Nikon AF-S 70-200 f/2.8G ED-IF VR review

February 17, 2013  •  4 Comments

 

Quite a mouthful, innit? That name?

 

Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR

 

Anyone who is into portraiture knows that a tele-zoom is an important part of their kit. While there sure are purists out there who scoff at the idea of a zoom (Even a constant aperture one), the fact of the matter is, primes are quite inflexible when it comes to strobe-lit portraiture. "Zooming with your feet" isn't an option there because as you move forward or backward, you're also moving in relation to the light source. To maintain consistency in the quality of light between loose and tight shots, one ideally must remain in the same position as they shoot and here is where the tele-zoom comes in handy.

 

While I do own a tele-zoom, it's one of the worst in Nikon's long storied history. The 70-300 G. I wouldn't wish it upon my worst enemies. As I am getting more and more serious about strobe-lit portraiture, I realized that renting/ borrowing a tele isn't always feasible. So, after thinking long and hard, I decided to break the piggybank and get myself one of them pro telezooms.

 

Why the 70-200 f/2.8 VR ?

 

Introduced in 2003, this lens was one of the first with Vibration Reduction (VR) in Nikon's lineup. It was a replacement to the long running 80-200 series and had a brand new optical formula. I won't bother you with the stats (Those are easily available on the internet), but this is a very complex lens with a LOT of glass in it. It's worth keeping in mind that even though this is an FX format lens, at its time of introduction, Nikon did not have any FX format DSLRs in its lineup. While it was still possible to use it on their 35mm film cameras such as the F5 and F6, at that point of time, the primary focus (Pun unintended!) of the lens was to deliver class leading performance on the company's DX format pro DSLRs. This led to some criticism for the lens when Nikon launched their FX format DSLRs and subsequently led to the launch of its successor, the 70-200 f/2.8 VR II.

 

When I decided that I would be getting myself a constant aperture tele zoom, I looked at all the options available to me. The cheapest of course, was the 80-200 f/2.8 D. It is in production even to this day and earlier model, used copies are very affordable. But what let it down for me was the lack of VR. Although I don't shoot much in low light situations anymore, VR is one useful trick that is indispensable these days.

 

Next up was the just-launched 70-200 f/4 VR III. I rented this lens for my last shoot and was VERY impressed by it. It was sharp all across the frame and VR III was phenomenal, delivering sharp, 1/8 second shots easily at 200mm. I almost went for this, but the fact that I doesn't play nice with teleconverters, nor has the build quality and weather sealing of its bigger brother made me drop it from the list.

 

Speaking of the bigger brother, the 70-200 f/2.8 VR II is the pinnacle of Nikon's optical engineering. If someone asked me, "How good are these Nikon lenses"?, I'd ask them to rent this lens and see for themselves. This lens is virtually flawless, save for the "Focus breathing" (non) issue that some people like to drum up on the forums. I'd have absolutely loved to go for this lens, but the fact remains that it is VERY expensive and I really cannot justify spending that kinda cash on a lens, not until and unless I am earning from this hobby of mine.

 

Then of course, there's the superb Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 VC. I had a chance to play around with it in Tokyo and felt that it was a superbly built and optically amazing lens. Apart from the slightly slower focus than the Nikkors and slightly plasticky buttons, this lens is phenomenal. Tamron's VS is equally as good as Nikon's VR. However, when I decide to spend this kinda cash on a pro lens, I also wanted it to be an investment. I wanted to make sure that when I finally decide to upgrade, I can sell the lens off for a decent amount. And when it comes to resale value, Tamron is no competition to Nikon.

 

Sigma's 70-200 f/2.8 OS is a terrible lens and I won't waste time talking about it.

 

So yeah, when the dust settled, the only real option I had was the 70-200 f/2.8 VR. Thanks to its superb successor being in the market for a while, its resale price settled down to a very reasonable level and is likely to stay there for a while. I got mine from a  private seller who hardly ever used it. Apart from the slightly scratched lens cover, the lens basically looked untouched by humans. I looked up the serial number and realized that it is from one of the later batches as well. An incredible opportunity that I just had to capitalize on. And I did.

 

Having been using/testing the lens for the last few days, I thought I'd post a review on it. Do keep in mind that I've only had the lens for a few days, so this review is far from being in-depth. Besides, I doubt if anyone wants to read an in-depth review of a 5 year old lens. These are mostly my observations about the lens and if I come across something significant in the future, I will update this post with that information.

