Nikon Zoom-Nikkor 70-200 mm F/2.8 SWM AF-S VR IF ED G Lens Reviews

Nikon Zoom-Nikkor 70-200 mm F/2.8 SWM AF-S VR IF ED G Lens

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The Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8D VR G AFS ED IF - a perfect zoom lens?

Aug 10, 2006 (Updated Jul 21, 2008)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Rugged, sharp at most apertures, extremely fast focus, vibration reduction, internal focus and zoom.

Cons:Slightly prone to flare, soft at f/2.8, expensive, heavy, frustrating lens hood.

The Bottom Line: Easy to recommend to any professional photographer who needs a rugged, fast, and accurate Nikkor zoom.


Introduction

I've been very happy with my slightly older Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 D ED lens. No AFS focus, no VR, but great build quality and great image quality. I would never sell it to buy some new version with fancy technology because could it really get any better? I especially would never sell it to buy a $1600 lens with new fancy features because that just seems like a waste of money. Then I started talking to other photojournalists about the 70-200mm f/2.8 and realized there might be an argument for making the trade. I was skeptical though and decided not to spend all that money on something without clear benefits. Then I tried it out at the local camera store and I was blown away. I immediately felt like Nikon had engineered a lens to the same levels as their top professional cameras. Must have it... no! Don't spend the money. But I want it! No...! Then it happened - cha-ching! I am now the proud owner, very proud owner, of a monetarily painful but oh-so-nice top-of-the-line Nikkor zoom. It is such an amazing performer that I forget about its price tag every time I use it. Let's take a look.

Features

Let's run through the alphabet soup in the name of this lens, and take a look at what each letter really means.

f/2.8D: maximum aperture of f/2.8 at all focal lengths. This is what distinguishes a true professional lens from an amateur lens because pros usually need the extra stops and/or background blur provided by an f/2.8 lens.

D: Nikon's distance feature that allows the lens to be used much like a rangefinder.

VR: Vibration Reduction. Significantly reduces vibration caused by hand movement, vehicle movement, etc. Expect sharp images at least two stops slower.

G: Designed for use with autofocus cameras, especially digital SLRs. A big problem with G lenses is that they will not work on manual focus bodies because there is no aperture ring.

AFS: Wave energy driven focus mechanism. Nearly silent operation, extremely fast.

ED: Extra-low dispersion lens elements. At least one element inside the lens uses special materials to improve optical properties by reducing unwanted artifacts.

IF: Internal focus. No rotating front element. Everything is internal. This allows for easy use of filters (if that's your thing) but more importantly, it allows the front of the lens to be sealed from the elements (although not all lenses with IF will be sealed).

The bottom line? Nikon has put all of their current technology into one lens. Since Nikon is the highest quality SLR lens manufacturer, this bodes well.

Some of the other features include:

1) three focus lock buttons on the end of the lens, which means you don't need to use your shutter release button.

2) full-time manual focus override, which means you don't need to worry about changing from autofocus to manual focus and thereby missing your shot.

3) detachable foot tripod collar, which means you leave the collar on and slip the foot into your bag or pocket (why didn't someone think of this before?).

4) rubber gasket around the lens mount and other weather sealing, which means you can just keep shooting regardless of what the atmosphere is doing.

5) full metal barrel construction, which means you won't destroy it easily.

6) Nikon's best yet lens hood is detachable and clicks into place, which means it won't come off until you want it to and it does a good job of reducing flare.

7) Focus limiter switch, just in case the insanely fast AFS focusing system isn't good enough for you.

8) Standard 77mm filter mount, which means you can get filters almost anywhere.

Performance

Build Quality

I shoot in all environments and in all conditions. Cold, hot, wet, dry, high wind, you name it. I'm the guy that they build all-weather gear for. My Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 and my Nikon 300mm f/4.0 AFS IF have never let me down under any circumstance. However, neither of these lenses has full weather sealing, which is something I've always needed to keep in the back of my mind while shooting in tough conditions. With this 70-200mm, it's not even in the back of my mind anymore. I heard someone suggest that the weather sealing on this lens is comparable to the sealing on the F5. Although I can't verify this specifically, I can say that the 70-200mm is very tight. From the rubber gasket around the mount to the internal zoom and focus, this lens inspires confidence in any shooting situation. Coupled with the weather sealing of my Nikon D200, my days of worrying about weather and photo gear are over. Now if I could only find a way to keep the water/ice/snow/dust/ash off the front lens element...

Ergonomics

Before purchasing this lens, I had two major concerns about handling. First, I was concerned about weight. I didn't want to carry anything heavier than my 80-200mm f/2.8 or my 300mm f/4.0. With the extra length, better build quality, and additional features, I was sure this lens would be at least half of a pound heavier. After checking the specs, I was pleasantly surprised to find the weight is nearly the same. Second, I was concerned about the additional length and how it would affect the handling properties compared to the 80-200mm. It's only an inch, but it's an inch on an already long lens. In the backcountry, length is never really a problem and many nature photographers would consider this lens short. On city streets, length can get in the way quickly. After several weeks of extensive use, I really have not encountered any problems associated with this additional length. Perhaps this is because it is the same length as my 300mm f/4.0 and I've become accustomed to working with this lens in some relatively tight spots.

