Nikon 24-50mm f/4-6.3 Lens Review

What is It?

The 24-50mm f/4-6.3 appeared as a surprise (not on Road Map) lens with the Z5 body. 

The Z5 body and the 24-50mm f/4-6.3 make for a very compact full frame solution; more compact than the Z6/Z7 and 24-70mm f/4. At 6.9 ounces (195g) and 2.1" (51mm) in length, the 24-50mm f4-6.3 is now the smallest mid-range zoom you can find for the full frame. 

Optically, the lens is 11 elements in 10 groups, somewhat simple for a zoom lens. The element type, positioning, shape, and size looks a very different in this lens than we typically see in a budget lens, though. There are three aspherical and two ED elements. More interestingly, this lens has its biggest element at the back of the lens: a deeply bowed piece of glass that you at first don't see when the lens is collapsed. The aspherical elements are only modestly aspherical, too, which is somewhat unusual these days. There are no special coatings on the lens, only Nikon's usual Super Integrated Coating, which we've had on all Nikkors seemingly forever.

Nikon's published MTF ratings would suggest a lens that is better on the sagittal axis than the meridional, but still quite good for a zoom lens. We'll see how that works out when we get to the performance section of this review.  

The lens has a 52mm filter thread. Nikon claims that the lens was designed to "carefully consider dust and drip-resistance," but makes no further claims. No extra rubber seal is present that I can see at either end, though there is strong overlap that should reject simple ingress. The HB-98 lens hood is not supplied, and is a petal-type bayonet mount one; you can find third-party hoods that are appropriate that cost far less than Nikon's US$47 price. Inside the lens we have 7 rounded aperture blades, another simplification. 

The lens stops down to f/22 at 24mm, f/36 at 50mm. Maximum apertures are:

  • 24mm — f/4
  • 28mm — f/4.5
  • 35mm — f/5
  • 40mm — f/5.3
  • 45mm — f/6
  • 50mm — f/6.3

There's no distance scale (and obviously no DOF markings). The lens has a close focus point of 14" (0.35m), which produces a maximum reproduction ratio of 1:5.8. 

As with all Z lenses, Nikon has brought forward both the E-type design (electronically controlled aperture) and AF-P focus design (stepper motor that's fast and able to move in small increments accurately). All focus is done internally, but when you zoom the lens extends significantly forward (just over an inch at 24mm and 50mm, with 35mm being slightly less). 

bythom 24-50mm rotatezoom

I should point out that this is one of those "rotate lens to use" designs. For travel and storage the lens contracts to its base 2.1" length. Rotating the zoom ring to 24mm extends the lens into shooting position and moves the front forward about an inch.

The 24-50mm f/4-6.3 has two rings and no additional controls. The zoom ring is the frontmost ring and marked at 24, 28, 35, and 50mm and rotates lens than a quarter turn from wide to tele (again, there's a "retracted point, which requires moving the lens another 1/8 of a turn from 24mm).

The focus ring is narrow, unmarked, and closest to the camera. As with almost all mirrorless camera lenses, the focus ring is "fly-by-wire" and isn't mechanically linked to lens element movement. The focus ring can be repurposed on Nikon Z bodies to other functions (aperture, exposure compensation, etc.). 

The lens mount external cover is plastic, much like the two Z DX lenses. I haven't found this to be a problem on previous Nikkors designed this way. 

The 24-50mm f/4-6.3 is made in China and retails for US$400. 

Source of the reviewed lens: purchased

Nikon's Web site for the lens

How's it Handle?

Not much to say, really. 

Other than the awkward "extend to shoot" aspect of the zoom ring, this is a light, small, simple lens. The zoom ring, once the lens is extended, is a little loose but smooth on my sample. The focus ring sounds a little rougher than some of the other Z lens focus rings, but feels smooth in operation.

The front inner barrel, fully extended, has a tiny bit of play to it, but not as much as we saw in the F-mount lenses that used barrel extension. 

How's it Perform?

Sharpness: I'm a little surprised by this lens. Perhaps it's the modest 2x zoom that's helped Nikon optical engineers here, but this low cost kit lens is not as far from the best mid-range lenses as I would have expected. 

Center sharpness is generally very good to excellent at 24mm. Wide open I'd put the center at very good, and you really only need to stop down to f/5.6 to hit excellent. As you move to the corners, things get a little "messier." There's blur there, but it's a fairly controlled blur (not smeared). I'd rate the corner as fair to good at f/4, improving to good at f/5.6. You really need to get to f/8 to get the best corners possible, but there's something else going on that you need to know about: the DX boundary tends to stay at just fair to good, with a very slight blur to it. Put another way, the center-to-corner sharpness falloff is not linear.

As you zoom, things change. At 28mm and 35mm, the DX boundary and corners improve with stopping down (f/5.6 is still the best aperture for center at 28mm and excellent; at 35mm, f/8 might be a bit better). Strangely, at 50mm, the situation flops: the DX boundary actually looks better to me at f/11 than the center and corner. 

At very close distances, the best performance is in the 28-40mm range, with 24mm and 50mm getting a little more blur circle to them.

Note that this lens has some focus shift to it when used at close distances. Coupled with the edge performance, I'd tend to say to avoid the outer focus sensors when shooting close. The lens has some modest coma, but surprisingly little for such a low cost lens. The coma is worst at 24mm, and what I'd call minimal at 50mm. The lens does have spherical aberration at the wide end, though. 

