Should you buy Nikon's legendary Magic Trio/Trinity?

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The smartest thing I ever did was buying into the legendary Nikon "Trinity" or "Magic Three" lenses: the 17-35mm f/2.8, 28-70mm f/2.8, and 70-200mm f/2.8. They are the three lenses you’ll find in the kit of just about every serious Nikon photographer (including me). They’re fast, expensive, heavier than you might expect, and provide such exquisite image quality that once you equip yourself with the Trinity, you’ll never be happy with anything else.

Until, perhaps, now. Nikon has muddied the waters recently by introducing some new lenses that threaten to displace the magic trio. Moreover, some Nikon dSLR owners just might be happier with a triad-plus-one that I’m going to describe.

Why Three Lenses Instead of One?

One reader wrote to me asking why he should consider these three lenses, rather than a single lens like the Nikon 18-200mm VR lens which, he noted, covers the same range as three lenses.  That's a fair question.  I owned the 18-200mm lens for three months and shot thousands of pictures with it.  It's a fine lens, and an excellent choice for anyone who wants to travel light and use a single lens for most applications (and can tolerate the "zoom creep" defect that comes with the territory.)  But there are several reasons why the Magic Three are a superb solution for anyone who can afford them.
  • Constant f/2.8 aperture.  At the 200mm setting, the 70-200mm VR lens has a maximum aperture of f/2.8, and is fairly sharp wide open.  The 18-200mm VR is two stops slower at f/5.6, and usually must be stopped down an additional f/stop for acceptable sharpness.  Because of its extra speed, the 70-200mm lens is the better choice for low-light photography, sports, concerts and similar subjects.  All of the Magic Three are constant aperture f/2.8 lenses at any focal length.  The 18-200mm VR performs best at longer zoom settings in full daylight.
  • Better image quality.  While the 18-200mm VR lens has good image quality overall, it's not as sharp as any of the Magic Three at any focal length.  I noticed a lot of barrel distortion at the widest settings, and pincushion distortion throughout the rest of its range.  If you absolutely must have the best image quality, you need the Magic Three.
  • Build quality.  Each of the Magic Three is ruggedly built and will withstand rough handling, making them especially suitable for advanced amateurs and professionals who do a lot of shooting under a variety of conditions.  The 18-200mm VR lacks this build quality, and controls such as the zoom and focus rings seem a bit rough.  As an all-in-one lens, it's likely to see three times as much use as any one of the Magic Three, even though it might lack the durability of the "pro" lenses.
  • DX-only. The 18-200mm VR works only on Nikon DX-format cameras, while each of the Magic Three can be used with both DX and FX ("full frame") Nikon cameras.  You may have no plans to buy an FX camera in the near future, but, if you do, you may end up replacing your DX optics with full-frame versions.  Nikon keeps introducing FX cameras at lower price points, so, if you're a serious photographer, an FX camera may be in store for you.  You'll be glad you didn't let your lens choice hold you back when it comes time to switch.  I was lucky.  The only essential DX lenses I owned were "kit" lenses that still are used regularly with my Nikon D40, D60, and D90 (the Nikon 18-55mm VR, 18-70mm, and 18-105mm VR), plus a Tokina 10-17mm fisheye zoom.   I sold my Nikon 12-24mm wide-angle and had previously disposed of the 18-200mm VR, so, with the Magic Trio and a dozen older full-frame lenses I owned, I was all set when the Nikon D3 and D700 were introduced.
  • The Original Magic Three

    For a significant number of years, the most commonly-cited “ideal” lenses for “serious” Nikon digital SLRs (meaning the D200 through D2xs) were the 17-35mm f/2.8, 28-70mm f/2.8, and 70-200 f/2.8 VR. The trio share a number of attributes. All three are non-DX lenses that work equally well on film cameras, full-frame FX models like the Nikon D3 and D700, and DX cameras like the D40 through D300, making for a sound investment in optics that could be used on any Nikon SLR, past or future. All three incorporate internal Silent Wave motors and focus incredibly fast. They all have f/2.8 maximum apertures that are constant; they don’t change as the lens is zoomed in or out. All three are internal focusing (IF) models that don’t change length as they focus, and include extra-low dispersion (ED) elements. And, all three are expensive, at $1,400-$1,600. But, as I discovered when I added this set, once you have them, you don’t need any other lenses unless you’re doing field sports like football or soccer, extreme wide-angle, or close-up photography. I generally take these three lenses with me everywhere, adding another lens or two as required for specialized needs.
  • AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED. When I am shooting landscapes, doing street photography, or some types of indoor sports, this lens goes on my camera and never comes off. It was my main lens on my last trip to Europe; I was traveling light and took this one, a 10-17mm Tokina fish-eye zoom, and my 28-200mm Nikkor G lens (in place of my humongous 70-200 VR lens), and didn’t need anything else. It's one of the two or three sharpest lenses I own, and focuses down to about 1 foot, so I can use it for close-ups of flowers and other macro subjects. With the DX 1.5X crop factor, it serves as a highly versatile medium wide-angle to normal lens.  On an FX camera, it is the equivalent of the Nikon 12-24 f/4 DX lens in coverage, and a stop faster to boot.
  • AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8D IF-ED. Nicknamed “The Beast” because of its size and weight, this lens, too, is wonderfully sharp, and well-suited for anything from sports to portraiture that falls within its focal length lens. I know many photographers who aren’t heavily into landscapes who use this lens as their main lens. With its impressive lens hood mounted, The Beast is useful for terrifying small children, too.
  • AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED. This legendary lens is perfect for some indoor and many outdoor sports, on a monopod, or hand-held, and can be used for portraiture, street photography, wildlife (especially with the 1.4X teleconverter), and even distant scenics. I use it for concerts, too, alternating between this lens and my 85mm f/1.8. It takes me in close to the performer, and can be used wide-open or at f/4 with good image quality. The only time I leave it behind is when I need to travel light (although it's not really that huge). This is the only lens of the Magic Trio that lacks an aperture ring, but you probably won’t be using it with a bellows extension, anyway.  It has a couple drawbacks when used with an FX-format Nikon, which I'll discuss next.



