Nikon's AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G ED-IF Lens
An Upgrade On The Ultimate Travel Lens

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(Top): The older 24-120mm is shown on the left while the brand-new VR-G lens is on the right. Difference between the two is less than an inch when fully extended. (Above): Mounted on a Nikon F5, F100, or D1X, the lens functioned perfectly under all conditions. Scalloped hood is now a standard item on most lenses and comes as part of this package.
Photos © 2004, Stan Trzoniec, All Rights Reserved

For Nikon, 1996 was an exciting year. That was the introduction date of the F5 camera that revolutionized the way handheld cameras would be used. It was also the year that true Silent Wave Technology was brought on-line in the form of the 300, 500, and 600mm lenses. Incorporating "traveling waves" to focus the lens, this ground-breaking design allowed faster focus for those willing to pay the price and upgrade into this brand-new series of optical products.

Somewhat hidden away by all this fanfare was still another lens, which blossomed out to be one of the most popular lenses in the Nikon line. With a zoom range of 24-120mm, this new addition would soon become a fixture for both travel photographers and photojournalists. I purchased mine in '99 and would never be without one in my camera bag again.

The Upgraded Version
Nikon has introduced a new version of this well-liked lens. Called the AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G ED-IF. Checking in at 20.3 oz and considering its internal improvements, this lens is only an ounce heavier than the original.

A quaint New England town supplied this country store and one can often judge sharpness of a new lens by counting the grain patterns in the old wood siding.

So what did Nikon do to enhance this "new" lens? First of all, they redesigned and improved the handling qualities of the lens itself. Gone is the mushroom look of the older model; this new product is very svelte in appearance while maintaining the same outer dimension from front to rear. Up front is the zoom ring, which has also been redesigned so it now turns from the lower end (24mm) to the higher end (120mm) in a clockwise direction, standard on all of the newer Nikon lenses in the line. The lens is a little longer than its predecessor (only about a 1/2").

New Tech
To streamline the lens even more, the first thing was to move it into present-day technology with the addition of Nikon's "G" configuration. What that simply means is there is no aperture ring around the rear periphery of the lens barrel itself. With the invention of pro cameras like the F5, F100, and D-series of digital cameras the only people who will miss this f/stop ring would be users of prior (older) Nikon models. Electronic cameras now control the f/stop by command dials on the body itself. Additionally, I'm told product costs drop significantly with this feature, which is then passed on to the end user.

At 35mm on a Nikon F5, you can see the rain drops on each petal. Close-ups are no problem even if you zoom to 120mm for a follow-up shot. The close-up distance stays the same throughout the entire range of focal lengths.

The lens barrel and related parts are done in the usual high standards we are used to from Nikon including a beautiful, smooth as silk outside finish. Both the focusing and zoom rings are ribbed for non-slip operation regardless of the weather with all markings from the focal length to distance scales impressed with easy to read numbers. Being a zoom there are no markings on the lens barrel for depth of field, but when it gets that critical, a push inward on the preview button on the camera body itself should give you all of the information you desire.

For those trading in the older version, this new lens takes the same 72mm filters and, since it has the IF (Internal Focus) feature, the front lens element does not turn while the camera is focusing--a great advantage especially when using a circular polarizer. Finally, a brand-new center squeeze lens cover is included, which allows one to add or remove the lens cap without removing or reversing the included (HB-25) scalloped lens hood.

(Above): In Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, 1/8 sec proved I could use some help. Note the soft detail in the railing near the top of the tower. (Below): With the VR feature turned on, the railing as well as the rest of the building is perfectly sharp.

Internal Changes
Glass content has been increased to 15 elements in 13 groups and with the addition of two elements of Nikon's famous ED (Extra-low Dispersion) and two aspherical elements, sharpness and color fidelity has been improved while secondary chromatic aberrations have been virtually eliminated. Nikon warns new owners that certain tele-extenders are not compatible with this lens simply because of its construction.

If you want some extra magnification, place it on a digital camera. To finish off on the internal features, the aperture range is from f/3.5 to f/5.6 (24mm = f/3.5, 120mm = f/5.6), a rounded diaphragm helps to keep out-of-focus images more natural, and the familiar "D" chip adds to the correct exposure with or without a flash unit.

