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Nikon Pro Normal Zooms: Analysis
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Nikon Pro Normal Zooms

Nikon 35-70mm f/3.5 AI,   35-70mm f/3.5 AI-s,   35-70mm f/2.8 AF-D,    28-70mm f/2.8 AF-S    and    24-70mm f/2.8 AF-S.

December 2007

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back to page one of the Nikon Pro Normal Zoom Comparison


I leave it to you to look and compare for yourself. These are my thoughts; you will have your own. Of course I also had access to the original full-frame files, a 30" monitor and software for display and comparison (iView).

Since all these lenses looked alike in the center (which I saw but didn't show), I wouldn't worry about sharpness differences. I started to go blind looking at all these crops which don't look that much different. In almost every case, stop the worst lens down one more stop and it was better than the best lens at the previous stop. (Watch out - this only applies up to about f/11, after which diffraction makes all lenses get fuzzy again.)

The only pro zoom which was noticeably less sharp in the corners under my microscope was the oldest 35-70mm f/3.5 AI, and it's also great under normal use since the center looks the same.

The 28-70mm cheated. It had serious autofocus offset errors, so I corrected them on the D3. I didn't do that for any other lens, and other lenses may have benefited from it. Before I corrected the 28-70mm, it looked absolutely awful at 50mm and 70mm. Ensuring that your own lenses work well with your own camera is something for which every photographer is responsible as an individual. I can't help you since every sample of lens and every sample of camera varies. This is why Nikon and Canon now provide these adjustments on some of their newest higher-end cameras.

The 28-70mm seems a little better than the 24-70mm in the farthest corner (the top right of the crops), but look at the lower left of the crops and you'll see the 24-70mm generally superior. The bottom left of these crops is still the corner of the image; see why it's nearly impossible to proclaim a winner in any of this?

The 35-70mm doesn't look too hot to me here, but remember that we're only looking at the farthest corners. In normal use I really like the 35-70mm.

Of course if your only concern is sharpness and freedom from distortion, the highest performance lens here is the smallest and least expensive: the Chinese 50mm f/1.8 D. Whoops!

Now do you see why it is almost always impossible to claim one lens or camera is superior to another unless you run them side-by-side in a direct comparison under identical conditions? Photographers have argued for centuries over these things, based on using one lens or camera or developer under different conditions or at a different time than the other. Seeing how minute the differences actually are when examined with proper scientific rigor, I hope I've show how futile it is to compare different items any time anything varies between them other than the device under test.

These lenses showed far more differences in distortion and overall utility than sharpness. The bigger zooms are too big for me to want to carry, and have more distortion.

Here's a secret: neither I nor any pro I know actually carries any of these hippopotamodes around on a regular basis. Since we all carry a wide zoom and a tele zoom (usually each on its own dedicated camera), we drop a 50mm fixed lens in our bag for the times we need something in-between our other two big zooms, or need a fast aperture for low light.

Midrange zooms are more for weekend wedding photographers than full-time career pros. I don't know who buys these; I suspect innocent amateurs thinking that owning these big, scary lenses somehow make them into better photographers.

I prefer the 35-70mm f/2.8 AF-D for its size if I want one of these to carry around. For low-light, I prefer my 50mm f/1.4 D to any of these. f/1.4 is four times as sensitive to light and makes a night-and-day difference that faster ISOs can't. With f/1.4 I can stop action at a 1/125 at a clean ISO 3,200 on my D3, while with any of these zooms I'd need either noisy ISO 12,500 or blurry 1/30 to do the same.

Don't read anything into color differences. These shots were made over a period of time enough that the light more likely changed more than any color difference among lenses. The 50mm and 70mm shots of the 28-70mm were made another day, and the 35mm f/2.8 shots were also made another day when I got a deal on a 35mm f/2.8 and realized I wanted to sneak it into this comparison.

After I spent 10 days writing this and broke for lunch, want to know what lens I popped on my D3 for portability's sake? The throw-away 28-80mm G, which works really, really well!


If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me continue helping everyone.

Thanks for reading!


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