Nikon upset and confused some customers when they moved the overall size and filter thread of their 24-70mm f/2.8 follow-up to 82mm (up from the standard 77mm). While this would mean that those wanting the latest upgrade for their mid-range zoom would need to invest in new filters and lift heavier weights at the gym, the change allowed Nikon to introduce unprecedented image quality and, of course, vibration reduction. But what if that image quality wasn't unprecedented? What if it wasn't even better? What if, God forbid, it was worse?
DxOMark gets a lot of flak (even from us) for just how pixel-peeping their reviews are. After all, they're practically beyond even looking at pixels, instead relying on computers and scientific tests to report back with results on real-life light transmission, etc. The biggest complaint often has to do with the fact that it's hard to see any real-world difference that their tests often indicate. But at the end of the day, they do a decent job. If you look at the sharpest lenses according to their own tests, they are often in alignment with the general public's favorite lenses. So, when a review comes out, we still listen.
DxOMark's review of the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR proved the lens as a disappointment. Corner sharpness is worse than that of the previous generation. Where the lens improves in chromatic aberration and light transmission, it improves very little. Meanwhile, where it lags behind in sharpness, it also lags only slightly. But for those counting, it's still behind the lens it replaces, the much-lauded Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 VC, and even Sigma's current 24-70mm f/2.8, which is well liked, but not exactly loved by any means. While this isn't surprising if you've been reading reviews and reports of other real-world tests over the last several weeks, it is surprising from the standpoint that Nikon's first update to one of its most popular professional lenses in just about eight years falls so short.
But it has VR! But it has a faster AF-S motor! But it has an electromechanical aperture!
Of course, the new 24-70mm has features that are undeniably an improvement over those in its predecessor. Vibration reduction and faster autofocus capabilities thanks to the new AF-S motor and the electromechanical aperture help get sharper images in day-to-day shooting by ensuring accurate focus, accurate exposure, and less motion blur from your own movements. At the end of the day, it's better to have a sharp, in-focus image than to squabble about corner sharpness.
But there's a greater problem with the new standard zoom's corner and overall sharpness performance. Simply put, it should have been better. Nikon cannot afford to lag behind its competition, which is gaining faster than ever as recent technologies advance optics and make better imaging more widely available. If they're going to increase the size, weight, and price (by 30 percent) compared to the previous generation lens, they need to justify it by making it the unequivocally best mid-range zoom on the market, especially with extremely high-resolving cameras like the D810. It needs to be the ultimate standard. They didn't even get close.
What Could and Will Likely Happen
All eyes are on Nikon's business as sales and profits continue to slide. Thanks to Sigma's and Tamron's dual high quality lens-churning machines, photographers — both professional and amateur — can start looking at other brands for better quality at a better price. The long-standing notion that the best lenses come from the brand marked on the front of your camera has vanished, even if it takes a little longer for the most stubborn of us to admit this. The truth is that we're barely starting to see the realization of this phenomenon.
Rumors about a high-end Art-series 24-70mm lens from Sigma are on their second year of circulation. While there was some early speculation about a version that would open up to f/2, that seems highly unlikely given the physical limitations of creating a 24-70mm lens. Moreover, the f/2 figure was likely confused in rumors from what was initially revealed and released as the 24-35mm f/2, which, despite providing a fairly limited zoom range, did make headlines as the world's fastest zoom lens for full-frame cameras.
It's not surprising that everyone is saying 2016 is the year for Sigma's 24-70mm f/2.8 debut, which is expected to feature optical stabilization to put it squarely up against Nikon's newest 24-70mm f/2.8E.
The popularity and practicality of such a lens would likely poke a hole in Sigma's currently perfect $799-$999 pricing for its full-frame Art-series lenses, but it certainly won't come close to costing as much as Nikon's newest standard zoom, let alone its old one. And if past experience is any indication, the optics will impress. And if the first Sigma Art lenses just marked the beginning, the new 24-70mm f/2.8 could mark the beginning of the end.
Is this good? Absolutely, for us. The question is whether or not the big brands will survive the transition to keep supplying excellent bodies (this isn't just a Nikon vs. Sigma issue; they simply provide the latest and best example). No one is going anywhere in the next five or even 10 years. But what happens after that is unsure enough that I wouldn't bet a penny one way or another. We could be in for a rapid market shift. And it all depends on "everyone else."
I'm currently in the process of running the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art through its paces. So far, it's everything I expected it to be and then some. Expect a review soon.