Photoessay-review: the Nikon AFS 70-200/4 VR and Havana cityscapes, part I

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This will be the first in my new review format for ‘light’ reviews – pieces of equipment that perhaps don’t necessarily need a full blown magnum opus, but benefit from some context in deployment and typical usage. A short piece on the D4 will follow next.

One of the few lenses in the Canon system I’ve long been jealous of is their 70-200/4 IS (in addition to the 17TSE). Until not so long ago, Nikon users have been missing a light/ compact high quality telephoto option. Sure, there’s been the 70-300/4.5-5.6 VR, but that was only a decent performer up to 200mm; anything else was emergency territory. And it simply wasn’t that good on the D800E, nor a pro build. Finally, we have the AF-S 70-200mm f4 G VR ED IF (what a mouthful). I’m going to address two questions in this review: firstly, is it any good, and secondly, f2.8* or f4? I suspect the latter question is going to be of interest to many still sitting on the fence.

*It’s important to note there are two versions of the 70-200/2.8 G VR. I’ll go into the differences in more detail later.

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Inversion

I initially purchased this lens just before the Havana Masterclass; judging from the geography of the place, a short tele would be required to achieve the kinds of compositions I wanted. I already have the Voigtlander 90/3.5 APO-Lanthar, and the Zeiss 2/135 APO-Sonnar; however, neither of these would be flexible enough and frankly I prefer not to use manual focus telephotos on moving objects such as cars and people (both of which there’d be plenty of in Havana). There were three possible options: the 70-200/4, at the same price, a second hand older 70-200/2.8 VR, or the newer 70-200/2.8 VR II. Price is seldom a consideration for photographic tools: if it doesn’t do the job, it’s going to frustrate me to the point that I’ll buy the one that does – especially if I know the option exists.

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Armada, 2014

Weight, on the other hand, IS a consideration; so is focus breathing and optical quality. On this basis, the older lens was a no-go. The 2.8 II loses on focus breathing and weight, but has great optics. The fact that it progressively shortens to an effective 135mm at the near focus distance of 1.5m and only hits 200mm at infinity is an issue; you don’t get the magnification you expect and this hinders one’s ability to previsualize compositions. I’m fairly sure that would bother me, so that left the f4. Fortunately, the f4 not only matches – and I think slightly exceeds – the optical quality of its f2.8 sibling, but also appears to have slightly more effective VR, and best of all, focuses closer to a minimum of 1m at all focal lengths, and does not exhibit focus breathing: 200mm at 1m is really 200mm. Why this isn’t the case with the more expensive, larger lens is beyond me.

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After the rain

Not everything is a bed of roses though: to achieve the significant weight and price difference – 850g vs 1540g and $1000 – the lens is made of plastic (much like the 80-400 AFS) and there’s no tripod collar or hard pouch included. Plastic construction not necessarily a bad thing (though I personally prefer the haptics of metal); the pouch is moot as I never use them, but making you pay an extra $170 for a mediocre tripod collar is criminal. It’s not that the collar flexes – it doesn’t – but the locking mechanism isn’t very secure; it’s too easy to accidentally release the knob and have the camera rotate. Fortunately, you have to very deliberately pull the knob out and unlatch the collar to release it entirely, preventing expensive noises from ensuing.

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Lost

Optically, the 70-200/4 is a 20/14 design, as opposed to 21/16 for its larger f2.8 II sibling. It doesn’t extend when focusing or zooming, it’s weather sealed, equipped with a silent wave motor, and the latest generation of Nikon’s vibration reduction system – supposedly good for up to four stops. In practice, it’s not quite that good, but it does make a huge difference when handholding – especially at the 200mm end, on a D800E. Critically sharp images at the pixel level at 1/125s are consistently possible, as opposed to 1/500+ without. I certainly wouldn’t be without it, and subjectively, it’s probably the most effective of all the VR lenses I’ve used so far. The motor feels like the faster type used in the constant aperture pro zooms rather than the consumer ones;
it feels no slower to focus than the f2.8 II, which is a boon for tracking moving objects. In any case, you should be using this lens in AF-C mode most of the time since small changes in subject or camera distance – especially at the 200mm end – can result in noticeable shifts in the critical focus plane.

