by Jim McGee
This lens is a bit of an oddball. Minolta's 24-105mm is the only other lens that comes close to it's coverage. It takes an odd filter size (for Nikon) of 72mm. It's short and chubby shape is unusual. In fact it's so chubby that it extends below the baseplate of some camera bodies while protruding only 3.1 inches from the front of the camera. In fact it is exactly as long as it is wide. It's priced at around $200 more than the 28-105mm but the 'wisdom' of many web news groups is that it's nowhere near as sharp.
But the fact that it's optical formula starts at 24mm instead of 28mm is seductive.
In the Nikon lineup there are six zoom lenses that start at 28mm that extend to anywhere from 70mm to 200mm on the top end and every aftermarket lens manufacturer makes lenses in the 28-80mm and 28-105mm ranges. Only recently have Nikon and most other lens makers come out with lenses in the 24-85mm range aimed at digital shooters.
Many folks look at the 24-120 as the ideal travel lens. 24mm is much wider than 28mm and the extra 15mm at the tele end of the spectrum offers a bit more reach; and really wide zooms in the 28-200mm range have gotten a reputation for poor image quality.
But when we receive inquiries about this lens they invariably reference some online post about the supposed poor quality of its images. But in prowling through these online groups we noticed a trend. Many of those who criticize this lens are simply repeating what they have heard and had never actually shot with it. So we decided to get one and try it out for ourselves. For testing purposes we'd shoot it against the 28-105mm - a lens that many of you are comparing it to. We also shoot it against the 50mm f1.4 lens - used by many publications as a benchmark lens for its sharpness and image quality.
The focus ring is nicely damped for manual focusing, having a similar feel to the 28-105mm we tested it against. But neither lens matched the silky feeling of the focus ring on the 50mm f1.4.
The zoom ring was another matter. It's downright stiff and it takes a good twist to quickly crank through its wide zoom range where the 28-105mm is a smooth and comfortable two-finger touch. This isn't so objectionable that it would keep us from purchasing the lens. But it was something that we noticed every time we used it. The aperture ring is typical Nikon. Smooth with well defined click stops.
The focus and zoom rings have the rubberized grip that you'll see on almost every Nikon lens. It works well and provides a good grip. This is not an internal focus lens and the front element rotates just under a quarter turn as you zoom. An issue for shooters using polarizers or graduated neutral density filters. Minimum focus distance is two feet though it occasionally had problems locking focus in the two to three foot range in low light with fast moving subjects. There is no macro setting.
The 24-120mm seems like a prime candidate for use with a teleconverter. Instead of carrying a separate telephoto zoom you can just carry a 2x converter and span 24-240mm right? Not exactly.
At full zoom with a 2x converter you have the equivalent light of being stopped down to f11 so forget about auto-focusing in low light. In bright light it will autofocus in the 24-70mm range but it does a lot of hunting. You're better off just focusing manually if you use a teleconverter at all.
In the Field
I used this lens when shooting the Philadelphia Mummers parade. It's ability to shoot "normal" portraits in the 100-120mm range and then zoom out to 24mm for that "wide-angle portrait" look was impressive indeed. It allowed me to get shots with one camera where I would normally have a second body with a 24mm lens backing up my primary body with a 28-105mm. Parades move quickly. You have little time to capture the image as the marchers are streaming by. Being able to switch from 120mm to 24mm with a flick of the wrist was a real plus!
But what about the supposed soft image quality?
Actually images were sharp. Very sharp. On the light table slides were publishable quality. Reports of this lens being soft aren't just highly exaggerated they are flat wrong.
Next we compared it to the 28-105mm, the 50mm f1.4, and the 24mm f2.8 Nikkor lenses. All four lenses produced high quality images. The 50mm and 24mm primes had an edge in sharpness. Both zooms performed well. From a subjective standpoint the 28-105mm had a slight edge in contrast. Please note the adjective slight.
To put this in perspective one of the shots taken during the mummers parade is of a marcher dressed in a railroad uniform and he has about two days growth on his chin. You can clearly pick out individual hairs in that two-day growth that are gray. The image was shot handheld, at night, with the aid of an SB-28 flash on Provia 400f - while I was walking backwards in front of the marcher.
Is the 24mm f2.8 a hair sharper? Yes. Will you notice a difference in anything smaller than a wall size print? No. Does this lens deserve the bashing it's gotten in some news groups? Absolutely not. This is a clear case of how something on the Web can take on a life of it's own.
The other thing to consider is the macro capability of the 28-105mm, which will focus down to 8.5 inches in macro mode.
A 24mm prime will set you back around $300. But since just about every photographer in the world already owns a normal zoom I guess the real question is whether it's worth it to plunk down anywhere from $510 to $560 for this particular lens. Whether it's worth it is a personal question based on your shooting style and your wallet. But if you do we don't think you'll regret it for an instant.