Thursday, January 17, 2013

$2000 lens vs. $200 lens: Real World Comparison

This is a follow up post to my post about the depth of field of full frame kit lenses.  In that post, I mentioned that my coauthor MShafik's downsizing (pun not intended) got me to thinking about my gear.  One potential area for savings is my Nikkor 24-70 2.8G.  

The 24-70 is a great lens.  It meets all my needs (other than not having stabilization) and has no significant weaknesses from my point of view.  On the other hand, it is quite expensive (around $1900 new).  

Meanwhile my old Nikkor 28-105 3.5-4.5 AF-D covers a similar range and more, has a not-too-slow aperture, is sharp, and costs about one-tenth as much.  

I'm not really interested in a brick wall comparison.  I'm more interested in their real world usage.  The most significant tradeoff for me in terms of specs is the aperture.  (Incidentally, the 28-105's aperture is the same as that of the new 24-85 3.5-4.5 VR.)  I was most concerned whether the depth of field would be sufficiently shallow.   In addition, I was concerned with whether the lens is usable in low light conditions.  Finally, I wanted to get a high enough shutter speed for a sharp shot without getting too much noise from being forced to use high ISOs.

(Note: for all shots used in this post, you can zoom in on any picture up to 1600pix by clicking on it.)
First, here are my observations regarding my primary concerns:

At longer focal lengths, the 24-70 can get noticeably shallower depth of field than the 28-105.  However, the 28-105 can get what I consider adequate separation from the background.

f/2.8 at 70mm on 24-70

f/4.2 (wide open) at 62mm on 28-105
I like using a high shutter speed to get sharper shots.  The slower aperture of the 28-105 forces me to use a higher ISO than what I would otherwise use with the 24-70.  Nonetheless, because of the D600's superior high ISO performance, the increase in noise is not significant in daylight conditions.

f/4.5, 1/320, ISO 1400

In low light, it's a different story.  With the 24-70 I could get away with not using flash in dim indoor lighting.
The light here was very dim but I was able to take the shot without flash. f/2.8, 1/50, 25,600. 24mm.

With the 28-105, I am pushed to use high ISOs in brighter conditions.

When flash does get used, the 24-70's f/2.8 aperture comes in handy.  At longer focal lengths, it is like having one stop extra flash power compared to the 28-105.
Bounce flash with 24-70.  f/2.8, 1/200, ISO 2800

Bounce flash with 28-105.  f/4.0, 1/60, ISO 12,800

Here are other my observations (some already noted in previous posts) in no particular order:

1.  Chromatic aberration.
The 28-105 has a significant amount of chromatic aberration, whereas the 24-70 has little, if any.
Personally, this doesn't bother me.  First, Lightroom can significantly reduce the appearance of chromatic aberration.  Second, my audience does not care at all about CA.  That includes me.

Check out her legs.  (Did I just say that?)

2.  Bokeh.
The 24-70's bokeh is reasonably smooth and rarely distracting.  The 28-105's bokeh on the other hand can look pretty harsh sometimes.

When the background is not so far, here is how the bokeh looks:

Here is a shot from the 24-70.  Note the rendering of the points of light (sunlight through the leaves).

Here is how points of light are rendered by the 28-105:

4. Flare resistance
First, this is not a very fair comparison because the 28-105's hood is not well designed (it's very wide and doesn't do a good job of blocking light sources).  Besides that, the hood takes up a lot of space because of its width.  I don't even bother to bring mine.  Caveats aside, the 28-105 seemed to be genuinely prone to flare, much more so than the 24-70.  The 28-105 had the occasional blobs of light as well as the kind of flare that reduces the contrast of the image.
Gigantic flare spot

Reduction in contrast caused by flare (plus flare spot)
The 24-70 has much better flare resistance, though is not immune (see yellow/green flare spot on lower right of frame)
5. Autofocus performance.
In daylight I could see no difference between the AF speed and accuracy of these two lenses.  On the D600 they are both very quick (note that the 28-105 doesn't have a built-in motor therefore its AF speed depends on the camera body).

