Comparing Nikon’s 24-70mm f/2.8 to Nikon’s 24mm PC Lens

Posted Jul. 5th, 2012 by Daniel J. Cox

Rainy days and time away from a busy studio setting can be very productive. Especially if you’re as far north as Churchill, Manitoba. I’m visiting Churchill documenting summer in the arctic for the Arctic Documentary Project. I’ve been here for a few days staying at the PBI house. My first two evenings were beautiful though very hot for this part of the world. Unusually warm temperatures but the same old beautiful low arctic light for gorgeous landscapes. Here’s an image from last night.

Thunderheads over Hudson Bay, not far from the PBI house in Churchill, Manitoba.

Today’s more normal weather has returned with heavy overcast and a lot of rain. I’m passing time doing some tests with a couple of new pieces of equipment – the recently released Nikon D800 and a not so new, but seldom used, 24mm PC lens. I’ve been comparing the 24mm PC lens to my old workhorse the 24-70mm 2.8 zoom. I don’t always get to do these things when I’m at home since a busy studio environment keeps me hopping. Detailed tests seem to get put on the back burner.

I’ve mentioned it before to those I’ve traveled with that I feel Nikon’s 24-70mm 2.8 zoom is a spectacularly sharp lens. This lens along with the 14-24mm 2.8 were the first optics I purchased from Nikon with the new Nano Crystal Coating. Nano Crystal Coating was announced 4-5 years ago. I don’t recall exactly when but at the time there was minor fanfare with mostly just a link to a white paper that Nikon had released describing the benefits to their new technology in lens coatings. I thought, “yeah right, just another ploy for us to all go out and update to a lot of expensive Nikkor lenses. Can’t blame them. I thought, wouldn’t I love for people to have to re-buy everything I ever originally sold them.”  I acknowledged the hype but went on my way not really interested.

A few months passed and I began to think about replacing my old 35-70mm zoom for the new wider range of the 24-70. I had virtually forgotten about the fact the new lens had the Nano coatings. Mainly I had decided to update for a wider optical range. At the same time I also decided to try the super wide 14-24mm since I’m a huge fan of the ‘wider the better’ philosophy. I shoot a lot of telephotos in my wildlife and nature work but my favorite lenses are my wide angles. Call me strange.

So today I created a challenge for the two lenses. In the PBI house is a section of tongue and groove pine paneling. The key to the test it to have a flat, even surface and the wall fit these requirements just fine. I set up my tripod about three feet out from the paneling and shot both lenses from their widest aperture to their smallest, all in one-stop increments. The results were very surprising.

The first thing I noticed on the 24-70 was the serious optical issues with straight lines, often referred to as distortion. It was substantial and disturbing. Compared to the fixed 24mm PC lens the 24-70mm seemed almost defective, but in reality it’s no worse than you can expect from any zoom lens pushing the limits of optics.. Take a look at the image below to see what I mean.

24-70mm lens at 24mm. A lot of lens distortion.

Below is a sample of the same image above corrected within Lightroom’s Lens Correction module. The distortion issue is really a non-issue if you are using Adobe’s Lightroom 4 which has these Lens Correction tools. I’m a big fan of Apple’s Aperture but admittedly, not as much as before I tried this new tool in Lightroom 4. Wow, this is a powerful option I wished desperately Aperture had.

Same image processed through Lighttoom 4’s Lens Corrections module.

Back to my original comparison, and sorry for going a bit off topic but Lightroom’s Lens Correction tool is so impressive I wanted to make sure I mentioned it. Admittedly though, many people do know about this option and it’s one of the reasons Lightroom is so popular. Good job Adobe. The next image is one that is straight out of the camera with the 24mm PC lens. Notice the straight lines and sharpness is superb as well.

Notice the straight lines and lack of any distortion. I tried running this image through Lightroom’s Lens Correction module and it did make some corrections but it didn’t do it any favors. It may have to do with the fact I couldn’t find the actual 24mm PC lens option. Just the 24mm f2.8 was listed.

For those who are using Aperture we do have a similar option that you can add to Aperture as a plugin called PTLens. It’s a free download for making similar lens corrections as that built into Lightroom 4, however, PTLens’ most notable downside is that it requires each image be taken outside of Aperture and converted to TIFF to make the corrections. The process is rather painless but I don’t like having to convert the RAW image to make the changes. Having to do this eliminates many of the benefits of the RAW format. To say I’m hopeful that an updated version of Aperture adds lens corrections to our RAW workflow would be an understatement.

Finally, the main issue I was interested in testing for was sharpness. I’ve always known the 24-70mm was a fabulously sharp lens but I thought the single focal length of the 24mm PC would hold an advantage. And it did, but not in the sharpness category. It’s main advantage was the lack of distortion. The 24-70 held it’s own in sharpness compared to the 24mm PC or at least it did on my computer screen looking through my 52 year old eyes.

Furthermore, In other tests I’ve done relating to sharpness I’ve investigated the relatively new Nikkor 105mm Macro. It too has Nano Coating and the main benefits I’ve noticed on it and other Nano Coated lenses are in the smaller apertures. Shooting at F16 and F22 in years past created huge, negative quality issues due to diffraction problems. In fact, I just recently sold my Nikon 200mm macro because the image  was virtually unusable at F32 and F45. It was so bad I didn’t feel images at those apertures were publishable. This was a major problem since shooting at such powerful magnifications you hope to achieve the best depth of field possible, thus F32 or lower.  The old 200mm Macro just didn’t cut it, however, the relatively new 105mm Macro with Nano Coating is one of the sharpest lenses I’ve ever shot. So the engineers at Nikon deserve a huge “atta boy”. Now if they would just build us a set of extension tubes that give us all the electronics our current Nikon cameras require. That’s a subject for another blog post that most likely will qualify as a RANT.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there are more scientifically accurate tests out there. Mine are often what I call real world comparisons. For those who want the  absolute most accurate science you can get, visit DxO Labs. They’ll give you the final word on all things related to lens sharpness and digital sensor comparisons. DPReview is also a great site for in-depth tests. I frequent both sites myself but I find it quite rewarding to be able to check some of these details in my own world. It’s amazing what you can figure out with some time on your hands, a lens test chart made from a wall of knotty pine, a tripod, a hot new camera and lenses.

