AF-S Zoom-Nikkor ED 12-24mm f/4G IF DX


When you need wide angle for your digital SLR.

 

The first of Nikon's DX series of lenses, intended to restore true wide angle support for digital bodies with 1.5x angle of view conversion.

Lens Formula
11 elements in 7 groups; 3 aspherical, and 2 ED elements.
Other Features
Manual focus override, AF-S lens focusing motor, internal focus, 77mm filter size. Comes with HB-23 hood. Focuses to 1' (0.28m).
Size and Weight
About 90mm long, 17.1 ounces (485g).
Price
US$1095 (street)
   

The Basics

With the introduction of digital SLRs (DSLRs), many photographers lamented the fact that their wide angle zooms, such as the 17-35mm, suddenly became more like mid-range zooms. With the smaller sensor size of the Nikon digital bodies (D1 series, D100, D2h, Fujifilm S2 Pro), the angle of view for a 17mm focal length was effectively that of a ~27mm lens on a 35mm SLR. Many professionals regard 28mm at the start of the wide angle range and not overly useful, so they immediately went out and bought the Nikkor 14mm, which at least got them a 21mm equivalent angle of view (the Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 is probably the wide angle most in use by outdoor and nature professionals like myself). Still, this really didn't give them any flexibility with wide angle.

Nikon's solution to the missing wide angle range was to launch a new series of lenses--the DX lenses--which are designed with an image circle more appropriate to the smaller sensor size of the digital lineup. Essentially, these lenses are designed solely for use on Nikon DSLRs (and the Fujifilm DSLRs), though as you'll learn, they can be used in a limited fashion on 35mm bodies.

As I write this, three DX lenses have been announced (two have shipped): the 12-24mm that's the subject of this review, the 10.5mm full frame fisheye, and the postponed 17-55mm f/2.8 AF-S [arrived in summer 2004]. I expect additional ones to be announced [the 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G DX AF-S shipped with the D70 in spring 2004].

The 12-24mm DX lens is larger than you'd expect, being only slightly smaller than the 17-35mm! That's despite producing a smaller image circle and being an f/4 lens. The minute you pick up this lens, you're going to be curious why it is as large as it is. (Hint: it's all about performance, baby.)

The 12-24mm focal range gives you angle of views from 61 to 99 degrees on a DSLR; it's effectively the same as using an 18-35mm lens on a 35mm body. Coupled with the 10.5mm DX lens and Nikon Capture, there really shouldn't be any wide angle function digital users will miss. Assuming, of course, that the lens performs well (see below).

This is a two ring design, once again with the zoom ring in the front and the focus ring nearest the camera (the opposite of older designs). The lens does have a distance scale, but with no depth of field or infrared markings. You know, even if the lens manufacturers don't want to give us depth of field markings, the least they could do is mark the hyperfocal point at one focal length and aperture combination. In the case of the DX lenses, this is even more important, as standard 35mm depth of field charts won't help you; you need one designed specifically for the APS-sized sensors (copies of which are in my DSLR books, by the way). On the left side of the lens (from the back of the camera) is one button:

  • Manual Focus button: In the M/A position the lens works as usual (autofocus with manual override). In the M position, the lens focuses only manually.

The HB-23 hood supplied with the lens is the bayonet type butterfly style. It can be reversed onto the lens for carrying, but it adds diameter to lens when you do so. This is the same hood used with the 17-35mm and 18-35mm Nikkors.

You get AF-S focusing with this lens, and that'll take you down to 1 foot (.28m, which Nikon in its inconsistent fashion rounds to .3m in some of its literature). The supplied lens cap is the new pinch-front type.

 

Handling

There's not a lot to say: if you're used to the focus ring being closer to the camera than the zoom ring, everything is pretty much where you expect and works the way you want it to. If you're not, you'll stumble over that for awhile until you get used to it.

