Pixel-Peeping Reviews of Nikon's 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR Leave Room for Sigma to Kill

Pixel-Peeping Reviews of Nikon's 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR Leave Room for Sigma to Kill

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?

Background

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.

Nikon's latest 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR is a gorgeous, large hunk of lens. But its sharpness and other optical qualities disappoint, especially when considering its increased price ($2,396.95 compared to $1,796.95 for the previous 24-70mm f/2.8G, which is sharper in the corners).

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.

The Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art is the latest Art series lens in the lineup. It's also the fastest, widest lens in its class — so much so, in fact, that it practically creates its own class. Review coming soon.

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.

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34 Comments

Quentin Decaillet's picture

Third party brands are getting better and are even slowly surpassing the big names in a couple of departments, not only lenses. Hot shoe flashes and flash triggers are two other examples. Now it seems like many brands that were once described as "knock off" brands are becoming innovative brands.

In my opinion, the big names should better either invest in their R&D or team up with the brands that actually innovate. Elinchrom is a great example in that regard. They joined forces with Aurora for some of their new Litemotiv, with Phottix for their new Skyport and they are working with Sekonic as well.
Canon even tried to buy Sigma earlier this year, but apparently the guys at Sigma want to work on their own.

Seeing brands such as Sigma, Sony, Yongnuo and Tamron pushing out innovative products at a fast pace is awesome! It might finally wake up Canon's & Nikon's R&D guys (or decision makers) :)

Travis Alex's picture

The big names just do not get it. They are being stubborn as all hell, and refusing to adapt, and it shows. I have now sold all my Nikon glass and switched over to Sigma and Tamron. With the quality, there is no incentive to buy Nikon glass, 0.0% reasons. $900 for a 70-200 2.8? $1000 for a 150-600? Why on earth would I spend double that for Nikon?

Adapt or die guys. You can't afford to be lazy.

Had the Tamron 70-200/2.8 before. Sold it and got the Nikkor. AF-accuracy and speed are better, sharpness, too. Look here, too: http://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2015/03/just-the-lenses-the-great-200mm-...

Adam Ottke's picture

Yeah... You still have to be careful about which lens you get from the "off" brands. It's easy to tell with the Sigmas (anything in their Global Vision series is great). But with Tamron, it's really just the most recent SPs. And even then, their concentration on these newly excellent lenses isn't as focused as with Sigma's new lineup.
That said, AF speed, accuracy, and overall performance is something that will lag behind the brand names' counterparts for another generation, even if just by a bit.

Travis Alex's picture

Have to admit, I disagree. It all comes down to who is using it. If you are using it for weddings, you might find yourself disappointed with the 24-70 Tamron. However, I feel the Tamron 24-70 kicks Nikons ass in some aspects. One being AF accuracy, however, that's personal experience.

My Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art is sharper, faster, smoother, better built and had less flaring then the Nikon. It was more expensive, but I'd rather have the quality build. The chromatics could be better wide open, but that's not the end all be all that breaks it, as all wide open lenses suffer from it. Most of it is fixed in post.

It's just not enough of a reason to not buy them.

Travis Alex's picture

Are you comparing fairly? If you are just comparing center focus, I would argue you are not going to see much of a difference as I had a Nikon 70-200 2.8 and compared them as well. If you are comparing coner focus, Both Nikon and Tamron will suffer, Nikon having the slight edge. The Nikon is faster for sure, but the Tamron keeps up. I would say the only thing the Tamron lacks is corner sharpness and vignetting in the lower apertures, and won't have the same creamy bokeh most people loose their load over. Again, not enough reason to stay with Nikon for the price. It also comes down to what you are using it for.

The Sigma 150-600 is my only non-Canon glass. Canon simply doesn't make a comparable lens.

Tam Nguyen's picture

Is this better than my 29mm-equivalent f/2.2 iPhone 6 camera?

Christopher Eaton's picture

I recently picked up the new Tokina 24-70mm f/2.8 and though it lacks VR (no biggie for me as I use it 99.9% of the time on tripod) I have found it to be very sharp all the way to the edges. I own the 20mm and 24mm Art lenses and would have loved a 24-70mm Art lenses, but lacking one, the Tokina seemed like the best option at the time (I bought it weeks before the announcement of the new Nikon version) and I still believe that.

