AF-S DX Nikkor 12-24 mm f/4 G vs AF ED 18-35 mm f/3.5-4.5
© 2005 Riccardo Polini (updated on Oct. 2006)
Two years ago I started shooting digital. However I did never quit using film! I had, and still have, my trusty AF ED 18-35/3.5-4.5 D zoom. This cheap and lightweigth wideangle zoom is a very good performer and I obtained excellent results using it and Velvia 50. The main drawback of the 18-35 is the visible barrel distorsion in the 18-24 mm range. Apart from this, this lens can be considered one of the finest amateur lenses Nikon has designed in the last years. Many reviews in the web have already confirmed the good quality and the excellent quality/price ratio of this zoom (check out www.bythom.com or www.kenrockwell.com).
However, the 18-35 zoom corresponds, in terms of angle of view, to an equivalent 28-55 mm on DSLR Nikons with APS-C sized sensors.
Therefore I decided to go wider and I bought the AFS DX 12-24/4 G. This DX lens is specifically addressed to Nikon digital shooters and corresponds to a 18-35 mm lens when used on a digital camera with 1.5X crop factor. Extensive reviews of the 12-24 DX lens can be found in Thom's (www.bythom.com) and Bjørn's (www.naturfotograf.com/index2.html) websites. Ken Rockwell also reviewed it and has recently compared several ultra-wide-angle zooms for digital cameras (here)
Several reviewers have written in their web pages that the 12-24 is a good performer on film in the 20-24 mm range. In particular, Bjørn Rørslett wrote:"At 24 mm, very sharp and crisp images resulted at nearly all aperture settings. Only the f/4 and f/22 were slightly less sharply etched. Peak performance occurred at f/8-f/11, but the high image quality held up nearly everywhere else too. Colour fringing was virtually non-existent at this end of the focal range. No Nikkor 24 mm prime lens gives this kind of quality images."
Therefore, the questions I tried to give an answer are: does the expensive 12-24 performs as well as my beloved (and much cheaper) AF ED 18-35 in the common focal length range? And what about the performance of the DX wideangle zoom on film?
Indoor shots using DSLR
I started the comparative test by shooting a bookshelf at home. I used two flashes in manual control (an SB-800 as master unit and an SB-24 coupled to an SU-4 unit) and directed towards the ceiling to light the scene. I started using intermediate apertures (f/8 and f/9, 1/60 sec), because I mostly use these apertures in the field (I use wideangle zooms mostly for landscapes and cityscapes, on tripod). The focal lengths I used were 18 and 24 mm.
The camera I used was a D100 @ ISO 200, NEF files with sharpening "low", auto WB and Auto Tone Compensation. All bookshelf pictures have been focused using auto-focus and the central AF sensor of the D100.
18 mm f/9
This is the bookshelf, photographed with the two zooms set at 18 mm. In the picture taken with the 12-24 lens the five cropped areas I've used to evaluate sharpness are shown. Below I have posted only crops #1, #2, #3 and #5.
AF-S DX Nikkor ED 12-24/4 G mm @ 18 mm f/9
AF Nikkor ED 18-35 mm @ 18 mm f/9
It is quite evident the lower barrel distorsion of the 12-24 lens at 18 mm. But what about sharpness?
Crop #4 gave similar results. One should expect that the quality of a wideangle zoom at its widest end would be lower than the quality of a twice more expensive wideangle zoom set at an intermediate focal length. Is it this the case? By looking at the crops, I'd say "NO!". The sharpness of the two lenses set @ 18 mm and f/9 was comparable, IMO, with slightly larger contrast of the 18-35 with respect to the 12-24.The difference was not so big (you can download the images and look them at 200 % or more using your image editing software); however, I don't know if these performance should allow me to over-rate the 18-35 or to under-rate the DX 12-24 ... If I would be payed by Nikon, I'd say that the 12-24 is a more difficult lens to design due to the incredible/unusual focal length range and that the performance at 18 mm (almost as good as the performance of an outstanding wideangle zoom such as the 18-35) confirms the quality of the glass. But I am not a Nikon engineer. I am a Nikon gear user and photographer that buys lenses with his own money and I can only say that, given the not exactly cheap price of the 12-24, I would have preferred to see not only less distorsion (and I agree with Nikon engineers on this point, the distorsion at 18 mm of the 12-24 zoom is negligible, practically nil), but at least the same sharpness and contrast as an amateur zoom.
[ click to continue: performance at 24 mm and full aperture ]
© 2005 Riccardo Polini