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Nikon AF-S DX 16-85mm f3.5-5.6 G ED VR lens review: Nikon AF-S DX 16-85mm f3.5-5.6 G ED VR lens

Review Sections

• Working focal length of 24mm to 127.5mm on a Nikon DX-based body (1.5x magnification factor)
• Variable maximum aperture from f3.5 to f5.6 and a variable minimum aperture from f22 to f36
• Vibration Reduction optical stabilization system for sharper handheld photos at slow shutter speeds, especially in low light. The VR compensates in real-time for shake and vibration with no degradation to the image. Besides the normal setting, it has an active mode that is useful if the photographer is moving.
• Nikon's exclusive M/A (manual/auto) mode provides full-time autofocus with instant manual-focus override by just turning the focus ring. Also has a full-time manual-focus mode.
• Nicely accessorized with a lens hood (HB-39) and a lens pouch (CL-1015) for safekeeping.

No kit lens here: the lens felt solid and well built while we put it through its paces. Although a bit heavy at 17.2 ounces, it's fairly compact and wasn't too bad to carry for an afternoon mounted on a D300. The wide zoom ring sits at the front of the lens within easy reach, especially for quickly zooming to catch a shot. The zoom feels well damped, if even a little tight. The lens handles focusing manually pretty well, too, with a distance scale to show you how far you are focused to. The focus action is moderately well damped (good for an AF lens whose primary design function is autofocusing), focus is relatively smooth and confident, and with the M/A mode you can manually focus at anytime. We found the lens' 15-inch minimum focusing distance gets you close enough for most things, though it's hardly a macro lens.

Performance and image quality
In our lab tests, the lens displayed considerable barrel distortion (where objects appear to curve toward the outside of the image) at its widest--almost excessive for a 16mm lens, especially in this price range. Beyond that, it displays distortion as well, with considerable barreling (where objects appear to curve outward) at 35mm and considerable pincushioning (where objects appear to curve inward toward the center of the image) at 85mm. It delivered excellent sharpness at the center of the image at all points in the zoom range, though, with the 35mm through 70mm range slightly sharper. It also maintained very good corner sharpness down to 24mm, softening at 16mm. While zooming, the lens maintained its maximum aperture of f3.5 from 16mm to 24mm, at which point it shifted to f4, then to f5.6 at about 70mm. It controlled flare very well, though there's a bundled lens hood for bright conditions.

If we evaluated purely on look and feel, this lens would score higher. But it shows noticeable distortion for a lens in its price class. While it's very sharp, and the distortion is correctable if need be for critical applications, you've got other options in its price range. For example, for less than $100 more you can get Nikon's AF-S DX VR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED; it has the same aperture range plus VR, with a zoom range broader than a lot of people will ever need. On the other side of the price fence, Nikon's AF-S DX 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR lens sells for less than $200 and offers an option for those who can live with the slightly shorter zoom range and fewer bells and whistles.

The Nikon AF-S DX 16-85mm f3.5-5.6 G ED VR is a well-built lens with very good sharpness and features to match, although its price puts it in a position for only the serious hobbyist looking for good glass in a medium zoom or for a working professional, such as a wedding photographer, who needs durability but can live with the distortion and the relatively slow f3.5 aperture.

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