Spy Black's picture

"But it has an electromechanical shutter!"

Don't you mean iris?

Unless DxO tests several copies of the lens (I don't know whether they do or not), there is the possibility that they got a bad copy. A very BIG problem purchasing lenses today, whether it be from OEM or third-party manufacturers, is the surprisingly high degree of bad copies of any given lens. I bought the Tamron 24-70 when it came out, and I had a dismal copy of it. I find it very frustrating that you have to go through an Easter Egg hunt nowadays to get a good copy of a lens.

As for overall lens test results, I think a much better place to get lens information is from lenrentals.com, who test multiple copies of the same lens for an overall averaged result, and they do so on an optical bench, which removes the variable of the camera body from the equation.

All that said, it could be the formula Nikon designed incorporated some compromises to reach a goal.

Michael Kormos's picture

Sorry, I don't believe in such a thing as "bad copy". You're not buying an apple at the local market. Thete should be no bad copies, period.

Spy Black's picture

You're practicing stand-up, I assume.

In engineering you cannot avoid tolerances. The same with lenses. Look at the lensrentals.com reviews of lenses. They test 10-20 of them and show often a larger than expected variance.

My biggest problem with third party lenses is quality control- I have bought and returned two copies of the Tamron 24-70mm VC due to decentering/ misalignment and had my Sigma 50mm ART focus motor die on me.

Adam Ottke's picture

That' interesting... Yes, I think there are certainly some quality control issues (which will improve over time). Tamron is coming into the high-quality lens game a little later and with slightly less focus than Sigma. But even Sigma has its focus issues (not aware of focus motor issues, but alignment out of the box is sometimes not great). In these cases, I've sent my lenses straight into Sigma to get re-aligned. They always get the lens back to me within 10 days or so, and it's adjusted perfectly after that.
The worst part is that a simple in-camera focus correction would not work in these circumstances, as the back- and front-focusing issues were subject-distance-dependent. But while it's a hassle, it's something that should get better in the future...and something that is somewhat easy to fix with their great service (so far).

Norbert Tukora's picture

My Sigma Art 50mm 1.4 had inconsistent auto focus, but I didn't care because I used it in manual most of the time. Finally had some time to send it for repair, they told me it would take 2-3 weeks. That was 5 weeks ago, and the shop still can't tell when it will be done...
I bought it in Hungary and they sent it to Austria, so it's not that far. :D

Michael Kormos's picture

Been shooting with the new 24-70 for the past month. I can confirm the lens is not as sharp as previous generation. Been playing with AF fine tune to no avail. Other VR lenses are razor sharp, like the 70-200. Sadly, I'm past the 30-day return policy, but luckily I still have the previous generation. If Nikon doesn't offer a solution I may just eBay it.

Travis Alex's picture

Thanks for being somebody to actually try the lens and see for yourself. Is there any chance you could provide examples for us to see?

Adam Ottke's picture

Just FYI, it can sometimes be a bit of work to do comparisons that are worth looking at (you have to be pretty precise). On that note, if Michael can't/doesn't feel like it/doesn't have time to post examples, there are a number of areas on the web that have put up samples from early on around the time when the lens was first announced. In my memory, they were pretty well done comparisons, and many who tried the lens agreed with the results...

Michael Kormos's picture

I'd be happy to post a few samples as soon as the busy season dies down! I use the 24-70 exclusively for all newborn sessions (4 per week on average), so over the past few years, I've gotten to know the original 24-70 quite well. Checking focus on the eyes is a habit, and that lens was spot-on 8 out of 10 times. This new VR version is just soft. Not necessarily OOF, just really soft. And mind you, I shoot with flash. Even tried turning the VR on and off, AF-fine tune, etc.

I never thought I'd say this, but for the first time ever, I'm actually disappointed with Nikon.