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A Cuban stereotype

The only thing I have to complain about optically is some fairly pronounced field curvature – the focal plane is simply not flat. It’s not a big deal if you use the nearest focus point, but if you’re focusing and recomposing, you may see some softness and wonder why since most telephotos generally don’t suffer from this. Everything else is good, though: resolving power is excellent even wide open; I’d say every aperture is usable everywhere in the frame, even on the D800E. I think peak is at f5.6-8, but it’s hard to tell as diffraction starts to become visible beyond that. I couldn’t find any signs of chromatic aberration, lateral or longitudinal, which is impressive considering the number of chrome car parts in the sun I shot whilst in Havana. Microcontrast is excellent by Nikon standards – right up there with the best of them – but still falls slightly short of the mighty Zeiss Otus**. Bokeh is always subjective, but in this case, not at all objectionable or busy. There’s a tiny hint of spherochromatism, but it’s not easy to spot most of the time. All in all, the f4 is a lens that splits things up nicely into planes – it has that transparency and separation I look for in my lenses; more importantly, it doesn’t really impose any character of its own onto the scene.

**Is there some bias here? Probably.

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Arches off limits

I think we can safely say it’s a good lens; it would appear however that the loss of one group and two elements has done nothing to hurt the optical performance of the 70-200/4 vis-a-vis its larger sibling; if anything, I prefer this optical design for its lack of focus breathing. Close up performance is weaker than distance, especially so at 200mm and f4, but it’s forgivable since it isn’t a macro lens. Most of the time you’ll use it further away anyway, so just set the 3m near limiter and enjoy much faster focus acquisition.

Personally, I’m honestly not sure that the extra stop from the f2.8 II would justify the weight and price difference; I very rarely shoot wide open anyway, and with a lens that long, I’d rather stop down a bit to retain some context; even at f5.6 not everything is in focus most of the time. This is even more apparent with the D800E and an Ultraprint – both are capable of very accurately resolving and reproducing the fine transition between in and out of focus areas, and this should be something that’s used rather than smoothed over with stopping down and aggressive sharpening. Furthermore, I cannot tell the difference optically between the two. The only situation in which I’d recommend the f2.8 is if you are shooting in low available light and/or really need that extra stop.

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Untitled

One thing I wouldn’t do again is buy the tripod collar, however. This lens is really meant to be used handheld; it’s light enough and balances very well on the larger bodies – D800E with grip or D4, with most of the weight in the camera – that the tripod collar just gets in the way when you shift your grip. I landed up taking it off. It is a lens which you feel is attached to the camera, not the other way around – I’d be fine with using the camera’s tripod mount if need arose – just remember to turn VR off.

Overall, I’d give this one a solid recommendation for any Nikon users looking for a high quality short telephoto; it’s optically excellent, handles well, focuses quickly, and has very effective stabilisation. Most of the time, I paired it with the Ricoh GR on the wide end and felt that I was missing nothing – in tighter situations, I’d swap it out for the Otus. Or sometimes I’d carry both, with the spare lens on a belt pouch. It proved to be very flexible; it just left me wishing there was a GR with the D800E’s sensor for Ultraprinting…

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Neighborhood friends

About the photoessay: This is the first in a series of photoessays from my work shot during the Havana Masterclass in April. I shot a lot of cars, some human context – abstraction of man again – and a bit of cityscape in Havana. Not much of my usual architectural abstraction, simply because the decayed grandeur of the city simply didn’t suit that style. I’m also not much of a telephoto shooter usually; I’d rather keep the context and isolate by composition, or opening up the lens a bit. The geography of the city – long, wide avenues and grid streets – didn’t really suit that way of working because it was too open; you’d either have to get very close to your foreground and use the wide, or compress and layer.

I found myself enjoying the compression/ layering and consciously looking for it; distilling critical elements of the city (cars, people, decaying buildings, arms on windows, Soviet architecture, statues, flags) and attempting to overlay them. Surprisingly, I didn’t do that much cinematic work; I suspect it’s because I’m personally evolving away from that to some extent and moving more towards painterly compositions – and because the dominant colours were so punchy that the impact of my usual tonal shifts would be lost. What you see in light quality and color is pretty close to reality: the latitude, relative lack of pollution and angle of the sun meant that we got the intense color of the tropics, but with the directionality of a higher latitude and strong color shifts between dawn and dusk. Needless to say, all of the images in this review/ photoessay were shot with the 70-200/4 VR on a D800E. Enjoy! MT

The Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR is available for ~$1,400 here from B&H and Amazon.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Ming, super review of the 70-200 f4 and shots from Havana…based on this I bought the lens yesterday and I will never regret it.
    btw, when will you arrange the next masterclass in Northern Europe?

