Nikon 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G Lens Review

This is an update of review posted in 2012 on bythom.com and later removed, without most accompanying photos, as they are no longer valid. This lens is no longer available new.

What is It?

Announced in January 2008 and delivered not long after, the 16-85mm DX was a slight surprise, and it departed from Nikon's parade of 18-xx consumer zooms. Over the years, 24mm, not 28mm became the real starting point for mid-range zooms for film SLRs and FX digital bodies, and the 16-85mm DX is Nikon's first attempt to replicate that in the DX lens world, as it is essentially the equivalent of a 24-135mm lens on film or FX sensor camera.

Such a range, of course, is very useful. You get a nice taste of wide angle at the one end (16mm [24mm equivalent]), plus a modest amount of reach into the telephoto end (85mm [technically, 128mm equivalent]). Some people would call this the ultimate "walking around" zoom range, as rarely would you need wider and you can always try to get a little closer to your subject if you need more telephoto. Indeed, that's about how I think of the lens: for casual photography where I don't have any particular type of shot in mind and want to be ready for whatever subject presents itself. The addition of VR to this lens augments this "walk-aroundability," as it means you can continue to photograph in situations where you otherwise might want a tripod or other type of support.

Many Nikon DX users had already picked the 18-200mm VR as their walkaround lens, partly because they were seduced by numbers. Quick question, which gives you more range: the 18-200mm or the 16-85mm? The answer might surprise you a bit. The 16-85mm has a horizontal angle of view range of 16 to 73 degrees, the 18-200mm has an angle of view range of 7 to 66 degrees. However, because the 18-200mm changes focal length so much at the long end when focused close, for many situations its angle of view is only 10 to 66 degrees, which is not looking a lot better than the 16-85mm. I personally value those extra 7 degrees at the wide end much more than the extra 6 to 9 degrees at the telephoto end--they make a more dramatic impact on my photography.

Bottom line: this new lens has a very useful focal length range, one I like better than and believe is more useful than any of the other consumer DX zooms. That's a pretty positive statement, so the question is whether the other attributes of the lens and its performance hold up to that same "better" level.

The VR on this lens, for example, is touted as VR II. Nikon has really not given us much information about how VR II is different than the original, but in practice, yes, all the VR II lenses seem to handle the longer shutter speed situations a bit better, so I don't think it's just marketing hype. The VR system on the 16-85mm has both an On/Off switch and a Normal/Active switch. The Active option is generally for shooting from moving vehicles or platforms with continuous vibrations in them (a helicopter, for example, fits both descriptions).

The 16-85mm also has the full AF-S system. That means that you can manually override focus with the focus ring. The focus ring itself is closest to the body, the style of most recent consumer Nikkor zooms. There's a MA/M switch to put the lens into either AF-S with override (always labeled M/A) or manual focus (M).

All three switches are on the left side of the lens as you're holding the camera.

The 16-85mm is an internally focusing lens, so the front element doesn't rotate during zoom or focus. Close focus is an adequate 1.2' (.38m), giving a maximum reproduction ratio of about 1:4.6. The lens design features both aspherical elements for optical corrections and ED glass for better chromatic aberration handling. The lens uses 67mm filters, which, considering that Nikon has now made quite a few recent lenses with this size, I guess has to be called a standard size now (it used to be that all Nikkors pretty much had 52, 62, or 77mm threads, which made standardizing on a filter set easier).

The lens is made in Thailand.

source of reviewed lens: purchased, later sold

How's it Handle?

At 16mm, this lens is remarkably small, reminding me a lot of the modest size of the old 18-70mm DX lens. As you zoom towards the telephoto end, a double barrel nest extends the front of the lens outwards, not quite doubling its length. The nested barrels have a slight bit of side to side potential wiggle to them when fully extended, but less than most similarly designed Nikkors and I have yet to find that this is an issue.

On my sample of the lens the focus ring is actually nicely loose and quite smooth for a consumer zoom, but the zoom ring is very stiff (yet reasonably smooth). My sample does not show any tendency to lens creep (zoom without user action when pointed up or down). The butterfly hood (supplied) is a bayonet type that can reverse onto the lens when not in use.

The maximum aperture changes with focal length about as follows:

  •     16mm = f/3.5
  •     24mm = f/4
  •     35mm = f/4.5
  •     50mm = f/5
  •     70mm = f/5.6

Both the front element and rear element are close to the ends of this lens (i.e. they are no inset and protected by the lens barrel or mount).

How's it Perform?

A very good performer overall. The 16-85mm doesn't set any performance records, but it also doesn't have any glaring weaknesses.

Autofocus: This lens has the type of AF-S performance we expect. Unlike the least expensive AF-S lenses (the 18-55mm comes to mind), the wave motor in this lens is responsive.

