Nikon Nikkor Z 24-70mm F2.8 S Review

What is it?
The Nikkor Z 24-70mm F2.8 S is the first pro-oriented lens for Nikon’s full-frame mirrorless Z series cameras, currently the 24MP Z 6 and the high-resolution Z 7. Naturally, it’s a constant-aperture, high-speed standard zoom and has several features not found on the earlier consumer grade Nikkor Z 24-70mm F4 S. Besides the larger initial aperture the new lens features 17 elements in total, two of which are ED glass to lower color fringing and four are aspherical to reduce distortion and spherical aberration.

Like others in the S-series it has Nikon Integrated coatings while fluorine coatings are used to help keep the front element and rear clean. It also features Nikon’s Arneo and Nano Crystal coatings to further a mitigate flare and ghosting. While the F4 version features the latter coating which is unusual in a consumer grade lens, Arneo is seemingly reserved for their high-end glass. I suspect Arneo is employed on one or maybe two surfaces at most to reduce reflection in Nikkor Z lenses which are close to the sensor. Although there are benefits in mirrorless, one of the downsides is the rear-most element is very much close to the sensor’s filter stack and therefore at risk to reflection from it.

The new lens also has nine rounded aperture blades up from seven in the F4 and uses a stepping motor for near-silent and smooth autofocus. It adopts a single stepping motor as far as I can tell but incorporates “two AF drive units” to move separate focusing groups. Most lenses are optimised for infinity but this should reduce aberration at close distances (think CRC).

Externally there’s a wide rubber zoom ring and a narrow and a ribbed metal customisable control ring that can be used to adjust aperture values or exposure compensation. Unlike the F4 zooms and the F1.8 primes it can’t be used for manual focus. Instead the F2.8 model differs by the addition a third wider ring placed in front of the zoom, which is solely for manual focus. At the time of writing it can’t be customized, which is shame. I would like to be able switch roles between the two rings.

The new F2.8 model is also the first from Nikon to adopt a small OLED screen on the lens barrel, first seen on Zeiss Batis series, only smaller. Although much maligned on the internet, the screen can display aperture or focal length, but more far more useful is the option to display focus distance with a depth-of-field scale below. The downside is that it’s quite small and the glass covering is prone to finger-prints. The options can be cycled through using the Disc. button on the side which saves programming a button on the camera (though that’s not an option anyway). However, there is a programmable L.Fn. button instead – more on that later.

As you might expect with a lens that’s the better part of £2,300/$2,300, it is extensively sealed against dust and moisture and uses a mixture of high quality alloys and engineering plastics for the outer shell.

The new lens also features has a mechanism to reduce the effects of ‘focus breathing’ (a change in focal length at close distance) and there are some claims that it’s parfocal, or more likely uses some compensating mechanism rather than being optically parfocal. More on that later. Minimum focusing distance is 35cm (11.8″).

Measuring 126 mm x 89 mm (4.96” x 3.5”) and weighing 805 grams (1.77 lb) the new Nikkor Z 24-70mm F2.8 S is quite a lot larger than the F4 version but it’s still relatively compact for a lens like this.

Key Specs

  • Full frame Nikkor Z mount
  • 17 Elements in 15 groups
  • F2.8-22
  • Circular 9-bladed aperture
  • 82mm Filter Thread
  • Dimensions (L x D) 126 mm x 89 mm (4.96” x 3.5”)
  • Minimum focus distance: 35cm
  • 0.22 x max. magnification
  • Weight: 805 grams (1.77 lb)

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Build quality
While the Nikkor Z 24-70mm F4 S is certainly attractive in size; it matches the smaller proportions of the Nikon Z 7 and Z 6 but it doesn’t have the build quality of the Nikkor Z 24-70mm F2.8 S. While build is a bit subjective you can get an insight by the way the lens feels in the hand. And the Nikkor Z 24-70mm F2.8 S certainly feels very good. The zoom ring is smoother than the previous F-mount models though it’s not quite to the level of some rivals. Still, it’s an improvement and something you probably wouldn’t notice, unless you’ve had hands-on with rival offerings.

