Friday, October 11, 2013

Nikon AF-S 16-35mm F4G ED VR Review

Nikon introduced the AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm F4G ED VR back in 2010, as an alternative wide angle lens for users who want a professional quality lens without the weight and price of F2.8 glass. While the AF-S 14-24mm F2.8G and AF-S 17-35mm F2.8D IF are great lenses, they are both heavy and expensive. While the 16-35mm F4G VR still would not be considered cheap, it does come in at a lower price point than the current F2.8 wide angle Nikkors. In addition, the 16-35mm F4 has a feature the that none of the other wide angle Nikkors have, vibration reduction (VR). While VR might not seem like an exciting feature for a wide angle lens, in the real world it can be extremely useful for landscape or architecture photographers who don't always want to lug around a tripod.

The AF-S 16-35mm F4G VR has received mixed reviews, some praising and some bashing the lens, from professional reviewers and users alike. From the get go I want to point out, that I think the lens performs extremely well for the price. I am not going to dive into things like resolution charts or anything like that, those do not mean much to me, so I wont use that to measure the lenses quality. If you are looking for a technical review of the lens, I recommend checking out the review on Photography Life. Nasim Mansurov gives excellent technical detail in his review of the lens. This review will cover things like build quality and use in the field, mounted on the Nikon D800 and D700 full frame (FX) cameras. 

Build Quality and Handling:

In terms of build quality the AF-S 16-35mm F4G VR is easily better made than any of the consumer Nikkor zooms, and considering the $1200+ price tag it ought to be. I would not put the AF-S 16-35mm F4G VR in the same league as the AF-S 24-70mm F2.8G in terms of build, but it is close. The barrel of the 16-35mm F4 is covered in high quality plastics, but the lens does not feel cheap to the touch. The barrel feels solid in the hand, which I believe is the result of the inner tubes being made of metal. Having a plastic cover means the lens is more comfortable to handle in cold weather, vs the bare metal of lenses like the 24-70mm F2.8G. The other advantage of less metal in the construction, and the F4 maximum aperture, is reduced weight. Even though the AF-S 16-35mm F4G VR is physically about the same size as the AF-S 24-70mm F2.8G (900g), but it is noticeably lighter coming in at 685g. 

The zoom ring on the lens turns smoothly throughout the zoom range. Note that the front element of the lens extends and retracts while zooming. The manual focus rings on the lens feel well dampened, and manual focus is reasonably easy to achieve, for a modern auto focus lens. There are rubber grips over both of these rings. The included lens hood (HB-23), which also ships with several other wide angle Nikkors, firmly snaps into place via a bayonet mount, and it seems unlikely that it would fall off. The lens features a 77mm filter thread, making it ideal to use along with other professional glass.

The 16-35mm F4 VR has dust and water resistant seals on the zoom and manual focus rings, along with a rubber gasket at the mount. As with all Nikkor lenses, the 16-35mm F4 VR is not considered waterproof. Keep that in mind that if you intend to use the lens in wet conditions for extended periods of time.

The design of the lens body, which is similar to the AF-S 24-70mm F2.8G, makes handling in the field comfortable, and remarkably well balanced when used with cameras like the D800 and D700. On lower end bodies, like the D3200 and D5200, I suspect that the lens would feel somewhat front heavy. I don't think this lens would be a very good fit for a DX camera user anyway.

Finally, onto one of the key features of this lens, VR. I'd heard that the VR on this lens was outstanding, but only once I started to use it in the field, when I didn't have a tripod on hand, did I really start to appreciate it. I have examples that are sharp at crazy low shutter speeds, like 1/25s, or even 1/6s. How well the VR will perform for a given individual or shooting situation is not fixed in stone, but it's hard to go wrong by giving it a go. Not only does VR allow shorter shutter speeds, but it also allows you to keep the ISO value lower, for better overall image clarity and to keep colours vibrant. 

Focus Speed:

Focus speed is neither blazing fast (not as quick as the 24-70), nor slow. I would put it on the quicker side, about on par with most higher end consumer Nikkors, if not slightly better. Hunting doesn't seem to be an issue, other than in low light conditions, and generally that happens when using non-cross type focus points. That is one area where the F4 maximum aperture can come back to haunt you. Even with that being true, lets face it, you do not buy this type of lens for low light action shooting, so that is not a real world problem in most cases.