Sharpness: Center sharpness on this lens is pretty darned good at all focal lengths. I don't really measure any differences between the center performance at 16mm and 85mm: it's high and impressive, and it's pretty much that way at maximum aperture. Technically, some of the focal lengths perform slightly better in the central area one stop down, but frankly, it's not enough for me to get excited about. Corners are where we see some differences. 

At 16mm, for example, the corners are distinctly softer, and this never has any optimal aperture (the edges keep getting better until diffraction takes its toll). At the telephoto end the lens does better, with the corners starting out already very good and hitting their best about a stop down from maximum aperture. 24mm is a very sweet focal length on this lens, with near maximum performance at maximum aperture (f/4 for that focal length). The corners tighten up a bit one stop down, but I wouldn't be afraid to use 24mm at any aperture. While I'm being very analytical in all these assertions, overall I'd say that this lens performs very well, even at 16mm. So what if it's only very good in the corners versus excellent in the center? There are a lot of lenses that never hit very good in the corners, and this lens never seems to do worse than very good. 

Overall, this lens matches up very nicely against the MTF capabilities of the D90 and D300: the lens is up to snuff on those 12mp cameras. 

On later 16mp, 20mp, and 24mp cameras, the lens still performs quite well. Most of what I describe above simply becomes more obvious as you increase the resolution at the sensor.

Light falloff: As you might expect, wide open this lens has a tendency to vignette (light drop off in the corners). Worst performance is a bit more than a stop at 16mm and f/3.5. You can knock that down to under a half stop by stopping down two stops, and it's really only wide open that I find the wide angle vignetting truly noticeable. On the telephoto end things never get worse than about two-thirds of a stop, and even stopping down one stop puts you in the realm of not noticeable. Just avoid 16mm and f/3.5 and you'll find the performance of this lens acceptable.

Chromatic aberration: Every lens design tends to produce some point of weakness, as you can't design for every variable. I'd have to guess that chromatic aberration is where Nikon decided to let the design pressure out. That's not to say that the performance here is bad. It isn't. But it's not as perfect here as the lens tends to be elsewhere. At 16mm chromatic aberration is always present to a modest degree, slightly more so at 85mm. Between those two points numbers are actually quite low, with the best performance for chromatic aberration at 35mm. Given that the D90, D300, and Capture NX2 can all correct for lateral chromatic aberration, I wouldn't worry about the performance here on those cameras.

Flare: Flare is decently controlled; I have no real complaints here. Indeed, I find this lens usable on my IR-modified camera (but not perfect), which is usually an indication of good flare performance.

Linear distortion: The lens has clear and obvious barrel distortion at 16mm, which I measure to be about 2.5%. The best focal length for linear distortions is 24mm, where straight lines are close enough to right that you can ignore what little distortion there is. By the time you get to 35mm, pin cushion distortion has taken over, and that stays at about the 1% mark all the way through 85mm. Other than the barrel distortion at the widest focal lengths, I'd say this is a reasonably well-behaved lens that isn't going to cause you linearity issues. Indeed, all of the distortions seem to be rather regular in nature, meaning that they're easy enough to remove via software correction.

Bokeh: There's nothing particularly interesting to write about here. Even though the lens has a seven blade diaphragm, out of focus highlights still tend to stay mostly rounded. There's neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad qualities to out of focus areas. VR being active can create a "busy" and slightly false look to the bokeh, but the lens itself is just middle-of-the-pack.

Final Words

Nikon has produced a lot of good consumer zooms, and the 16-85mm was another of them. Unlike most of the others, it doesn't have any particular obvious weakness that stands out. As you might expect, 16mm is the weakest focal length, but it's still very good overall. By 24mm the lens is excellent in almost every respect. At the telephoto end the lens is also mostly excellent. Overall, I wouldn't be afraid to use this lens at any of its settings, even on the current Nikon DX DSLRs.

The operative question today is how the 16-85mm f/3.5-4.5 compares against the later 16-80mm f/2.8-4E that Nikon replaced it with. Simply put, the later lens is somewhat better in most respects, but it's also more expensive than picking up the earlier lens on the used market. Moreover, a third-to-a-half stop extra aperture definitely is useful on the smaller DX sensors at times. 

I'd say the newer lens is better at 16mm than the older one, and more useful if you're always shooting wide. If you're mostly using the middle and telephoto side of the zoom range, the lenses get quite close in performance. 

Drawbacks

  • Wide is a tad weak. Not the best performer at 16mm, though competent.
  • Was pricey when new. The 16-85mm was one of the more expensive consumer zooms Nikon has produced. Today it can be picked up quite inexpensively on the used market, so this isn't really a problem.

Positives

  • All around competent. Even though 16mm is a bit weak, it's very respectable, and the rest of the focal range is generally excellent.
  • Perfect fit. Balances great on all the DX bodies.


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