Full-frame glorified kit lens or budget-friendly professional choice? I weigh in on whether to love or leave the Nikon 24 120mm f/4G ED VR.
When I upgraded to a full frame camera, I had the option for purchasing the Nikon 24 120mm f/4G ED at a deep discount if I bundled the Nikon 24 120mm with my new camera. Because I didn’t have a compatible lens wider than 50mm at the time, I threw the Nikon 24 120mm f/4G in my virtual cart. Since that purchase almost four years ago, I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with this lens.
I tend to prefer prime lenses that allow me to travel fast and light or my 70-200 f/2.8 lens for sports and action. The Nikon 24 120mm f/4G lens rides the bench a lot. This year, it was time to either love the Nikon 24 120mm f/4G lens, leave it, and list it for sale.
What this review is…and isn’t
Since the start of the new year, I’ve been trying to use the 24 120mm more. I’ve shot the Nikon 24 120mm f for fun and used it during client sessions. So these are my real world observations, not tests done in a lab under optimal conditions.
I also didn’t test the 24 120mm head to head with similar lenses like the 24-70 f/2.8 or Sigma ART 24-70 f/2.8. I do compare the 24 120mm f/4G to the 24-70 on occasion but not in every single aspect of lens elements use.
What follows is my opinion of having the camera in-hand and working with it, not a lot of charts and graphs. For that, check out sites like KenRockwell.com. He’s awesome at that sort of thing.
The Cauliflower of Lenses – Overall Impressions of the Nikon 24 120mm f/4
A while back, I heard another photographer describe the Nikon 24 120mm f 4G ED VR as the cauliflower of lenses. She contended the Nikon 24 120mm f lens was a little ugly, a little bulky, and no one ever really just craved it. But ultimately, the Nikon 24 120mm f was good for you. That’s a pretty fair and accurate assessment if you ask me.
The Nikon 24 120mm f is bigger and bulkier than my prime lenses. The Nikon 24 120mm f is not particularly sexy and no one has ever said “Ohhh, so jealous,” when they see my EXIF data.
Ultimately, the Nikon 24 120mm f is a pretty great lens at a fraction of the price for lenses of similar focal lengths. Like cauliflower, the Nikon 24 120mm f/4 has been a helpful addition to my photography diet.
Nikon 24 120mm f/4G ED VR Product Specifications
Nikon introduced the Nikon 24 120mm f 4 G ED VR in August 2010. It was designed to replace the previous Nikon 24 120mm f 3.5-5.6 G VR lens (which was pretty awful, by the way). This Nikon 24 120mm f lens performs similarly to the 28 300mm f 3.5-5.6 lens, although I’ve never shot that Nikon 24 120mm f lens personally.
24 120mm F Length: f/4 to f 22
24 120mm F Focus: Autofocus and manual focus
24 120mm F Weight: 23.6 oz
24 120mm F Size: 84mm diameter by 103mm extension from the flange.
Image Stabilization: VR II Vibration Reduction
Optical Elements: 17 elements in 13 groups, combining a Nikon-developed optical glass with nano crystal coat and super integrated coating to standard optical glass in telephoto lenses. Three aspherical and two ED-glass elements. Additional nano crystal coat and super integrated coating to reduce flares.
Mount: Nikon F mount (FX format). The Nikon 24 120mm f works on many crop sensor cameras, but you’re paying more money for features you can’t use. Look at a DX lens instead for exclusively crop-sensor use.
Diaphragm: 9 rounded blade
Minimum Focus Distance: 1.3 feet
Filter size: 77 mm
Lens hood: Yes (I think they call it a bayonet style)
Cost: About $1,000 new, $600 used. Look for bundle deals with cameras like the D750.
