Nikon 16-80mm f/2.8-4E VR DX Lens Review

bythom nikon 16-80mm.jpg

What is It?

The 16-80mm f/2.8-4E is Nikon’s latest mid-range zoom for the DX body cameras. Effectively, it’s the 24-120mm (equivalent) zoom for DX. 

We have a fair number of things to discuss about this new lens, starting with the E designation. That means that aperture control is now electronic; the lens has no aperture activation arm that mechanically links to the body (a good thing mostly). For modern Nikon DSLRs, the E linkage is preferred, as it gives a quiet, more consistent aperture control that can be step-less during video exposure control. The downside is that older Nikon DSLRs can’t control the aperture. By older, I mean D1, D2, D100, D200, D70, D80, D90, and D3000 bodies, as well as other lower end bodies produced during the same time period as those (e.g. D40, D50, etc.). Put a different way, you need one of the following DX bodies (or any FX body):

  • D3100, D3200, D3300, D3400
  • D5000, D5100, D5200, D5300, D5500, D5600
  • D7000, D7100, D7200, D7500
  • D300, D300s, D500 

With that out of the way, the basics of this lens are VR II with a four-stop (CIPA tested) capability, Nano coating, a fluorine coating on the front element for protection and ease of cleaning, plus the usual ED and aspherical glass coupled with internal autofocus performed by a top of the line silent wave motor. While it’s ever so slightly wider (8mm) than the older 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6, this new 16-80mm is also one ounce lighter (5g) and a tiny bit shorter. The size and weight is a bit of a surprise considering the faster aperture of the new lens. Nikon went far in trying to build a better mousetrap in the same dimensions here. 

The zoom ring for the lens is at the front, and is marked at the 16, 24, 35, 50, and 80mm positions.  The full zoom takes less than a quarter turn rotation, but note that the front of the lens extends from it’s minimum position at 16mm a full 1 5/8” (40mm) longer when it is at 80mm. Filter size is 72mm.

The focus ring is narrow and at the camera end of the lens. From near to far, the focus ring rotates almost a full half turn. As with zooming, the front element does not rotate during focus. While there’s a focus scale built into the lens, it doesn’t really give you a lot of information. No DOF or IR markings are given, and in feet you only have 1.25', 1.75', 2.5', 4', and infinity markings (0.35, 0.5, 0.8, 1.5 and infinity for meters). The 16-80mm can’t really be called a close-up lens, but it does have a respectable 1:4.6 magnification ratio. Not macro range, but also not as bad as we often get with zoom lenses.

On the side of the lens near the camera you’ll find three switches: M/A M, VR On and Off, and Normal and Active (for VR). 

The supplied HB-75 lens hood is a bayonet type, but it’s a little unusual in that it is a near rectangular petal at the front. While this gives a bit better coverage at 16mm, it also means that the lens takes up a little more room in a bag with the lens hood reversed. While the hood uses a push-button release, it doesn’t seem to be as finicky or poorly designed as some of the push-button releases on Nikon hoods (e.g. the 55-200mm and 55-300mm). 

Nikon's page for the lens is herePrice is US$1070, and the lens is made in Thailand. 

Source of the review sample: personal purchase. Results compared to one other sample lens available to me.

How’s it Handle?
Like the 16-85mm before it, the 16-80mm f/2.8-4 isn’t a big lens, all things considered. It seems appropriately downsized for DX. Compared to the 24-120mm f/4 FX zoom it most directly compares to for FX, it’s 0.7” (17.5mm) shorter and almost 9 ounces (230g) lighter. This is exactly what we wanted from Nikon, frankly. We get a smaller, lighter lens that’s close to the equivalent of its FX brother optically (the DX version is exactly equivalent at the wide end, a stop down at the telephoto end). 

Because of this smallish size and weight, I found that the 16-80mm makes for a very pleasant and reasonable combination on the smaller DX DSLR bodies, particularly the D7200. A D7200 with the 16-80mm is almost exactly what a DX system should be compared to the D610 or D750 with the 24-120mm lens: smaller and lighter, but with no significant other penalty. (For what it’s worth, I’ve been doing my book and Web site product images with the D7200 and 16-80mm for a while now.)

I wish I could say that the zoom and focus rings lived up this same standard. On my sample (and another I tried), there’s a distinct “grab” at around 35mm that makes zooming not particularly smooth. Zooming from 16-24mm: smooth but stiff. Zooming from 50-80mm: smooth and a little less stiff. Zooming from 24-50mm: not smooth, and very stiff up to something above 40mm where it loosens considerably. This seems to have to do with the double extension that the front element does: as it switches from moving one barrel forward to two, there’s a distinct difference in feel at that point, and there’s an additional friction you have to overcome to get from the single barrel extension to the double barrel one. 