  2. I do enjoy your articles, no pixel peeping and print quality, you may have changed my life tonight regarding ultraprint. Keep up the great work and sorry about the occasional jerk. If you get burnt out or overwhelmed have a guest editorialist, perhaps a commentator whose voice you enjoy. Best of luck, “Flick”

  3. Ming, in one of your teaching videos, you carry the Ricoh, and the Nikon with the 85 1.8. Do you think in those situations you’d change to this lens?

    • No, because it’s not flexible enough. At that point, the 70-200/4 wasn’t available. There’s a 90/3.5 Voigtlander APO-Lanthar I sometimes use also, which is conveniently small but unfortunately also manual focus only.

  4. I love your style!
    For me yours is so different from others framing/composition, motifs you see things that other photographers don’t see….
    I am in favor of your b&w photos and those where you use reflections as a “stylistic device”. I would love to see a b&w series of you where you “play” with different (day/high-) light and shades (situations)….Sometimes simplicity could be so impressive!

    Hopefully, i can afford and take part in a workshop /one of your masterclass someday in the near future (Berlin would be nice if you get enough interest – binding agreements). I have to save money for this…..

    You can’t get a discount as a student if you carry your gear ??? ;) Regrettably, I cannot offer you something else… a date with Avril Lavigne is not possible even less a night ;) Sorry I have too little power and money…. Just kiddin ;)

    What are your (future) aims? What kind of motifs are you focused on (you wanna specialize on)?

    Focusing on MF (Pentax 645Z), Ultraprints less commercial /macro stuff if you could still make a living from your ultraprints series, workshops/masterclasses…..??
    And due to your considered move to MF you put your focus on city-/streetscapes, street and landscape shots ??? They are your favourite choices…?

    Just a suggestion, I think everybody loves the Indian Summer (e.g. marvelous colors of the different maple trees)., Niagara falls, Boston, New York not far away….could be an interesting futural motif for a ultraprint series…a lot of people i think would love to hang (up) a framed ultraprint of the Indian Summer and could be economically/commercially attractive/ worthwile…
    I know the niagara falls, new york and indian summer are often being photographed but that is often not very artificial done imo more just for documentary or it looks just “papped”…you could save money if you combine that with one of your new york travels/workshops/masterclasses….just think about it – just an idea….

    You can’t get a discount as a student if you carry your gear ??? ;) Regrettably, I cannot offer you something else… a date with Avril Lavigne is not possible even less a night ;) Sorry I have too little power and money…. Just kiddin ;)

    Take care and keep at it!

    MfG

    Leo

    PS: By the way your macro shots (paid commercial work) are simply perfect….but i think that took a long way so far….

    • Thanks for the compliments. I don’t think my wife would be too happy if I went on a date with Avril Lavigne!

      As much as I’d like to make fine art photography my future direction, I’m not seeing any signs it’s economically viable. So I’ll continue to put out an edition when I feel there’s an opportunity, and doing a bit of everything…

  5. That shot of the Cuban flag is awesome. It is wonderfully framed. Ditto the “The Three Degrees of Separation” in the Taipei post.

  6. Love the set regardless of lens and as someone else mentioned also looking forward to seeing how your painter style develops.

    For me the lens is a bit too big, but I guess any smaller and the quality in optics would have been compromised somehow and this trade off is probably best. I wonder if Nikon has started to design lenses with the D800E specifically in mind?

    • Sadly, there aren’t any other options for small/good/tele. The Voigtlander 90/3.5 APO is not bad but still needs 5.6 to match the 70-200/4. Something a bit longer with VR, AF and still f4 might fit the bill, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as flexible as the zoom.

  7. Quality of light is sensational.

  8. Lovely pictures. The gear side was not so relevant to me, but still interesting, but I *love* “Inversion” :)
    Well titled, because I had to do a 360* before I saw clearly that it was a 180* Trompe l’oeil. ;)

  9. Matthew Crowley says:

    Another great review with great images , I just love your photography.

