Full-frame glorified kit lens or budget-friendly professional choice? I weigh in on whether to love or leave the Nikon 24-120 mm f/4 lens.
When I upgraded to a full-frame camera, I had the option for purchasing the Nikon 24-120 mm f/4 lens at a deep discount if I bundled it with my new camera. Because I didn’t have a full-frame compatible lens wider than 50mm at the time, I threw it 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 24-120 mm f/4 lens rides the bench a lot. This year, it was time to either love the 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 this lens more. I’ve shot it 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 this lens head to head with similar lenses like the Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 or Sigma ART 24-70 f/2.8. I do compare it to the 24-70 on occasion but not in every single aspect of lens 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 24-120 mm f/4
A while back, I heard another photographer describe the Nikon 24-120 mm f/4 as the cauliflower of lenses. She contended the lens was a little ugly, a little bulky and no one ever really just craved it. But ultimately, it was good for you.
That’s a pretty fair and accurate assessment if you ask me.
The lens is bigger and bulkier than my prime lenses. It is not particularly sexy and no one has ever said “Ohhh, so jealous,” when they see my EXIF data. But ultimately, it is a pretty great lens at a fraction of the price for lenses of similar focal lengths. Like cauliflower, the Nikon 24-120 mm f/4 has been a helpful addition to my photography diet.
Nikon 24-120 mm f/4 Specifications
Nikon introduced the 24-120 mm f/4 in August 2010. It was designed to replace the previous Nikon 24-120 mm f/3.5-5.6 G VR lens (which was pretty awful, by the way). This lens performs similarly to the 28-300 f/3.5-5.6 lens, although I’ve never shot that lens personally.
Focal length: f/4 to f/22
Weight: 23.6 oz
Image Stabilization: Yes, VR II
Mount: Nikon F mount (FX). This lens will work 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 Focusing 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 Nikon 24-120 mm f/4 lens 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.
This lens is also pretty easy to purchase used or refurbished. Like me, other photographers bundled the lens when they bought their full-frame 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 Nikon 24-120 f/4 lens used or refurbished in great condition for between $500 and $600. Just be sure you’re getting the version made after 2010. The Nikon 24-120 f/3.5-5.6 lens is not the same and will leave you highly disappointed.
Why I love the Nikon 24-120 mm f/4 lens
My favorite part about the Nikon 24-120 mm f/4 lens is its versatility. It covers a really big focal range, from wide-angle to telephoto. I can shoot scenic vistas or fairly pleasing portraits and everything in between, with a fixed aperture to boot. This lens is a great all-purpose lens for shooting 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 full-frame camera but only want to pack one lens.
When I bundled this lens 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 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 shaprness worth another $1,300? Only you can decide that!
I find the VR helpful. Nikon claims the technology can compensate for four stops vs. shooting handheld. I think that’s probably a stretch, but the VR does help compensate for camera shake. It’s a great feature, especially at this price point.
The AF-S silent wave focus motor is quiet and fast. I would shoot this lens in quiet spaces and not worry about my focusing motor distracting anyone. Focus is generally spot-on as well when shooting static or slow-moving subjects.
Overall, I am happy with the image quality of the Nikon 24-120 mm f/4 lens. Color and contrast is excellent. 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 lens 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 24-120 mm f/4 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.
Why I would leave the Nikon 24-120 mm f/4 lens
This 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 this lens 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 Nikon 24-120 mm f/4 lens will be a disappointment. I’d describe it’s bokeh as “dirty.” Shooting 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 telephoto end sharpness decreases. If you’re a portrait shooter that likes use the compression of a telephoto zoom in your images, you’ll find this lens frustrating at f/4 because of the lack of sharpness.
The lens 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, this one probably won’t hold up to your standards.
Low Light Performance
This lens 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. With the rounded blades, I just couldn’t get a good sunstar at any f-stop.
The verdict: Love it or Leave it?
I decided to love the Nikon 24-120 mm f/4 lens. After shooting 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. And it performs flawlessly in studio conditions using flash, making it a nice choice for OCF shooters in small studios.
Who will love this lens?
- 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 just about any photographer shooting a full-frame camera 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. It 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 Nikon 24-120 mm f/4 lens when shooting an indoor wedding? Yes, provided I had a fast prime in my bag to go along with it. The wide 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 with it, 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 this lens?
- 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 shooting a lot of 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 f/4 aperture.
- Sports or action photographers. The 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 is indeed the cauliflower of lenses. It’s not flashy and it doesn’t have legions of devoted, rowdy fans. And it’s not the flagship 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.