Both the control ring and focus-ring are very heavily damped, the dedicated focusing collar particularly so and they’re both electronic in operation. However, the control ring is easily nudged – it isn’t click-stopped, and as such I often found I had changes settings without noticing.

Attention to detail is a bit better than we’ve seen on the earlier S-series. Unlike the F4 S models for instance, there’s a decent quality flocked hood. It uses fabric material rather than paint or moulded plastic and, importantly, has a locking button to lessen mechanical twisting of the extending barrel. Why Nikon supplies hoods that use friction to lock into place (often requiring a lot of torque on a vulnerable area), besides being cheaper, just goes to show that manufacturers sometimes overlook the obvious.

Handling
The new Nikkor Z variant is quite a handful on the diminutive Nikon Z 7 but to me handling is much improved over the F-mount models when on something like a D810 or D850 and just about as good as it’s going to get. It’s also worth mentioning the size of the hood. It’s very small compared to the huge hood of the Nikkor F model, and greatly reduces the overall visual bulk in comparison.

As an F2.8 zoom the lens is pretty heavy, especially when compared to the F4 S. When it wasn’t on a tripod, I simply always supported it in my left hand and let the Z 7 hang off it. That allows your right much more dexterity when it comes to moving around the camera controls. The Nikon Z 7 would, however, be even better in this regard if there was a battery grip option.

Still, most of the internet is more concerned with the fact there’s just one XQD slot. Yes, it would have been better to have two, or even if it was supplemented by an SD UHS-II slot, like the Phase One IQ4 backs, but XQD is more reliable and the design is more durable. While I don’t like the fact that the XQD price is relatively high, for me a battery grip would have a been more useful. We’ll see a Nikon Z 9 before too long, I guess, where these and other matters will be addressed.

Still, the Nikkor Z 24-70mm F2.8 S handles very well indeed. The zoom ring is much smoother and with a more pleasing resistance to use than previous F-mount versions and the inclusion of both a focus collar and separate control ring is an improvement over the Z-mount F4 S models. Though not everyone is going to like the position and distance between them. Personally, I prefer the layout of the Canon RF lenses, where the focus collar and control ring are side-by-side allowing you to flick between them without any thought. I can’t do that easily with this lens, but in time that would change and it certainly prevents inadvertent adjustment, which is quite easy to do as the ring is both relatively light and smooth in operation.

The built-in display has received much criticism online. Admittedly, the option to display the focal length isn’t much use, as far as I can see but the option to display the distance with a depth of field (DoF) scale may be very useful once its accuracy is fully understood. While the it could be improved, with a larger display and more distance information, it looks to be more than just a gimmick. Maybe one day the DoF scale could adapt to the sensor resolution’s circle-of-confusion, but I’m not holding out for that.

In terms of placement the L.FN button, which has according Nikon’s PR material 21 assignable functions, falls perfectly under my left thumb. For all those potential functions, I would have liked a few more including one to switch off peaking when using manual focus (mentioned elsewhere in the review). But that aside, it is a very valuable inclusion and one that Nikon can easily refine from feature requests and implement in firmware updates.

Performance
In use, AF performance is fast, faster than you might expect for an STM type motor, and it’s unlikely that you’ll miss the speed of Nikkor F version. It’s also very quiet and smooth and it’s even quieter than the F4 S version which has a high pitched shrill sound. 

With the latest firmware update (V2.0) the Nikon Z 7 and Z 6 now has Eye-detection AF option. I like how it allows you to easily switch between left and right eyes using the joystick (or sub-selector, as Nikon call it). It has an on-screen pointer to remind you that you can switch which is nice but the question is, how well does it all work?

Image on the left (at 100%, actual pixels), captured using the larger AF reticule, is slightly less accurate than the smaller reticule used when the subject is further away. Image at right enlarged at approximately 160% to match the size.