You can purchase this lens at places like B&HPhoto or Adorama. As with any Nikon lens, I recommend purchasing the 24-120mm f/4 from certified Nikon dealers only. Nikon products imported and sold by anyone other than Nikon Inc. USA are called gray market products. These are usually genuine Nikon products that were intended for other, international markets. As such, they may not meet Nikon’s specifications for US products (meaning no warranty) and may not perform as expected. You could have difficulties getting it serviced or repaired. And because Nikon doesn’t seal their boxes, there’s no guarantee you’re getting an all-new lens if you go with a discount chain.
The 24-120mm is also pretty easy to purchase used or refurbished. Like me, other photographers bundled the lens when they bought their D750 because it was such a screaming deal. But apparently, they haven’t learned to love their vegetables, er, this lens.
Look for it on used camera sites like KEH.com or in B&H Photo’s used department. You can snag a used or refurbished 24-120mm in great condition for between $500 and $600. Just be sure you’re getting the version made after 2010. It’s not the same and will leave you highly disappointed.
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Why I love the Nikon 24 120mm f/4 lens
My favorite part about the Nikon 24 120mm f 4 lens is its versatility. The Nikon 24 120mm f 4 covers a really big focal range, from wide-angle of view to telephoto. I can shoot scenic vistas or fairly pleasing portraits and everything in between, with a fixed or maximum aperture to boot.
The Nikkor 24 120mm F is a great all-purpose lens for photographing outdoor events, field trips, family outings or even family portrait sessions. This is one of my go-to lenses when I want the abilities of my camera but only want to pack one lens.
When I bundled the Nikon 24 120mm with my camera, it cost me less than $500. If I were to buy it separately today, it runs for about $1,000 new. That’s not quite as great of a value, but when compared to its big brother, the Nikon 24 70 mm f/2.8 priced at $2,300, this lens looks cheap in comparison. Is that extra stop of light and a smidge more sharpness worth another $1,300? Only you can decide that!
It may feel challenging at first, yet the constant aperture f/4 has its perks. I was able to shoot freely in manual mode without worrying about exposure changes as I adjust the focal length.
Unlike lenses with variable apertures, the Nikon 24 120mm lets you shoot wide open at the same exposure, regardless of the zoom. A smaller aperture also results in a more compact design, and consequently, the capacity to extend the range of the zoom while keeping the size relatively small.
The maximum focal length shortens at distances to enable the Nikon 24 120mm f 4 to focus as sharp as it can. The 120mm appears about 100mm and gets shorter at a closer distance.
Since this isn’t a dedicated macro lens, it can only produce a close focusing distance of 45cm or around 1.5 feet. Nevertheless, it retains working distance throughout the focus range.
I noticed that the longer end works great on portraits, as the added length provides flexibility in creating a more blurry background compared to its shorter counterparts. Even if the 24 120mm isn’t a fast prime, it produces an excellent shallow depth of field that can isolate subjects against a background.
The Nikon 24 120mm f 4 G has a constant maximum aperture with a 5x zoom range. This maximum aperture makes this Nikon model ideal for photographers who want a mid-range zoom lens with image stabilization.
The zoom range isn’t variable-aperture, unlike old Nikon lenses, so the zoom stays sharp at f/4 throughout the focal range. With that said, this is a worthy kit-standard zoom lens for any Nikon FX format body users.
Note that the zoom lens hood links to the front element’s end, so the overall length changes extensively as the hood isn’t fixed to the body. On the bright side, this creates a longer, narrower lens barrel.
The AF-S silent wave motor is quiet and fast. I would shoot the Nikon 24-120mm f 4 aperture in quiet spaces and not worry about my focusing motor distracting anyone with the silent wave motor. Focus is generally spot-on as well when photographing static or slow-moving subjects.
Even as you lose autofocus, you can use the in-finder focus confirmation dots of Nikon cameras to bring back sharp focus. You can rely on the M/A option, otherwise set it to M if you want to disable autofocus.
Similar to other Nikkor lenses, the Nikon 24 120mm f 4 G enables you to switch from autofocus operation to manual focus with virtually no lag time by utilizing the focus ring.