Silent Wave
A major upgrade with this lens is the addition of AF-S that allows both quiet and rapid focusing on any subject. Internally, a Silent Wave motor takes you from minimum focusing to infinity at the drop of a hat and can be set for two modes of operation, depending upon the photographic situation. On the left side of the lens barrel is a M/A (Manual/Automatic) or M (Manual) selector switch. The former allows instant touch up of the focus if you overshoot with the wrong focusing sensor. The Manual mode is handy if you like to work from a tripod and the subject (landscapes, still life) is static.

On my train layout, panning this diesel at 1/15 sec was no problem for this very different action photo of a model. Applications of this lens seem to never end.

Vibration Reduction
Finally, in our triple play, Nikon has wisely added the Vibration Reduction (VR) system to this lens. This is a great feature which allows you to get sharper images under difficult low-light situations or when you are down to bare minimums when using a polarizer, slow film, and less than adequate lighting. Things simply can't get any worse than that! Controlled by an off/on switch on the lens barrel, VR technology will add yet another dimension to your photographic skills. In effect, the lens will help you take sharper photographs in a range of eight times faster or three stops on the aperture scale.

For panning, the lens will sense this and work in one attitude (horizontal or vertical) strongly while reducing the effect in the lesser direction. This really adds to a sharper effect overall and I was thrilled when I could also turn the zoom ring while the shutter went off rendering light streaks in straight lines without a tripod. Applications of the VR system are never ending, adding to the creativity of the photographer.

Want to show slow motion in your waterfalls without the tripod? Here the exposure on a very cloudy day was 1/4 sec at f/16. Note the sharpness of the wall next to the waterfall.

Some Differences In VR
There are some differences in the VR system if one compares it to the first 80-400mm VR entry. According to Lindsay Silverman at Nikon, "The new AF-S VR Zoom 24-120mm lens doesn't have the VR setting for Image Plane only, which on the 80-400mm lens reduced the possibility of viewer discomfort at high magnifications." In simple terms, you will see the effects of the VR system working in the finder with this lens and hear an audible click as it turns on and off. While hardly noticeable at shorter focal lengths, you may pick up a trace of shake in the viewfinder that might be troublesome to a few at higher focal lengths. Otherwise the system performed flawlessly if I did my part to understand the theory behind it and use it in the right application.

Film And Digital Camera Application
When it comes to actual use of this lens, I have a strong bias toward film cameras. The focal lengths on this 24-120mm lens are just perfect for either the F5 or F100, but when you place it on the D1 series of digital cameras it seems to lose some of the magic. In effect it then becomes a 36-180mm lens. On the other side of the coin, since Nikon holds back on employing extenders, you can negate this by installing the lens on a D1 camera and closing the distance without damaging the equipment or voiding the warranty.

In the short time that I've used this lens I've placed it in a number of situations with more than acceptable results. In general use on a number of trips the lens performed with aplomb. Even when the light was low and the weather was really pitiful, images shot at under 1/30 sec were needle sharp. I also used it at night to see if I could still walk around without a tripod with 100-speed film. I was never disappointed.

Should I throw away my tripods? Hardly, but one of the great features of any of these VR lenses is that they may become a standard tool for traveling photographers. Nikon has taken one of its most popular lenses and loaded it up with highly innovative, high tech features. This is now a very impressive tool in the hands of knowledgeable photographers, the price is very reasonable, and if bringing back crisp images is an important part of your photographic lifestyle, go for it.

For more information, contact Nikon Inc. (631) 547-8588 or www.nikonusa.com.

Technical Specifications
Lens Type: G-type AF-S Zoom-Nikkor with built-in CPU and Nikon F-type lens mount
Focal Length: 24-120mm
Maximum Aperture: f/3.5 (24mm) - f/5.6 (120mm)
Aperture Range: f/3.5-f/22 (24mm), f/5.6-f/38 (120mm)
Lens Construction: 15 elements in 13 groups
Vibration Reduction: Lens-shift method employing voice coil motors
Closest Focusing Distance: 1.6 ft at all focal length settings
Diaphragm: Fully automatic, seven blades for a more natural effect for out-of-focus backgrounds
Filter Or Attachment Size: 72mm
Lens Hood: HB-25 (supplied) b20.3 oz
Product Number: 2145 NCP
Street Price: $569.99

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