Looking for the best Nikon standard zoom lens? Then this guide is here to help you find the one to buy – and to get it at the best price.
Splash out on a Nikon interchangeable lens camera and you generally get the option of buying a complete kit that comes with a standard zoom lens. There’s a lot to be said for the likes of the AF-S DX 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II kit for DX (APS-C) format cameras and the AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR kit for FX (full-frame) bodies. They’re reasonably compact and lightweight – especially the 18-55mm, with its retractable design – and they deliver good image quality with decent all-round performance. Indeed, you can buy these DX and FX-format lenses separately. However, you could buy better.
One thing that all ‘kit’ lenses tend to lack is a relatively fast aperture rating that remains constant throughout the zoom range. The advantages are two-fold. Firstly, a standard zoom with a constant f/2.8 aperture enables you to maintain faster shutter speeds under dull lighting conditions, at any available focal length. This is typically up to two stops faster than most kit lenses at the long end of the zoom range. You’ll also get more control over depth of field, the wider aperture enabling you to blur the background more and better isolate a close-up subject in a composition. Finally, an extra bonus is that you can shoot in manual mode without worrying that the wide-open aperture might change if you adjust the zoom setting.
The downside of lenses with wider aperture ratings is that they tend to be bulkier and heavier, which can be a problem for travel photography and prolonged periods of handheld shooting. Another issue is that the outright zoom range can be comparatively limited, especially at the telephoto end. Most of the lenses on this list aim to strike a compromise.
We've split these lenses into three groups: those designed for Nikon's APS-C (DX) format DSLRs, those designed for full frame (FX format) Nikon DSLRs, and finally, lenses for Nikon Z-series mirrorless cameras (full frame and APS-C). You can use full frame standard zooms on a DX body, but the effective focal length becomes 1.5x longer so they lose their usefulness.
Nikon F DX
1. Nikon AF-S DX 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR
The most up-market DX-format zoom on test
Effective zoom range: 24-120mm | Lens construction: 17 elements in 13 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 0.35m | Filter size: 72mm | Dimensions: 80x86mm | Weight: 480g
The perfect match for high-performance DX bodies like the D7500 and D500, this is the most advanced DX-format lens you can buy. Up-market features include an electromagnetically controlled diaphragm, ring-type ultrasonic autofocus and a weather-sealed mounting plate. It also has a big zoom range, going more wide-angle than other DX lenses and offering a long reach for a standard zoom. Typical ring-type ultrasonic attractions include fast and near-silent operation, with full-time manual override. The optical path includes four ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements, Nano Crystal Coating for reducing ghosting and flare, plus fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements to repel muck and moisture. While build quality and handling are outstanding, performance admittedly leaves a bit to be desired in some areas.
2. Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM | C for Nikon
Newer and smaller, but with a bigger zoom range
Effective zoom range: 25.5-105mm | Lens construction: 16 elements in 14 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 0.22m | Filter size: 72mm | Dimensions: 79x82mm | Weight: 465g
Part of the ‘Contemporary’ class models from Sigma’s ‘Global Vision’ line-up, this lens is designed to be compact, lightweight and stylish. It lacks a constant-aperture rating, but boasts a fast f/2.8 rating at the short end of the zoom range, while only shrinking to f/4 at the long end. That’s still an f/stop faster than most kit lenses. As with Sigma's 17-50mm lens, autofocus is based on an ultrasonic motor, and the focus ring rotates during autofocus, so you have to be careful to keep your fingers clear. You also get two FLD elements and a four-stop optical stabilizer. Centre-sharpness isn’t quite as good as from the Sigma 17-50mm, but levels of sharpness are much more consistent across the whole image frame.
3. Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM for Nikon
It packs a punch at a penny-pinching price
Effective zoom range: 25.5-75mm | Lens construction: 17 elements in 13 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 0.28m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 84x92mm | Weight: 565g
This lens has an ultrasonic motor-based autofocus system, which though not as fast as most ring-type ultrasonic systems and lacking in full-time manual override, the relatively small motor does enable a compact build. Even so, this is still a chunky lens and, at 565g, it's 100g heavier than Sigma's 17-70mm lens. It beats the 17-70mm in terms of having a constant-aperture f/2.8 rating, but falls shorter in maximum telephoto reach. It’s also an older design with an ‘EX’ designation, denoting ‘professional grade’ build quality, although the standard of construction doesn’t feel any more robust than that of the newer 17-70mm lens, and neither have any weather-seals. Helped by two FLD (Fluorite-grade Low Dispersion) elements, contrast and centre-sharpness are good throughout the zoom range.
Nikon F FX
4. Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM | A
As good as Nikon’s own-brand alternative, but smaller and less expensive
Effective zoom range: 24-70mm | Lens construction: 19 elements in 14 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 0.37m | Filter size: 82mm | Dimensions: 88x108mm | Weight: 1,020g
Sigma’s 24-70mm Art lens goes head to head with Nikon’s top-flight standard zoom for full-frame DSLRs. The headline specifications in terms of zoom range, aperture rating and optical stabilization are the same for both lenses, and they both deliver excellent image quality. They also both feature electromagnetically controlled diaphragms for aperture control. An additional bonus for the Sigma is that it’s compatible with an optional USB Dock for fine-tuning and customization, as well as for applying firmware updates. It’s also significantly shorter than the Nikon in physical length, although both lenses are similarly weighty at just over a kilogram. The Nikon lens is very marginally sharper but the Sigma produces less colour fringing and distortion at short focal lengths, and less vignetting at wide apertures. All in all, the Sigma is the better buy.
5. Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR
A superb - if pricey - own-brand standard zoom
Effective zoom range: 24-70mm | Lens construction: 20 elements in 16 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 0.38m | Filter size: 82mm | Dimensions: 88x155mm | Weight: 1070g
This ‘f/2.8E’ edition of Nikon's original 24-70mm f/2.8G lens is a major revamp. It has an all-new optical layout, even tougher build, and the added attraction of VR, rated at four stops. There are four ED elements in total, plus an HRI (High Refractive Index) element, Nano Crystal Coatings, fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements, and best of all, an electromagnetically controlled diaphragm. As such, the lens features a host of Nikon’s latest technical innovations, along with quick and whisper-quiet ring-type ultrasonic autofocus. The electromagnetically controlled diaphragm enables very consistent exposures in rapid-fire continuous shooting. Sharpness and contrast are both excellent, and there’s particularly good resistance to ghosting and flare. However, vignetting is pronounced at wide apertures, and color fringing and distortion can be noticeable.
6. Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 for Nikon
A top-notch lens that offers outstanding value
Effective zoom range: 24-70mm | Lens construction: 17 elements in 12 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 0.38m | Filter size: 82mm | Dimensions: 88.,4x111mm | Weight: 900g
The combination of a 24-70mm zoom range with a fast f/2.8 constant aperture is a favourite of many creative photographers. This Tamron lens stole a lead on its competitors by adding optical stabilization into the mix. The Tamron looks and feels like a truly professional-grade lens. It’s not only robust, but it was Tamron’s first lens to boast weather seals. Posh glass includes three LD (Low Dispersion) and two XR (Extra Refractive index) elements. The Tamron comes pretty close to the much more expensive Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens for centre-sharpness throughout most of the zoom range. However, it drops off a little more at the long end, and is somewhat softer towards the corners of the frame at all zoom settings. Autofocus is rapid and whisper-quiet.
7. Nikon AF-S 24-120mm f/4G ED VR
This lens rules the roost for telephoto reach
Effective zoom range: 24-120mm | Lens construction: 17 elements in 13 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 0.45m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 84x104mm | Weight: 710g
An upgrade of Nikon’s original 24-120mm VR lens, this has a more effective, new-generation optical stabilizer (rated at up to four stops), and a constant f/4 aperture, instead of it shrinking from f/3.5 to f/5.6 through the zoom range. Like the other Nikon lenses on test, it feels reassuringly well built and features a rubber weather-seal ring on the mounting plate. Handling is excellent, with smooth operation of the zoom and focus rings. Optical highlights include two ED elements and Nano Crystal Coating. The autofocus and Mk II VR systems work well, but the Nikon loses out to the competing Sigma 24-105mm for centre-sharpness, especially in the longer half of the zoom range. The flip side is that the drop-off in corner-sharpness is less noticeable. Overall image quality is very satisfying.
A retractable zoom of practically pancake lens proportions
Effective zoom range: 24-75mm | Lens construction: 9 elements in 7 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 0.25-0.3m | Filter size: 46mm | Dimensions: 70x32mm | Weight: 135g
Developed for the APS-C format Z 50 mirrorless camera, this lens is suitably compact and lightweight, weighing in at just 135g. It has a retractable design, enabling it to shrink down to just 32mm in length for stowage, so it’s eminently travel-friendly. One of the weight-saving measures is that the lens has a plastic rather than metal mounting plate, and there are no weather-seals, but build quality feels pretty solid overall. Given that the aperture rating narrows to a ‘slow’ f/6.3 at the long end of the zoom range, and that the Z 50 has no in-body stabilization, the 4.5-stop optical VR is a very welcome inclusion. This little lens punches above its weight for image quality, with impressive sharpness throughout the entire zoom range, even when shooting wide-open.
An ideal compact standard zoom for full-frame mirrorless cameras
Effective zoom range: 24-70mm | Lens construction: 14 elements in 11 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 0.3m | Filter size: 72mm | Dimensions: 78x89mm | Weight: 500g
Tying in perfectly with the slim, lightweight design ethos of Z 6 and Z 7 cameras, this standard zoom tips the scales at 500g and is nice and small for stowing away, thanks to its retractable design. It certainly doesn’t come up short in terms of image quality, with fabulous sharpness across the entire image frame, throughout the whole zoom range. Naturally, the widest aperture of f/4 doesn’t deliver such a tight depth of field as from the more up-market Z 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, but defocused areas in scenes look pleasantly soft. Indeed, you can focus right down to 0.3m, enabling a 0.3x magnification factor and plenty of background blur. Onboard controls are fairly rudimentary but you can alter the action of the manual focus ring for other functions, like stepless aperture control during movie capture.
Nikon’s range-topping standard zoom for the Z 6 and Z 7
Effective zoom range: 24-70mm | Lens construction: 17 elements in 15 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 0.38m | Filter size: 82mm | Dimensions: 89x126mm | Weight: 805g
If you don’t mind going large in build and price, this top-flight standard zoom is a significant upgrade over the already excellent Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S. It’s an f/stop faster, enabling quicker shutter speeds without bumping up your camera’s ISO setting, and a tighter depth of field for more effectively isolating the main subject in a scene. Additional features include a separate customisable control ring, whereas the f/4 lens relies on changing the action of the manual focus ring for this purpose. The f/2.8 lens also gains a customisable Lens Function button and a multi-mode info display, similar to that of the Z 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. Image quality is stunning in all respects.
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