Well, it offers a high level of success in terms of quickly identifying and acquiring the eye but it doesn’t appear able to accurately focus on the iris itself, and seems more influenced by the eyebrow or eyelash when close, thus front-focusing. Much the same can be said of the Canon Eye-AF feature on the Canon EOS R as well. Intriguingly, the Nikon Z 7’s Eye-detection AF focusing bracket resizes to a smaller square bracket when further away and encompasses just the eye (rather than including the eyebrow as before), and it seems it is slightly more accurate but still not capable of focusing on the iris despite repeated attempts. With F2.8 being the widest aperture there’s too much depth of field. What would help with testing is a high-speed, AF-capable short-tele with razor-thin DoF such as the excellent AF-S Nikkor 105mm F1.4E on the FTZ, but I didn’t have one available at the time.

Although not a feature of the lens exactly, I would like to see focus peaking better implemented. While peaking can be used when zoomed into the image, when you zoom out to check the composition I find it very distracting. I would like to see an option to temporarily switch it off. It should be easy to implement alongside the options to reduce viewfinder/monitor clutter or perhaps additionally as an option for the lens’ customisable L. Fn button.

There’s also a limitation where the peaking and the zoomed-in option can’t be used when focusing stopped down beyond the AF-system’s F5.6 limit. 

Sharpness
A parfocal zoom is useful for video, as once focused there’s no focus shift when changing focal lengths. Despite being well suited for video in other respects, I have to report that there’s some forward focus shift during zooming. Bear in mind that peaking may still indicate that it has remained in focus but if you examine images or footage closely then the focus shift is evident. My advice would be to always refocus after changing focal lengths.

In these sharpness samples, I’ve taken test shots to include foliage as the human visual system is acutely tuned to it. These shots were taken on very still day, and this valley is usually quite protected from wind, otherwise any movement will make the outer zones looked blurred. Even so, I’ve tried to keep shutter speeds high to prevent that while also including buildings for reference where possible but that can be a stretch at F16 and F22. The shots below are 100% crops with focus in the centre. Nikon Z 7 on a tripod with 5 second release. All images are processed from RAW in Capture One Pro (default settings with vignetting correction but no chromatic aberration compensation).

Sharpness at 24mm

 

Wide open at F2.8 in the centre, this lens has very good contrast and resolution but the mid-frame is a little soft. The corners are quite a lot softer. However, notice the lack of lateral chromatic aberration. One stop down, at F4, and there’s quite an improvement across the frame right out to the corners. At F5.6 it’s hard to tell the difference between that and F4. At F8 the effects of diffraction can be seen already with the centre, corners and mid-frame being a little softer. At F11, all positions are softer than F8 and F16 and F22 (both not shown) are noticeably softer. The use of F22 is not recommended.  

Sharpness at 35mm

Performance is impressive at 35mm. Wide open, contrast and resolution are good centrally and that extends from the centre to mid-frame (albeit a little soft still compared with the centre). As you might expect, there’s some slight loss of sharpness apparent in the corners. At F4, the centre and mid-frame perform very well indeed. There’s a noticeable improvement from F2.8, but there’s some softness still in the corners. At F5.6 contrast and sharpness are excellent, and the corners finally are closer, albeit not quite there) to the middle frame performance. And it’s a similar result for F8, with some slight loss of resolution in the centre but an improvement in the corners. At F11, diffraction is pulling the resolution down but the contrast remains good. Intriguingly, the corners are still quite close to the results at F8. The corners remain good at F16 albeit lower in resolution to them at F11, while the middle and centre are noticeably behind. I suspect this is due to some field curvature. It’s relatively easy to check for, once detected, but I no longer have the lens. 

Sharpness at 70mm

The Nikkor Z 24-70mm F2.8 S continues to perform well at 70mm. As you can see from the image above, I’ve had to move the middle and corner areas of interest (highlighted the red square outlines) slightly at 70mm so that all three are in the same focus plane. The centre remains unchanged as that was where the lens was focused. Wide open at F2.8, the Nikkor Z 24-70mm F2.8 S has good contrast and resolution in the centre and middle zones, but the corners (now unavoidably the extreme corner) is noticeable behind. All three zones improve at F4 but not by much except in the corner and it goes to show how good it is at 70mm when wide open. Peak sharpness is achieved at F5.6, at least centrally. In the mid-zone, there isn’t much of an improvement, if any, over F4. At F8 the lens displays the most uniform sharpness from centre to the corners but it already displays some diffraction, lowering overall resolution very slightly (though really not by much at all). The same can be said for F11 where resolution falls very slightly from F8, except for the corner which appears little sharper, which again suggests some slight field curvature as the corners move into focus.

