Saturday, September 29, 2012

Nikon 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR Review

This might sound strange, but when you think about it, kit lenses are an endangered breed. We may be entering an era where the best kit lenses may be in the making, but their relevance is growing less and less over time. It's like that old saw about how the last buggy whips on the market were also the best ever made. If you were one of the first to get a D7000, which only came in kit-form for the first few weeks, what did you do with the 18-105VR lens? Probably Craigslisted it, since you already had lots of lenses, some which were likely better. Kit lenses make a lot of sense with the D3200 and D5100 models;  they are getting a lens with their camera body for less than the retail price of of the two separate.

However, at the serious enthusiast and professional levels, kit lenses make less sense, since many of us have have been shooting for a number of years and have lenses already. If you have a lens that you like, the chances are that you are looking to move up in the world, not settle for another entry-level model. For this type of shooter, a packaged kit lens is an added expense, not a value proposition. Thankfully, Nikon hasn't done what they did with the D7000 and D90, are going with body only straight from the start with the D600.

However, there's also a little bit of truth to the sentiment that the camera market really doesn't need any more kit lenses... dSLR's are a mature replacement market. Eerybdy who wants a dSLR has one by now. Growth is slowing, and being eaten away at the bottom by Micro 4/3  and the Sony NEX systems. If you have any of the later model Nikons, chances are that you can continue to use it for many years.  So basically, any additional 18-105VR's entering the market now stands a higher chance of sitting in the closet than ever before. Don't believe me? What was the kit lens of the film era? That's right the nifty-fifty. The last time I checked, there's no shortage of 50mm primes... for any SLR manufacturer.

Regardless, I'm not here to bury the kit lens, but to praise it. We the consumer don't really have a need for more kit DX lenses, but we've also been weened off of FX for so long that we are in need of full frame lenses for that magical upgrade to the D600. Like me, for example. So, does it make sense to have a "kit lens" for a $2,099 USD camera?  Entry level FX camera, but not entry level price for most people; if you are spending that sort of cash, is there a point to have an entry level lens?

The 24-85VR is a pretty nice product at a reasonable price. It's not professional by any means, nor does it pretend to be, but it works well for its price point, balancing a series of compromises to fit into the 'value' category. You may argue that it's really a mid-tier model, not an entry level product, but you only have to look through Nikon's current lens portfolio to see that there are no modern full-frame normal-zoom lenses priced below this; by that definition, this is an entry-level lens. The next step up is the moderately-well received and aging 24-85 f/2.8-4, and then it's the 24-120 f/4 VR. From there it's everybody's favourite, the 24-70 AF-S G.

I much prefer constant aperture lenses because of the depth of field control, and also because of the lack of light loss that is ever present with variable aperture lenses. However, the 24-85VR is mercifully only f/3.5 to f/4.5, much like the consumer grade film lenses of yesteryear. However, numbers can be deceiving, and in real-world terms, the depth of field that you would get with a Nikon D7000 and 17-55 f/2.8 is similar to what you would see with a D600 and the 24-85VR; the full frame sensor will reduce the depth of field by roughly one stop's equivalent compared to DX, so the in terms of creating a very shallow depth of field, this lens on a FX camera will produce slightly-more to slightly-less shallowness though the zoom range. It gets better once you stop down... at f/5.6, the depth of field is equivalent to what you would see on DX at f/4, but the difference is that on FX, you are one stop deeper into the sweet spot of the lens. This means that if you an resist the temptation of completely obliterating backgrounds with your new FX rig, you can achieve a sharper image in the focal plane for the same depth of field that you would be getting in DX.

In the short time that got to play with the lens, I could not find anything particularly objectionable about it. Vignetting and chromatic aberration are low or manageable, and distortion was not too much of an issue, but it's good to remember that modern Nikon bodies can apply correction for these in JPEG output. If I had never seen an objective test of this lens (and I haven't at the time of this writing), I wouldn't be in want of it; using the lens on a day to day basis, there is nothing about it that tells you that there is anything to worry about using it in terms of image quality. The VR system worked unobtrusively, so much so that I didn't notice that it was on when I first mounted the lens. However, the build quality is probably the most pedestrian aspect of it. It's well constructed, but the plastic reminds you that it is a kit lens, albeit a very good one. The zoom-barrel is on the stiff side, with the ring not turning as smoothly as I would have hoped. There's no side-to side barrel wobble, like what you find in a Tamron, for example, but for a list price of $599 CDN, I would have hoped for a much more substantial feeling lens.

