Nikon 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 DX Lens Review

bythom nikon 16-50mm

What is It?

The 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR DX was a bit of a surprise when it was announced with the Z50 camera. The Nikon Z Lens Road Map didn't mention any DX lenses at the time, probably to not give away the fact that Nikon would be using the Z mount for crop sensor mirrorless until the first DX camera was announced. 

It's sudden appearance wasn't the only surprise. At just 4.8 ounces (135g) and less than 3" long (70mm) in its collapsed state, the 16-50mm is a seriously compact lens. Indeed, one of the most compact zooms ever produced for APS-C/DX sensor cameras, and smaller than a lot of primes. In it's retracted state it barely sticks out past the right hand grip on the Z50.

At first glance, it may seem that costs were cut, corners were taken. The lens is all-plastic, including the lens mount (though a very hardened and wear-resistant plastic). The mount does not feature a rubber weather gasket, but it does have an overhanging drip protector ring. The 9 elements in 7 group design seems minimal for a serious mid-range zoom, the f/6.3 aperture on the telephoto side is a bit disappointing, and the 7-blade aperture diaphragm seems to be another penny pinch. One final cost cut: no lens hood is supplied with the 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3. 

Yet, closer examination shows four expensive aspherical and one ED elements, plus VR is built in (4.5 stops CIPA rating). As you'll see in the Performance section, below, this lens somehow manages to rise above its US$150 implied cost when bundled with a Z50 camera. Way above. 

As with a lot of Nikon's recent kit-type lenses, especially for the smaller sensor cameras, the 16-50mm is a collapsing lens for travel. You must extend it by rotating the zoom ring to at least the 24mm position in order to take photos (the camera reminds you of this if you don't). This pushes the lens front out about an inch (24mm), and the lens is at its longest at 16mm (almost as long at 50mm, and slightly shorter in the middle). 

The variable aperture impacts work out like this:

  • 16mm — f/3.5
  • 20mm — f/4
  • 28mm — f/4.5
  • 35mm — f/5
  • 50mm — f/6.3

The zoom ring is marked at 16mm, 24mm, 35mm, and 50mm.

Nikon's optional hood for the lens is the HN-40, which screws into the 46mm front filter ring. The HN-40 is a thin, modest hood, so it doesn't add much travel bulk, particularly with the lens in its collapsed state. (See my Recommended Z50 kit page for an optional hood that is less expensive than Nikon's.)

Note that if you mount this lens on the full frame Nikon Z cameras, they automatically detect that this is a DX lens and switch to the DX crop, which can't be overridden (as it can on the DSLRs when you mount a DX lens). 

The 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 is made in Thailand and sells for US$299 if bought separately, or has an implied cost of US$150 if bundled with a Z50 as I write this.

Nikon's Web page for the lens

Source of the reviewed lens: bundled with purchased camera

How's it Handle?

If there's a complaint it's that the zoom ring and focus ring are very close together and not easily distinguished. While this hasn't had any real negative impacts for me, note that it is possible to accidentally change focus position without noticing. 

Some folk complain about the lack of reach with this lens (50mm is 75mm equivalent, and most people think a consumer mid-range zoom should go to at least 85mm, preferably 105mm, and they really want 120mm). What I find is that is that I like having the 16mm (24mm equivalent) wide end available far more than Nikon's old style DX zooms that had more focal range, which all started at 18mm and went to 140mm, 200mm, or 300mm. Besides, if you didn't buy the two-lens kit with your Z50, you're crazy. That would give you 16-250mm (24-375mm equivalent) in compact form, and so what else would you really want? Yes, I know, a wide angle zoom.

I've had this lens on and off my Z50 quite a bit already. The plastic mount shows no wear and is holding up just fine.

Overall, there's not much to complain about in handling because there's, well, not much to handle. As kit lenses go, this one just doesn't get in your way once it's ready to shoot.

How's it Perform?

Focus: Sometimes kit lenses get focus motors that are less capable. That doesn't seem to be the case here. The STM (stepping) motor seems as fast and capable as on all the other Z lenses. Indeed, it's moving very little mass, so it should be fast. The only drawback to focus is that the lens has a slow maximum aperture. Thus, at 50mm in low light, you're no longer at the -2EV low light sensitivity (which is specified with an f/2 lens), you're more like 0EV. You may need to trigger the Z50's low light autofocus capability more often because of that. 

Sharpness: This is a little tricky, because the lens has clear field curvature. At 16mm, the central performance is excellent wide open and barely improves by stopping down to f/4. From there it declines, with diffraction impacts clearly starting between f/5.6 and f/8. On test charts, the corners are just what I'd call fair to good, and it's that field curvature that is much of the problem. You'll see some people describe the corners as good, and they might be at the point where they focus, but that won't be in exactly the same plane as the central area. What also hurts the 16mm corner performance is some clear coma smearing. Not a lot, but enough to be aware of. This isn't an astrophotography lens at 16mm.

As you start to zoom in, the central performance drops slightly while the corner performance improves to what I'd call good as the field curvature starts clearing. By the time you get to 50mm (and f/6.3) the center has dropped from what I call excellent to very good, but the corners have improved from what I called fair to good up to solidly good. 

Focus shift is negligible (if it's there at all; difficult to measure accurately when it's this low on a camera that's mostly respecting the aperture while focusing), and surprisingly, either the lens has no real focal length breathing or Nikon is correcting it in the focus firmware. I suspect the latter.

Considering that most people are getting this lens for an implied bundle price of US$150, the 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 is a bit in a class of its own for APS-C kit lenses as it performs really well, and I consider it an outright bargain.

Chromatic Aberration: Of the Z lenses so far, the 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 probably has the most visible lateral CAs. The worst measure is as high as two pixels in width at 24mm and a pixel-and-a-half at 35mm, and also drop gradually as you stop down. But at 16mm it's almost always one pixel (pretty much true across apertures, which is surprising), and at 50mm the lateral CA simply isn't reliably measurable at any aperture.

Linear Distortion: Yee haw. This is where the Nikon designers let a parameter run free while they controlled so many of the other ones. At 16mm there's probably 4% barrel distortion, and this disappears dramatically fast. By 24mm we're already up to 2% pin cushion, and by 35mm we're at 3% (it drops back down to about 2% at 50mm). The lens is slightly wider than indicated focal length at the wide end, which means the lens corrections pull the lens right up to the 16mm mark. 

Vignetting: Wide open we're in the one and two-thirds stop range. Stop down the aperture and you quickly get to about a stop of vignetting. Also, note that the vignetting declines some as you get nearer infinity focus.

Flare: Surprisingly free from any strong flare tendencies, despite the front element being right out front and either no lens hood or very little lens hood shading it.

Final Words

What are you reading a review for? If you have a Z50 you want this lens. Even if you don't use it all the time, it opens up the world of incredible small travel kit with highly competent performance. It's far better than any US$150 lens could be expected to be, and I'd say it's still overachieving at the full US$299 price. 

Indeed, I know a lot of Z7 users who picked up this lens because it gives them essentially Z50 image quality (19mp in this case) in the smallest travel form possible with full frame. The 24-50mm collapsing zoom that was introduced with the Z5 may change that, but no one's going to mark you up for mounting the 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 DX lens on a Z7. 

Recommended (2020)

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