Ever since I sold the venerable (and really quite excellent) 18-70/3.5-4.5 kit lens that came with my old D70, I’ve been wanting a new “walk-around” lens to slap onto my camera for general purpose use and for travel. By “walk-around” lens I mean a relatively compact zoom lens that covers midrange focal lengths but also reaches a bit into the wide territory and a bit into telephoto territory as well – something that would be useful in a wide range of situations so that I wouldn’t need to be changing lenses all the time.
When I travel I often just bring my 24-70/2.8 as a walk-around lens, and throw in a prime or two to have some more options. But the 24-70, as much as I love it, is freaking enormous and really heavy, and while 24mm is the sweet spot in the wide-angle range for me, 70mm isn’t quite long enough on the telephoto end for some things like street photography and certain kinds of landscapey stuff. I basically looked at two full-frame options for Nikon glass in the walk-around category: the 24-85mm f/2.8-4 and the 24-120mm f/4.
I went with the 24-120/4 AF-S N VR despite a couple of drawbacks – it’s big and heavy, and it’s nearly twice as expensive as the 24-85. I really, really value constant aperture, and having f/4 on the long end of this range is going to be something I take full advantage of – both in terms of low light capability and shallow DOF. And I wanted a bit more reach than 85mm on the long end. While the 24-85 was tempting, particularly given the price difference, the 24-120 ended up seeming like the best compromise for me. So when Nikon’s recent round of lens rebates kicked in ($300 off this lens and a free Tiffen filter kit from Adorama), I jumped.
This is an interesting lens in that it sits somewhere between a consumer midrange zoom and a more professional-level piece of glass. It has all the modern pro Nikon frills like nano-crystal coating (which is way more than just a marketing gimmick), vibration reduction, ED glass, a rubber gasket on the lens mount, 77mm filter threads, and that telltale gold band around the business end of the lens body. The build quality is a step down from the true pro lenses – I wouldn’t want to drop it off a stage like I recently did to both my 24-70/2.8 and my 80-200/2.8 – but it still feels pretty rugged. It’s also priced almost like a pro lens, at only $400 less than the 24-70/2.8. I suppose in some way I’m the exact target audience for this lens: someone who is used to full-featured, well-built lenses with constant aperture, but who wants something more portable than, say, the “trinity” of f/2.8 zooms (14-24, 24-70, 70-200) for casual use.
I just got this lens and have had very little opportunity to play with it, but took it around town this past weekend on my D4 and got a few shots in. My first impression is that VR is fantastic – despite owning something like 10 modern Nikon lenses, this is the first lens I’ve ever owned with VR. (My autofocus telephoto lenses are all at least one generation before VR was a thing.) For non-moving subjects, VR makes up for the f/4 aperture, at least compared to the f/2.8 zooms I’m used to using, and especially when combined with my willingness to use high ISOs. The focal range is great; being able to rack out to 120mm really makes a huge difference compared to the long end of, say, the 24-70. Autofocus was quite fast and accurate. Image quality is good enough for me (I’m not a pixel-peeper, but I can usually tell the difference between a top-of-the-line pro lens and something like this).
As for the down sides, there’s considerable distortion at the wide end, and quite noticeable vignetting at f/4, both of which are easily corrected in Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW. When I carried my camera on my shoulder lens-down, there was some zoom creep, but nothing terrible, and in actual shooting situations it never bothered me. The biggest problem is that I’m a bit disappointed at how big the lens is – in girth it’s no smaller than the 24-70, though it’s maybe an inch shorter and quite a bit lighter. As far as “walk-around” lenses go, this one is definitely on the larger end of what I would want – certainly big enough that I would forego it in some situations where I want to be as inconspicuous as one can be with a DSLR.
In the meantime, here are a few samples from that set showing what I got from the lens this weekend. Sometimes I wished for something wider than 24mm, and sometimes I wished for something faster than f/4, but all told, I was pretty happy with this piece of equipment. Excepting the two photos of cars on the street, most of the below photos are corrected for distortion and vignetting and shot wide open at f/4 and fairly high ISOs (1600-6400) on a Nikon D4.
I’ll be taking this thing as my primary lens on a few international trips in the next couple months, so I’ll have lots of good hands-on time with it and will let you know what I think!