Friday, September 4, 2015

Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR Review

When it comes to APS-C, the different camera companies seem to have different thoughts as to what the majority of the customers want... at least if  you go by the composition of their product lineups:

  • Canon seems to have woken up to the possibilities of inexpensive but comparatively good performing consumer-grade STM lenses like the EF-S 24mm f/2.8 or the EF-S 10-18mm . In fact, their lens lineup looks better matched to the consumer-level market segment than their camera bodies are.
  • Sony seems to only want to produce mid-grade consumer-zooms for their E-Mount cameras. There might be one or two good zooms or primes in the lineup, but overall the selection is competent but uninspiring.
  • Fujifilm is solidly replicating the enthusiast-level experience of the high-end DSLR market with their XF line of lenses. Virtually nobody thinks of the XC lenses when they think of Fujifilm

And there is Nikon, who seemingly proliferated every possible variation of the 18-xxx kit lens possible. The AF-S DX 16-85mm was a setup in build and image quality for anybody who wanted something better than the kit lens but who didn't want to stray from the convenience of having a wide zoom ratio. In other words, it was a lens that edged up to the enthusiast level but which primarily appealed to the consumer segment of the market. That's a tough proposition, but truth be told, Nikon sold quite a few of these and the 18-200 convenience zooms, as apparently consumer behavior is not as hardcore as internet forum chatter would have you believe.

The AF-S 16-80 is a the continuation of that idea, but with more actual hard-core credentials in the virtue of being essentially a stop brighter in terms of maximum aperture throughout the zoom range. For something that isn't a constant aperture f/2.8 zoom (or even better, ala Sigma 18-35mm DC HSM) the Nikon 16-80mm's price of $1066 USD once again tests the limits of how much money convenience shooters are willing to pay for quality.

Build and Design

Though a bit stout thanks to its large-ish 72mm front filter diameter, this isn't an unwieldy lens. It fits at home on a D7200 or a D300, and even though it is large for a D5500, it won't overwhelm that camera.

Nikon D7200 with AF-S 18-80 f/2.8-4

About that 72mm filter thread... it's a mild inconvenience. The 16-85mm uses a 67mm thread, which was more common in years past. What's happened in the industry is that DSLR lenses are getting bigger because consumers are demanding sharper and faster lenses, which mean larger glass elements in those lenses. That said, there are fewer lenses that use 72mm compared to 67mm and 77mm.

Subjective Image Quality

This isn't what you would call a typical image quality review. The MTF charts are promising, and there's always the folks at Photozone or SLRGear if you want to pour over the numbers. Rather, suffice it to say that this is a pleasantly sharp lens with few overt optical flaws. The first time I encountered this lens was with a group of professional event photographers... full time FX gear all of them... and even they were impressed by the detail this lens gives on a Nikon D7200.

So once we establish that it's a sharp lens, what else is there to say, really? There's also the matter of aperture. Zoom range, fast aperture and compact size: pick two but you can't have all three. So even though f/2.8-4.0 is better than your average kit lens, it is limiting in that the f/2.8 doesn't occur where it would be of the most use...namely at the long end of the zoom range. It would be fair to classify this lens as "faster" but not necessarily "fast" when it comes to aperture. Here is a set of images taken at maximum aperture throughout the zoom range (object distance is roughly 3 feet):

16mm - f/2.8
24mm - f/3
80mm - f/4

Visible barrel distortion at 16mm, not a surprise there. Pincushion distortion at 80mm is present but mostly inconsequential. Vignetting is strongest at 16mm and f/2.8... no surprise again... but center sharpness is consistent throughout. Most zoom lenses lose resolving power as you zoom out, and this is not exception, but the 16-80mm maintains a nice contrasty rendition at maximum focal length. Another thing that is not any different is that you get better optical results one stop down from wide-open; the difference being that you have more leeway because the maximum aperture is wider than your typical variable-aperture zoom.

Note that there really isn't much in the way of bokeh here... the 80mm sample does show some foreground/background isolation, but it's more because of the compression effect of using a longer focal length rather than from the aperture itself. The quality of the bokeh isn't bad, as it's not fringey or busy, but without the decreased depth of field that a wider aperture gives, the subject isolation isn't as strong as with a constant aperture lens.


