Introduced at the same time as Nikon's first digital SLR the APS-C format D1, the Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8 was made not only to replace the earlier AF 20-35mm f/2.8D IF but to compete with and out-perform the rivals. Nikon may be slow in producing top-quality lenses, at times, but they look closely at competitive offerings before announcing new models that can out-do their rivals optically and mechanically.
Such is the case with this particular optic, and is still available today in spite of the more recent and impressive AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G and 16-35mm f/4G VR models. Both are said to be mighty fine performers (I have no personal experience of the 16-35mm f/4 VR) but I've not been inclined to replace the 17-35mm f/2.8. First, the AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8 is large and heavy, especially on a pro-body but it''s still a handful on a D700/D800, while the 'compact and affordable' alternative, as Nikon claim the 16-35mm f/4 VR to be, just doesn't seem to be as compelling as the 17-35mm f/2.8. Not only can it serve as a formidable landscape lens, which the 14-24mm can not (due to the wildly convex front element and lack of a front filter thread) but because of the manual aperture ring, will also be of immense interest to those using video.I don't need to tell Canon users that Nikkor lenses can be fitted (courtesy of an adaptor), and, indeed, are favored for their manual aperture rings, along with Nikon's reputation for low chromatic aberration (especially on wide-angle primes and zooms).
Like Canon EF lenses, Nikon's newer G-series lenses (such as the 14-24mm / 2.8 and 16-35mm f/4 VR) lock out rival maker's bodies and the one or two Canon to Nikon G-series adaptors that are available commercially (we use a high quality Novoflex version) don't allow you to select a particular aperture. There is no aperture readout in the cameras' viewfinder as the lens adaptors simply operate a lever opening and closing the diaphragm (albeit steplessly, which is a plus).
Perhaps that's the reason why the 17-35mm f/2.8 continues to be made and is available from US retailers for about $1,770 (with USA warranty) or around £200 less as an (gray) import. Part of the reason that this lens is expensive can be attributed to lower production volumes now the newer models exist but there are other reasons as well. This lens has two large precision ground aspherical elements (the front element, for instance), one composite asphere and two ED glass elements, instead of the usual one (if you're lucky). Due to thermal expansion characteristics, this lens focuses beyond the infinity mark.
Abbey Altar. St Albans. England. May 2012. Nikon D800 with 17-35mm f/2.8 @ 17mm f/4, ISO 6400
Nearly of the reviews I've read about this lens make some reference to the AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 as result of there being only DX camera bodies available at that time but things have moved on and there is renewed interest in the 17-35mm f/2.8 with FX bodies, especially now that the D800 has been introduced. However, if you're using a DX camera (and as of now that means either the D7000 or D300s) and have no intention of buying a full-format (FX) model, then between the two you should choose the AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8. Besides the extra range and disproportionately lower price, it's close in both AF performance and optical quality, color, and sharpness. That said, I still prefer the contrast and drawing style of the 17-35mm f/2.8. Images from the AF-S DX 17-55mm f/2.8G, in my experience, look excellent on a technical level but appear somewhat sterile (and I have both).
The 17-35mm is less prone to flare, but it's not impervious to it as I was reminded only recently when a shot taken using a D800 directly facing the sun coming through a window just above the subject caused some veiling glare. Like most modern Nikkors, the 17-35mm has a nine blade diaphragm to produce attractive circular highlights and improve bokeh. Few zooms have attractive out of focus planes and wide-angles less so (in any-case, strongly out of focus backgrounds and foregrounds are far easier to achieve with longer focal lengths, such as a 50mm or short tele) but the 17-35mm f/2.8 has none of the harsh double-edged effects seen in less capable optics and is quite acceptable. Longitudinal CA (sometimes refereed to as purple fringing, most noticeable at wider apertures) is low on the Nikon D800 but there is some lateral CA, though this is easy to remove in post (using Lightroom 4) There's also some vignetting at the maximum aperture, but this too can either be removed in-camera (on JPEGs) or in software later. It's not unexpected and no worse than rival offerings. As you can see from the picture above, there's some barrel distortion but it's reportedly lower than the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR (I've not tested that model but I've seen sample photos of distortion).
Ford. Redbournbury. England. May 2012. Nikon D800 with 17-35mm f/2.8 @ 17mm f/4, ISO 6400
If you're familiar with Nikon's older manual focus lenses then you'll be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the 17-35mm f/2.8. The only really noticeable difference between them is that this lens, like others of the same period, has a plastic aperture ring though it is engraved still thankfully. This is an autofocus lens, however, so there are no brass helicoids, but the focus ring is smooth and not too highly geared, allowing large but precise adjustments. Auto-focus is very fast, near-instant and, unlike others that adopt a silent wave motor (SWM), practically noise -free.
The outer barrel is made from heavy-duty aluminum alloy and has the same durable construction that can only bee seen today in Nikon's top pro-quality super-telephotos, such as the AF-S 400mm f/2.8. If there's a shortcoming it's that there's no weatherproof sealing, and no rubber seal at the lens mount. The lens comes supplied with an old-fashioned rigid lens-case, pinch front and rear caps.
While well-made, the case isn't much use, to be honest. I prefer the soft, draw-string pouches but even those can be a pain to work from, so they're best used for storage. The supplied (HB-23) hood is really the only disappointment out of the whole package, and I rarely use it. It is the same one that's supplied with the 12-24mm f/4G and 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5D lenses. Nearly all Nikon hoods appear to be made by a third-party, and can all be characterized by fitting too tightly (the exception to this is the huge hood for the AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 (28-70mm equivalent) for DX cameras). Fortunately, the hood bayonets onto the outer barrel so it can't do any damage as it might to the extending barrels of lesser lenses. Still, it can be recommended to protect the front element, to a degree.
Shrine of St Alban. St Albans. England. June 2012. Nikon D800 with 17-35mm f/2.8 @ 17mm f/5.6, ISO 6400
Of course, now Nikon has the 36-megapixel D800 and D800E variant, interest in a suitable high-quality wide-angle zoom is paramount. For photojournalism and human interest / documentary work, the fast-focusing AF-S 17-35mm f/2.8 is the obvious choice. This lens performs remarkably well even at maximum aperture the centre has high sharpness and good contrast, meanwhile the low chromatic aberration and easily correctible barrel distortion make it equally suitable for landscapes, interiors and architectural photography alike.
The Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D ED-IF AF-S is available from:
B&H Photo (USA warranty) $1,769.00
Adorama (USA Warranty) $1,769.00
Amazon (in-cart price) $1,719.95 (USA warranty)
Amazon UK £1,495.25