Image Quality:

As the primary use of the lens, for me, is landscapes, the examples and experience here reflect that usage style. If I had to make an honest evaluation of the AF-S 16-35mm F4G ED VR's optical performance, would I say that it is the best wide angle lens on the market? I would be lying if I said that was true. My previous wide angle lens was the Nikon AF 20-35mm F2.8D, and I can say without a doubt that it is optically better than that lens. Since I cannot physically compare it to other wide angle lenses, I wont say anything beyond that. Is the 16-35mm F4 a very good lens for the price point? I would have a hard time not saying yes. Is the lens a good performer at F4? In the centre of the frame, yes. The corners are a little soft until the lens is stopped down a bit, but by F8 it is as good enough that even at 100% softness is not an issue.

Are there any optical issues that stand out? Other than barrel distortion at 16mm, not really. I know many reviews talk about softness at 35mm, but I have not noticed a big difference in sharpness throughout the zoom range. As I noted in the introduction, I do not review lenses with test charts or by combing through pictures from corner to corner with the zoom tool set to 100%, I have better things to do with my time.

Flare can be an issue, as it is with all wide angle lenses, but only with a strong light source hitting the front element. The Nano crystal coated elements do a good job of controlling flare in the real world. Even when I attached a B&W 77mm UV filter I hardly encountered any flare at all. I can only think of one image I've taken with the lens that has flare, and you can see that image below. To be honest this is not even the type of image I would usually share, but it is the only one I could fine with flare. One thing is for sure, the AF-S 16-35mm F4 VR handles flare much better than the AF 20-35mm F2.8D!

Example of flare
As you can see in the image above, flare can happen, but it is not the worse flaring I've seen on a wide angle lens. The Nikon 14-24mm F2.8G and Tokina 16-28mm F2.8 AT-X Pro FX show far worse flaring characteristics in similar conditions, from the examples that I've seen. Again, keep in mind that I had a B&W UV filter on for these shots, so what you are seeing above may be influenced by the filter. I don't normally use UV or protective filters, but because the front element of the lens moves in and out while zooming, I felt it was prudent to use one to keep sand, dust and water out of the lens barrel. I haven't noticed any difference in image sharpness or colour as a result of using a filter.

Vignetting hasn't been noticeable in my use, but I do not usually shoot with the lens with the aperture wide open (at F4). I cannot find any examples in my shots that show chromatic aberrations, so in my experience it simply isn't an issue.

Comments and Conclusion:

The Nikon AF-S 16-35mm F4G ED VR is an very good wide angle lens for the price. When used in the application of landscape photography, it is extremely useful. A lack of sharpness has not been an issue in my experience, even when using the lens on the pixel rich Nikon D800. Can it compete resolution wise with the excellent 14-24mm F.28G? Most likely not, but it is close in most regards. The VR is an extremely useful feature, and I often use it for shots that simply could not have been achieved, without a tripod. Being able to get sharp images, while hand hold at 1/6th second at F10 (ISO 100), is simply amazing.

The only aspect of the lens I think could have been improved was the front element. Earlier in the review I noted that it moves in and out within the barrel, which allows the lens to suck in air, dust and moisture. I would rather have seen a design like the 24-70mm F2.8G, where the front element sealed off the front of the lens. The rear element of the 16-35mm also moves in and out, creating an opportunity for the lens to shoot air and dust onto the mirror box, or onto the sensor of your camera. A fixed rear element would have eliminated that possibility. My solution to the problem is to keep a high quality B&W UV filter on the lens at all times.

  • Well built, feels solid in your hand and operates smoothy
  • Optically very good, well designed for landscape photography
  • Vibration Reduction (VR) allows for shooting hand held with slow shutter speeds (like 1/25s or slower). 
  • Reasonably resistant to flare
  • 77mm filter thread, perfect size for users of other pro lenses
  • Doesn't feel like a brick, only weighs 685g

  • Front and rear elements move within the lens barrel (not sealed), which could make the lens prone to drawing in dust and moisture. Recommend using a UV, or protective, filter on the front to prevent this. 
  • Heavy barrel distortion at 16mm (auto corrected on modern Nikon bodies if you are shooting jpegs, or use Nikon software for editing RAW files) 
  • Large lens, takes up the same amount of space in your bag as the 24-70mm F2.8G

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