Left to Right: Sigma 18-35 f/1.8, Nikon 16-80 f/2.8-4 and Sigma 17-50 f/2.8

Vs. Nikon 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX ED VR

Until the 16-80mm, this was probably the best variable aperture normal zoom lens on the market. That's not saying much; it's like being the best rock band in the the local small town... outclassed by the big names, but not without its charms. The optical quality of this lens is such that even pros like using it, despite the variable aperture. If you are choosing this lens, you are making a conscious choice to forgo the faster maximum aperture offered by the third-party lens makers; in exchange you get generally better flare and ghosting resistance and a bit more constant contrast consistency through the focal range. However, the 16-85mm was pricey when new, and holds reasonable value on the used market. The 16-80mm isn't really a replacement to the older 16-85mm; rather we are looking at one lens that is a step up from the kit lens, and one that is two or three steps better. If you already have a 16-85mm, there is little point to getting the new lens; yes it is better, but its not twice as good as the price would suggest.

Vs. Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di II LD and SP AF17-50mm F/2.8 XR Di II VC LD

The first version of the Tamron 17-50mm was a venerable favourite. That lens, the older AF-D screw-drive version is quite dated, but  is still relevant in today's world. In fact, it is considerably more desirable on the used market than its replacement, the built-in motor (BIM) version.The optics of this lens are superb, and give you 90-95% of the performance of the much more expensive Nikon 17-55 f/2.8 for a fraction of the price. There are four weaknesses; fairly noticeable vignetting when used wide open, chromatic aberration, a high amount of field of curvature at 17mm, and fairly harsh bokeh rendition. On the upside, this lens is consistently sharp throughout its zoom range. If you take your pick of any 17-50 f/2.8 zooms by Tamron, Sigma and Tokina, the Tamron is the most consistently sharp across all focal lengths, and is the most usable wide open at f/2.8. In terms of sharpness, this was a lens that was ahead of it's time.

Against the Nikon 16-80mm, the non VC Tamrons show their age in that they are very heavily weighted towards sharpness at the expense of of bokeh. While a plus to have f/2.8 at the long end, the Tamrons have quite a harsh bokeh by today's standards. Flare and ghosting resistance better with the Nikon as well. These lenses are worlds apart in price and in time periods, but both can be considered "good" for what they are... it's just that the Nikon is "good" and the Tamron's are now "good for the price".

Vs. Sigma AF 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC HSM OS

Probably the best all-around option of the f/2.8 standard-zooms, even if it isn't the sharpest or doesn't have the fastest aperture. Like the Tamron, it is sharp throughout its zoom-range, but it is not as sharp when used at f/2.8. However, the Sigma has bokeh that is not as harsh and fringey as the Tamron. However, the more obvious advantage is that it is a stabilized lens. Images don't have the immediate sharpness punch of the older Tamron, but the Sigma is a generally better choice than the VC version. In terms of size and weight, the Sigma is also similar to the Tamron, meaning that it will balance well on the D7100, but has the downside of requiring larger diameter filters. This lens predates the ART-era, though it is probably one of the better of the classic-era of Sigma.

There is a  bug to watch out for if you are using the Sigma on a Nikon D7100. The problem stems from the fact that the OS image stabilization system doesn't work as intended on the D7100. After taking a shot, it remains active for up to a minute. There are two consequences to this. The first is increased battery drain, and the second is that the multi-selector has to be tapped repeated to navigate during image reviewing, instead of the usual press-and-hold operation. See this DPReview thread for more details. The problem seems to be with Nikon, as this behaviour didn't manifest on the D7000 or older cameras; something in the D7100 firmware is new or different. All of the later releases of the Sigma 17-50mm are marked "D5300" compatible; even so, these units display the so called "scroll bug" on a D7100. Nikon ostensibly changed something in the EXPEED 3 generation, but never explicitly documented it. However, in an even more interesting twist, the D7200 (EXPEED 4) does not display this flaw and works perfectly.

Vs. Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S DX

Expensive, and having the size and weight of a mortar shell. Optically one of the best f/2.8 zooms, but if you get any of the ones that I listed above, you won't notice because of how much less money you will have to pay. This lens was originally designed for the metal body semi-pro cameras like the the D2x and the D200. It's an anachronism, as there is no longer a current full metal body professional DX camera left in the Nikon lineup. Yes, you can use it with the D7100, would the handling would be awkward. Upon consideration, nothing highlights the demise of serious DX in Nikon's line-up so much as this lens, which has become something of an orphan in the age of smaller and lighter bodies.