Joe Schmitt's picture

I had the original Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 and sold it to get the new version. I'm not seeing the softness that others are reporting...but I'm not pixel peeping either. My overall images are looking great and I always apply sharpening in Lightroom either to the entire image or select areas with masking or the adjustment brush. They look sharp to me and look great printed as well.

The VR has been great when shooting with natural light and the VR is very quiet. On my Nikon 70-200 f/2.8, it's like a loud clicking when VR is engaged. It's barely a noise at all on the new 24-70 lens. This will come in handy for weddings where no flash can be used and I'm shuffling around guests.

The biggest improvement I think is the AF. I think that's much, much better than the last version. For me...VR and the improved AF have made me very happy with the upgrade.

Also, I always run the AF Fine Tune test on my lenses and both camera bodies and this one was spot on at zero adjustment with my D4S and D810...I can't say that for my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, 16-35mm f/4, or my 105mm macro. All of those needed slight adjustments. Seems like they got something right there.

Travis Alex's picture

Do you honestly think it's worth the extra price tag? 100% honestly? If so, right on. I personally don't, I went with Tamrons for the price.

Joe Schmitt's picture

"Is it worth it" is very subjective. If I was able to nail a wedding shot in low light without flash and capture a killer moment for a wedding client...all because of the addition of VR, I'd say that the lens just paid for itself right then and there. Do I wish the lens was cheaper? Sure. But I had a Tamron and Tokina lens a few years ago in my DX days and the Nikon build quality is a huge differentiator in my opinion. And if I want to unload a lens down the line (like I did here to get the VR version), I know the Nikon gear gives me an excellent return on my investment. I was able to sell off my old version for $1300. Pretty good return there!

Long term and speaking from an overall perspective...yes, I think it's worth it. Seriously...I'm very happy with the lens.

Anonymous's picture

Whether or not the Nikon is better is debatable. Whether or not a better lens is worth more money is not. The real question is: can you justify the cost for your photography.

Michael Kormos's picture

I shoot with the same bodies. Interesting to hear that yours are razor sharp. Maybe I'll send the lens to Melville under my NPS program and have them test it during the slow season when I don't need it on a daily basis.

Joe Schmitt's picture

Here's one of the photos I shot with it recently. I think it looks pretty sharp.

http://www.jschmitt.photography/Family/McKissick-Otteni-Christmas-2015/i...

It's worth reading the optical bench tests by lensrentals.com.

http://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2015/10/nikon-24-70mm-f2-8-ed-af-s-vr-sh...

They tested 10 copies of the lens, and their findings were quite different from DXO. I assume DXO only tested one copy, so the most logical explanation for the discrepancy is sample variation. Lensrentals found the lens to have the most consistent sharpness at the longer end of the zoom range, exactly the opposite of the DXO findings.

When you compare the results between the two, the DXO test simply looks broken, especially when you consider that lensrentals always tests lenses at the widest aperture (except when the lens is longer than 300mm).

It's also worth mentioning that DXO doesn't publish how they determine their ratings. For all we know, they could have an adjustment based on price, brand appeal, etc. I don't think they do, but there's simply no way to verify that assumption.

I've been nagging a Sigma rep on that kind of lens, and from what he said, it didn't really sound like it was something they necessarily wanted to build. It's supposedly hard to get right, always compromising somewhere. Looking at their lineup, I would think it's more likely that they produce a "companion" to the 24-35/2 and leave wide coverage to their 24-105/4.

Chris K.'s picture

I've done a few shoots with the new 24-70. Sharpness wise if it's softer then the original, I don't notice it in the center-corners do appear a bit softer though.
There are two things I really like about this lens over the original (not including VR):
The AF is really fast and accurate-even in low light it seems. Had a shoot yesterday where I used both of them and decided after a set to turn off the model lights on my key strobe and the original's focus was off-the new one nailed it.
And secondly the flare-or lack of. Literally pointed a strobe right at it on a corner and there was next to no flare. Sure I love flares but sometimes I can't avoid them.

That being said with what I shoot I'm happier with the new 24-70 and glad I bought one. Is it worth that price and even more expensive then the 70-200 f/2.8 VR2-nope

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