The rubberized focus and zoom rings are wide and easy to grip in all conditions. The zoom ring is placed closest to the lens mount, while the focus ring is nearest the front lens element. I've read a few complaints about this - some shooters would like to see this reversed. Personally, this has worked well for me because I do more zooming than manual focusing so I'd rather have my hand on the zoom ring, which is exactly where it ends up when I grab the lens in my usual shooting position. Speaking of the zoom ring, this one starts out tight and loosens just slightly after some use. This is a good thing because I was concerned it was too difficult to move the first time I used it. Now, it is just slightly looser and I appreciate the over-dampening to limit accidental zooming.

Overall, I think the ergonomics of this lens are similar to the 80-200mm f/2.8. The 80-200mm f/2.8 is noticeably less complicated, but the switches and buttons on the 70-200mm are intuitively placed and fairly easy to operate. Most of the time, I'm not operating them because I don't need to. For example, I leave the focus limiter set to full, I focus lock with the camera shutter button, and I only use VR when I really need it. My advice is not to worry about all of the additional switches and buttons on the 70-200mm; they are there when you need them and add great utility over the 80-200mm, but they stay out of the way and this lens works just fine without them.

I had heard that this lens is actually easier to handle than the 80-200mm f/2.8 because it has a narrower profile. I was skeptical, but I'm not anymore. This lens is very easy to grip and manuveur and I do think it handles better overall than the 80-200mm, despite its extra length. Indeed, it is very comfortable, rigid as a brick, and the extra length is not really noticeable.

Focusing

Focusing speed is incredibly fast. The ultrasonic focusing systems have always impressed me on both Canon ("USM") and Nikon ("AFS") lenses. Compared to my Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 D ED, this 70-200mm has noticeably faster autofocus. Focus accuracy is also improved over the 80-200mm. I can only fool the focus system by pointing the lens at perfectly clear blue sky, or a very dark object with focus assist turned off on my camera. In these situations, I use my eyes to focus (yep, that still works!) and turn the manual focus ring. This focus ring has proved to be very fast itself. It is a perfect blend of precise focusing and limited ring movement, the latter of which allows for fast manual focusing, the former of which allows you to actually get it in focus. Although this ring is just slightly underdampened, it has almost no detectable play and has saved me during a couple of tough focusing situations.

Vibration Reduction (VR)

The vibration reduction system works very well on this lens. On a recent assignment in a low light forested area, I thought for sure I would end up shooting at 800 ISO to get the shots I needed. Instead, I left the ISO at 100 and turned on the VR. The result? A couple of tack sharp shots at 1/13 of a second at 200mm!. It's not perfect every time, but this would simply not be possible on a non-VR lens without increasing the ISO significantly, possibly resulting in a loss of image quality. Nikon employs two VR systems on this lens: Normal and Active. Normal works best for hand-held shooting and panning, and Active is designed for the jostling caused by automobiles (very handy when trying to outrun a tornado while taking pictures of it).

Word to the wise: turn off VR when using the older form of vibration reduction known as a tripod. These two don't play well together. It is also a good idea to turn off VR when you need to conserve camera battery power; VR is a noticeable power consumer.

Optical Properties

So, you might be impressed so far, but the bottom line is always image quality right? Good news - this is one of the best optical zoom lenses Nikon has produced. It is nearly as sharp as my 80-200mm f/2.8 and 300mm f/4.0. Corner to corner, the sharpness of this lens is impressive, except at f/2.8 and f/3.5 where softness is especially evident on the edges, but is also present in the center of the image. Most lenses lose sharpness at maximum aperture, but I was disappointed by the amount of softness I see. To avoid this, use f/4.0 or smaller apertures whenever possible. From here to smaller apertures, this lens doesn't disappoint. Color rendition is good, but not quite as good as my Nikon primes and nowhere near as good as my 20-year old Minolta zoom lenses.

The bokeh of this lens is probably what sets it apart from all other 35mm lenses that I've tried over the years. Roughly speaking, the bokeh is the type (and quality) of the defocused region behind or in front of the subject. Nikon chose to use a different type of diaphragm for this lens than their previous zoom lenses and the results are stunning. The out of focus regions of my images are smooth and seamless, yielding results quite similar to what our eyes see. This has resulted in a noticeable improvement in the quality of my photographs. Bravo Nikon. Again, still not as nice as my Minolta glass, but good for a modern lens.

Flare can be a problem with this lens, but it's manageable. My 80-200mm f/2.8 has significantly less of a problem with flare, although it is still present. What can you do? Use the included lens hood when you need it. This can be a bit of a problem because although the hood stores nicely in a reversed position when not in use, it is difficult to mount on the front of the lens in a hurry. I've spent way too much time fumbling around with this hood trying to get it to line up perfectly with the grooves on the front of the lens. My 20-year old Minolta zooms have a simple two-button design that is infinitely faster without any loss of security. Nikon needs to re-evaluate this design.

Vignetting can be a minor problem with this lens, even on APS-C (1.5X crop) cameras like the D300. I've only noticed it at 200mm, but it was present from f/2.8 - f/5. The amount of vignetting is less than 1 EV, making it fairly easy to correct in almost any modern image processing software.

Conclusions

Back to my question that I posed in the title of this review. Is this a perfect zoom lens? Of course, physicists and engineers will be quick to point out that it's not possible to build a perfect lens - there will always be energy loss. Okay, let's forget that argument for a minute. The Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 is one of the best zoom lenses in its class, but still not perfect. I had hoped that my investment in its price, size, and weight would yield noticeably superior image quality when compared to my Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-D and my old Minolta zooms, but this hasn't really been the case. Still, it puts in a really good performance that makes it easy to recommend.


Recommend this product? Yes

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