The 16-35 VR is on Nikon's list of lenses that offer better resolution for the D800 while the 17-35 is not. Does that mean somethiing? Could it mean Nikon wants to sell the 16-35? Who knows. That said, if you take the VR out of the equation I have always understood the two to produce very similar results optically.
I own the 16-35 and it is an excellent lens. Is it $400 better than the 17-35 if I didn't care about VR and AF speed, shot landscapes primarily -I would say no as I don't think a photo taken on a tripod by one at f/8+ would be distinguishable from the other.
I can't help you on comparing the 17-35 and the 16-35. I have the 17-35 and I'm happy with it on my D800e.
In making your choice, just remember that Nikon's list was prepared by marketing and contains only current lenses. There are a lot of excellent current generation lenses that could be added to the list.
Gary in SE Michigan, USA. Nikonians membership - My most important photographic investment, after the camera. D4, D810, D300 (720nm IR conversion), D90, F6, FM3a (black), FM2n (chrome) YashicaMat 124, Graflex Speed Graphic 4x5 My Nikonians Gallery & Our Chapter Gallery
I bought a used 17-35mm f/2.8 and have been happier. Personally I prefer a fast lens over VR but that is me. You will not loose regardless of which you choose. Is there a $400 difference, probably not. My question would be "New vs Used"
They are both good lenses. When I was looking, I was looking used and had decided to go with the nicest one I found locally. I was lucky to pick up a pristine 16-35mm f4 for $900. It looked and performed like new and is a fine lens. The day I find a nice 14-24mm 2.8 for around a grand, I'll upgrade. I've owned one before and it's more than nice...
If you are willing to look outside the Nikon family and don't need the full 35mm, take a long look and do some research on the Tokina 16-28. It is without question the sharpest lens I have ever owned -- and that is saying something considering that it is a zoom. The biggest difference is the $500-$1,000 you will have in your bank account after buying the Tokina vs. either of the Nikons. And don't lose sight of the fact that extra stop (compared to the 16-35) does come in handy.
I chose the 16-35 over alternatives due to VR (and filters compared to th 14-24). Most of my photography is from a tripod, but there are times when a tripod is not allowed or does not help (such as on a small boat).
VR does account for a good bit of the cost difference. Optically the 16-35 has slightly better results in testing at DxOMark. The big difference is the 16-35 has much less CA - which you would expect with more recent coatings and ED glass. http://www.dxomark.com/index.php/Lenses/Compare-Camera-Lenses/Compare-lenses/(lens1)/373/(lens2)/221/(lens3)/813/(brand1)/Nikkor/(camera1)/0/(brand2)/Nikkor/(camera2)/485/(brand3)/Nikkor/(camera3)/0
I can only comment on the 16-35 F4. Although I have not used the lens a lot, I like the results I have received. I do have to address distortion in post processing for shots taken in certain settings. I do not know how much of this is from the lens and how much is from my technique. A really good example of an image that needed distortion reduced is here. (Click the image again to enlarge)
This was a shot in Wade Chapel in the Lakeview Cemetery. The Chapel is quite small, lots of right angles, and there was about 6 stops of light range, hence the need for HDR. I needed to tune the distortion beyond what the LR lens profile correction provided. That step was easy and quick, but very necessary.
First, let me say that I don't think sharpness is everything. An example, the 85 f/1.4G is sharper in the corners, without a doubt, than the D version. Still, give me the D version.
The same is true here. The 16-35 may make out for sharpness, it has VR, nano coating, yada yada. I have both. I perfer the 17-35 for landscape. In a word build quality (okay that's two words). Also, give me an extra stop over VR anyday. The IQ is so good in both that I can't tell the difference. But, then, I don't shoot test targets. I bought the 16-35 for one reason--to keep the weight down on my travel kit.
The 17-35 served me well for many years. It did not get used enough to justify so I sold it to fund another purchase. Would I buy it again if I found myself knee deep in landscape desiring customers ??.....ABSOLUTELY. It was a terrific piece of gear. I do not mind no VR as landscapes are almost always shot on tripod....and VR should be shut off when on a tripod.
Great build on that bad boy too....I love that series of lenses....17-35 f2.8/ 85 f1.4D / 28-70 f2.8....etc etc. Great and VERY durable lenses.
I can only comment on the 16-35 VR...I never regret using it on my D800. It is very sharp and the VR is really very nice. It is scary how low you can go on the shutter speed. I have a 28 1.8G as well, which complements it nicely.
20130527-003-2 by longzoom, on Flickr. The 16-35 lens is of 12 years younger technology, bit sharper in center and much better to the corners. It was designed for sensors, while 17-35 was not. The image at 16mm, f8.0, crop. I had both, and staying with 16-35. Dimitri.