At night, in dim lighting, the 28-105 sometimes had some difficulty locking on unless I used the center AF point, at which point it could lock focus without problems.  I have not yet used the 24-70 at night so I can't comment on that yet.  However, I have used the 24-70 in very dim indoor conditions as shown above and the camera did not hunt for focus.

6. Sharpness.
I have not done a side-by-side sharpness comparison between the two but at my usual viewing sizes, the 28-105 does not lag behind the 24-70 in terms of sharpness.

28-105. 80mm at f/4.5, 1/320, ISO 250.

As noted above the 24-70 is better than the 28-105 in a number of ways.  Whether the 24-70 is worth the extra cost is a personal matter.  As for me, I'm undecided, though with the right opportunity I may sell the 24-70 and keep the 28-105 just because this is only a hobby for me.  Note also that many of the 24-70's advantages are due to its constant f/2.8 aperture.  In that regard, I am curious about the Tamron 28-75, which I used to have but have not yet tried on full frame.

Here are shots from the 24-70:

Here are shots from the 28-105 (note: these have been sharpened in postprocessing):

Grips of steel

A Day With my Precious Ones (and my kids too): D600 + Nikkor 24-70
Cheap, Sharp FX Standard Zoom: Nikkor 28-105 3.5-4.5D
The Truth Behind the Migration

Nikon D600 Resource Page (see under "Lenses Tested")


  1. Maybe a little off-topic. I am always wondering for hobbyist which is the wiser way to go for everyday use with limited budgets: DX D300s/D700+17-55 or FX D600/D700+24-85/28-105?

    1. Hi Xiaoli. I think you meant D7000/D300s right? Anyway in terms of DOF, it seems from my experiment in the previous post about DOF that at wider angles, the D600 or D700 with f/3.5 aperture will have shallower DOF than the D7000 or D300s at f/2.8. At longer focal lengths my experiment was not great but I believe the D7000/D300s at f/2.8 may look about the same DOF as the D600/D700 at f/4.5.

      In terms of high ISO, the D600 has about two stops advantage over the D300S. Don't know for sure about the D7000 because I never had one, but I think from other people's samples that the D600 is about 1.3 or 1.5 stops better than D7000, so it's a wash at longer focal lengths.

      Given the choice of FX body + cheap lens vs. DX body + nice lens, the latter is the better investment according to conventional wisdom because nice lenses don't depreciate much, compared to bodies. However if you want shallow DOF at wider angles, then I think getting the FX body may make sense, notwithstanding the financial implications.

      In the future I may do a comparison to see to what extent a lens for an APS-C can give a look that is similar to FF. The combos I plan to try are D300S + Sigma 50-150 2.8 vs. D600 + 85 1.8G vs. D600 + 70-300 VC, and a D300S + 85 1.8G vs. D600 + Sigma 50 1.4.

      Best regards,

    2. My bad, indeed I meant D7000. In my opinion it is not so easy to design a test to compare what kind of lens on DX give the look of FF, as it is all subjective and subtle. If you can come up a way to do this, I am sure many amateurs will be very interested to see the results, at least I am.

  2. Hi, I've been loving your blog for a little while - keep up the great work. I've never commented on these things before but couldn't resist this time.
    I had a 24-70 2.8 for a little while. I got it because I felt I could use a little more flexibility than my 50 1.8 and my other standard/wide zoom was often too slow. However, I have recently traded it in for primes - have you considered this option?
    I now have the old 24 2.8 and 35 2 AFD lenses as well as the 50 1.8. I find this combination great for portability - together they weigh less than the 24-70. I usually put one lens on camera and one in my pocket. The main advantage for me though is closer focus at the wider end, faster if needed and being able to use less imposing lenses. This last was my biggest issue with the 24-70. It also saved me a few pounds (UK money I mean!)
    I'd love to hear your views.

    1. Hi and thank you for your support of our humble blog!

      Personally if I could freeze time then yes I would love to use primes. Specifically, I would like to use the 28 1.8G or maybe the new Sigma 35 1.4, the Sigma 50 1.4, and the 85 1.8G. There are also some manual focus lenses I'm curious about.