Meanwhile, the focus ring on my sample just feels a bit rough throughout the range: it feels like I’m directly coupled to something that’s moving without bearings and that whatever that is has an extra bit of resistance to moving. This is true throughout the zoom range, not just at the grab spot I just mentioned. It’s also noisier than I’d expect while manually focusing. 

So, what we have here is a very appropriately sized DX lens, but one in which the zoom and focus rings don’t feel particularly special. They’re not buttery smooth by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re also not terrible. Still, for a lens at this price, I expected better.

How’s it Perform?
Autofocus: While not as snappy as I’d like, there’s little to complain about. Most of the time you won’t notice the focus speed. But every now and then—particularly in low light or low contrast—you’ll hear the focus go buh-zip instead of zip and clearly see the transition in the viewfinder as it moves the focus point. To put that into perspective, focus is snappier and faster than most of the f/1.8 primes in the same situation, but noticeable slower at times than the high-end telephotos. 

That said, I didn’t see any issues with tracking focus. The buh-zip thing doesn’t occur all the time, and typically only on initial focus with large focus jumps. 

One thing: focus produces noticeable noise that will be always picked up by the in-camera microphones shooting video. It may even be picked up by external microphones. It’s not an obnoxious noise, though it has a bit high pitched buzz to it.

Optics: My initial response was that this lens had excellent sharpness through much of its focal range, but ongoing testing revealed a few nuances that need to be discussed. From 16-55mm, the central area is what I’d call excellent at all apertures, with one stop down generally triggering the best the lens can achieve. At 80mm, f/4 is just good, and you absolutely have to stop down a stop to get the best the lens can deliver. 

One thing I noticed is how small the image circle is on this lens (it doesn’t cover the full FX frame at any focal length). And, yes, that shows up some in the corners. It really takes two stops to bring the corners into their best showing. That’s pretty much true at any focal length, though the situation gets a bit better at 80mm, where it really only takes one stop to pull the corners in. 

That said, the corners are already quite good even wide open, certainly better than the older 16-85mm f/3.5-4.5 produced wide open. 

One other nuance is this: the lens gets progressively lower edge acuity as you stop down from the best aperture (best aperture being f/5.6 at 16mm and 80mm, between f/5.6 or f/8 for intermediary focal lengths). With the 24mp sensors diffraction is going to be limiting what you can do in the f/11 and beyond range, and the center and corners are relatively even across the board when that happens.

Chromatic aberration was modest, with the edges showing maybe a pixel’s worth at the worst focal length (16mm), and the center ditto at 80mm. 

Probably the worst faults of this lens are vignetting and linear distortion. At 16mm you’re going to find almost two stops of vignetting and over 5% barrel distortion (with a bit of mustache to it). At 80mm you’re still going to find well over a stop of vignetting and now about 1.5% pincushion distortion. In between things are better; distortion is negligible at about 20mm, so increasing barrel distortion below that, increasing pin cushion distortion above that. The vignetting, I should point out, has a very dramatic pattern to it: it’s not gradual when it starts to occur in the corners. I put this to the smallish image circle of the lens coupled with the aspherics: the corners are definitely close to the edge of that circle. 

Flare can be produced with bright light sources in the frame, especially the sun, and it’s a bit more complex and ugly than I’d like. Moreover, it’s multicolored.

The question that keeps coming up is how well does the new 16-80mm compare to previous Nikon DX lenses, such as the 16-85mm variable aperture model and the 17-55mm f/2.8? Or perhaps how well does it compare to the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 I’ve been recommending for awhile?

This brings up a subject that’s tough to describe, let alone illustrate: Nikon’s new lens design philosophies. Frankly, new Nikkors don’t perform all that well on flat field test charts shot at close range (exactly the way most lab tests are done). The so-called MTF numbers that get reported by other sites using Imatest, for example, tend to suggest that recent Nikkors aren’t top performers. I’d argue that such tests are being done in ways that don’t mimic use and are giving misleading results. 

In actual shooting, things turn out a bit differently the way Nikon is designing these days. Compared to the older 16-85mm, the new 16-80mm clearly at least matches it in the center of the frame and exceeds it in the corners at virtually any focal length or aperture I compare. The 16-85mm was “high acuity” in the center; the 16-80mm is no different, and perhaps even better at identical apertures. The 16-85mm had issues in the corners, and the 16-80mm has far fewer issues in the corners (other than vignetting). Nikon appears to be correcting for astigmatisms and some coma in their lens designs now, and the difference it produces rarely shows up in test chart testing. 

