Nikon AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm F4G ED VR
Category: Wideangle Lens
Conclusion - Pros
- Very high image quality on both DX and FX formats
- Excellent build quality with dust and moisture sealing
- Highly effective optical image stabilization
- Fast, silent autofocus with manual override
Conclusion - Cons
- Huge barrel distortion at 16mm on FX cameras
- Relatively big and heavy for its class (larger than many F2.8 wideangle zooms)
- Slightly inelegant flare handling
The AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm F4 VR may be the first true wideangle zoom to incorporate optical image stabilization, but while many headline-grabbing firsts end up being slightly disappointing products, it's anything but. The 16-35mm is simply a very good wideangle lens that happens to have VR thrown in as a bonus.
Overall, image quality is pretty impressive. The lens is very sharp in the center of the frame at almost all settings, and while the extreme corners are a little soft wide open on full frame (especially at 16mm), they sharpen up well on stopping down to normal working apertures. Chromatic aberration is also strikingly low, which contributes greatly to producing clean-looking images. At its very best - stopped down to F8 or F11, and especially around the 24mm mark - the lens's rendition of fine detail right across the frame is simply breathtaking. Throw in excellent build quality, fast and silent focusing, plus efficient VR, and this all adds up to a very desirable package.
The one outstanding flaw, though, is the barrel distortion at 16mm on full frame, which is frankly huge. It's by some margin the highest we've measured amongst conventionally-corrected SLR lenses, and indeed higher than that of many Micro Four Thirds lenses, which rely on automated software correction to produce acceptable images. This distortion will be visible in many images, especially if you shoot subjects which naturally include lots of straight lines such as interiors and architecture. It can be corrected easily enough in post-processing, although unfortunately Nikon provides no automated way of doing this in the ViewNX software supplied with its cameras; you'll have to pay extra for Capture NX2 (which at the time of writing appeared not to understand the 16-35mm correctly either).
Aside from that, flaws are minor. The 16-35mm isn't the best in the world at dealing with flare when shooting into the sun, but to be fair we've seen much worse. It's also a relatively large, bulky lens, with the addition of VR clearly changing the equation somewhat compared to Canon's analogous EF 17-40mm F4 L USM. Indeed it's larger in size than many F2.8 wide zooms (including Nikon's own AF-S 17-35mm F2.8D), and it's not a lightweight either. So it doesn't quite offer the portability advantage that you might expect from its F4 maximum aperture.
On launch, Nikon seemed intent on characterizing the 16-35mm as 'the wide zoom for D700 users', designed to complement the smaller full frame body design. But to see it as some kind of poor relation to the D3(X) user's 14-24mm F2.8 is decidedly to miss the point, as in many ways the 16-35mm is a far more practical lens. For landscape photographers it's easier to carry around all day (due to its significantly lighter weight), and it additionally allows you to use filters such as neutral density gradients and polarizers much more easily. It obviously doesn't provide such a wide field of view, but most of the time it's wide enough, and the significantly extended long end means that you can plausibly leave it on the camera much more of the time, minimizing the need for lens swapping. The efficient VR also enables hand-held shooting in lower light than the faster lens, just as long as you don't need to freeze subject motion.
Speaking of VR, it's possible that some potential buyers will be questioning its utility on a wideangle lens. While it's true that stabilization is nowhere near as essential as it is on a long telephoto, this doesn't make it superfluous. It simply gives you more scope for trading shutter speed against aperture or ISO when shooting hand-held, allowing you to use smaller apertures for increased depth of field (or simply stay within the sweet spot of sharpness), longer shutter speeds for creative use of motion blur, or just to continue working in extremely low light.
The 16-35mm F4 VR is, then, an excellent alternative to the 14-24mm F2.8 as a lighter, more affordable ultra-wide angle zoom for Nikon's full frame DSLRs. The addition of VR, and the ability to accept filters, also adds up to a slightly different set of capabilities, making the 16-35mm in many respects a more practical lens to carry around and use. We're not so convinced about its utility on DX; it's large, heavy and expensive for such a limited zoom range (24-50mm equivalent), so despite its excellent optics a purpose-designed DX zoom probably makes more sense for most users. Overall, only the huge barrel distortion at 16mm on FX makes it fall just short of our top award.
Ergonomics and Handling
Nikon's 16-35mm F4 VR is the first true wide zoom to sport optical stabilization, but thankfully doesn't compromise imaging performance to do so. It's an excellent choice particularly for full frame users, but you do need to be aware of its pronounced barrel distortion at wide angle.
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Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution. To bypass the camera's automatic chromatic aberration correction and provide a better impression of the lens itself, images are shot in RAW and converted using Adobe Camera Raw. A reduced size image (within 1024 x 1024 bounds) is provided to be more easily viewed in your browser. As always the original untouched image is available by clicking on this reduced image.