I recently rented the new Nikkor AF-S 24-120 f4 to see how well it would work as a landscape lens. I had read some mixed reviews about the lens but no one has really tested it from a landscape perspective. The focal ranges I normally use are 16mm to about 125mm. I have 2 lenses I carry all the time (Nikkor’s AF-S 16-35 f4 and AF-S 70-300 VR) and a 3rd (Nikkor AF-S28-70 f2.8) I use sometimes. The focal range of this new lens would compliment my 16-35 and reduce the lenses I carry to 2. Another benefit would be a bit of weight reduction in my backpack. The Nikkor AF-S 28-70 is a very large and heavy lens, while image quality is great, I would not miss having to carry it while backpacking. The Nikkor AF-S 24-120 f4 wont be replacing my 16-35, but I was curious how it would compare at 24mm if switching lenses in a nasty environment wasn’t an option. I also compared the Nikkor AF-S 24-120 f4 to the AF-S 28-70 f2.8 at 28mm and 50mm, and the AF-S 70-300 VR at 70mm, 85mm, and 120mm. The images posted are all at f11, though I am shooting the same shots at f8 also. Since I am looking at this from a landscape perspective, I wasn’t concerned with larger f stops. Shots posted are 200% crops for your pixel peeping benefit
Testing was done using a Nikon D3x mounted on a tripod, mirror lock up, cable release and Live View contrast detect focus. I was shooting at f8 and f11 and pixel peeping at 200% The shots were taken in RAW and no extra processing other than my normal ACR settings or sharpening was applied other than adjusting very slight exposure changes.
The images are posted HERE. My expectations weren't high considering the bashing this lens was getting (mostly from people who had not tested it.) My initial impression is, I don't see what all the fuss on build quality is about. It is similar to the feel of the AF-S 16-35 f4, the Nikkor AF-S 24-120 f4 internal sleeve is metal. It appears it will withstand my abuse as the AF-S 16-35 f4 does and I can be pretty hard on gear. It is very solid feeling when zooming. I don't get the plasticy (is that a word? ) feeling of my AF-S 70-300 VR. I think the build quality is quite good. The 24-120 does have a decent amount of barrel distortion improving all the way to 35mm where there is no distortion. As I zoomed further it changes to some minor pin cushion all the way to 120mm.
Testing at 24mm, the Nikkor AF-S 24-120 f4 is better than I was expecting, the center sharpness looks very close to the AF-S 16-35 f4 seeming ever so slightly sharper due to a little better micro contrast. They are close enough to not worry about (remember, 200% pixel peeping).
(When I refer to micro contrast or lens contrast it is a reference to sharpness, not like the contrast which distributes tonal gradation from black to white or lightest to darkest. Here is a good article explaining lens contrast). At f8 The 16-35 is better in the edge/corner department as I expected and the 24-120 has a bit of CA as does the 16-35 but the 16-35 CA is negligible. The 16-35 has nice clean straight lines and the 24-120 quite a bit of barrel distortion, no surprise here. At f11 there doesn't seem to be much change except edge/corner performance, the 16-35 improves and the 24-120 stays about the same.
Against the the 28-70, at 28mm, center performance is similar but the corners are much better with the 24-120. My eyes give a slight edge to the 24-120 in the center but it is very close. Both have a decent amount of CA of different type. The 24-120 still displays a bit of barrel distortion at 28mm and changes to pin cushion which showed up in my 50mm comparison. The 24-120 is the winner at 28mm. At 50mm the 24-120 had a repeat performance. I am satisfied the 24-120 could easily replace my 28-70 and give me better results.
At 70mm, compared to the 70-300 VR at f11 in the center, the 24-120 has a slight advantage, corners were too close to call. the 70-300 has always impressed me with it's corner performance and one of the reason I carry it over my AF 80-200 f2.8 (besides weight). At 85mm, the 70-300 has better corners, the 24-120 corners are very good, just not as good as the 70-300. The center frame comparison is the opposite with the 24-120 coming out on top nicely. Most of the CA has disappeared as well. Images at 120mm are close to the same results as 85 with the 24-120 corners not quite as good but still not bad and the center, the 24-120 is better. The 70-300 has virtually no CA and the 24-120 has a tiny bit.
Verdict: I think this lens will be a nice upgrade for a light landscape photography kit with the AF-S 16-35 f4 and the Nikkor AF-S 24-120 f4.