 

Boy, is this thing a brick or what!

 

When I saw the previous owner bring the lens down in its golden box, that's what went through my mind. The packaging really is substantial. The previous owner was a casual shooter who mistakenly bought a lens that was too bulky and heavy for his kind of use. Now this is a caveat to anyone who is thinking about this lens (Or any of the f/2.8 telezooms). Buy this ONLY if you NEED the pro build and performance. If you're looking for a lens you can take to your holiday trips, you're better off with something much cheaper.

 

If you are willing to put up with the bulk though, this lens won't disappoint you with its build. It is the proverbial tank, built to the highest standards, not just for Nikon, but for any manufacturer. At its time of release, this was one of the longest in its class and it still is. Long and slender, the lens is almost entirely made of metal. It is weather sealed and comes with a ginormous hood. When you walk down the streets with this lens attached to your camera, people take notice (I know, I did just that today). Personally, I find this lens to be more handsome than its successor. I remember this lens catching my eye years ago when it was released. The VR II didn't quite have the same effect on me.

 

Another caveat about using big, heavy pro lenses. If it is connected to the camera body, NEVER lift the setup up by the camera. Lift it up by the lens. You seriously risk damaging the camera mount if you do the former. Especially if you do not have a pro body, as in the lower end models, the lens mount is actually fixed to a plastic frame, not a metal one (This goes for the D600 too). If you're mounting the setup to a tripod, use the metal foot that came with the lens. Do not mount it by the camera body.

 

Initial setup:

 

The first thing one has to do after getting a pro lens is to do the focus fine tune test. High end camera bodies have a feature by which one can fine tune the focus of the lenses you own to correct any front/ back focus issues that your particular camera/ lens combo may have. This occurs because even though cameras and lenses are made using machinery with tight tolerances, they still have slight variations from sample to sample. The copy is certified as "QC OK" if the variation is within the benchmark tolerances. To reduce these variations down further would mean spacecraft levels of engineering involved and your lens would now cost 10 times as much. AF fine tune is just a more cost effective way of handling this.

 

So to summarize, the same lens would have slightly different results in two bodies of the same model camera. It is very essential that one does the AF fine tune test and save a profile for each lens that they own, for each of their camera bodies. If your lens has -1 tolerance and your body has +1, you're in luck coz no correction is needed. However, if your lens has -2 and your body -5, you'll have to dial in +7 compensation. And so on.

 

The right way to do this can be found at this link. Yes, it is time consuming, but is well worth the effort if you're after the ultimate image quality.

 

Much to my surprise, when I did the test, I realized that my copy needed no correction at all! See image sample below. I re-did the tests a few times just to be sure and got consistent results.

 

AF fine tune test of the AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 VR

 

So with that settled, I moved on to testing the image quality.

 

Image quality:

 

A few things of note before we get into this.

 

1) One does not buy a 70-200 f/2.8 lens to shoot wide open all the time.

 

Yes, there are guys who do this. I know. "Bokehlicious" is the in-thing. Especially if you're upgrading from a point and shoot or even a kit lens. But at these focal lengths, shallow apertures just become, "Silly". In fact, I'd even argue that f/1.8 on even a 50mm is too shallow for most purposes. Does your model really want to have only one eye in focus? Look at the noteworthy images shot by your favorite pros. I guarantee that only a fraction of them are done with a wide open lens. meaningful shots need a decent amount of DoF.

 

No, one buys an f/2.8 lens because lenses tend to get much sharper when stopped down one or 2 stops. This means that an f/2.8 lens at f/4 would perform better than an f/4 lens wide open. Also, the faster your max aperture is, the better your chances are with teleconverters.

 

2) Do not expect boring shots of test charts or straight out of camera images in my reviews.

 

My reviews are real-world reviews. They have real world samples in them. If you want to see test charts, MTF graphs etc. there are many sites out there that do it really well. I am not paid to do that and I'd rather spend my time shooting real world subjects.

 

Also, the samples in my reviews would be processed as per my usual workflow. I buy my gear based on how they fit into my workflow. What comes out of the camera is irrelevant to me as long as it's malleable enough to go through my post-production pipeline. If you're ethically against this, please stop reading now and head over to Ken Rockwell's site. I hear he loves them JPEGs. My images are color corrected, exposure and tone curve adjusted and high-pass sharpened. I like my meals cooked, not half-cooked. How about you?

