Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
New Nikon 24-85mm/f3.5-4.5 AF-S VR with HB-63 Lens Hood
Re-introducing the 24-85mm/f3.5-4.5 AF-S, with Vibration Reduction (VR), for both FX and DX
Back in 2002, Nikon introduced their first 24-85mm/f3.5-4.5 zoom lens with AF-S, i.e. an AF motor built into the lens, which used to be a symbol for those exotic super telephoto lenses. That 24-85 was among the first consumer-grade lenses with a built-in AF motor, which is now available on practically all new Nikon AF lenses from the low end to the high end. At around $300, that previous version of 24-85 AF-S was an instant hit among consumer film SRL users although it was in production for about only four years as Nikon discontinued it in 2006.
Nikon FX-Format Mid-Range Zooms
Nikon FX-Format Mid-Range Zooms
Today, Nikon’s high-end mid-range zoom is the 24-70mm/f2.8 AF-S that was introduced with the D3 in 2007. As a relatively fast f2.8 for a zoom, that lens is now the standard tool for professional photographers who need low-light performance such as at weddings, parties, news conferences …. However, it is fairly big and heavy, using 77mm filters, and at almost $1900, it is not exactly affordable. Interestingly, neither Canon nor Nikon offers image stabilization on their 24-70mm/f2.8, but third-party options such as Tamron do.
As an alternative, Nikon also introduced a constant f4 24-120mm/f4 AF-S VR in 2010. With a 5x zoom range, that lens has more distortion but sharpness is still very good. The extended range on the long end is definitely a plus, and the addition of VR to some degree makes up for the slower f4 maximum aperture. However, the 24-120mm/f4 is still quite big, as it also uses 77mm filters, and too is over $1000.
Landscape at 70mm
The Affordable Option: 24-85mm with AF-S and VR
The new 24-85mm/f3.5-4.5 AF-S VR is essentially the re-introduction of the earlier 24-85 AF-S now with the addition of vibration reduction (VR). It is Nikon’s third mid-range zoom that covers the entire FX sensor in the last five years. The long-end of the zoom range is between the other two options’ and the maximum aperture is now variable. As a result, this third option is smaller, using 72mm filters and is priced just below $600. The new lens can cover the full 35mm-film frame (FX) and, of course, also DX (APS-C).
24-85 AF-S VR with HB-63 Lens Hood
This lens has a plastic barrel with good construction, not all that different from other consumer-grade Nikkor lenses. The lens barrel extends in two sections when you zoom from 24mm to 85mm and is sturdy enough with little wobbling. I think its construction is adequate, similar to all modern Nikon consumer-grade AF-S lenses that are on the small side. On the rear end, there is a rubber gasket around the mount to seal out moisture; that is also now a standard feature on AF-S G (no aperture ring) lenses. Both the zoom and focus rings rotate smoothly.
The new 24-85 AF-S VR comes with an HB-63 petal type lens hood. That hood extends very far on two sides. Therefore, if you mount it in reverse in the “storage” position, the hood will cover up the zoom ring to a large degree.
24-85mm AF-S VR on D800
The good news is that sharpness from this lens is excellent throughout its zoom range. I tested it on the latest and most demanding 36MP Nikon D800 and D800E bodies. Even on the extreme wide end at 24mm, wide open at f3.5, it is very sharp in the center and quite good into the corners; stopping down to f5.6 further improves corner sharpness. I have made some side-by-side comparison against the 24-70mm/f2.8 on the 36MP D800, and there is not much difference at equivalent apertures and focal lengths. Obviously the 24-85 AF-S VR does not open to f2.8 as its more-expensive sibling does.
If there is one weakness in this new 24-85’s optical performance, it is distortion, which is quite serious and is present throughout its zoom range. As expected, barrel distortion is very noticeable at 24mm, but it quickly transitions to pincushion distortion by 35mm and remains all the way to 85mm. While I would consider the amount of barrel distortion quite serious at 24mm, I tested the 24-70mm/f2.8 AF-S under the same conditions and its barrel distortion is almost as serious. Fortunately, in this digital era, this type of distortion is not difficult to reduce in post processing.
Barrel Distortion at 24mm
I would classify the amount of chromatic aberration from this new 24-85 to be very mild. I have tested this lens on a 36MP D800 capturing a wall that faces the late afternoon sun. You can see a bit of color fringing in the areas with a drastic dark-to-bright transition, but even under the magnification of 36MP, it is minor.
Similar to other Nikon zoom lenses, vignetting is quite serious wide open in the entire zoom range. It improves quite a bit after stopping down by one stop, but vignetting is still observable. After stopping down by two steps, all vignetting essentially disappears.
This new 24-85mm zoom is maximum f3.5 on the wide end (24mm) and f4.5 on the long end (85mm). By 50mm, it is down to f4.2. Therefore, it is below f4 in most of its zoom range.
Portrait at 85mm
When used outdoors, auto focus speed is reasonably fast on this lens and it is accurate when tested on the Nikon D800 and D700. However, since it is a f3.5 to 4.5, under dim light or low-contrast situations, AF on this new lens is noticeably slower than on the 24-70mm/f2.8 and tends to hunt a little more. Therefore, while this lens is great for outdoors with sufficient light, for indoor, dim light situations, regardless of whether you actually photograph at f2.8 or not, the faster 24-70mm/f2.8 lens has its advantages. For more casual photography, this new 24-85mm VR is fine, but for professional wedding and social event photographers, the 24-70mm/f2.8 AF-S should remain the preferred lens.
As usual, vibration reduction can provide 3 to 4 stops of shutter speed gain. For a mid-range zoom, that means you can hand hold this lens at 85mm at around 1/20 sec or so. Slower than that, subject motion becomes a concern.
Ten years ago, the old 24-85mm/f3.5-4.5 AF-S (without VR) was mainly popular among consumer AF film SLR users. Today, Nikon FX-format DSLRs include the D800 at $3000 and the D4 at $6000. For those who own higher-end DSLRs, they may still prefer the 24-70mm/f2.8 AF-S due to its low-light capability. The consumer-grade DSLRs are all of DX format, on which this new 24-85 AF-S VR becomes a slight wide to moderate tele zoom. On DX, personally I prefer a zoom that begins around 16 to 18mm on the wide end for a wider coverage. Therefore, while this new lens works very well as a general-purpose FX zoom for outdoor photography, its best match could be some more-affordable FX-format DSLR in the future or the older FX-format D700, whose price varies from $1500 in the used market to $2300 new.