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There are 11 comments on this post…
  1. PaulOn Jul. 26th, 2012

    I suspect you’re giving too much credit to the nano crystal coating. It’s a remarkable technology, and will likely make for much better lenses in the future, but right now it’s so expensive that Nikon is only putting it on a single glass surface per lens. In a lens like the 24-70, which has 24 glass-air surfaces, there’s a limit to how much difference this can make!

    Coatings, by the way, do not primarily make lenses sharper. They reduce reflections that cause flare, and so they increase contrast and total light transmission. The real benefit is that they free up the lens designer to make more complex corrections, by using more elements and groups. 20 years ago, a lens with fifteen elements like the 24-70 would have been a disaster. Improved coatings make such a design possible. That lone element with nano coating is just a tiny part of the improvement.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Jul. 26th, 2012

      Paul. thanks for adding your voice. Whatever the reason for the increased sharpness, I’m loving it!

  2. Richard FurhoffOn Jul. 10th, 2012

    I just wanted to add that Nikon’s Capture NX2 has a fabulous distortion correction and aberation tool built right in, optimized for ALL of Nikon’s lenses. If you check the box, it corrects automatically based on lens information in the file’s metadata.

    It works a treat, even on fisheyes!

  3. Portrait of David and Shiela Glatz

    Dave GlatzOn Jul. 8th, 2012

    Hey Dan nice post as usual. The paneling illustrated your point perfectly, but which lens did you use to capture the image leading off the post? Maybe you slipped in a “lummox” (ha ha Panasonic Lumix) image into this post? Thanks.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Jul. 25th, 2012


      Sorry this has taken so long to get back to you. The lead image to this post was shot with the D800 and 24mm tilt/shift lens. I’m currently working a more indepth review of the D800. Have to say it has impressed me more than I expected. Stay tuned.

  4. Zev BitmanOn Jul. 7th, 2012

    Thank you so much for your comparison of zoom to 24mmPC lens.
    I have the 45mmPC and 85mmPC lenses and love them. But now I feel my 14-24mm f/2.8 nano lens with Lightroom4 lens correction might make it unnecessary for me to purchase the 24mmPC.
    Your real world review is very valuable.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Jul. 8th, 2012

      Glad it was helpful for you. Keep in mind however that the PC part of thie 24mm lens is still an asset. I have to admit I’m not sure it’s worth the extra money unless you use a great deal but that is one difference the 24-70 just doesn’t give you. Thanks again and stop by the blog and share your voice anytime.

  5. Doug BrayOn Jul. 7th, 2012

    Hi Dan,

    How is the D800 for low light performance? I have seen some mixed reviews?

    As you know, I passed, and bought a D700 for the India trip, which served quite well.


    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Jul. 7th, 2012


      From some tests I shot the D800 is very close if not equal to the D700. Type of noise is quite different, less distracting. Most reviews say something smilar. Here’s a link to a blog post of a short, hands on review with some low noise samples. So far I’m liking it quite well though I shoot it sparingly due to the huge files. My biggest resin for purchase was its video capabilities.

  6. Bill BurkholderOn Jul. 7th, 2012

    Nice article with good-to-know information. Yes, zoom lenses have more problems with distortion than primes. Yes, nano-coating and similar coating technologies used by other manufacturers improve sharpness.

    In the real world, though, how often do the advantages of one technology outweigh the advantages of the other? I’ll submit that the most important camera and lens we have are the ones accessible to us when we see a recordable scene or moment, and that if we come away with a photograph that is memorable, that is what counts. Can it be improved with better equipment or software? Perhaps. But recording the scene, and knowing how to make it memorable, are most important.

    DXO and DPReview (and other excellent sites) are great references when you decide how to spend your resources on gear, but it is very easy to over-spend for “top test” gear, when the reality is that there is an abundance of great equipment available today, from many different manufacturers, in several different formats besides dSLR.

    It will be very interesting to watch what happens to Canon and Nikon as the folks at Fuji, Sony, Panasonic, and Olympus perfect their mirror-less, interchangeable lens camera systems and bulk up their lens lines. With half to a third of the weight of dSLR gear, they make great field systems!

    Nikon has “sort of” answered in that space with the Nikon 1 series, but it scrapes the bottom of the barrel in most comparison reviews.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Jul. 7th, 2012


      Thanks for adding your voice. I could not agree with you more on literally everything you said. If you search for Panasonic, here on the Blog, you will see my infatuation with the new Mirrorless revolution. It’s happening faster than either Nikon or Canon can imagine I’m sure. Nikon’s answer, the J1 and V1, was disappointing to me but I’m sure they will migrate some of the amazing technology from that system and move it in to the DSLR series at some point, including minus the mirror box. Can’t wait. Until then I’m still loving my new D800 which I was surprised to experience and shooting my smaller cameras for certain situations. It all good, lots of fun and keeps the mind on edge learning all the new technologies coming down the pike.

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