Saturday, June 21, 2008

Nikkor 16-85/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX ED Review

16-85/3.5-5.6G ED AF-S DX Nikkor

Nikon's newest prosumer zoom - the 5.3X Nikkor 16-85/3.5-5.6G ED AF-S DX VR - is an appealing wide angle to short tele design that will fit many shooters needs. A more useful range at each end has been added to overcome the limits of the 18-70 and 24-120 DX models. Unsatisfactory performance has plagued both the 18-135 and 18-200 kit lens offerings from Nikon with numerous comments from users that are moving to pro glass as a result. Will the 16-85 keep the average Nikon afficianado happy or not? Preliminary reviews show a decent performance for daylight shooters - will semipros and serious amateurs feel the same way? Time will tell...

Overall, I get a positive impression from the construct of the 16-85. Apparently built out of the same plastics as the 18-70 and 24-120, it exudes a quality feel with smooth turning rings and clean finish. The zoom ring has an obvious friction (my preference) with no sag or slop in the telescoping lens components. The focus ring is smooth and well damped. A thin, vertically oriented rubber gasket encircles the lens mount gap when mounted on camera. More of a 'flap' than the type of gasket you would find on your car's oil filter, it keeps dust out of the mirror box but is itself exposed and deserves a little care to avoid damage.

The peculiarities of the new Nikkor are not significant but worth knowing:
- The AF-ON switch will not activate the VR - partially depressing the shutter release is needed for focusing.
- Turn the camera off before detaching or attaching any VRII lens
- VR will not be available on cameras with built-in flash while it is recharging.
- Do not operate in the presence of flammable gases or with wet hands.

How does the 16-85 feel? On my D300 body, the 17-ounce optic falls right in place with the zoom ring at a comfortable distance that does not require moving your palm away from the edge of the camera body for handholding (I seldom use the manual focus ring but its right there close to the body and out of the way for steady AF use). It's the same width as the 18-70 and a tad shorter than the 24-120. It takes on an almost weightlessness when added to my D300 with the MB-D10 grip attached.

Test images taken in my office confirmed that the 16-85's AF-S snapped into focus consistently even in low room light with indistinct subjects - even at the wide open f5.6 aperture at the 85mm focal length. Accuracy is also excellent with no errors on the camera's part in my test images. This unit should keep up just fine in general action situations - high speed sports or other scenarios will likely need to be well lit for optimum performance.

This feature is very subjective since time is needed to establish image stability in each shot and then decide when to release the shutter. My initial experience with the 24-120 VR is improved noticeably with this optic and I expect to get better as I use VR more often - but it is a voodoo hat trick in my book and everyone will have a different take on it. I like it and am becoming more dependent on VR to get a sharp image.

VR draws its current from the body power source, so carry spare batts in steady use - neither me or Nikon have any idea how long the camera can support using VR at the track or during events you'd employ it for. You gain an almost unlimited power supply when adding the MB-D10 grip to your D300, which includes longer shoot time using the popup flash as well.

Image Quality
Initial images gave me this impression- we've got another winner!

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CA is minimal by f4 - still present at f8
Image edges are very good by f4
Overall image is very good at f4 & gets better at f5.6
Obvious field curvature
Detail at infinity very good at f3.5

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No CA 'wide open' at f4.5
Image edges are very good at f4.5

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No CA 'wide open' at f5
Very ittle degradation at f22

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Some CA wide open at f5.6
Image edges are very good at f5.6

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No CA wide open at f5.6
Image edges are fairly good at f5.6

Taken as a whole, the 16-86 VR is a very well controlled lens, including above average wide open performance at all focal lengths - with truly good images just above 16mm especially. One stop down from wide open is all it took to bring images into a very good rating and just another stop to give great overall performance (according to 1:1 previews in Lightroom). Typical optical compromises in the 16-85 have allowed some visible CA and obvious distortion - still, Nikon is making real progress in this price category, which drew one reviewer to think that a 17-55 pro glass buy might be wasted money.

While the $600 street price point might be a stretch for some, the 16-85 is money well spent in spite of its slow lens speed if you factor in the wide to short tele focal range and VRII features. My lovable 18-70 has now been transferred to the D40 body and the 16-85 is the new 'normal' zoom on my D300.