PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux

9Jul/098

Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S VR ED-IF Review

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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.

Operation

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.

Drawing

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.

Conclusion

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.

If this information was useful to you, then act on it!

I take the time to learn to see the way that each lens sees, in the field, then I describe to you my mental model for the lens so you can know it too. That is a ton of work. Whew. Hey, I know of way you can help!

The next time you buy a nice lens from B&H, do it using my affiliate store. It won’t cost you extra and it tells B&H that you care about my reviews so they should support them. If you get yourself something nice this way, feel free to drop me a line!



Comments (8) Trackbacks (1)
  1. I shoot with Canon and Hasselblad, but I’ll have to say that the Nikon 70-200 is alot better that the Canon 70-200….thats why I have an adaptor that allows the Nikon lens to fit my Canon body.

    Raven
    http://cherokeebydesign.wordpress.com/

    • Hi Raven,

      I think you should take a look at the EF 70-200 f/4L IS lens. Not the 2.8 and not the non-IS versions, specifically that lens. It has what I consider to be the absolute best formula on the market for medium-telephoto lenses. The difference between f/2.8 and f/4 would not stop me, personally.

      Cheers, and nice blog!

      Olivier

  2. Agree that the EF 70-200 mm f/4L IS is the lens to beat at this focal length. This lens is optically astonishing, a bit lighter and more manageable in use than the massive f/2.8 lenses, yet fast enough to blur the background and get a high shutter speed in most outdoor situations. Alas, it doesn’t work on a Nikon.

    However, I feel you’re overly harsh on the f/2.8 Nikkor. I compared the DPReview data on this lens versus the f/2.8 Canon and came to the conclusion that Nikon’s design decisions gain quite a bit of sharpness across most of the frame. I don’t own a properly long lens at the moment, but I have done in my film-shooting past, and I used telephotos primarily for people. For that use the Nikkor would work very well, in my opinion. You can see my brief analysis here, posted as ‘Dorian Gray’ (a couple of image links seem to have died):

    http://www.applenova.com/forums/showpost.php?p=570502&postcount=20

    Given the above, I don’t think the value is currently bad; but I agree that waiting for the price to free-fall on the used market would be wise even if you feel, like I do, that this is a good lens now.

    • Here, we diverge.

      I would not say that an advantage over some (or even most) of the frame outweighs a significant flaw elsewhere. You can’t fix the corners of a 70-200VR image once they’ve been ruined. You can’t sharpen your way out.

      I did not even spend as much money on my Carl Zeiss 2/100 Makro-Planar ZF and that lens is in a different league altogether (for the better). So I’m a little bit pissed at Nikon for the 70-200 VR. I would gladly give up center performance in exchange for a lens that is free of major defects like this.

      I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to give Nikon another $400 to “repair” my like-new lens with a TC14. I have often kicked around the idea of dumping the lens on the used market and buying a 200mm(-ish) prime instead. As it is I almost never use it and use the Zeiss instead.

      I will be updating this review eventually to add comments about Bokeh when the TC14 is attached. I’m not sure I like it as much as when the TC14 is not attached.

      Olivier

      • Having re-read your analysis from Dpreview charts, I will point out what I think is the key weakness of the argument.

        You presume this lens is a “portrait lens” and therefore should only be used in this pre-conceived way. Other uses are unapproved and unsupported, so it must be the photographer’s mistake to have used it outside its “intended” purpose. This opinion is all-too-common on the internet, as it is repeated a million times over and eventually becomes mistaken for truth.

        Most of my favorite landscape art photographs were taken with telephotos. There are a million pictures made with “near/far” rules that are all alike and have no soul of their own. You can’t apply a rule from a book and expect valuable pictures to come out, you need to invest something of yourself that is not so predictable.

        Most of my favorite portraits were made with wide-angle lenses. A subject hanging in shallow DOF with no context is a boring composition fit only for a Sears catalog. It’s pretty but it doesn’t feed my inner artist.

        So I said all this to get here…

        Therefore I care what my telephotos look like when focused at infinity against a distant subject. DOF reaches the corners in this case. I have no use for a lens that has tunnel-vision because I can’t be creative with it.

        Olivier

      • Use at infinity is the big case against the Nikkor. I think this isn’t as common as typical people shots, but I wouldn’t quite say it’s “unapproved and unsupported”. In any case, my main point is to remind people that, when designing a lens, you can’t gain sharpness in the corners without sacrificing sharpness elsewhere (at least without a bigger design effort). You say you’re happy with that trade-off, but not everyone will be.

        In any case, it’s impossible for Nikon to ignore the outcry about this lens for more than a year or two. Another version with better corner performance is undoubtedly in the pipeline.

        The elephant in the room in this kind of discussion is that great photographs rarely derive their greatness from noteworthy sharpness, whether in the corners or elsewhere!

  3. About that elephant… I’ve heard it before, but I see it as a matter of style.

    Selective sharpness is part of my preferred style. I think of it as the medium-format look and feel, but from small-format equipment (because of cost, but also ergonomics). A medium-format print always had superior micro-contrast and delivering that from small-format requires a sharp lens.

  4. I’ve owned this lens for years. Its a great lens. Every lens has there quirks. Main use for this lens has been for portraits, sports, fast moving subjects and aerials. The only thing I that comes into play with the lens weakness is aerials. Most aerials have a subject in the center and corners are a non issue. Almost all issues can be corrected by using a 4:5 crop. I also use the TC14E with aerials to correct issues when needed.

    framer


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