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.

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. 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?

  2. 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!? ;-)

  3. 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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