The Current State of Z-Mount Mid-Range Zoom

I’ve written about where we stand with telephoto focal lengths several times, but haven’t done so for the mid-range lenses. It’s time to correct that lapse. I’m not doing this as a permanent article in the lens section of the site just yet, because I expect we’ll see a fair amount of change in the next 12-24 months. 

The Players
We have two mid-range zoom choices in DX, and six in FX. 

DX is pretty easy to deal with due to the paucity of lenses. The 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 DX VR kit lens is about as good as we’ve ever seen from a kit lens in crop sensor cameras. It’s an easy choice to make, particularly since Nikon often offers it bundled with DX cameras at the nearly ridiculous implied price of US$150. Simply put, this lens delivers well above that cost. Whoever designed this lens deserves a promotion (and please have them design a 16-50mm f/2.8 or f/4 DX compact zoom ;~). Moreover, it’s truly small and light, collapses for even smaller travel size, and has VR built in. If you have a DX body and don’t have this lens, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Of course, if you have to buy it separately, it’s going to cost you twice as much (US$300). 

Your only other choice for DX is the 18-140mm f/3.5-6.3 DX VR (US$600, or double the kit lens list price). This lens is probably closer to the DSLR version than most of the Z-mount lenses have been, which is to say it’s very good, but not great. It’s quite suitable for the 20mp we have in DX these days, though I don’t know if that will hold up with higher pixel counts in the future. My only real problem with this lens is that it’s 18mm at the wide end, or about 28mm equivalent. That’s not overly wide. So I consider this a mid-range zoom that’s skewed towards the telephoto side. If I think that I really need wide angle, this lens is not on my camera.

Moving to FX, we have a much more interesting and varied story. Let’s tackle this in “worst” to “best” order:

  • 24-50mm f/4-6.3. At the bottom of the heap, for multiple reasons, is the 24-50mm. Optically, it’s adequate but not stellar at anything. The limited focal range is it’s real drawback. It’s really a wide-to-normal zoom. So using the wording I used for DX, I consider it a mid-range zoom that’s highly skewed towards the wide side. The plus of this lens is its size and weight. As a Z5 kit lens, it makes for a very portable one-lens solution for many. It’s basically the same size for travel as the 28mm f/2.8 and 40mm f/2, which I call “muffin” lenses (because they’re not quite pancakes). So call the 24-50mm the “muffin zoom.” For a wildlife or sports photographer that’s mostly using long telephoto, sticking this lens into the bag (or pocket!) is a no-brainer should you to suddenly need wide angle.
  • 28-75mm f/2.8. Like the lens just described, this lens is towards the bottom for reasons that aren’t exactly about its optical ability. Again, not having 24mm (or equivalent) at the wide end is somewhat limiting for many. While the 4mm difference doesn’t seem like much, we’re talking about the difference between a 74° and 84° horizontal angle of view, which is not insignificant. If you want to understand why, put your arms at 90 degrees (which really requires an 18mm lens, but is close enough to 20mm), then start moving your arms closer together and see how constraining a narrower view might be indoors or close to your subjects. This lens also has virtually no additional goodies or controls, as it's sold in Nikon’s “value” lineup, not the S-line. Couple all that with the lens’ optical strength being in the DX frame lines (but not corners) and a sometimes problematic bokeh, and you’ll see why it sits lower in my evaluation.
  • 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR. You’re probably surprised to find this lens above the previous one, though I’ll caution that it’s a very small step mostly due to the vastly expanding focal range. I consider the 24-200mm to be a compromise lens: it doesn’t excel at things one of the other mid-range lenses do, but it also doesn’t perform badly with the optics in most cases, either. The reason for this position in my evaluation is the smallish size and weight (for the focal range) and the added VR (works with DX bodies to be a pretty darned good ~35-300mm lens). At 200mm, as I’ve written before, it’s the worst current performer at that focal length, though still probably more than adequate for most in a pinch. The size and weight coupled with the wide usable range means this lens tends to be the one-stop travel lens for many, and that reputation is well deserved.
  • 24-70mm f/4 S. I remember my encounters with the old Sony/Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 lens (still available) quite clearly. Compared to the Nikkor 24-70mm f/4 S that Sony is simply just bad. At lots of things. While the Nikkor is good. At lots of things. The 24-70mm f/4 S is small, light, and decidedly without any big gotcha optically. That’s not to say there aren’t small gotchas (my review points out several). However, with lens corrections turned on and careful use, this lens produces excellent results even on the 45mp cameras. Plus it travels smaller than it is in use, making it very bag friendly. Early on the implied lens price in a camera kit was absurdly low. Today it’s US$600 (a US$400 discount from list). If that’s too much to pay, note that a lot of excellent condition 24-70’s are on the used market in the US$400-500 range. This lens is more mid-pack in my list for a reason: it’s a solid balance of price, performance, and size.
  • 24-120mm f/4 S. We just took a jump up in optical qualities in a lens that provides a wide-ish focal range. The previous four lenses are what I regard as “useful lenses,” while this and the next lens are what I regard as “optically superior” work lenses. I was surprised at how good this lens was (though the S-line designation should have been a giveaway). If you have any experience with the Nikon DSLR 24-120mm versions, forgot that, the Z-mount lens is different and better. So much so that it’s become the mid-range zoom that’s usually in my bag (because I value the expanded focal range over what the next two lenses provide). While not the absolutely best optical performer in this category, it’s definitely useful on the 45mp bodies and holds its own. It’s worst attribute is strong vignetting without the lens corrections. This lens is probably the one that the serious users should be using unless they have a specific need for something that the next one provides.
  • 24-70mm f/2.8 S. The cream of the crop is the middle lens in the Zoom Trinity. Again, compared to the DSLR versions we had, this first mirrorless version just simply looks better, in almost every regard. If that’s not an indictment of where we were with DSLRs, consider that this mirrorless lens is 12% shorter and 20% lighter. Optically, it’s the best 24-anything Nikon has ever made, and right up there as one of the very few top 24-70mm’s you can find (the Sony GM is about the same, in my testing). That said, it rarely makes it into my bag as I value the 70-120mm range of the previous lens more than I do the extra stop of light gathering of this one. You very well may be the opposite. So ask yourself this question: another stop of light (buy this lens) or another 40% of horizontal crop at the long end (buy the 24-120mm)?

While Nikon doesn’t show any more mid-range zoom lenses on the current Road Map, what I’m hearing out of Tokyo is that several new choices are coming at some point, plus then we have to see what Tamron and maybe Sigma might provide. The Tamron 20-40mm f/2.8 and 35-150mm f/2-2.8 would be interesting additions that provide some different focal length options, for instance. Sigma, meanwhile, has the 18-50mm f/2.8 lens that would be of interest to DX users. Plus, we can’t rule out the Chinese makers, as it appears they’ve started dabbling in zooms recently.

The bottom line is that you can’t go very far wrong in the mid-range zooms currently available for the Z-mount. They all have an appropriate place, and we already have a reasonable set of choices available. Any additions will just start to clutter our choices and make them more difficult, as is starting to happen in the telephoto lens range. 

Bonus: I haven’t addressed wide angle yet, and there’s a reason for that. We simply don’t have the diversity of choice at multiple levels in wide angle as we do in mid-range and telephoto. That will get addressed soon enough, I believe. But for now, it’s a weakness in the Z System compared to the Sony FE mount.  

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