While there isn't a great deal of difference in "feel" of the two rings, the zoom ring is much wider than the focus ring, so you can distinguish them without looking. Both rings aren't quite as smooth as the cream of Nikon's lineup, though they are decidedly better than many of those in the consumer lens line-up. Both rings give the full range of options through slightly less than a quarter turn; I'd have preferred slightly more turn for the focus ring, as it's very difficult to set a specific focus distance. Moreover, you only have four focus distances marked: 1, 1.5, 2.5, and infinity (in feet).The lens doesn't extend during zoom or focus.

Performance

Performance on a wide angle zoom usually boils down to three things: sharpness, light falloff, and distortion. So without making you wait for it, I'll just say this is one heck of a sharp lens with modest falloff and distortion.

Sharpness is strong throughout the range, with f/8 and f/11 being the point of maximum sharpness on my sample pretty much across the focal length range. But even at f/4 in the corners this lens is a very good performer, though some very small amounts of chromatic aberration rears its head at the 12mm end. Still, at 12mm and f/4 this zoom beats the pants off the 18mm f/2.8D Nikkor (used on a 35mm body) in the corners. That's right, a zoom lens is better than a prime lens!

But wait, there's more. At 24mm, this lens may be as sharp as the 24mm f/2.8 Nikkor, which I think is one of the sharpest wide angles Nikon has made. Even at 20mm it rivals the 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor in almost every performance aspect. Wow!

That "wow!" is even more interesting in that the 12-24mm can be used on a 35mm body from about 18-24mm. At 18mm there is a clear light falloff at the corners, but at 24mm this is no worse than the 24mm f/2.8 Nikkor at the same apertures. In short, if you shoot with an APS-sized sensor and a full-frame sensor as I do (D100 and Pro 14n when I wrote this article), you can leave the 17-35mm or fixed wide angle primes at home. A 12-24mm coupled with a 24-85mm AF-S covers the primary focal lengths you'd use with excellent optics. If you need longer telephoto, season to choice (my choice is usually the 70-200mm AF-S VR).
A typical wide angle use of the 12-24mm, taken at 12mm mid-stream with a D100 at f/22 and with a 1 second exposure. Note the sky in the upper right: very little apparent light fall off. Note too that detail in the bank, trees, and rock appears good (see below).
Here's a closer, 100% look in the middle part of the image. JPEG rendering softens this a bit. Since this was taken at f/22 and the hyperfocal distance, you're looking at a worst case scenario here. The small aperture has produced a bit of diffraction effect, while the hyperfocal distance might have been set just a bit too close to the focal plane (as I note, it's hard to set a focus distance on this lens as it only has three marked distances other than infinity). Still, there's good individuation of the leaves and "grain" in the rock, which I'm quite far away from (there's a highway between me and the rock). And this is at 12mm, which is the lens's weakest focal length, and on a D100, which tends to produce less acuity than my D1x.

Light falloff is well under control throughout the range on digital bodies. On 35mm bodies, you'll see light fall off at 18mm and clear vignetting caused by the small image circle by 16mm.

Distortion performance is okay. At 12mm there's evident mustache distortion--just enough to rule out this lens for architectural photography but not enough to make most of us worry. (What the heck is mustache distortion? Think handlebar mustache. Barrel distortion is outward curving straight lines, and pincushion is inward curving straight lines. Mustache distortion is a form of both, with wavy straight lines, usually barrel-like in the middle with some pincushion towards the corners. As I first starting using the lens, I thought the distortion was straight barrel, but use has shown me otherwise--a straight barrel conversion tool doesn't quite get straight lines back to straight.) At 24mm, the distortion is mostly gone and straight lines at the edge of the frame look straight. I don't know of a wide angle zoom that doesn't have some distortion at the wide end (some have it throughout their zoom range), and this lens I'd characterize as being one of the better performers in this regard. Still, if you need perfectly straight lines at 12mm for architectural photography, this isn't the lens to give it to you.

Autofocus is very fast and hunt-free. Personally, I rarely autofocus a wide angle zoom, as depth of field is more important to me than focus speed, but if I were a photojournalist, I'd be very happy with the autofocus performance.