The silent wave autofocus motor also provides a precise and fast transition from autofocus to manual focus. While the manual focus is fast at 120mm, it’s a bit slow at 24mm.
The Nikon 24 120mm f 4 G has a 77mm filter size. The plastic filter ring moves forward and back as you zoom, although it never rotates. Still, I didn’t encounter problems with filter vignetting.
Since there’s a single area silent wave focus motor, this Nikon lens can focus accurately and quietly while the filter thread lets you use specialized screw-on filters.
A filter can repel dirt, moisture, and oil, so might as well invest in the best one. I also tried using a clear protective filter when shooting, so I don’t have to put the cap back all the time.
Among the updated optical features from Nikon is the second-generation vibration reduction (VR II), which is a great deal, especially at this price point. Vibration reduction makes use of the AF S Nikkor 24 focus motor to help the lens focus quietly in various lighting conditions.
Aside from that, the Nikon 24 120mm f 4 G includes an advanced optical performance consisting of 17 elements with two ED and three aspherical elements to correct chromatic aberrations. As a result, the lens can focus all colors to the same point without straining the zoom range.
Nikon claims the technology can compensate for four stops vs. shooting handheld. I think that’s probably a stretch, but the VR lens does help compensate for camera shake. I suggest keeping the vibration reduction image stabilization in a normal setting unless you mount cameras on a tripod.
Overall, I am happy with the quality of the Nikon 24 120mm f 4 lens. Color and contrast is excellent thanks to the optical design. I don’t notice any major problems with chromatic aberration, ghosting or flare, at least not any more than I do my prime lenses in similar conditions.
Sharpness is great at the center with some softness in the corners wide open. If I’m shooting wide open, I don’t often need/want sharpness at the corners, so that’s not a deal breaker for me. If I need the corners sharp, I can stop down to f/8 and everything is ship-shape.
The Nikon 24-120mm f/4 does have some issue with barrel distortion, pin-cushioning and fall-off. Straight out of camera, you’ll notice significant vignetting. However, these issues are corrected so quickly and easily in post-production that they are a non-issue for me.
Weight & Reach, comparatively
The Nikon 24 120mm f 4 G is lighter than the 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens, making it easier to pack around at an all-day event or while out and about with the family. It’s still heavy compared to a prime, but you get more reach with less weight when compared to the 24-70 f/2.8.
Likewise, it has little increase in size and weight from 28 300mm, although at a reduced cost.
Why I would leave the 24 120 mm f/4 lens
The 24-120mm lens isn’t perfect. It has a few short-comings that can vary from annoying to relationship ending. It all depends on what you want out of this lens.
I know, I know, I just said focus was an advantage, most of the time. Focus speed is definitely fast enough for street photography, portraits and other work with static subjects. But the 24-120mm f/4 can’t keep up shooting fast-moving birds or border collies, however. It would be a poor choice for sports or other action photography.
For bokeh fanatic portrait photographers, the 24-120mm may disappoint. I’d describe it’s bokeh as “dirty.” Taking photos at f/4 doesn’t really lend itself to beautiful bokeh to begin with. But even in optimal conditions backlit with pops of light, the bokeh falls short.
Sharpness at Long Lengths
While sharpness at the wider end of its telephoto length is great, at the end sharpness decreases. If you’re a portrait shooter that likes to use the compression of a telephoto zoom in your images, you’ll find the 24-120mm f 4 frustrating at f/4 because of the lack of sharpness.
One of the flaws I also observed is that the Nikon 24 120mm F 4 G comes with distortion. Without distortion correction, there’s minimal distortion at 28mm, while the zoom range from 35mm to 120mm results in a strong distortion.
However, most Nikkor lenses, including this one, allow you to remove distortion automatically by shooting in JPEG. If you prefer to shoot in RAW, the good thing is that you can also easily solve the geometric distortion by applying lens corrections in Adobe Lightroom.
