Splash out on a Nikon DSLR 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 we’ve chosen for this group test, in both DX and FX categories, aim to strike a compromise.
We've split these lenses into two groups: those designed for Nikon's APS-C (DX) format DSLRs and those designed for full frame (FX format) Nikons. 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.
For build quality, handling and outright performance, Nikon leads the way in both DX and FX camps, with the 16-80mm VR and 24-70mm VR lenses respectively.
Read on to find out more...
APS-C format zooms
Best DX Nikon standard zoom lenses
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 in the group. Up-market features include an electromagnetically controlled diaphragm, ring-type ultrasonic autofocus and a weather-sealed mounting plate. It also has the biggest zoom range, going more wide-angle than the other DX lenses and offering the greatest reach. 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 the best of any DX-format lens here, 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 the older Sigma lens’s constant-aperture rating, but matches its 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 the Sigma 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. Other similarities are the inclusion of two FLD elements and a four-stop optical stabilizer. Lab test results for centre-sharpness aren’t quite as good as from the Sigma 17-50mm, but levels of sharpness are much more consistent across the whole image frame.
3. Tamron SP AF 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di II VC LD for Nikon
This old-school zoom still has something to offer
Effective zoom range: 25.5-75mm | Lens construction: 19 elements in 14 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 0.29m | Filter size: 72mm | Dimensions: 80x95mm | Weight: 570g
Now eight years old, this Tamron lens combines a fast, constant f/2.8 aperture with VC (Vibration Compensation) stabilization. It competes directly with the Sigma 17-50mm for zoom range, aperture rating and stabilization, and is almost exactly the same size and weight. However, the Tamron has a smaller filter thread of 72mm, lacks a soft case, and has a more basic electric autofocus motor. The optical path includes an XR (eXtra Refractive Index) element, two LD (Low Dispersion) elements and BBAR (Broad-Band Anti-Reflection) anti-reflective coatings. Autofocus speed is a little quicker than in the DX-format Sigma lenses, but the motor is comparatively noisy. Again, the focus ring rotates during autofocus and there’s no full-time manual override. Centre-sharpness is excellent at short to mid zoom settings but corner-sharpness is relatively poor at both ends of the zoom range.
4. 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
Both of the Sigma DX-format lenses on test have ultrasonic motor-based autofocus systems. While not as fast as most ring-type ultrasonic systems, and while lacking in full-time manual override, the relatively small motor does enable a compact build. Even so, this is the chunkier of the two Sigma lenses and, at 565g, is 100g heavier than the 17-70mm. It beats the other Sigma DX lens 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.
Full-frame format zooms
Best FX Nikon standard zoom lenses
5. Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR
New, improved and stabilized, it’s simply the best
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
The original Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G lens was launched ten years ago. This new ‘f/2.8E’ edition 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 on test 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. Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM | A for Nikon
Never mind the aperture, check out the range
Effective zoom range: 24-105mm | Lens construction: 19 elements in 14 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 9 | Minimum focus distance: 0.45m | Filter size: 82mm | Dimensions: 89x109mm | Weight: 885g
Sigma’s Art lenses tend to have extra-wide apertures for enabling a tight depth of field, but in this case Sigma has gone for an extended zoom range at the expense of a drop in aperture rating from f/2.8 to f/4. In terms of build quality and handling, this lens feels like a step up from Sigma’s DX-format lenses and, like other FX-format lenses in the group, and this one features ring-type ultrasonic autofocus. Two FLD (Fluorite-grade Low Dispersion) and two SLD (Special Low Dispersion) elements are included, but there are no weather seals. Considering the generous zoom range of this lens, image quality is impressive: there’s plenty of contrast and centre-sharpness, even when shooting wide-open at f/4. The Sigma also beats both of the competing Nikon FX-format lenses when it comes to minimizing lens distortion.
8. 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.
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