Chromatic Aberration
This lens has very low levels of lateral chromatic aberration and there’s no axial or longitudinal chromatic aberration to speak of, though as an F2.8 zoom that’s not always a given. If the latter is present it can be very distracting in specular highlights. But I’m pleased to say that’s negligible, even if the circular highlights appear truncated slightly (commonly refried to as”cats eyes”, on the internet).

In this crop there’s no real fringing visible, either on high-contrast edges or on the semi-circular blur-disks (out of focus highlights). However, there are some double-edged effects or lining visible, indicating slight over-correction of SA.

Like distortion this lens has a “built-in” profile. What that means is that the corrections are detailed in RAW files but that data isn’t usually available for third-party apps like Capture One and Lightroom and it has to be reverse engineered. Fortunately, with Capture One Pro at least, you can analyse the image for lateral fringing anyway which always produces a better, cleaner result than any profile as it literally analyses the image from your lens (and sensor combination). Despite that, even with the profile corrections turned off Nikon has done a very good job with reducing the fringing using the optical construction alone. It’s much lower than Nikkor F versions and with profile corrections applied it’s really negligible.

Geometric Distortion
This is one area that is aided by the built-in profile and you could argue that the vast majority of users will view and processes their images with that enabled. However, as a reviewer, I’m always sceptical. I like to see how well a lens is optically corrected first before seeing how well the profiles are applied. Bear in mind, that RAW image processing software like Capture One Pro or Lightroom typically have to reverse engineer the corrections (sometimes to differing degrees) before they’re as Nikon intended them. So thinking the profiles will correct every detail perfectly is an assumption. Besides, manipulating pixels this way is known to reduce micro-contrast and may even produce the smearing we sometimes see in the corners of a frame.

Vignetting
It would be unusual if this lens didn’t show any signs of vignetting or corner shading. Even with a larger mount and large rear element, because the lens sits closer to the sensor there’s probably more reason for it. Still we don’t know the design of the sensor, the filter stack or quite how the shape of the micro-lenses affect how those acute light rays.

Vignetting is quite noticeable uncorrected as shown here at 60mm F2.8, but it’s to expected. Besides, it’s easy to remove post capture.

Presumably the Nikon Z 7 sensor has offset micro-lenses and perhaps even specially shaped micro lenses, like the Leica M series which are even more highly convex than those of the Leica SL, but evidence is still a bit thin on the ground. Suffice to say it’s quite noticeable at F2.8 – I don’t use Imatest any more so I can’t measure it directly but it’s close to -2EV in the corners and far less of an issue at F4.

Overall thoughts
After reviewing all of the other Nikkor Z lenses for other publishers (I may review them here also, in time), I had expected to be impressed by this lens and I haven’t been disappointed. I much prefer to it all the previous AF-S Nikkor versions. Although much larger and pricier than the 24-70mm F4 S, it feels better made and still handles well on the Nikon Z 7. Admittedly, the balance is improved with the weighty Arca Swiss Universal L-bracket I use for reviewing, but even without it it’s still quite manageable. Auto-focus is impressively fast as well, though I didn’t have a Nikkor F version to try side-by-side, I doubt many people even sports photographers would be left wanting. Granted the Nikon Z 7 may not be the most appropriate camera for sports, but the Nikon Z 6 isn’t exactly a slouch (though obviously no Nikon D5). What’s really impressive about this lens though, besides the sharpness which is excellent, is the very low lateral chromatic aberration. That was always quite high with the previous Nikkor F models and that and the distortion, build and general handling never really impressed me. This is the first Nikkor 24-70mm F2.8 from Nikon in recent times to effortlessly stand out and if cost isn’t a concern, this lens is well worth checking out.

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