On Thanksgiving I completed a block of shooting with the D700 and a lens that is officially called the AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 24–120mm ƒ/3.5–5.6G IF-ED, and I must say I am impressed. Although not in a good way. In fact, I am even somewhat excited.
For a number of years I made a sort of side-hobby of appreciating camera lenses. ("Appreciating"...sure, let's say it that way.) I took an interest in learning how to see various aberrations, learning to explore how various lenses behave, learning how to accept the "gifts"—pictures, I mean—of good lenses, learning how to work around the inevitable weaknesses of others.
But in recent years, a sort of pall has been cast over my little personal hobby. First there was computerized design. That sort of sucked the eccentricity out of old and odd designs, raising the standard across the board and bleaching certain lenses of their formerly particularized character. Then came sophisticated, modernized methods of quality control: this went impressively far towards removing sample variation as a significant element of lens choice and tended to "bunch" all lenses near the top of the performance band. Then came good digital sensors, which make it possible to make certain corrections (at least superficially, which to the eye is nearly as good as actually) in software, as opposed to being integral to the lens. Along the way came modern materials science, which substituted low-cost, lighter materials for previously high-cost, harder-to-work, heavier materials, with not only little detriment in actual performance but actually, in some cases, improvements. Lastly there was Chinese and other low-cost, high-value loci of manufacture, which made sophisticated products marketable at ever-lower prices of admission.
All good things, to be sure. But the result has been a sort of gradual subsiding of my enthusiasm for lenses. The bottom line was that in recent years all lenses had become pretty good, and some rather ordinary lenses had become really good. Zooms, formerly "guilty until proven innocent," had become quite good in many cases—in a few cases achieving really impressive heights; even some "budget" kit zooms were quite competent, with minimal weaknesses that in many cases were easy enough to identify and work around. Furthermore, my own taste in lenses began to become highly particularized and somewhat oddball, without much conformance to universally accepted norms of performance that everybody could understand. And I began to wonder if perhaps there was much point any more in seeking out really good lenses.
The coup de grace seemed to come in 2006, when I bought a used Konica-Minolta 7D that came with a modest zoom lens—a lens in which I initially had zero interest. The lens was branded as a Minolta, but in fact it was designed by Tamron and made at Tamron's facility in China. It was light, small, fast, and reasonably priced. Here was a lens that all my experience told me would be sub-par; and yet it was not only good, it was very good, at least on that particular camera with that particular (reduced-size) sensor. I had intended to get rid of it right away, but I've been using it ever since.
It might seem odd for a self-described lens nut to be complaining that lenses are getting too good, but let's face it: a world in which all lenses were technically perfect—clinical, synthetic, characterless—would be a more boring world.
I even used a "premium" prime (fixed-focal-length) lens recently that was decidedly old-fashioned in that it showed clear enough evidence of a number of traditional wide-angle weaknesses: the Zeiss ZK/ZF 28mm ƒ/2. That lens shows mild but noticeable amounts of traditional wide-angle distortion, has a clear tendency to favor the center over the corners, and has a rather extreme amount of curvature of field. And yet, for all that, it is still a highly pleasing lens, in a subjective sort of way: it has superb contrast, excellent resistance to flare, and excellent color transmission. The pictures it makes are quite nice, characterful but rich-looking. Although I've learned that the curvature of field is bothersome to some users, I still don't think it's a poor lens.
So then along comes the VR Zoom-Nikkor 24–120mm, sent to me by Nikon USA to review with the D700. This is a lens of thoroughly modern specification, ranging from ultra-wide-angle to quite far into the telephoto range. It's reasonably fast, and impressively small. It has vibration-reduction (a.k.a. IS). It's quite inexpensive for all that. It looks the business. It's a Nikkor. And if all lenses are indeed "good enough" these days, then how bad could it be?
Well, here's the thing: it's a piece of shit. Granted, I was shooting in very low light, at apertures that will "stress" even good lenses. But despite its fancy specs, this is for all intents and purposes a perfect throwback to the days when even good zooms couldn't aspire to the performance of ordinary garden-variety primes. Its performance is for all the world like an early-'80s mid-level zoom—smack dab in the middle of the era in which zooms earned—and deserved—their still-lingering bad reputation. It has flagrant amounts of linear distortion not only at its wide setting but well into the middle range, and apparent perspective distortion even near the middle of the frame(!). The D700 could hardly focus the thing—I got more out-of-focus shots than I have with any AF lens in years—yet even so, the situation hardly improves when it does manage to execute this basic operation and get the subject in focus, because its sharpness is lackluster. At 120mm, I don't think the thing gets sharp. At least, not without stopping down further than I was able to. The deterioration in performance toward the corners is often marked—and not just at the extreme corners, either. Color transmission borders on sucky (I know this from having recently used the 24–70mm ƒ/2.8 on the D3).
I let my friend Witold use the D700 for a while, and he put one of his Nikkor lenses from his D60 on it. The D700 still had trouble focusing in the very low light, but when I click through my pictures it is immediately obvious when the lens switch occurs, because the optical quality of the results takes a jump upwards.
In brief, for a full-frame 24–120mm lens, this is a decent 35–105mm APS-C lens.
There are a few good things about it, a few things it does better than an early-'80s zoom, besides being smaller and with a much better range. But so what? It might even fool some less experienced photographers into thinking it's okay. But that's no excuse. This is a very inexpensive lens that is not worth half of what it costs. If you innocently purchased one of these and are not lucky enough to be using it on a DX sensor, try to get your money back if you possibly can. Otherwise, stop down and avoid the extremes of the zoom range, even though they're probably why you bought the thing in the first place. For my part, I will strongly suggest to my contact at Nikon that this is not an appropriate lens to send out with the D700 for review. Every dollar Nikon makes on this thing will sap three dollars' worth out of the company's hard-earned reputation for optical excellence. And I will shoot not so much as one more frame with this Coke-bottle-bottom—it goes back in its box today. Now. Even though that will sideline the D700 for two or three days. The D700 deserves more of a fair shake than this lens will allow.
Oh, and one more thing: the VR doesn't even work very well. It works, but it's the least effective image stabilizing I've yet experienced.
Buying advice? Oh yes. Tempted though ye may be by its specs and handy size, give this one a pass.
Reason still to be a connoisseur
And yet, I'm sort of pleased all the same. Lenses are getting really good in general, it's true. And there is perhaps less reason than ever before to spend excessive amounts of money on lenses that are deliberately designed and made to be fine...more's the pity. But not all lenses are "good enough"—there are still some real, honest-to-gawd dogs out there.
I'm weird, I know, but I find that reassuring.