 14-24. This due to the decision, not to go the 24-70mm/2.8 way, but to reuse my 35-70/ 3.5 AIs (62mm) lens and the 16-35 as low angle extension. (The old lens surprised me with really excellent pictures)

    The 16-35 result at 12 Megapixel (D700) are really very good, except the extreme corners which are way to soft at 16mm and F4 – but only around 16mm and improves slowly stopping down.

    The main quality is its capability with difficult light, the color rendition and the handling. Further a 16-35mm range allows me to keep out of changing lenses to often in the field.

  16. Hey there, I am just getting into this SLR world so as a consequence I bought the Nikon D90, ya I know its not high end but its a great camera and I am banking on putting my loot into the lenses rather than the camera… So, have any of you put the 14-24 or the 16-35 on this camera.. if so, what was the outcome please…

  17. The 14-24 and 16-35mm Nikkors are designed for FX “Full-Frame” bodies. They will work fine on a D90, but you won’t get the same angle of view. If you want extreme wide-angle with the D90, you should consider the 12-24 or 10-24mm DX Nikkors.

  18. To Destiny:
    I used the 14-24 on the D200 over 2 years – not all to much (weight etc). The 16-35mm I have not tried on the D200 – but with a D90 I would go for the 16-85mm DX lens, which shows excellent results – except some limitations at 16mm, curable by post processing (what you also should do with the 16-35mm – for distortions). The only negative side is: It is a slow lens – partly compensated by VR.

  19. Oh thank you guys… I sure hope I have done the right thing by ordering the Nikon AF DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G ED before consulting you guys, please tell me I did the right thing! I love wide angle and pano images. I want to create high-end VR movies… I have researched it so much. If any of you need help in this area I will be more than happy to point you the right direction regarding software…. Jason, I have checked out the 12-24 at http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/1224.htm and the 10-24 at http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/10-24mm.htm both of which are links to reviews, now I know the right lenses to buy. Thank you so much. I think the 12-24 example images look great and they were taken using a D70 so I would like to think that if taken using the D90 they would come out as good or better. Ernest, I also checked out the 16-35 at http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/16-85mm.htm I love the idea of VR and at least you can turn it off if it gets too slow, but at least it has this option. Thank you, both of you…. Now I just have to decide which one to buy!!

  20. Here’s a tip: Take EVERYTHING KR says with a grain of salt– he is a modern day snake oil salesman. The 10.5 fisheye is a great lens, but it is worthless for panos. For panos you actually would be better off with a 50 or 85mm lens. If you shoot DX, you’re probably better off with the 16-85VR or the new 10-24mm DX lens.

  21. Thank you Jason.. not sure what you mean though… Every review I have read about the 10.5 are all positive for what it is designed for.. To use the lens as intended would be a matter of having special software to turn the images into a VR Pano Movie though… Check this link out… and be amazed…!!
    http://krpano.com/examples/vtour/
    Its based on the Cubic way of making Virtual Reality (VR) movies, the most advanced way of doing things in the VR world….

    Anyway.. I took your advice and have ordered the 12-24. It has some great reviews and I now feel this is the one for me… The example images on all of the reviews are just great.. I thought I would be swayed onto the VR Wide Angle suggested by Ernest but after reading the reviews and seeing example images, its not great!! Anyway.. the 12-24 is on order… Thank you for all your help on that lens…

    May I just pick your brains just a bit more… I have a need to take wedding and portrait photos of high quality … I like to sick with Nikon.. How to you feel about the Nikon AF 85mm f/1.4D IF for my D90. Is it ok.. All the reviews I have read seem to suggest so… Thank you

  22. Destiny-
    My point was not that the 10.5 fisheye is a bad lens–it is a great lens. However, it produces so much distortion that it is not the choice for panoramas. The 85mm f/1.4 is a fantastic lens (and has a price to match). You can get very good results with the 85 f/1.8 as well. You might also consider a 50mm f/1.4 or 50mm f/1.8 for portraits on a DX body.

    -Jason

  23. It’s refreshing to read a review by a person who actually knows how to take pictures – thanks! I very much agree with what you write about the 16-35. May I add a point or two:
    * There’s a lot of barrel distortion at 16mm, as you’ve mentioned, but it’s practically gone at ~20mm. I think this barrel distortion is a none issue for most landscape work, and for architecture, it’s a question if one can work at 18mm or better 20mm, or fix it in PP.
    * The 16-35 shows high resistance to flare.

  24. My friend at Nikon corporate sent me this lens for about a week so I could give him my humble opinion. I have the 14-24 and the 17-35 but my comparision was only between the 17-35 and the new 16-35. Being an advanced amateur astronomer I am constantly observing changes in resolving power between different scopes and eyepieces. After performing photo test shots identical to yours I have come to the conclusion that the 17-35 actually has slightly better resolving power (sharpness) in the corners then the 16-35 but the 16-35 may appear sharper due to the higher contrast of the lens. If you study your pics in the corners I beleive you will see exactly the same thing I am seeing. I told my friend at Nikon that if I didn’t already own the 17-35 then I would buy the 16-35 based on performance vs. price (as compared to the 17-35. What say you?