These lenses aren't traded in high volumes (maybe an estimated 200,000 units were produced in the first ten years of production), but there are copies that show up on the used market from time to time. However, the lack of a serious commitment to a true D300s successor makes this a hard lens to resell in a future where the lighter D7xxx body style is the highest level of Nikon DX. In comparison, the 16-80mm is both sharp enough for a pro-body DX camera, but light enough for the D7xxx series.

Vs. Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM ART

The Sigma 18-35mm is a unique lens with no direct competitors. For Nikon shooters, the closest comparable lens in build quality and price is possibly the Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8G IF-ED. That particular lens is an older design but a known quantity; the Sigma is the flashy new kid in town.  However, ignoring outright image and build quality, the closest market competitor to the Sigma 18-35mm is probably its little brother, the less expensive Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM. That is a cheaper lens built to a cheaper price point, but the image stabilization will give it a slight edge in safe hand-holding shutter speeds.

Much has been made of the fact that this is finally the crop sensor lens that gives the equivalent field of view of full frame on a crop frame camera. That may be true, but a portion of that equation is missing. The 18-35mm range is not so much a normal-zoom range as it is a wide-to-normal range. What's missing is the "head shot" part of the normal-range. In other words, to achieve the fast aperture, Sigma needed to pair down the lens from the typical 50mm down to 35mm. There is a large difference in zoom-range between the Nikon 16-80mm and the Sigma 18-35; even though these lenses are priced at the high end, they will appeal to two different types of photographers.

Concluding Thoughts

If you can over look the fact that the Nikon 16-80mm doesn't produce significant amounts of foreground/background separation, then this is a very good lens. Sharpness is consistently pleasing from wide to zoom, and the size and handling are appropriate to cameras like the Nikon D7200 (and presumably for a D300s replacement.) More dedicated users would have preferred a VR update to the 17-55mm, but the 16-80mm is now the top current DX lens in the lineup.

With thanks to Broadway Camera


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. "See this DPReview thread for more details." does not have a link.

  3. "but never explicedly documented it" typo

    1. Much appreciated. This post should've been finished earlier in the day when I was more fresh and alert.

  4. Thanks for a clear and to-the-point review. I have sold my nikon 24-70 f/2.8, which is too heavy for me as I am becoming an official senior citizen. I am seriously looking looking into this len. Though no hands-on experience yet. As I do only portraits, so the shortcoming of foreground/background separation is quite disappointing. It seems there is not other choices other than a sigma or tamron f/2.8 standard zoom. David

    1. The Sigma 17-50 f/2.8 OS HSM is probably the closest to your ideal for DX, though it won't be as crisp as the Nikon 24-70. If you can, the 85mm f/1.G is probably the best/best-value for portrait length, though 85mm is a tad bit long on crop.

  5. for sample image

  6. great review, i was contemplating on buying this lens but the price is too much. so i'm deciding on nikon 16-85mm. The sigma 17-50mm is nice but my D7100 is not compatible with that lens.

  7. Have you tried the Nikon 17-55 on a 24 MP sensor. I rented this lens and found it to be soft especially at 2.8. It is comparable to the kit lens 18-55 VRII.

  8. That shouldn't be the case; it's a fairly consistent lens, but it does have a weak spot in the middle of the zoom range; corners go soft(er) around 35mm and wide open, but I do remember that lens being a bit fringey in harsh light; the 16-80mm is proably a bit better by virtue of being a more modern design. It could be a focus alignment issue that you had, if to hazard a guess.

  9. DXO gives it a 9Mp rating on a D7100 which is same as kit lens, I think Nikon should update it ASAP?

    1. I wouldn't pay too much attention to DxO scores... they're composites of a lot of different aspects. The final number that they come up with is meaningless. However, if I were to say, the 16-80 is probably a 'sharper' lens because it is more modern in design, but it's very expensive. The 17-55 isn't as good, but at least it's f/2.8 at the long end, and is overal optically better than either the Sigma or Tamron 17-50's. And every time I've used the 18-55 kit lens, I've regretted it.....