It's been observed that the performance of wide/ultra wide angle lenses and especially the wide angle zooms on the Nikon D800/D800E series of cameras has been less than satisfying. This is especially apparent with regards to edge/side and corner performance at most apertures and wider focal lengths. Lenses that had notably excellent performance across the frame on 12MP bodies now often fall short for some, especially landscape shooters.
Quite a bit has been written about the normally spectacular 14-24mm f2.8 and also the 16-35mm f4 on the higher MP bodies, but less so on the venerable Nikon 17-35mm f2.8, which has always been a particularly good all around pro caliber performer on 12MP bodies..having a good combination of excellent corner to corner sharpness, low distrotion, moderate but not over the top contrast, relatively compact for the range and speed of it's zoom, takes normal 77mm filters and has a wider and often more useful zoom range than the 14-24mm. It's one apparent weakness has been on the wide end of it's zoom range, often having to be stopped down a bit to achieve performance equal to the rest of it's zoom/aperture range.
Due to it's combination of desirable features and performance, I decided to perform a "1st observation" causal type test on a D800E body. I already had a preconceived notion that like other wide angle lenses and zooms used on the D800E, that small weakness would be magnified and normally glaring weaknesses might be an over-riding concern. This turned out to be the case, yet in many respects may end up being the sleeper all around wide angle zoom to use with the D800E, especially that most seem to make compromises on the these higher MP full frame bodies.
Lots of variability exists in sample to sample performance, a key trait of the Nikon 17-35mm f2.8, as is it's well known AF-S motor squeak. The sample I tested is one of the best optically I've come across in many years of testing as many samples I could get my hands on....so this may be a best case scenario when this particular lens is used on a D800E.
At 17mm and f2.8, quite apparent softness across the whole frame is evident, as it most often is when used on 12 MP bodies. At f4, where in the past, most of the central part of the frame would sharpen up considerably with edge/corner performance not all that far behind, on the D800E center sharpness just reached acceptable but considerable edge/corner smearing was quite evident. At f5.6, center sharpness improved to good-very good, and immediately outside this zone, things improved to acceptable. The remaining 10-15% of edge and corner was still soft/smeared, often resembling most of the other wide angle lenses tried on this body. By f8, only a residual amount of softness remained in the last 5-10% of the side/edges of the frame...depending on subject distance.
Zooming to 20mm showed notable improvement in all areas of the frame by a constant 20% but the areas of edge/corner smearing and softness persisted to much the same percentages as described for use of the zoom at 17mm. In other words, although by f4.5, the lens was eminently useful, one still had to expect a tradeoff of speed and edge/corner performance. By f8, once again the zoom at it's near wide angle setting was exceptionally good.
By 24mm, things took a dramatic jump in overall image characteristics. At f2.8 center sharpness was good and improved to excellent at f4.5 and beyond. Corner/edge performance still lagged behind with a relatively small amount of softness and a bit of smearing at f2.8 and f4, but by f5.6, near excellent sharpness was seen across approx 95% of the frame. At f8 that last bit of extreme edge softness was gone.
Finally at the 35mm focal length, good-excellent performance was fairly evident at f2.8 across the entire frame and by f4 near perfect for all intent and purposes.
Camera to subject distance at all focal lengths didn't really alter these findings.
A few things should be noted about this lens in general. Unlike the 14-24 f2.8 and especially the newer 16-35mm f4, this older designed lens is of lower contrast, so initial apparent sharpness appears to be somewhat lower. It's resistance to flair is good. A couple of advantages of this lens over the other two are the following:
1. It's extended zoom range and ability to readily accept filters is often preferable to the 14-24mm f2.8 .
2. It's excellent low distortion characteristics as compared to the 16-35mm f4, often makes it a more acceptable choice, especially for certain types of shooting although it does not have VR.
3. It's relative compactness over the other two lenses is also one of the benefits of this lens.
I briefly shot with the new(er) Tokina wide angle zoom lenses previously on the D3s/D700 and although they are good, they couldn't match the Nikon's, except for their vivid high contrast images. My guess is they might struggle and exhibit many of the image weaknesses as seen with all the Nikon wide and ultra wide angle lenses and zooms when used on the D800/D800E.
Apparently when it comes to using most of these lenses with the D800E, compromises have to be made and it simply comes down to picking those lenses that have the most desirable and positive traits for ones own particular kind of shooting.