Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED AF-S

bythom nikkor 17-35mm
  • FX coverage
  • Autofocus (in-lens focus motor), internal focus
  • 13 elements in 10 groups, 3 aspherical, 2 ED elements
  • 9-blade rounded aperture diaphragm
  • smallest aperture is f/22
  • 77mm filter ring
  • 11" (0.28m) minimum focus; 1:4.5 maximum reproduction ratio
  • 4.2 x 3.2" (106 x 82.5mm) long, diameter
  • 26.3 ounces (745g) weight
  • HB-23 bayonet lens hood, CL-76 soft case, caps
  • US$1959
  • Model Number 1960
  • Announced pre-DSLRs

Thom’s Quick Review

Basics: The 17-35mm is a not a very complex lens considering it's focal length range and other parameters, with only 13 elements in 10 groups. Compared to recent Nikon designs, that's almost spartan. Three of the elements are what are known as aspherical—they have an irregular curve in them, and unlike some aspherical elements in other lenses, only one of the three is created by using plastic—the other two are ground glass, which is probably what makes this lens so expensive. Two of the elements are ED (low dispersion glass), which helps the different wavelengths of light focus on the same point. The aperture is a 9-blade type (though see my comments about bokeh in the Performance section, below). 

Overall, the new lens is larger and heavier than the one it replaced (the 20-35mm). It uses a two-ring design (near ring is for zooming, far ring is for focusing). AF-S means that the lens has a built-in motor for focusing, doesn't rotate the front element during focus, focuses very fast and reliably, and allows you to override autofocus by simply grabbing the focus ring and turning it. 

Between the two rings is a focus scale (but with no depth of field or infrared markings). You know, even if the lens manufacturers don't want to give us depth of field markings, the least they could do is mark the hyperfocal point at one focal length and aperture combination. On the left side of the lens (from the back of the camera) is one button:

  • Manual Focus button: In the M/A position the lens works as usual (autofocus with manual override). In the M position, the lens focuses only manually.

The HB-23 hood supplied with the lens is the bayonet type butterfly style. It can be reversed onto the lens for carrying, but it adds diameter to lens when you do so.

On a DX body this lens becomes the equivalent to a 25.5 to 52.5mm lens.

Handling: There's not much to say: everything is pretty much where you expect and works the way you want it to. The zoom ring has a smooth operation, the focus ring only slightly less so. Both rings give the full range of options through only a quarter turn; I'd have preferred slightly more turn, which gives you more subtle control, but it's fine as is. The lens doesn't extend during zoom or focus, by the way. 

Versions supplied after 2005 have the pinch-style front cap, which is good. If you have the hood on, it's a little difficult to get the older style lens cap on and off. 

Sharpness: On DX bodies, especially 16mp or lower, sharpness is strong throughout the range, with f/5.6 being the point of maximum sharpness on my sample. But even at f/2.8 in the corners this lens is an excellent performer on these bodies. On a 24mp DX body and on the 16mp and higher FX bodies the lens starts to show its age, though. It’s still reasonably strong in the center, especially stopped down, but the more recent wide angle zooms (e.g. 14-24mm, 16-35mm) all outperform this one. Note that 17mm is clearly better than 35mm on my sample of this lens, and I hear that from other users, as well. If you’re mostly shooting at the wide end, no worries. If you’re mostly shooting at the “telephoto” end, I’m pretty sure that there are better options; even the 24-70mm at 35mm.

Vignetting: Light falloff is reasonably well under control throughout the range, with clearly visible corner falloff on FX cameras, though not objectionable; with DX bodies, the falloff is nearly invisible, though it's still there wide open. By f/5.6 the falloff is gone pretty much throughout the zoom range. 

Distortion: Linearity performance is a mixed bag, though decent. At 17mm there's evident barrel distortion, especially on FX bodies—just enough to rule out this lens for architectural photography but not enough to make most of us worry. At 35mm, the distortion is virtually gone on DX bodies and minimal on FX, and straight lines at the edge of the frame look straight. I don't know of a wide angle zoom that doesn't have some barrel distortion at the wide end (some have it throughout their zoom range), and this lens I'd characterize as being one of the best performers in this regard. Still, if you need straight lines at 17mm, this isn't the lens to give it to you. 

Autofocus: Autofocus is very fast and hunt-free generally. Personally, I rarely autofocus a wide angle zoom, as depth of field is more important to me than focus speed, but if I were a photojournalist, I'd be very happy with the autofocus performance. 

Bokeh: To me the worst performance factor of this lens is the bokeh (visual quality of out of focus areas), and even that is something I'd characterize as only decent. Near out-of-focus areas tend to have a slight unpleasantness to them, though far out-of-focus areas seem fine. While the lens has the 9-blade aperture diaphragm that is usually associated with better bokeh on the Nikkors, I note that my sample tends to have one point that has a hard joint in it, making for a round-with-a-small-defect opening. Perhaps that's what is making the out-of-focus highlights "pop an edge" and make me like the bokeh less than usual (I've noticed this defect on other samples, by the way). In short, I'm not enamored by the bokeh of this lens and am glad that its rare that you try to isolate focus with a wide angle zoom. Most of the time I'm using hyperfocal focus or maximizing depth of field, so bokeh isn't a big issue. 

Flare: flare performance seems pretty good. Unless light is hitting directly on the front element, I've not seen any visible contrast degradation, and the supplied butterfly type hood is adequate in keeping light from hitting the front element in most situations. Shooting into the sun (or a light source) can be problematic in some, but not all, situations. Curiously, the only time I've ever questioned the flare performance of this lens is when I was shooting with an infrared filter into the sun.

This lens is showing its age, unfortunately. You can clearly see issues on the 36mp and 45mp FX bodies, and even on the 24mp DX and FX bodies you’ll find that as you move away from the center you’ll get less acuity. Still, over 15 years later, it’s a reasonably strong lens that I wouldn’t kick out of the bag. The problem, of course, is that Nikon has made two really excellent wide angle zooms in the interim. My preference is the 16-35mm f/4 over the 17-35mm f/2.8. The 14-24mm f/2.8 is the top wide-angle zoom, but it has no filter rings and it’s a little tricky to use due to its field curvature.

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