Nikon 16-35mm f/4G Lens Review

bythom nikon 16-35mm

What is It?
The 16-35mm f/4G was a bit of a surprise when it first appeared. The surprises were: (1) it had VR; and (2) it wasn't a 17-35mm replacement. Initially, public sentiment was positive for this lens, mostly because everyone thought that it was "the modern wide angle zoom that restored filter use."

It's a big lens, 4.9" (125mm) in length and 3.3" (82.5mm) in diameter. It's a somewhat heavy lens, coming in at 24 ounces (680g). It uses big filters (77mm). And it's got a lot of glass inside (17 elements in 12 groups, with 3 aspherical and 2 ED elements). Nano coating is applied on one of the front elements.

Focus goes down to 0.29m, and that provides a respectable maximum magnification ratio of 1:4. Way up front on the lens in an unusual position for Nikon is a focus position indicator window, but it has no useful depth of field markings. 

The zoom ring is marked at 16, 20, 24, 28, and 35mm. As you zoom, in the front element at first recedes into the lens, then begins to move back out. The filter rings are not affected by this.

The lens has two switches, one for focus (M/A and M), and one for VR (On/Off). Note that the VR is cited as being only 2.5 stops (CIPA) by Nikon, which isn't much.

The lens retails for US$1100 and comes with a petal lens hood and soft pouch. 

Nikon's Web site for the lens

16-35mm f/4 data page

Source of the reviewed lens: purchased

How's it Handle?
This is a big lens, bigger than the 17-35mm f/2.8 and almost as big as the 14-24mm f/2.8. Thus, it will tend to be front-heavy on the smaller bodies. Balances fine on a D5, though ;~).

On my sample the zoom ring was a bit stiff and the focus ring a bit loose, but both were acceptable. There's a large distance between the zoom and focus rings, but I didn't find that to be an issue, as they're easily found and distinguished.

As with some of Nikon's bayonets, the petal lens hood on my sample had a tendency to come off a bit too easily. 

How's it Perform?
Autofocus: As you'd expect from a wide angle zoom, autofocus performance tends to be snappy. No complaints here, though it doesn't focus quite as fast as the 14-24mm f/2.8G.

Sharpness: Center sharpness is excellent across the focal range at f/5.6. At f/4, center sharpness actually falls a bit under my standards for excellent at 20-35mm, but is still excellent at 16mm. (Note the words "a bit" in the last sentence; I mean that.) 

It's the corner sharpness that will be of issue to most. Corners at f/4 are poor at 16mm, fair to middling good at other focal lengths. Stopping down puts us in a better range. Even the extreme corners tend to get up to what I'd call good for everything other than 16mm.

16mm users are going to need to sacrifice center performance for edge/corner performance by stopping down to f/11. We're well into the diffraction zone at that point on the higher pixel density bodies, so the best I can call the edge-to-edge results is something on the lines of very good. But barely so.

The best focal length on the lens is probably something around 20mm. There, you get most of what the lens can deliver by f/5.6. You can improve the corners a bit by stopping further down to f/8, but then you're losing a bit from the center. At 28mm, just use f/5.6 to get best results edge-to-edge, but even f/4 isn't too far from that. At 35mm, like 16mm, you're never going to pull the corners in to anything close to what the center can do. The best you'll ever do is good, and you're there by f/5.6.

So simple: f/5.6 is probably where you want to be at the long end, f/8 is probably where you need to be at the wider end (and f/11 to get everything out of the corners at 16mm).

Vignetting: Wide open this lens has significant corner darkening at 16mm, on the order of a stop-and-a-half. Stopping down to f/5.6 puts you just over a stop. But you never really get far from a stop of vignetting at 16mm no matter what aperture you use. At 20-35mm, the lens is actually well behaved, and even just stopping down to f/5.6 gives you what I call ignorable darkening (half stop or less in the extreme corners).

Linear Distortion: The big issue with the 16-35mm happens right at 16mm: it has between 4 and 5% barrel distortion. It's a fairly straight barrel, meaning you can correct it, but that's a lot of linearity to correct, and it has impacts on the corners. First, you have the issue of not seeing your framing if you're going to correct the linear distortion. Second, the pixel integrity degrades quite a bit in the extreme corners.

The lens is fairly free of linear distortion at 24mm. By 28mm, pincushion distortion sets in, and that increases up to a bit over 1% at 35mm. So here's the good news/bad news proposition: I find the linear distortion to be too much at 16mm to correct. If the subject doesn't require correction, the lens is fine; if the subject requires correction, you've compromised your composition and corners. From 20-35mm, though, the lens is in a much more normal level of behavior in terms of linearity. I can deal with 1% distortion, but not 4.5%.

Chromatic Aberration: I was surprised to see as much chromatic aberration on this lens as I did. It's not bad, but at 16mm it's clearly visible on the high megapixel count bodies, and will gobble up three pixels or so in the worst cases.

Flare: One of the better attributes of the lens. It is one of the better wide angle zooms I've seen when it comes to flare handling. You can still trigger it with in-composition sun or bright lighting just off edge, but it's not an objectionable flare and easy enough to avoid in most situations.

Bokeh: Nothing remarkable. This isn't a lens you'd be trying to get soft backgrounds with.

Final Words
If you're starting to think I have a lukewarm response to this lens, that's probably the right conclusion. The 14-24mm just blows the 16-35mm away in terms of sharpness, particularly at the wide end. While the 14-24mm also has considerable linear distortion, it's not quite as bad as the 16-35mm, and the other traits of the faster lens are generally better—or at least more predictable—too.

The thing that bothers me most about the 16-35mm is that the outer edges of the focal range are exactly where it performs worst, particularly in terms of corner issues. That's disappointing, as that's likely where I'd use the lens the most. If even one of those extreme focal lengths were what I'd call really good, then I'd be much more happy about this lens.

The high megapixel count camera users really need to stick to the 14-24mm if they need an optically good wide angle zoom. Or just use the f/1.8G prime set (or the Sigma Arts). I mean this. The 24mm f/1.8G just blows away what the 16-35mm f/4 can do at 24mm f/4. Not even close outside the central area. The 20mm and 35mm f/1.8G do the same at f/5.6 and f/8 at their respective focal lengths.

Thus, it's difficult to see the 16-35mm as anything other than a convenience lens. Yet it's about as long as the 14-24mm and almost as big overall as the old 24-70m f/2.8, so I'm not sure what the actual convenience is. I simply can't recommend it on the high megapixel count Nikon DSLRs. 

I'd love to say it makes a good 24-52mm zoom for the DX bodies, but that really is only true at f/5.6, and barely so at 35mm (52mm equivalent), plus you still have lots of linear distortion to deal with at the wide end.

I know, I know, a lot of folk buy this lens for the VR and the fact that it takes filters. I guess that I don't see the point of VR if all you're doing is modestly stabilizing acuity that isn't as good as you'd want in the first place. And as for filters, you landscape folk would be better off with the 20mm f/1.8G and smaller, cheaper filters ;~).

I guess the good news is that this isn't one of Nikon's expensive Nikkors. It really seems to have been designed from the get go as a consumer convenience zoom, not the optical stand-out many of us were hoping for. 

Some people have asked about the 18-35mm in comparison to the 16-35mm. Sorry, but that less expensive lens doesn't really fix anything. You pay more for the 16-18mm portion of the focal range, you get less (size/weight) by leaving it off. But many of my comments about the 16-35mm also apply to the 18-35mm, unfortunately.

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