    To the Original Magic Trio, I often recommend adding one (or both) of these lenses:

  • AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D IF. The nickname of this lens is “The Cream Machine” because of its remarkably smooth bokeh, which provides absolutely gorgeous out-of-focus backgrounds, especially when the lens is used with a wide aperture. It's incredibly sharp, and can definitely be used at f/1.4. The 85mm f/1.4 is the perfect portrait lens, and can be used wide-open without qualms. If you need this sort of lens, it's almost a bargain at its $1,000 price, and worth the extra $600 over its 85mm f/1.8 counterpart. Both Nikon 85mm lenses are D-series AF, rather than G-type AF-S lenses, and are becoming long in the tooth, so you might want to look for one now before they are replaced. I seriously doubt that the introduction of a newer lens will cause the used prices for this wonderful lens to plummet.
  • AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 12-24mm f/4G IF-ED. If you need a slightly wider view than that provided by the Trio’s 17-35mm f/2.8, this constant-aperture lens makes a good supplement. It could never replace my 17-35 fave in terms of sharpness and freedom from aberrations, but, since I already own one, I’m keeping it for those times when I want to capture something requiring the field of view of a 12-16mm (or slightly longer) lens. The overlap between this lens and the 17-35mm doesn’t bother me; it just means I don’t have to swap lenses quite as often. Each will do a little of what the other one is best at. One disadvantage of this lens is that it won’t cover the full frame of an FX-format camera like the Nikon D3, so you can’t use it effectively if you upgrade in the future. It does cover the full frame from about 18mm to 24mm.


    The New Magic Three

    When Nikon introduced the D3 and D300, it also debuted two new lenses, an AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, and a AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lens. Both are G-type lenses (they lack an aperture ring), have AF-S focusing, and have constant f/2.8 apertures. Until Nikon announces a replacement for the 70-200mm VR lens (perhaps one with “upgraded” VRII capabilities), the “old” lens remains in the Magic Trio. Like the original big three, these are all full-frame lenses that work with any DX or FX-format Nikon camera.
    The chief advantage of the new lineup (if you can call it that) is that there is no overlap. You can go from 14-24mm to 24-70mm to 70-200mm with no gaps in coverage. I don’t find that an overwhelming advantage, because there are lots of situations in which the 17-35mm range of my existing lens is exactly what I need; if I had the “new” trio, I’d find myself swapping lenses whenever I needed more than a 24mm focal length. Carefully consider the focal lengths you need before deciding which “magic” triad is best for you. The new lineup looks like this:
  • AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED. I’ve shot with this lens, and its image quality is incredible, with very low barrel distortion (outward bowing at the edges) and very little of the chromatic aberrations common to lenses this wide. Because it has full-frame coverage, it's immune to obsolescence. It focuses down to 10.8 inches, allowing for some interesting close-up/wide-angle effects. The downside? The outward curving front element precludes the use of most filters, although I haven’t tried this lens with add-on Cokin-style filter holders yet. Lack of filter compatibility isn’t a fatal flaw, as the use of polarizers with such a wide lense would be problematic in any case. The polarizing effect would be highly variable because of this lens’s extremely expansive field of view.
  • AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED. This lens seems to provide even better image quality than the legendary Beast, especially when used wide open or in flare-inducing environments. (You can credit the new internal Nano Crystal Coat treatment for that improvement.) My recommendation is that if you already own The Beast, or can get one used for a good price ($1,000 or less), you don’t sacrifice much going with the older 28-70mm lens, and may find the overlap with the 14-24mm lens useful. But if you have the cash and opportunity to purchase this newer lens, you won’t be making a mistake. Some were surprised when it was introduced without the VR feature, but Nikon has kept the size of this useful lens down, while maintaining a reasonable price for a “pro” level lens.
  • AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED. This lens fits right in as a member of the new Magic Three, offering coverage out to 200mm with no overlap among any of the three lenses.  It has such beautiful bokeh (creamy out-of-focus backgrounds) that I use it for portraits and many other applications you might not consider traditional for this kind of telephoto.  The only problem comes when using this lens on an FX-format camera.  It tends to be soft at the edges of a full frame, and produces visible vignetting.  That hasn't stopped me from using this lens with my Nikon D3, because the soft edges and vignetting aren't much of a drawback for portraits and flowers, and other subjects I favor.  The latest Nikon cameras have a vignetting compensation feature built-in that counters the dark edges.  Given the new emphasis on FX cameras, I expect Nikon to introduce a replacement for this lens.  It will cost more.  Used examples of this lens are readily available for $1400 or less.