 

That off my chest, let's move on:

 

Criticisms about the lens:

 

Before I bought the lens, I did some extensive research on the internet about its performance on FX cameras. As a lend designed primarily for DX, it did have its fair share of criticisms. They are as follows:

 

1) Vignetting:

Irrelevant. Anyone who uses Lightroom in their workflow can fix this with one click. In fact, I ADD slight vignettes to a lot of my images for artistic effect. Vignettes and barrel/ pincushion distortions are the easiest to correct in post and no one should worry about them in the year 2013.

 

2) Corner sharpness:

This one's for real. The lens does have a falloff in the corners when it comes to sharpness when on full frame bodies. A high resolution sensor like the D800 does extract the best out of it, but it is still a real issue. But is it relevant? Let's see.

 

This is one of the many samples I shot to demonstrate this issue and was the worst case of the lot. This is NOT the typical scenario, but the worst case one.

 

This is a corner crop at f/8

Corner crop from the AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 VR

 

Hold the presses, that's TERRIBLE!!!! Or is it? Look at the entire image now:

 

Sample image from the AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 VR and the D800

 

Does it bother you now? Not really at normal viewing distances and normal reproduction sizes. In fact, if you're not a pixel peeper, the only way this will bother you is if you stand inches away from a giant print and look at the corners. Which would be a silly thing to do.

 

Another reason why this is not a big deal for me is because of the way I usually frame. For landscapes such as this, I usually shoot in 5:4 format in camera, which means that the edges are cropped off anyway. If you look at my portfolio, you'll see that very few images are in 3:2 format. I personally despise this format and usually try to frame in 5:4 or 4:3.

 

Lastly, let's not forget that this lens is primarily used by most people for portraiture and when doing portraits, one does not really put anything in the corners.

 

So yes, not perfect, but livable with and likeable.

 

Performance across focal lengths: Sharpness

 

At its widest, the lens is pretty good, with very little barrel distortion (Corrected in the sample) and great sharpness, even at f/4 (As mentioned before, I didn't do too many tests at f/2.8).

 

Sample image from the AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 VR and the D800

 

The fine textures on the buildings were reproduced incredibly well. No complaints here.

 

Around 85mm, the lens becomes scary sharp and in my opinion, is its "Sweet spot" in the zoom range. Images just look 3 dimensional!

 

 

Sample image from the AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 VR and the D800

 

At 160mm, it's still crazy sharp. The focal point in the below sample was the building with the multicolored windows. Check out the detailing on it!

 

 

And finally, here's a shot at 200mm. Plenty of detail here too and the only thing of note is the pincushion distortion and vignetting (Both fixed in post). Focal point is the building in the foreground.

 

Sample image from the AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 VR and the D800

 

So yeah, no complaints about sharpness or detail resolved. So, how about Bokeh?

 

Bokeh:

 

 Contrary to what some people might think, Bokeh isn't the amount blur in your image, it's the QUALITY of the blur. A lens with good bokeh would have the out of focus elements melt into nothingness with no harsh circles around  (Or worse, inside) them.  I can easily show you what a cream machine this lens is wide open with samples like this:

 

Sample image from the AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 VR and the D800

 

Yes, that can certainly be done. But it's representative of nothing in real life and an absolute waste of the lens. In the real world, it would be something like as below. Stopped down to f/4, the lens does this:

 

Sample image from the AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 VR and the D800

 

Notice how the leaves I the background turn into creamy blobs with no harsh outlines. This thing is a beauty.

 

Do remember though, Depth of Field is related to the focal length of the lens and also to the distance of the subject and background from the lens and from each other. If your subject is close to the camera ad the background further away, you will get some serious blurring. At a focal length like 200mm, this can be seen even at f/8. See sample below (I might have missed critical focus on this one. I was walking and so were the subjects and I used Single AF, not continuous. Oh well).

 

Sample image from the AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 VR and the D800

 

Ok, so Bokeh's great. What about focusing?