It's actually tough to characterize this lens's performance on detail. I'd tend to say that it's quite a good lens for its price, but it's definitely not a perfect lens. For the intended purpose—a totally compact travel lens on a Z5/Z6—I'm perfectly happy with its optical performance. But if you're shooting with a Z7 and looking for optimal quality, you'd be better served by the 24-70mm f/4, and definitely should consider the superb 24-70mm f/2.8. 

You'll note that I used the word "blur" a few times in my description here. I didn't write "smudged" or "smeared." There's a big difference to me. I can tolerate small blur, as blur simply looks like a slight focus miss (and that may be the case in such a small lens with so much aspherical correction). But smudge and smear look wrong to our eyes and tend to call attention to themselves. Worse still, no "sharpening" tool is going to get rid of that smudge or smear, and can sometimes make them look worse. 

So, overall I'm reasonably happy with the optical performance of this lens. While it isn't exceptional, most people are going to be comfortable with the results they see from this lens, and at pretty much any focal length and aperture. I've seen a lot of kit lenses in my career, and this one is more towards the top of the heap.

Chromatic Aberration: As you might expect from a slower-aperture zoom, longitudinal CA is pretty minimal, and I just ignore it. Lateral CA is clearly present, but almost perfectly removed by the in-camera (or post processing) corrections.

Linear Distortion: As with almost all Nikkor Z lenses, corrections can't be turned off in camera. Uncorrected, at 24mm the lens is producing modest barrel distortion, but with a wavy mustache, particularly as you near the corners. While the total amount of distortion isn't as high as you might expect from a budget lens, you'll still want to correct this if you've got any straight lines in your image. Distortion turns from barrel to pincushion somewhere between 28mm and 35mm. The distortion at 28mm is minimal enough to usually ignore, but already at 35mm the pincushion is obvious enough that straight lines will need correction. By the time we get to 50mm, the lens has about as much pincushion distortion as I've ever seen. Surprisingly, Nikon's distortion corrections don't seem to fully correct the issues: I still see some small barrel distortion at 24mm and a bit of pincushion at 50mm. 

Vignetting: As you might expect, vignetting is strongest at 24mm, and weakest at 50mm. Indeed, in the longer focal lengths, you can generally get the vignetting down to nominal levels by just stopping down one or two stops. That's not true at 24mm, where there's still well more than a stop of vignetting in the corners even when stopped down two stops. I also noticed a return of something I've seen before in Nikkors: the vignetting circle is a little "high." The bottom edge vignettes more than the top edge. This has to be a design characteristic, where Nikon is trying to keep the wide angle lens from being too obvious with sky corners. Well, it's obvious ;~). Below 35mm, I'd say that you need to stop down a stop so as to get away from an obvious vignette circle. Above 35mm, it's more about left/right edge, as the circle is wider.

Bokeh: Tough to get any real bokeh out of a slow, mid-range zoom. I'd say this: there's an asymmetry to point source blurs, and there's more and more cats eye effect as you zoom in, too. The circles themselves aren't overly busy, but there is onion skinning and a bit of color fringing. Technically, if you can actually get to a true blur, the bokeh isn't at all objectionable. almost any normal circumstance I don't think you can get enough "blur" to characterize it. I had to push to some extremes to see the actual character. I'd also say this: you need to be careful about EFCS and VR use with this lens. Because those two technologies have an impact on what is recorded and you're not getting "full blur" most of the time, backgrounds and foregrounds that are out of focus can get a "busy" look to them.

Final Words

Despite this lens being optically decent and better than most people's expectations, I have a difficult time making a compelling case for it. The true benefit of this lens is simply one or two things: small pack size/weight or low price. 

When collapsed, the front-to-back measurement of camera and 24-50mm lens is less than 4.5" (110mm to be exact). That saves you 1.4" (37mm) over the 24-70mm f/4. So one question quickly becomes this: is it worth saving 1.4" by giving up 50-70mm and as much as a stop-and-a-third of light? And, oh, the 24-70mm f/4 is better behaved in a number of ways, though not exceptionally so. That answer is probably no. 

So then we turn to price: US$400 versus US$1000 (US$300 versus US$600 in current NikonUSA body+lens kits). This reveals the real reason the 24-50mm exists: the Z5 "kit" is US$1700 while the Z6 II "kit" is US$2850 (as I write this, there are discounts available; I'm using MSRP). You can start to see the "logic" NikonUSA is using in not having a Z5+24-70mm f/4 kit or a Z6 II+24-50mm kit: it makes for a clear price differential. The 24-50mm is a Z5 economy lens, in other words. However, Nikon doesn't have any lenses to go with that: we don't have a budget wide angle zoom—say 14-24mm f/4-6.3—or telephoto zoom—say 50-200mm f/4.5-6.3—to go with this economy mid-range zoom. Almost immediately the price conscious buyer is confronted with a lens choice dilemma if they need more than 24-50mm. 

The bottom line is that you don't get a lot for not a lot of money. The one thing that makes this more compelling than usual is that the optical performance isn't compromised by anywhere near what the price differential would suggest. 

Still, I'd rather just have a compact prime that's faster (and this is coming with the 28mm and 40mm primes in the Road Map). And Nikon still needs budget wide angle and telephoto zooms if it's going to pursue this low-end strategy in full frame. Heck, even the Z50 has two budget DX zooms (unbuzz, unbuzz?). 

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