    I had the 2.8 on my wish list, but I might just change it to the 4.

    Thanks for all you do and happy shooting and don’t let others recommending other lenses bother you. Just keep doing what you do.

  10. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Ming, it would be wonderfull if you set your revue in historical perspective including few words about the granddaddy of all short to midlong tele zooms, the venerable 80-200/4,5 Nikkor.

    • Unfortunately, that would assume I’ve used them, or have the time and resources to go and look for one – except I don’t.

      Frankly, I don’t really have the time to write reviews at all, but I still do it for you guys and instead get ungrateful demands like this. Sometimes I really think that if other people believe they can do it better, then please, go ahead, and save me the trouble.

      • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

        Ming, I`m sorry. Seems you misunderstood me a bit or you were, no wonder tired of all those requests.
        What I said was not a ungratefull demand. I didn`t ask for a review. All I said was – few words- like” finally Nikon came to it`s roots with this zoom lens, compact and good…….”

  11. Oskar O says:

    Nice to hear that the setup worked out for you. I bought the 70-200/4 as soon as it came out, as I was never excited by the heavy weight (and considerable price…) of a 70-200/2.8, particularly since I want something even faster in low-light situations. My thoughts on the 70-200/4 mirror yours; it’s an extremely well balanced lens in terms of image quality and ergonomics, with no obvious weaknesses, thus being able to produce good images in most circumstances. The AF has proved to be one of the realiable ones, though I always try to remember that zooming does shift the focus so a refocus is necessary.

    I have observed that the 70-200/2.8 II can have quite nasty bokeh in some situations, a feature that I find distracting. According to my teleshooter friend, the earlier version had no such a problems, though it blurred the extreme corners. OTOH blurring of the extreme corners is not always a problem. Compromises, compromises…

    One of the great impediments to me using the 70-200/4 is that putting it on a D800 results in a more or less 2 kg package that requires a reasonably sized bag to fit in. In that sense it’s a somewhat funny combination with the essentially pocket sized Ricoh GR. Realistically though, if one wants 70-200, there aren’t that many compact choices.

  12. For street, travel, walk-around, the f/4 version is much better for me, and I sold my 2.8 VR II shortly after trying it. I would not prefer this lens if I did any sports or event shooting where f/2.8 is needed, but I do not. The lack of f/2.8 for creative purposes is not lost for me at all because I’m almost always needing a shallow DoF for closer subjects. Because the f/4 does not suffer from focal length breathing (and also because the 2.8 isn’t really 2.8 for short focal distances!), I found in testing that I could match the shallowness of DoF for the same closeup magnification with the f/4 and with equal (or better) IQ. This is the perfect light-weight tele-zoom for the D600/D800 without any sacrifice in IQ!

    Unfortunately, it took three copies for me to get a good one due to Nikon’s horrific QC these days, but that’s another story. ;)

    • Sadly, everybody appears to have horrific QC these days – blame it on the increased number of lenses that are being produced and margin pressure.

  13. The Canon 70-200 f/4 IS. God damn reliable, light and cheap (for a L).

  14. NeutraL-GreY says:

    Well the next GR is less than a year away It’s possible that your ultraprint capable GR is around the corner.

  15. I shouldn’t have read this, now I want one.

  16. Derrick says:

    Really like neighborhood friends. Love the lighting and how it illustrates the atmosphere.

  17. Great review Ming! Excited on part 2…..;)

    I totally agree with your opinion you should only considering the 2.8 if you shoot very often low light and if you wanna use teleconverters (TC-E 17 II and especially the 20III)…..
    But you could easily use the f4 with the TC-E 14II without any hesitation, the af works remarkably fast despite being 5.6….you hardly lose IQ (only 5%)…my experieces so far…

    Can t wait to see if the new TCE 14 III teleconverter from nikon is really optically superior to the TCE 14II or if is just a rebadged, new labelled III product in order to increase the sales…..as in the case of the release/implementation of the second generation (TC-E I –> TC-E II)….