 

Focusing speed and accuracy:

 

As mentioned before, it's important that you do the AF fine tune test before you attempt anything. That said, this here is a lens designed not just for portraiture, but for sports shooters and photojournos, both of whom who value AF speed very much. It's no surprise then that this lens has one of the fastest AF systems in the entire Nikon lineup, bested perhaps, only by its successor. Everything is lightning fast, especially if you enable the focus limiter.

 

Now I might not shoot a lot of action, but I am familiar with the capabilities of the Nikon AF system and decide to test the lens' AF abilities out on a fast moving and erratic target, AKA pigeons. Here's one shot from the lot:

 

Sample image from the AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 VR and the D800

 

That is as sharp as it they come! Check out the detailing in its feathers! On a sidenote, the 3D tracking in modern Nikon DSLRs is nothing short of phenomenal. I doubt it was designed with pigeons in mind though. As the system works based on subject shape and color, it did tend to get fooled by the hundreds of pigeons around, all of whom are of the same size, shape and color. Phenomenal, but not infallible. But I digress.

 

Ok, that's all good, how about portraits?

 

Strobe-lit portraiture:

 

Yes, the main reason why I bought this darn thing in the first place. I really did want to do some portrait samples for this review, but my human models deserted me at the last moment. No matter, I turned to two of my ever dependable friends for help and they obliged. So without further ado, here are Tigger and Teddy posing for the camera, lit by a single SB900 in TTL and a gold reflector for fill. Shot at f/10 and 190mm.

 

Sample image from the AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 VR and the D800

 

I really couldn't ask for more from a portrait lens. Wow! Look at that detail and all those textures! This is the reason why I got this lens and boy, did I get my money's worth or what!

 

 

BTW, Teddy's standing up thanks to the magic of a Joby Gorillapod. He doesn't like to stand up, usually.

 

Here's a behind-the-scenes shot of the lighting setup:

 

Sample image from the AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 VR and the D800

 

Shushhh... I know it's a crappy cellphone image. Just be glad that I didn't Instagram it and tag it #InstaTeddy and #InstaTigger.

 

Conclusion:

 

So there you go, those are my thoughts on this lens. For my kind of usage, I couldn't be happier. Should YOU get it? That's a question worth pondering about.

 

Do you like to travel light and are primarily into stopped down landscaping and also, does not plan to do much rough weather shooting?  If so, look at the 70-200 f/4 VR or the 70-300 VR. Both are lighter, costs the same (Former) or cheaper (Latter) and  are better suited for your needs.

 

Do you have a big fat wallet and want the best? Don't think twice, get yourself the 70-200 f/2.8 VR II. There is none better.

 

Do you have the same budget as me, but are not really concerned about resale value? i.e. You intend to use the lens for at least 6 years or so? If so, do consider the Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 VC. It's VC is better than mine and is optically at least as good or better than mine as well.  That goes for Canon shooters too.

 

However, if you're the same sort of shooter as me, i.e. Heavily into strobe-lit shooting, involved in pro-usage scenarios, not afraid to shoot in a bit of rain, etc. and are budget conscious, this is absolutely the best choice you could make for your money. Go ahead and give this gem of a lens a try. You won't be disappointed.

 

All image samples can be viewed/ downloaded at full res at this link:

 

 

- Sandeep Murali -

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Comments

4.Sandeep Murali | Photography
Hi John,

The older Sigmas have rather inconsistent QC. The 70-200 in particular has rather unexceptional sharpness and the worst in class optical stabilization.

However, all their new lenses have been excellent, so I am guessing their next 70-200 would be pretty amazing.
3.John Wallace(non-registered)
Hello,

Could you please elaborate on why the Sigma 70-200 OS is a terrible lens?
2.Sandeep Murali | Photography
Hi Jose,

Sorry for the late reply, but for your needs, I believe the older VR is a better fit than the f/4. That said, my personal feeling is that the f/4 focuses a tad faster. The VR in it is definitely better.

If you're intending to use TCs, the f/4 wouldn't be the right choice.
1.Jose(non-registered)
Very well written and amusing review, nicely done! I am looking for a fast 70-200 and I have the chance of buying a used VR1 for just 800€, but the new f/4 model is also pulling my arm...
I don't intend of walking around with this lens, I just want to use it on sports and other "missions". For walking around I guess I will not need anything longer and heavier than my beloved 24-70 f/2.8.
Do you still recommend the VR1 instead of the f/4? The use with a 1.7x or 2.0x TC would be nice (for birds).
Thanks
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