Both of these images were shot at close to the same settings using two different lenses: Nikon’s AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR and AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. Can you tell which is which?
Common wisdom would indicate that fast (read: expensive) primes and zooms are the best options for decent image quality, or IQ. But what about those times when flexibility or utility becomes more important than ultimate IQ?
When it comes to utility, kit lenses are tough to beat. But kit lenses are often maligned, and many times, I think, unfairly. This may be due to several factors: the perceived lack of value because they are bundled with a camera at a significant discount; the fact that they are typically “slow” (for instance, both Canon and Nikon’s offerings are a constant f/4 aperture, which is plenty fast enough for most scenarios when combined with image stabilization—provided they perform well wide open); and they typically have some sort of noticeable flaw, such as the notorious—and frustrating—zoom creep of Canon’s old EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM kit lens.
Even so, kit lenses offer decent enough performance and flexibility to warrant a closer look.
When I switched to Nikon, I was invested in the Fuji ecosystem, so I was starting from scratch. Economically, the camera/kit lens combo made the most sense, so that’s what I bought. Then I promptly purchased a mess of primes (if it’s fair to call the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G, and the lovely Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G a mess) and proceeded to neglect my 24-120. And to be honest, I prefer to shoot that way, i.e., stick the 58mm f1.4 on my D750, chuck the 35mm (or, more often lately, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 28mm f/1.8G) and 85mm in my bag, and head out the door. And the D750 aligns well with that approach.
But when I was out hiking with friends and family, even that modest set up was overkill, so I began to consider digging out the 24-120. My initial impression was a little “Meh….” And I’ll be honest, it isn’t like a kit lens is at all sexy or cool—you’re never going to feel like Henri Cartier-Bresson with a dopey, fat zoom plunked on your camera. Still, I shot some natural light stuff, forgetting to turn on VR (or vibration reduction), but I was still impressed with the files, even with handholding the too-long shutter speeds. I also shot some skateboarding with an off-camera flash that day, and those files were really nice.
Now would probably be a good time for a little backstory: I’ve been intrigued with the idea of one-camera, one-lens for sometime. Part of it is an effort to make my life less complex as I reluctantly grow wiser—an overarching desire to get “stuff” out of the way to get to the important parts, like being present with people and maintaining quality of work and life. Another part was seeing a friend and fellow photographer happily using—and making a living with—an outdated DSLR with its equally outdated kit lens…and not much else.
Seemingly counter-productive to this desire for simplicity, I had recently picked up a used copy of the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II (which was recently superseded by the 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR) for a dance recital gig. Fortunately, the updated lens prompted used copies of the previous model to hit the market, so I got plenty of IQ and saved more than a few bucks over buying new.
Shooting my newly-acquired 70-200 at the dance recital I was immediately enamored of its speed, quick low-light focusing, and acutance. In short, I loved the files the 70-200/D750 combo produced. And comparing the 24-120 with the 70-200 in this example—low-light, moving subjects, etc.—would be completely unfair. No matter how great the D750’s high-ISO performance is—and it is amazing—the 24-120 is going to suffer in that scenario.
But what about in the studio, where I control the light? Back when I still shot Canon, I used the 24-105 nearly as much as the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, mostly because of space considerations and my dislike of the flatness produced by focal lengths much over 100mm. Plus, being able to go from full-body to three-quarter to headshot in a matter of seconds is really nice when you’re maintaining the connection with the subject to pull something special out of the session. Here, pausing to change lenses has the potential to break the moment.
And in the studio—particularly when in close for head and head-and-shoulder shots—apertures much less than f/8 are rarely encountered. It was with this mindset that I decided to do as close to an A/B comparison as possible. Use both the 24-120 and 70-200 at the same focal length and aperture, shooting the same subject, with the same lighting.
And I damn near got it right. I can’t recall what happened exactly, but there is a stop difference between the lenses. I seem to remember needing to set up the lighting scheme up again for some reason. Still, it’s awfully close, and the advantage would go to the 70-200 which was shot at f/9 rather than f/8 like the 24-120. Both were set to 85mm and ISO 100 with a shutter speed of 1/200. Granted, I ran them through my normal post moves, and also converted them both to B&W. Still, I think it demonstrates that both lenses exhibit excellent IQ at these settings, particularly at these apertures.
So, once post-processed, resized for the web, burned into JPGs, and posted on my blog, could you tell which lens was which without looking?