Revisiting the Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8

Here’s an update from using this lens since my original review, over a year ago, based around the autofocus issues. It may be getting older by the day, but I think this is still is a relevant lens for anyone using DX, for which the 17-55mm is Nikon’s first (and perhaps last attempt?) at a standard pro zoom. I still love the image quality from this lens, the smooth bokeh (considering the focal lengths) and the general handling, though it is very tank-like. One of it’s selling points is it’s fast autofocus, though on closer examination, I think something (on my copy at least) is getting lost in the speed.

From thinking it was straightforward, I’m now seeing that the 17-55 is basically a tricky lens to use, if you want the best results. It gets very long for a non-VR lens (further than the 24-70mm does on FX) and is quite bulky, so hard to really stablise on a body. Maybe the D3 is the optimal match- the D300 being good, but not perfect. Also, I think my informal AF tests were sound- it focuses very quickly, which is great, but it would ratherfocus on something else than hunt when it isn’t sure. I’d say this isn’t just my camera’s settings, it’s the way the lens AF is communicating with the body. At telephoto, this problem is exacerbated, especially in low light and I get a lot of backfocus.
I remember the new 50mm f/1.4 G coming in for a lot of criticism for it’s AF-S being slower than the ‘D’ version’s, though also being praised for it’s accuracy, which at f1.4 is all the more important for it. Being an event-oriented lens, it seems Nikon went to the other extreme for the 17-55 and I can’t trust it to get it right without babying it along. It seems even at it’s high price, there are no free lunches as to it’s capabilities. After all the tests and repairs mine has been through, I’m going to trust Nikon that this is as good a copy as exists. The only solution seems to me to be to focus on high-contrast details in the same or a similar plane of focus.

Personally, I think Nikon will update it with a VR version, like everyone else has and also that the optics will suffer a bit, as in-lens VR doesn’t work to well or wider lens designs. Now that VR is more commonplace, this is just too long a lens to be left without it. I’m not so sure they’ll bother with the nano-coating, as they probably don’t want DX to be pro, just enthusiast-level. I’m also not so sure many people will care, so long as the results are good enough. This is a lens more similar in it’s abilities and actual DOF to the 24-120mm f/4 than to the state of the art 24-70. Of course, if Nikon might not make it, but I tend to think they will see the market, even for prosumers, for a fast normal zoom that’s competitive. Sitting back while people buy Tamrons or Sigmas, hoping they ‘level up’ to FX doesn’t seem to me to be the best business policy and I think Nikon are catching on (though making a very affordable FX camera could work just as well, let’s see).

Until then, would I recommend the 17-55? Well… it’s still worth using for those who will put the effort into getting the best from it. I’ll  be using this whenever I have an event job, as it has to my mind very good (if not stellar like the 24-70mm samples I’ve seen), image quality and is great at short distances. Having the fast AF and the useful range is a necessity for me here, which nothing else gives me, so I’ll work around it’s limitations with techniques. In other situations, like travel, I’ll keep using my Tamron; which is an excellent lens and so much lighter. I’m even thinking of getting the 16-85mm, which despite being a bit dark on the long end, gets so much praise.

Overall, I’m a bit disappointed about the AF issues, but then again my expectations are now that much more realistic. I’m also wondering if DX is a bit more limited in this respect than FX, as less light reaches the sensor. I certainly find it hard to accurately manual focus. Having a smaller sensor makes DX much more technology-dependant than FX; it’s harder to get a bright lens and to have wide-angles that don’t distort. The small image makes it harder to do accurate MF, which means we have to trust AF. By making such a serious attempt to get this right, the 17-55mm is an interesting lens and a very versatile one. Moving up from a 35-70mm f/2.8 this has given me wide-angles, normal and a short telephoto to boost. For millions of DX users out there, it is still the only pro-grade Nikon in this range that exists- and although it doesn’t offer terrific value for money, it still holds it own against the competitors I’ve come across, which are all compromised in some way or other by comparison.

The Best of DX?- Nikon’s AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 Lens

Nikon’s Pro DX Zoom

                                                             Summer Colours and Green
                                                           
Nikon’s elaborately named AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 DXG IF-ED DX (phew!) is probably the best zoom lens ever made for an APS-C sensor (where it functions as a 26-83mm lens), designed especially for the demands of professionals using it on older generations of pro bodies. Now that the prices of full-frame sensors have come down and pros are gravitating towards them them, anything but consumer-level designs for APS-C are unlikely, so this lens is probably the last of it’s kind. This fact though makes them much more avaliable second-hand though, with a newly affordable price.

What makes it stand out as a pro-grade lens is the build and fact that it gives a sharp, contrasty picture at any setting or length, with a certain richness to the images that you otherwise need a prime lens or another pro-level zoom to achieve. The high-grade AF-S focusing is also uncannily fast and near-silent.