      But the vast majority of my shots are candid. If I miss a shot, it's probably gone for good. That's why I almost always use a zoom. For the same reason, I usually bring a second camera with a telephoto lens to complement the standard zoom. I just don't have time to switch lenses on the fly (and I can be pretty clumsy).

      Occasionally, when I'm shooting casually (not an important event) and I think I will have space to move around and a little extra time to plan a shot, then instead of a standard zoom I will use the Sigma 50 1.4 and forgo the control of perspective in favor of the wider aperture. But for those days when for example I'm taking the kids to Disneyland by myself (without my wife) I definitely would use a zoom instead.

      Regarding the size of the 24-70, yes I agree it can look intimidating especially with the lens hood. Nonetheless, maybe it's a culture thing, but in Los Angeles no one gives me a second look because of my cameras, so it's not a big deal (well, one time I overheard someone say, "Show-off!" behind my back). Or maybe I'm just thick-skinned.

      For those situations when I want to be more discreet, yes I agree a prime does work well (even the portly Sigma 50 1.4 looks compact next to the 24-70). Also, when I'm traveling through certain lower income areas overseas, the 24-70 would be an invitation to be mugged. That might be another situation when a prime would be better. Although for those occasions, I usually end up shooting with the tiny and unassuming LX5.

      Anyway those are just my thoughts. Looks like you found a combination that works very well for you. Maybe when our kids are grown and life slows down a little I just might do the same. :D

      Thanks again and keep in touch!

      Best regards,

    2. Hi again,
      Thanks for responding so quickly - I don't know how you keep up with the blog, comments, etc. as well as actually taking photos!
      I had wanted to just have the 28 1.8G instead of the 24 and 35 pair but it is just too expensive new and not easily available used here.

      I hadn't thought about cultural perspectives on size but I think you're right. Also I think there is something about working distance - I (and my child subjects) am not bothered by the size of the 70-200 2.8 but that's not a lens that ever gets very near to your subject.
      I guess there is also the issue of each photographer's preferences and style - I suppose I'm happier cropping or accepting that I will miss shots. Or setting myself the challenge of snapping the kids as a set focal length on a given outing.

      Of course this is all in the context of available funds! Ideally I would have kept the 24-70 and supplemented with the 28 1.8g but that is just wishful thinking for now.

      Thank you and brace yourself for further questions from me now that I've started!

    3. I love hearing from our readers so keep them coming!

      It's interesting to hear your thoughts on the 70-200 because for me that's one that I don't like carrying around. I had the original version but eventually sold it because I never used it except for "real" projects (like when someone asks me for a portrait, or to shoot an event etc.).

      As for cropping yes that's a viable option especially with high res cameras like the D600 and D800. Good point.

      About the 28 1.8G yes I wish it was a little cheaper. At its current price I would be thinking about adding just a little more to get the Sigma 35 1.4. I prefer the 35mm fov and would like the shallower dof compared to the 28 1.8G.

      Have a great weekend and come back again soon! :)

      Best regards,

  3. Dear Mic

    I did start reading your blog some weeks ago and really like it. Thanks!!
    family-wise I'm thankfully in a similar situation like you :) Little speedy kids and a daddy (me) hunting them with a DSLR. I also do this only for my hobby. I own an old D300 and so fare still stick with it because it is the only DX body from Nikon that feels good in my big hands and the successor of the D7000 (in my case including the battery grip) is still outstanding. My old D300 is pretty noisy at ISO higher than 1600 but I honestly don't care too much about it. As long as the picture is meaningful and not blurry. Jay Maisel said someday that he is looking for picture quality not pixel quality . This sentence pretty impressed me. ...and helps me save money so far LOL.
    But of course as from a certain level of noise also myself gets distracted. So here is my question to you :)
    The Nikon 24-70 2.8 is impressive but simply to expensive for my budget as a hobbyist. But as I also need the flexibility of fast zoom lens I'm looking for an affordable alternative. When I'm outside with the kids where the light conditions are most of the time is pretty good, the Nikon 18-200 is my choice. Indoor I don't need that huge zoom range. So fare I used the great Nikon 35 1.8 but as mention above, sometimes my feeds are to slow to zoom, a wall is behind me or in worst case I stumble over one of my kids toys :). Is there any other lens/brand you could recommend? Last year I bought my wife a d5100 and a Sigma 17-70mm F2.8-4 DC MACRO OS HSM. I thought the speed is not bad and she could also do some nice macros. By this occasion I met Sigma and I have to admit that the build quality and the optics are pretty nice. I actually really like the smooth operation of this lens. Pretty soft when you turn around the zoom. Also the coating on the lens body feels nice.
    I'm not sure if I already answered my question by my self ;) Could you recommend, let's say a 17-55 2.8 from Sigma or do you have another idea?
    Thanks for your time and helpfulness.

