The 70-200VR is one of the most important lenses in the Nikkor line-up. The big Japanese manufacturers invest all of their best technology in their high-caliber medium-telephoto lenses, they are their ambassadors out in the field and their best sellers in the high-end market. This latest iteration of a long line from Nikon is nearly buzzword-complete (only the truly impatient begrudge it the lack of Nano™) and it has found a home in countless camera bags of professionals and serious amateurs.
The most significant fact to know about the 70-200VR, I will reveal right away. This lens was designed around the time when film use fell sharply and digital use exploded, the same period when Nikon aggressively pushed APS-C (DX format) sensors for everyone, consumers and professionals alike. This lens delivers unparalleled performance on DX sensors, but has a major issue (see: Drawing) filling the frame on FX sensors.
I obtained my copy a little under three years ago after reading a convincing argument suggesting that one could not be considered a serious photographer without one of these lenses. The first year it spent paired to my D80 was a blissful honeymoon. Over time I distanced myself from the lens however, and now with the D700 I cannot stand the sight of it in my photography cabinet where it is confined.
Just recently, I obtained a copy of the TC-14E tele-converter to test a popular theory: that an optical stretch of the center of the 70-200VR’s image field will fix the issue with FX sensors. This proposes to change my opinion once more.
The 70-200VR is a hulking behemoth of a lens: it is massive and it is heavy. Balance with the D700 is not ideal, with the pair weighing so much you’ll want to keep a monopod handy just to rest your arms. With smaller cameras (e.g. D80) the feel is much better, basically giving you the impression that you are just holding the lens with an added grip for stability.
The VR mechanism works well, it is no gimmick. Of course everyone knows this by now in 2009. Although it does significantly extend the envelope of the lens’ usefulness, it does not grant its user a free pass to use it in low light indoors. For good results I always stick to speeds above 1/50s and rely on the VR mechanism only to bridge the gap towards 200mm.
Zooming is of course as easy as spinning the zoom ring, but this one is stiffer and narrower than I would like. This isn’t a big problem because you’ll have nothing else to do with your left hand. Note that the lens also zooms considerably as it racks focus from infinity to the near limit (or vice-versa) which makes framing before focusing, or just simply keeping an off-center focus point aimed, very difficult. I do not recommend using off-center focus points unless you own a D300/D700/D3/D3X and have it set to AF-C with 51-point automatic 3D tracking (this is my default setting when I’m not using Zeiss ZF lenses).
Manual focus is possible but the lens is not very well designed for this job. The focus ring is much too light and lacks a hard stop at infinity. If you persist to focus manually, you will find the narrow depth of field very challenging to negotiate. In practice I find no reason to focus this lens manually unless I am on a tripod and have all the time in the world to do so (then Live-View helps).
Finally, I find the focal range to be ill-chosen. I could not imagine a worse choice for a 70mm f/2.8 lens, because such a lens should weigh and cost 1/5th as much as this lens does. It is also extremely awkward to use at 70mm with human subjects, who will react to the enormity of the lens more than the photographer’s interest. Most of the time I use the 70-200VR between 100mm and 200mm, and would be happy if it were limited to that range and instead did not exhibit the FX issue.
When used with a DX sensor this Nikkor’s sharpness and contrast is outstanding over most of the frame, at most apertures and focal lengths. Compared to an older version of the Sigma 70-200 which I have used before, the Nikkor significantly outperforms that lens wide-open. A slight softening can be seen at 200mm which disappears beyond f/4.
Bokeh is pleasing in all conditions with a soft character for specular highlights. Chromatic aberrations are very low in all situations, leading me to think that the 70-200VR is very close to APO correction. The 70-200VR flares easily so you should keep the protecting hood installed at all times and avoid strong backlighting, especially if the light source is small like a bare flash.
When used with an FX sensor the 70-200VR gives a very disappointing performance. Contrast and sharpness drop sharply at the borders and corners at 70mm, then devolve into uncontrolled astigmatism over the outer zones at 200mm. The effect cannot be seen if the affected areas are outside depth-of-field, thus portrait photography may not always be affected while landscape and wildlife photography will be. I have observed this problem enough times to transform my high esteem of the lens into a fairly negative opinion.
Does the addition of a TC-14E between the 70-200VR and an FX sensor solve the problem? Yes, absolutely! The same outstanding performance from DX sensors is delivered to FX sensors this way. Any loss of micro-contrast attributable to the TC-14E is small in comparison to the gains achieved. Thus for roughly $400 one can “repair” his or her $2000 (roughly) lens.
The 70-200VR could be the best high-speed medium-telephoto zoom lens in existence for APS-C sensors, but also one of the worst for FX sensors. This makes the Nikkor a particularly bad value at this time. When Nikon makes this lens obsolete with a new FX-centric model, this model’s value will plummet towards zero.
Would I recommend this lens to other photographers? Yes, unfortunately, but only if you must have one. If you plan to use this lens with an FX sensor, then get the TC-14E as well from day 1.
I wish I could recommend an alternative, but there just aren’t any in this class of lens with image stabilization. If you must have a high-speed medium telephoto zoom then this is the one to get for Nikon photographers.
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