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Nikon 17-35/f2.8D AF-S EDIF optical misalignment

I bought one of the very first copies of the Nikon 17-35 when it was released about 6 years ago. Out of the box, it was obviously blurry even through the camera viewfinder.  Pictures at f8 were fuzzy.  Disappointed, I sent the lens into Nikon for service, as there were simply no replacements to be had.  Upon its return, it was a stunning performer.  At the time, it was almost certainly the best wide angle zoom ever made, and superior to even the Nikon prime lenses in its zoom range.  High sharpness, high contrast, low flare and superb color saturation are its hallmarks.  So too, apparently, is its propensity to become badly misaligned optically—

It served me well for about a year, until the following August when I noticed, again through the viewfinder, that one side of the frame was blurry.  Even at f11 the effect could be seen in the resulting images, and many frames were impacted (when you’re on a backpacking trip, camera stores are few and far between).  Again I had the lens serviced, and again it returned in fine shape. 

In no case was the lens banged or mistreated in any way.  I am at a complete loss as to how this optical misalignment materializes.

In October 2005 I used the lens while preparing the D2X vs EOS review, only to discover that the lens was again blurry on one side.  I sent the lens in for service, and this time, it literally sat in the drawer until yesterday, when I finally found the time to verify its optical quality.  (It went unused for that time because I favor the 17-55/f2.8D DX for most work).

Nikon did not fix the problem.  The blurring is so obvious that it’s hard to see how they could have returned the lens in this condition.  But perhaps it is not too surprising given the 4 trips my Nikon 12-24/f4 DX made to service, each time receiving a defective replacement.

The frame below was taken with mirror lockup on a tripod, 1/1600 second @ f2.8.  A portion of the bottom of the frame was removed to reduce file size.

Nikon 17-35/f2.8D AF-S EDIF @ f2.8, about 25mm

Below are crops showing the issue.  The blurriness is not confined to the far edge; it is well into the frame.  To see a 4288 X 300 pixel crop, click here.

Nikon 17-35/f2.8D AF-S EDIF @ f2.8, about 25mm
actual pixels
Crop from mid-left Crop from mid-right

So it’s back to Nikon once more for the 17-35.

I often see comments online about how this or that lens is “not sharp”, “soft unless stopped well down”, etc.   The truth is that modern pro zooms from either Nikon or Canon are outstanding, provided that they are not optically out of whack.  Some lens-sharpness claims are made by incompetent users, but many are no doubt due to misalignment issues as demonstrated above. 

Assuming a lens is optically good because it is brand-new is a not a good assumption. My opinion (based on personal experience with new zoom lenses) is that neither Nikon nor Canon spend much on quality control, and that their manufacturing tolerances are too loose to consistently produce zoom lenses that perform to their as-designed optical potential.

Be cautious buying a pre-owned “new” lens; the owner might be selling it because it’s a poor optical performer.  The good news is that in most cases optical problems can be fixed by the manufacturer (again from personal experience).  If you’re in the USA, be sure you buy a USA-warranty lens; buying a gray-market lens is sure to cause headaches if repair or servicing is needed, which Nikon or Canon USA might refuse to do for a non-USA lens.
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