    Best regards, from snowy Switzerland,

    1. Hi Erol! Thank you very much for supporting our blog.

      I love the D300. I had one too then I sold it to get the D600. Eventually I needed a second body with good high ISO performance and I got a D90. But after a while I missed a lot of the features from the D300 such as the AF fine tuning. I wanted a D7000 but it was too expensive for me and I ended up repurchasing a D300 (actually, a D300S). You're right the high ISO performance is no longer considered great compared to the newer sensors, but it's still quite capable.

      The first thing the D300 could really benefit from is a constant 2.8 lens. The 18-200 is not fast enough for a camera like the D300. I agree the 24-70 is too pricey for most hobbyists. I would instead recommend either the Tamron 28-75, the Tamron 17-50 VC, the Tamron 17-50 non-VC, or the Sigma 17-50 OS.

      Tamron 28-75: great standard zoom and also works well as a portrait lens for DX cameras. I really liked it when I used it with the D80. The disadvantage is that the focal length is not very wide. The 17-50 had a more useful focal length range for me. But if the majority of your shots are portraits, the 28-75 would work well. Also, if in the future you get an FX camera, the Tamron 28-75 can be used with that (though I don't know how well it performs on FX).

      Tamron 17-50 VC: I loved this lens on my D300. I found it sharp even wide open and the stabilization was very useful (you just have to half-press the shutter and give it a half second or so to stabilize before you shoot). Optically, DXO found it superior to the Nikon 17-55, not to mention it has stabilization. One weakness was the barrel distortion at 17mm but you can fix it in postprocessing. Check out my impressions here:

      Tamron 17-50 non-VC: I don't have personal experience with this lens. But I keep reading that it is optically a little better than the 17-50 VC. It's also cheaper of course. But personally I found the stabilization useful so I personally would prefer the VC. But everyone has their own preferences.

      Sigma 17-50 OS: this lens came out much later than the Tamron 17-50 VC. I don't have personal experience with it either but it seems to be one of Sigma's better lenses. There are many reviews comparing the Sigma 17-50 OS and Tamron 17-50 VC. I suggest you check them out.

      Ultimately, however, even a 2.8 lens is not enough for a D300 in low light. The real answer for me is an external flash and to learn good flash techniques. Is that something you already use? If not check out our TTL Flash FAQ and TTL Flash Tutorial .

      With an external flash, I was not afraid to tackle any lighting situation with the D300. I would go so far as to say that an external flash is more important than a 2.8 lens because it can have a bigger impact on your images.

      I hope this helps Erol! Thanks again for your continued support of our blog!

      Best regards,

  4. Hi!
    Upward you've wrote:
    -> D600 or D700 with f/3.5 aperture will have shallower DOF than the D7000 or D300s at f/2.8. At longer focal lengths my experiment was not great but I believe the D7000/D300s at f/2.8 may look about the same DOF as the D600/D700 at f/4.5
    Are you sure? If you are right I should look for buyers on mine Tokina 11-16 2.8, Tokina 50-135 2.8. Tamron 17-50 and Nikkor 35 1.8...I love all this lenses, but just idea that 2.8 DX would be smth like 1.8 FX makes me crazy...

    1. Hello my friend! You don't have to take my word for it. Just look at the comparison here: so you can make your own conclusions :)

      Best regards,


Thanks for your comment. It will be published as soon as we get a chance to review it, sorry for that, but we get lots of spam with malicious links.