Categorizing The Z Nikkors

Note: I tightened my standards in 2024, so this list is now a little different than it was when it originally appeared.

Now that we've got a fair representation of optics from Nikon in the Z-mount, it's possible to start separating them into overall optical quality categories. I'm not going to try to do this in too discrete a level, though. Indeed, I've really only seen four levels that I can clearly distinguish so far (for my reviews of these lenses, click here):

This category is reserved for lenses where Nikon's engineers simply hit the ball out of the park (they'll appreciate the baseball metaphor, I'm sure). I'm never unhappy when using any of these lenses. Their "faults" are near non-existent, minimal, or easily fixed, and the acuity they produce on a Z7, Z7 II, or Z9 is incredibly good.

  • 14-24mm f/2.8 S — That Nikon managed to improve the old 14-24mm f/2.8G and make it smaller and lighter shows that there is something different when mount restrictions are relaxed
  • 24-70mm f/2.8 S — The best mid-range zoom I've seen from anybody, and there are now a few really good ones out there, including Sony's GM.
  • 50mm f/1.2 S — Okay, it's expensive, big, and heavy, but this lens is remarkable for its acuity. Note that we have three "normal" lenses in this category, so in terms of optical ability it goes NOCT, f/1.2, and f/1.8, in that order.
  • 58mm f/0.95 NOCT — You probably could have guessed this lens would be in this category: the NOCT was clearly a statement of what Nikon can do when completely let free in design.
  • 85mm f/1.2 S — Like its 50mm sibling, big and heavy, but remarkably good acuity and bokeh.
  • 135mm f/1.8 S Plena — Nikon's second named lens is like the first: clearly a statement of what Nikon can do when designing in the more flexible Z-mount. Amazingly good optically, with very little vignetting and a very gentle and pleasing out of focus performance for backgrounds.
  • 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S — Nikon's first "exotic" for the Z mount lives up to its price tag, at least optically. That's true of both with and without the internal teleconverter. You get an exceptionally good 400mm f/2.8 coupled with an exceptionally good 560mm f/4.
  • 600mm f/4 TC VR S — Nikon's second "exotic" for the Z mount also lives up to its price tag, at least optically. That's true of both with and without the internal teleconverter. You get an exceptionally good 600mm f/4 coupled with an exceptionally good 840mm f/5.6.

I put lenses in this category that I find do what I need them to do, but don't quite reach the exceptional level. Thus, some of my statements change a little bit: I'm almost never unhappy with using any of these lenses; their "faults" are minimal, usually fixable, and again the acuity is really good on a Z7, Z7 II, or Z9.

  • 20mm f/1.8 S — This lens just misses the above category, but still, it's a really nice lens with few liabilities.
  • 24-120mm f/4 S — Like the 24-70mm f/4 S, only better in a number of small things.
  • 50mm f/1.8 S — This is a 50mm that still gets up close to legendary Otus capability in some respects, which has to count for something, but it's a large lens and Nikon now has a better one (f/1.2).
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S — The best telephoto zoom I've seen from anybody, and again, there are a few really good ones out there now, including Nikon's own F-mount 70-200mm f/2.8E.
  • 85mm f/1.8 S — This is clearly the best 85mm f/1.8 Nikon has made; it has a lot of competition from others, though. It almost makes it into the Exceptional category.
  • 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR — Yes, I'm surprised, too. This lens is a real bargain in Nikon's telephoto lineup, and it doesn't disappoint. It's displaced the 100-400mm in my thinking, which demoted that lens to very good.
  • 400mm f/4.5 VR S — The “fast” 400mm that most folk should target, as it’s smaller and lighter, less expensive, and readily available.
  • 600mm f/6.3 PF VR S — A surprise lens that's light and compact for a 600mm, but still really good in image quality.
  • 800mm f/6.3 PF VR S — Not quite the level of the old 800mm f/5.6E, but then again it’s way smaller, lighter, and less expensive. It still produces remarkably good images.

Very Good
When my worst category is "very good," you know that Nikon is doing something right. The difference here is that you probably do need to be aware of these lens' strengths and weaknesses if you want to use them optimally. 

  • 12-28mm f/3.5-5.6 VR DX — Nikon's first crop sensor wide angle lens is surprisingly good for its size and price. A better effort than we got in the F-mount, and that 10-20mm lens was pretty good to start with. 
  • 14-30mm f/4 S — A bit weaker in the corners than I'd like, but still a great travel lens.
  • 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR DX — Lots of small things to watch for, but in terms of a kit lens, this lens is near the top.
  • 17-28mm f/2.8 — This Tamrikon lens is another great travel lens. But buy it when it’s discounted, not when it’s at full price.
  • 24mm f/1.8 S — Compared to the other f/1.8 S primes, this one has more attributes you need to watch out for.
  • 24-50mm f/4-6.3 — I'm not sure as to the utility of this lens, given it's small focal length range and slowish aperture, but optically it's proven to be better than its size and price would suggest. Definitely a good walk around lens when trying to keep a Z5 kit light and compact. 
  • 24-70mm f/4 S — One of the best kit lenses I've ever seen. Highly competent, just not exceptionally so.
  • 35mm f/1.8 S — I was tempted to put this lens in the Excellent category, but let's just say that it tops the Very Good category. One of Nikon's best 35mm optics, it just doesn't quite reach to the levels the 20mm and 85mm achieved in this first go around. I have seen sample variation on this lens, more so than on the others.
  • 70-180mm f/2.8 — Another excellent Tamrikon lens, with excellent close up performance in the center of the frame. Indeed, the lens is top notch centrally pretty much any way you use it.
  • 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S — I'm tempted to put this in the "excellent" category, as it has very good optics coupled with exceptional handling. The acuity is the best Nikon has produced in the 80/100-300/400mm zoom lens range, and the lens is particularly decent with the teleconverters.
  • 105mm f/2.8 VR Micro-Nikkor — Optically excellent, but focus performance holds it slightly back.

Lenses That Don't Make the Top Three Lists
You'll note that I've put a lot of Nikkors in the above three lists, which tells us that Nikon is doing an exceptional job of providing us excellent optics. However, that still leaves the following lenses that fall below my "very good" mark. That doesn't mean they're bad lenses, only that they don't rise to a level where I'm comfortable calling them out of the pack. 

  • 18-140mm f/3.5-6.3 VR DX
  • 23mm f/1.7 DX
  • 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR
  • 26mm f/2.8
  • 28mm f/2.8
  • 28-75mm f/2.8
  • 28-400mm f/4-8 VR
  • 40mm f/2
  • 50mm f/2.8
  • 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 VR DX

As new Z Nikkors continue to appear and I get enough experience with them to establish an informed opinion on them, I'll add them to the appropriate section of this page. I may also create new categories, or in hopefully rare cases, move a lens from one category to another. So be sure to check back. 

Looking for other photographic information? Check out our other Web sites:
DSLRS: | mirrorless: | general/technique: | film SLR:

text and images © 2024 Thom Hogan
All Rights Reserved — 
the contents of this site, including but not limited to its text, illustrations, and concepts, 
 may not be utilized, directly or indirectly, to inform, train, or improve any artificial intelligence program or system.