The 24-120mm f/4 features an external zoom. That is to say, the barrel expands and contracts as you zoom in and out. If you shoot in extreme conditions, this can create more opportunity for mischief. If the barrel gets wet or dusty and then you retract the lens, you’re pulling moisture or dirt into the lens body. It’s not built to the same heavy-duty specifications as the 24-70 f/2.8 lens with a plastic exterior and external zoom. If you use and abuse lenses heavily, the 24-120mm probably won’t hold up to your standards.
Low Light Performance
The 24-120mm f/4 isn’t a dynamo in low light situations. You’ll really miss that extra stop or two of light from a more expensive zoom or prime lens. And the auto-focus struggles a little in dim conditions.
If perfect sunstars are your landscape jam, look for another lens. The 24-120mm uses rounded blades, so I just couldn’t get a good sunstar at any f-stop.
The Verdict: Love or Leave the 24-120?
I decided to love the 24-120mm f/4 after using it consistently for a few months, it’s a keeper. I found this lens to produce excellent images in a wide variety of sessions.
The versatility just can’t be beaten. I shot everything from weddings to proms with it and in each case, it performed above my expectations. Additionally, the 24-120mm performs flawlessly in studio conditions using flash, making it a nice choice for OCF shooters in small studios.
Who Will Love The 24-120mm?
- Value-conscious photographers of any genre. It’s a pretty good value at its regular price. If you bundle it or take advantage of a sale and snag it for $500 or $600, it’s a steal!
- Photographers who want one lens in the field that still gives maximum versatility. Excellent for travel photography, event photography and versatile studio photography.
I think photographers with full-frame cameras would enjoy using the Nikon 24-70 f/4 lens, provided you understand you aren’t shooting a prime. You get a big coverage of focal lengths, quiet and fast auto-focus and high-quality images.
The 24-120mm is a great lens, and when you factor in the value for the money, it’s a beast. It would be a great lens to have at an event, family or class trip or in-studio.
Would I trust the the 24-120mm when photographing an indoor wedding? Yes, provided I had a fast prime in my bag to go along with it. The broad coverage of focal lengths is a huge bonus, and losing a stop of light isn’t a big deal most of the time.
As one reviewer put it, if you’re a good wedding photographer, this lens is great. If you rely on super fast lenses and bokeh is your baby to overcome for your lack of skill, you need more expensive gear.
I recently shot two small outdoor weddings using the 24-120mm, and this camera handled it all flawlessly, from the ceremony through the couple’s exit on a Harley. It will make a great compliment to my wedding and event photography kit, pairing quite well with my 70-200 f/2.8 and 100 mm f/2.8 macro/portrait lens.
Who Will Leave The 24-120mm?
- Prime lens snobs (I’m not judging…I tend to be one too.) A zoom just isn’t going to be as fast or sharp as a prime lens.
- Concert photographers, high volume wedding photographers or anyone else taking pictures in low-light situations. If you earn a living in dimly-lit honky-tonks (again, not judging…I love me a good Waylon Jennings cover) or low light chapels where flash isn’t allowed, the extra stop of light of the 24-70mm f/2.8 will be well worth the price discrepancy. VR certainly helps, but it can’t completely overcome the maximum aperture f/4.
- Sports or action photographers. The Nikon AF is just simply not fast enough or accurate enough to shoot sports or other fast-action shots consistently.
- Bokeh fangirls. If bokeh is your bread and butter, you’ll hate this lens. But you probably didn’t read any further than f/4.
- Crop body shooters.
The Nikon 24 120mm is indeed the cauliflower of lenses. It’s not flashy and it doesn’t have legions of devoted, rowdy fans. While the Nikon 24 120mm isn’t the flagship Nikon 24-70 f/2.8.
But it’s a solid lens that provides versatility, quality and performance at a great value. It will be staying in my lens collection for use as a travel, event and wedding lens. See mom, I’ve finally learned to love my vegetables.