I’d tend to say that my Sigma 17-50mm sample is a bit sharper in the central area wide open than the 16-80mm, but again, as we progress to the corners, the 16-80mm behaves a bit more reasonably than the Sigma. 

But…those distortion and vignetting values will tend to have a fairly significant impact on your evaluation of the lens if you’re shooting JPEG. Obviously, what the viewfinder sees and what the built-in auto corrections of the camera adjust can result in very different looking results than what you see while composing for JPEGs, at least when you use the optical viewfinder and have the lens corrections turned on. 

One bias that I keep seeing in other people’s reports on this lens reflects the price versus performance creep. For the upward jump in price, people were expecting a substantive performance rise that’s easily measured with test charts. So virtually everyone that’s reviewed this lens prior to me seems to come up with the conclusion that it’s a decent lens, but overpriced. 

That’s not the way I see the 16-80mm in actual use. I find it very well-behaved and producing images with good snap and very good edge-to-edge consistency (other than vignetting ;~), even wide open. It’s certainly not a perfect lens. No mid-range zoom I know of manages to juggle all the variables involved with trying to make both a great wide angle and telephoto lens and keep those attributes totally consistent throughout the range while also maintaining a fast maximum aperture. But the 16-80mm comes closer to that than any mid-range zoom I’ve seen for DX cameras to date (the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 would be my very close #2 choice, though I’ve seen a lot of sample variation with that lens).   

What I keep looking at is what the lens produces in the field under actual shooting conditions versus what it does on flat test charts. I’d have to say that the 16-80mm DX clearly wasn’t optimized to shoot flat test charts at close distances. The Imatest numbers when doing chart testing are very good, but not great. They’re somewhat better than my 16-85mm produced. But in actual shooting, the 16-80mm seems clearly better, especially wide open. 

Final Thoughts
So the problem boils down to this: what are you getting for the price? I’d say that you’re getting the current best mid-range zoom for DX, but you’re paying a premium for that. That’s not incongruous. 

Thing is, lenses have always been a large gating element to our ultimate performance capability, and probably more so than sensor pixel count. It pays to invest in lenses that remove as much of that gate as possible, and I believe that the 16-80mm DX is a step in the right direction there. As I noted, it’s not a perfect lens, but the sum of the components in its optical performance is clearly better to me than any previous DX mid-range zoom. 

Would I mount the 16-80mm on a D3300 or D5500? Sure, but you’re in the lower-quality-body-but-higher-quality-lens realm. Both the D3300 and D5500 only shoot compressed  NEFs that leave out a lot of data, for instance, so there are camera factors that begin to hold back the ultimate performance that’s possible. You’d be mounting performance tires on a daily commuter vehicle. [update: a lot of people objected to my original wording in this paragraph, all of them claiming that the D5500 shot 14-bit NEF so isn’t prone to the problem I’m pointing out. It is. So I changed the wording to be clear as to meaning, as I always do when I make an error or something produces confused reactions.]

Where the 16-80mm DX is clearly of interest is in the D7200 and D500 realm. With my D7200 I find that I’m extracting just a bit more out of the sensor than on any previous DX body, and putting a higher performance mid-range zoom on it is consistent with that. Which is why the 16-80mm DX is now the mid-range zoom I use with that camera. 

Is this lens a bargain? Heavens no. At its price I’d expect a better “feel” to the mechanical bits, if nothing else. Plus we have that linear distortion and vignetting to contend with (not true if you’re shooting JPEGs if you turn on the in-camera corrections). Still, otherwise it’s well behaved optically, and this is a very appropriate mid-range zoom for an enthusiast trying to keep their kit balanced in size versus performance.

Personally, I prefer the 16mm wide end over the 18mm wide end of most of the other Nikkor zooms for DX. Plus the faster aperture compared to all the 18-xx zooms (and even the previous 16-85mm) lets us DX shooters squeak a bit more out of our systems in low light. So do you buy the 16-80mm or the 18-140mm, the two best of Nikon’s current DX zoom offerings? 

Simple: buy the 16-80mm if you’re on the performance side of things and/or need a truly wide angle in your mid-range; buy the 18-140mm if you’re more on the convenience side of things and/or need more telephoto reach more than you do wider angle.

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