To me the worst performance factor of this lens is two-fold: first, chromatic aberration is indeed recognizable in the corners, especially at 12mm. That is easily fixed in Photoshop CS or Panorama Tools, though. The bigger issue for my work is that even thin filters tend to produce vignetting on this lens, especially at 12mm. It's impossible to stack filters, and every polarizer I've tried, including some very thin B&W ones, tends to "clip" the very corners of the image at 12mm. Curiously, Nikon recommends using a NC filter ("To protect the front lens element, an NC filter is recommended at all times"). Don't listen to Nikon, you'll end up with clipped corners at 12mm.

Flare performance is quite good. Unless light is hitting directly on the front element, I've not seen any visible contrast degradation, and the supplied butterfly type hood is adequate in keeping light from hitting the front element in most situations. Shooting into the sun (or a light source) can be problematic in some, but not all, situations. Curiously, the only time I've ever questioned the flare performance of this lens is when I was shooting with an infrared filter into the sun. In that case the flare was dramatic and very evident (see below).

You may be wondering why I haven't given the lens 5 stars in Performance. Well, it boils down to 12mm performance, which is very good, but not up to what this lens does at 24mm. Since most people will be buying this lens to go wide with an APS-sized digital camera, it's the 12mm performance that's most critical to them. Nikon came close to hitting one out of the park, but instead merely put a dent at the top of the outfield wall. That's 4 star territory in my book.

Added performance note [1/14/05]: Curiously, on some cameras this lens seems to fare less well than on others, especially at the widest focal length (12mm). The difference is best seen on a D100 versus a D70, which have the same resolution sensor: on a D100 at 12mm, the results are just a bit soft and lower in contrast compared to the exact same scene framed on a D70. The difference is more acute when comparing between a D100 and a film SLR loaded with Provia F. I chalk this up to interaction with the antialiasing filter, and not a flaw of the lens itself.

Drawbacks

  • Lottery Winner Price. Not a professional grade build, and an f/4 aperture, so why the over US$1000 cost?
  • It's Bigger and Heavier than you'll Expect. If you thought a lens designed to cover a smaller sensor size would be smaller, you'll be surprised. This thing takes 77mm filters!
  • 12mm Performance could be better. While good, the performance at 12mm isn't up to the levels produced at 24mm.

Positives

  • Cut Yourself Sharp. At 24mm, this is the only lens you'd ever need (as long as the f/4 maximum aperture didn't get in your way). Even at its weakest focal length, 12mm, it produces contrasty and sharp results, albeit with a touch of chromatic aberration.
  • Works on 35mm. Yep, you can use it as an 18-24mm zoom on your full frame or 35mm bodies, though almost any filter will vignette at 18mm.
 
Quick Evaluation


Highly recommended
; if you need it, you'll want it.

features
performance
build
value


Table of Contents
Limitations


The 12-24mm lens has limitations you need to be aware of:

No Converters. While you can mount the TC-14e and TC20e on the lens (why?), you can severely damage the lens if you do so. When you zoom out to wider focal lengths, the rear element of the lens would hit the front element of the converter. Not a big loss, though. Who uses converters on a wide angle zoom?

AF-S Limitations. The in-lens motor that makes this lens focus so swift and sure works only on the F4, F5, F6, F100, N65, N70, N75, N80, N90/N90s, D40, D40x, D50, D70, D70s, D80, D100, D200, D1 series, D2 series, Fujifilm S2, Fujfilm S3, Fujifilm S5, and Kodak DCS 14n and Pro SLR/n bodies. If you have an older body, such as the N60 or Fujifilm S1, AF-S is not operative.

Versioning of Review:
1/20/04: fixed error in focus distance.
1/14/05: cleaned up minor things, including DX lens lineup.
8/15/07: updated AF-S limitations list




bythom.com | Nikon | Gadgets | Writing | imho | Travel | Privacy statement | contact Thom at thom_hogan@msn.com


All material on www.bythom.com is Copyright 2007 Thom Hogan. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized use of writing or photos published on this site is illegal, not to mention a bit of an ethical lapse. Please respect my rights.