                                                             Moth by Day

It produces amazing images, images that really ‘pop’ and stand out with a kind of 3D quality only great lenses have. I have some other really great lenses- the Sigma 50mm f1.4 HSM, the older (but amazingly still produced) Nikon AF 35-70mm f/2.8D, the Tamron 90mm Di f2.8 macro, which can all take great photos, but the range and usability makes this the most versatile by far. It’s like it’s part of the camera and just doesn’t want to get off! I’m glad because I know that it’s about as good an image as a lens could give me, with a wedding you kind of feel bad if you know you could have used something better (even if no-one will notice the difference). For me, it means I can shoot the entire wedding without changing lenses. I used it just the other day and it worked out great! It also looks pro, which helps the general impression.

It cost me about $900 second-hand, but a new one would be more like $1,600. Another other cost is the size and weight, due to all the metal and glass, though for me this makes it steadier to hold or balance. Maybe after many hours of carrying it around it would weigh me down and this alone would put a lot of people off it. It should be added that the full-frame equivalents are much heavier and more expensive, without having quite as much reach, (usually being 24-70mm). This shows the convenience of the cropped format for many users. The fact that the images generated are ‘good enough’ means it will probably live on for many years. Also, the sensor on the D3X is so high resolution it can crop DX at 10MP, ample for most uses and even equal to the D200, which is still in wide use. Whilst the D700 only gives you a tight 5MP, a potential D700X or D800 might give you a lot more, making the use of this on FX cameras quite feasible.

Here’s a review that was just recently published in, of all places, Poland. The fact that reviews are still being professionally made for this lens just goes to sho it’s enduring value. In fact, I would hazard to say that it now has a new lease of life as a much more affordable lens on DX.

Let’s look at some pros and cons, now as who knows, maybe someone will actually think about buying one based on the strength of this review!? These are all based on my real-world usage, no measurebating or any exact accessment claimed, yet it’s quite possible such research would come to the same conclusions through it’s own route. Lens quality really does vary, no matter what anyone says and you usually get what you pay for, or in this case what you would have paid for if newer models hadn’t emerged (in this case the D700 and the siren cry of full-frame).

Pros

-Beautiful rendering of colours, contrast, skin-textures backgrounds
-A very pleasing bokeh considering the relatively short focal length
-Sharp and with little noticable distortion, even at 17mm
-Semi-macros are possible with excellent close-up performance and minimum focusing distance (14.2 inches)
-A good choice for portraits on DX (though I’d say Nikon’s 35-70mm f/2.8D is even better, for a number of reasons)
-The perfect event lens on DX- one lens and you’re done!
-The zoom is very well-damped, making settings at particular lengths (ie 24mm, 35mm) quite convenient
-Makes up for the lack of quality wide-angles on DX and covers significant prime lengths- some of which don’t even exist in -Nikon’s lineup, such as 19mm, which is about 28mm in FX (one of my favourite lengths and a fact not lost on Pentax)
-A pro implementation of AF-S, offering very fast, smooth and near-silent focusing
-Good prices on the second-hand market
-A true pro zoom- in terms of both performance and looks, ensuring people will realise you are, or mistake you for, a pro!

Cons

-Very heavy, like most true pro-zooms
-Still very expensive despite $900 ‘bargains’ being so avaliable
-Performance gains compared to buget alternatives may seem subtle to many users, especially when both are stopped down (though I’d say for me they are very significant)
-Optomised for wide open, close-up usage, making it unsuitable for landscapes in many people’s eyes
-Short reach, even on DX, where around 70mm is needed for the ‘optimum’ portrait length of 105mm (this gives around 83mm being ‘uncomfortably close’ for many)
-Could be redundant if you move to FX and aren’t happy with using it cropped there

Notice that some of the cons aren’t real cons, they just go with the territory. This is for sure an excellent lens (have I already said this?) and one you just will not regret buying!


What Does it all Mean for DX?

Even though full-frame ‘FX’ has finally come to Nikon’s DSLR’s, the options for serious amateurs on DX have never been better. The D200/300 are cheaper than ever and offer fantastic picture quality and ergonomics. Also, along with the price drop of the 17-55 is the emergence of other lenses especially designed with DX bodies and their frequent lack of an in-body motor (in the case of the D40, D60, D5000, all very affordable and even competetive with compact pricing). I speak of the 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX, the 50mm f/1.4 G and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 HSM- two of which I have actually aquired for both wedding and home use (though I’ll leave you to guess exactly which two for now!) In short, excellent lenses are now widely avaliable for DX use, compromises and beer-bottle zooms are less neccessary for the average user. Of course, the whole format is oversized in a sense, leaving the way open for minaturised ‘rangefinderesque’ versions like micro-4/3 and potentially a micro-APS… but that’s another story…

For more samples, please see my 17-55mm Pbase gallery.

Some Samples

Kashiwa Noha

Feeding the Pigeons


Hydrangeas and Snail-Shell

Silent Rush Hour

Straight, No Chaser.

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