Would I get this lens for a DX camera? Probably not. Compared to the 18-105VR or the 16-85VR, you are gaining a wider aperture at the long end and the extra sharpness of only using the central portion of the lens. You lose quite a bit at the wide portion of the lens, but not enough to make it crippling. Twenty-four mm is the equivalent of 35mm in full frame; most compact cameras from yesteryear went from 35-105mm, so it's not the end of the world, but it will feel tight if you are used to having 28mm as your widest. Considering that there are so many options at a lower price for DX, I don't see this as a good purchase, unless you knew for sure that you would be upgrading in the near future to FX.

If you are a budget minded person, there are only a few alternatives for full frame. There's the older  24-85 AF-D f/2.8-f4. It's lived on in the Nikon catalogue for quite some time, but users describe it to be only average in terms of optical performance, and to boot, it's more expensive than the VR version. I would avoid at all costs if I were intent on shooting video... the AF-D screw drive mechanism gets picked up by the camera microphone as a loud annoying buzz, and shooting video with a non-stabilized lens hand-held is an exercise in futility. Tamron has one competitor, the venerable AF 28-75mm f/2.8 XR Di LD, which gains a constant aperture construction, but loses image stabilization and focuses rather slowly (the older non-BIM versions are more desirable but no longer sold). The big thing going for the Tamron is price, at $499 USD, it's a tremendous value.

BMW's bread and butter car is the 328i. However, in Canada, there is a model down that they don't push in the car blogs and speed rags; it's the 320i. Downgraded engine, spartan interior, vinyl seats only, no leather. But it's still a BMW... and this model badge automatically marks you as somebody who could only barely afford the lowest priced stripper BMW on the lot by those who can afford the "real" thing, a 328i with all the bells and whistles, which lists for a whopping $20,000 CDN more. Let's not speak of the 335i buyers... Your neighbour driving the Toyota may be impressed, but your fellow BMW drivers won't be. So it is with the 24-85VR: It's a great lens in itself, but it suffers the problem of being the lowest rung on a pretty expensive ladder. That shouldn't matter, should it? It's all about the pictures, not about the prestige, right? So ask yourself this... why would you buy the cheapest BMW when you could buy a fully loaded Honda Accord for less money and more amenities? Of course, they are two different cars for two different drivers, but it brings home a certain point: You are paying for the BMW brand because you want to; it's not a logical decision. If you were truly a BMW sort of customer, you'd be well up the price range, but at the bottom, it's about aspirational buying. So it is with the D600. As a financial decision, for most D600 purchasers, it will be about want, not need. With eight less megapixels, the D7000 is still a more capable camera than what most shooters will be able to get out of it. For the amount of money that you will spend on a FX kit, you will give up a lot of opportunity cost in having a more developed DX lens system, but that's a conscious choice. Just as how the lowest BMW will still handle better than a fully loaded Honda Accord, so will a D600 and 24-85VR be better than a D7000 in performance as well.

This last point is straying a bit from the business of reviewing camera equipment, but I think it's an important point to make. One of the best pieces of advice about financial security is to not settle your family into the lowest priced house of a very rich neighbourhood. You may be able to afford the house, but you won't be able to afford the lifestyle... having your kids keep up with the other kids in the neighborhood, feeling the pressure to go on fancier vacations, the pressure to match conspicuous consumption with the Jones' next door, etc...  That's what a D600 and 24-85VR are; once you step up to one, your camera expenses are sure to climb in the coming years as you start filling in your FX lens collection. This is the importance of a good kit lens then; it's not much, but it has to be good enough to work with in the interim. And so it is with the 24-85VR. It doesn't cost that much, but it's more than good enough to work with.

I'd like to thank  Broadway Camera for letting me have a look at this competent little lens. If you would like to buy one, please thank them for the nuisance that I was to the paying customers. You can reach him at

1 comment:

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