  25. John- after I tested my copy of the 16-35mm VR, I immediately sold my 17-35mm f/2.8. In practice, the images at f/2.8 were so soft in the corners with the 17-35mm that I’d have to stop down to f/8 to get the kind of performance that matched the 16-35mm at f/5.6. Advantage: 16-35mm. The only other area where the 17-35mm was better was with distortion control, but that is easily corrected in Capture NX 2.2.5.

    IMO, the 16-35mm wins for three primary reasons:
    Sharpness/contrast wide-open
    Price
    VR system

  26. I shoot 90% interiors and architecture. 80% of the time on a tripod but at the end of the day or when I just get bored and artsy I like to hand hold and just shoot. I currently have a pc24 which is exclusively for the tripod. I’m sure the 14-24 is an incredible lens but I can’t see opening it up to 2.8 for interiors and maybe I’d prefer the option of hand holding once and awhile….any advise?

  27. The 16-35mm is fine for indoor shooting, especially on a camera where you have high ISO capability, like a D700 or D3(s). It has noticeably more distortion than the 14-24mm, but neither of these lenses are perspective corrected.

  28. I traded my ancient 17-35mm f2.8 for this lens about 8 months ago.

    I am not that impressed with it so far for a couple of reasons.

    Firstly it doesn’t seem nearly as sharp as the 17-35mm at any aperture even in the centre of the image.

    Secondly and most importantly, there is a tiny protruding metal lug on the base of the lens that slots into the camera mount. It breaks off. I am heading off to Nikon today to get this fixed for the second time. Let me repeat. The lug protrudes from the lens and so is impacted every time you put the lens back in your bag .

    I don’t replace the rear lens cap every time – who does when out shooting?

    This is an obvious design fault and might make me sell the lens.

    I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has had to rpair the lens because of this…

    Rgds
    Iain

  29. Iain-
    If your 16-35mm isn’t as sharp or sharper (especially in the center) as the 17-35mm, you’ve got a defective lens or are using poor technique. I, and others, have found that the 17-35mm only rivaled the 16-35mmm in sharpness at f/8 or above. Granted, there are lots of things that can affect image sharpness– focus errors, motion blur, camera shake, etc. But the 16-35mm by all accounts is one sharp lens and made my 17-35mm look like a coke bottle in comparison. It is possible your lens is out of alignment, either due to a factory defect or hard use.

    As for the small flange you describe, I see what you’re talking about, but I guess I’m weird in that I always replace my rear lens caps when I put my lenses back in my bag for extended transport. The only time that I don’t do this is when I’ve got the bag on the ground and I’m working directly from it, or with a lens in a pouch. I put my lenses into the bag front element down. With all due respect, it sounds like you are harder on your gear than I am.

  30. I have read and read again my favorite reviewers on NikonLinks about this lens, since it came out. Your review sold me. The review was informative and honest with the three photo examples of Nikons wide zooms. The distortion at 16mm that some people make hay about is really no big deal.

    On the D700, as you said, can make the 16-35mm a nice indoor lens as well. I live in the DC area so most of my shooting will be outside of monuments, land marks, government buildings with-in the guidelines and some of the most beautiful scenery Virginia and West Virginia have to offer.

    Thanks Jason

  31. I agree completely with Jason, I got rid of my 17-35 2.8 when I tried the 16-35 it is far sharper in the corners 1 stop down and far better contrast,I love it.

  32. Very interesting comments on here as I’ve just got hold of a 14-24 to replace my 17-35 (for D700). I didn’t bother with the 16-35 because of various articles I’ve read not rating it above the 17-35! Anyway, I will soon be able to have a look at both and compare although I’m not sure I won’t miss the 35 end for one lens convenience in street photog, we shall see. Must just comment of your ‘Snake Oil Salesmen’ comment re KR’s opinions on life… I’m still laughing as it just so apt. What is so sad is that so many people starting out take this man’s words as gospel…. the more honest folks who educate against this should be rewarded… same applies to Mr Kelby’s apostles!!

  33. I bought this lens based on your review, and its working out great. Although I don’t shoot brown walls and such, I find the little distortion at the wide end totally and easily fixable in CS5. I use it on a D700, and it my favorite combo. I also own the 24-70 2.8, so that’s making quite a claim. Thanks………

  34. In the corners wide-open? The 17-35mm is sharp, but the corners on my sample were mushy until f/8. And what’s the point of an f/2.8 lens if you need to stop it down to f/8 for sharp results?

  35. In the middle the 17-35mm is sharper but in the corners the 16-35mm is slightly sharper, had both lenses at f/8, tested at 16mm/17mm, 24mm and 35mm.
    I might have a lemon of 16-35mm!? 😉

  36. mine is soft in the corners perhaps i got a lemmon but it seems there is maney lemmon on this 16-35 from Nikon maybe it is common on this lens og for the 14-24 it is an better lens

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