    I wouldn’t use the tce 17 and 20 on the F4 due to the huge impact on IQ (17 to 26 %) / AF Speed…..(F6.8 and 8)….(http://photographylife.com/image-degradation-with-nikon-teleconverters)…

    Want I miss/regret a little bit is the focus limiter on the F4 only goes from infinity to 3m in contrast to the 2.8’s which goes to 5m. Little bummer…..

    1. Ming what do you think about my thoughts (use of telekonverters/new teleconverters/different focus limiter)?

    2. And do you think an IPhone 5S, Galaxy S5, Note 3 or the upcoming, newest generation of smartphones can replace an OM-D E-M1 (M43 system) as a travel/backup camera ?

    3. Your opinion good move to produce the D810 in Thailand than in Japan? Does it matter in terms of build quality, quality control assessment? For me they do due to the fact of overall lower standards, cheaper labour = more profit, higher production capacities…
    I hope we won’t get D600 issues….so let us pray for a surprisingly well done D810 with meaningful improvements (LV, U1/U2 modes, better bracketing for pamoramas 3 pictures with +/-3EV like D600/D610, better LCD with higher resolution) etc.)….;)

    4. What do you think about the new sRaw format (Nikon D4s) which will be probably implemented in the new D800s/D810 (only minor update/improvements)? Is it usable and does it make really sense? I think Canon has still the edge in terms of different raw formats sRaw and mRaw….? Why Nikon didn’t make different raw options so each user could choose for his ongoing situation/circumstances want he wants? That is the same fact as in the case of flash system….Nikon has to bring up a real contender against Canon’s Speedlite Ex-RT 600 (radio transmitter/-ing)….the Nikon SB 910 is outdated with IR…..

    The last remaining four things where Canon has still the edge/ users could be in favor of Canon:

    1. better/more tilt and shift lenses
    2. different, better raw format options
    3. better af system (5D III/1D-X 61-Point Reticular AF and 41 cross-type AF points vs. D4(s) / D800(e) 51 and 15 cross-type)
    4. Flash system/unit (oldschool IR SB 910 vs. state of the art radio tr. Canon EX-RT 600)

    Thanks! Take care!

    Cheers!

    PS: Despite the fact of being addicted to gear, I’m still taking pictures ;)!

    “Innovations distinguishes between leaders and followers!” Steve Jobs R.I.P Canon’s and Nikon’s management (leaders) should make sure to remember (this) Job’s statement …..they could learn a lot…..;)

    • 1. Not much difference in practice
      2. No, especially not in low light or for any other perspective than wide.
      3. What D810?
      4. I haven’t used it. Why don’t you ask Nikon about the raw options? I don’t work for them.
      5. If you prefer Canon, then stick with Canon.

  18. David Hua says:

    What table top tripod did you use?

  19. Would you recommend this lens for portrait photography, too? With regard to depth of field, color and bokeh?

    • You can use any lens for portrait photography, it depends more on how you compose with it. I use a 21mm sometimes for environmental portraits, too.

    • Ben Hopkins says:

      For what it’s worth, this lens is sensational for portrait photography. My wife and I shoot weddings and one of us has this on at all times. The images shot with the lens almost always end up in the final selection, the compression gives them a very desirable look and because it is so light (comparatively speaking, at least) this lens can be shot handheld for long periods of time. We have also noticed that most portraits shot with this lens require little to no color correction in post. From our experience it is better than the 2.8 in every conceivable way unless you are shooting a ceremony in a dark church where it isn’t possible to arrange for lighting.

  20. Reblogged this on VIVIMETALIUN.

  21. Lovely images, and the light reviewing style works well, but I’m looking forward most to seeing the evolution of your painterly style.

  22. Reblogged this on Giai01's Blog and commented:
    xem

  23. Brett Patching says:

    Lovely photographs Ming, and I like your review format too.

  24. Great review. Very useful and informative. Hadn’t really considered the f4 version – perhaps I should take another look.

  25. Nice review as usual. I really love the great texture in your every pictures.

  26. Hi Ming Thein,
    My untrained and novice eyes would not be able to tell those shots are from a long lens, especially “Lost”. I guess you crop it to achieve the cinematic “feel”, right ? Correct me if I’m wrong. All the while I have been stupidly thinking that long lenses are meant for portrait shots only and this series is really an eye-opening

    • I only crop to the 16:9 aspect ratio, if at all. There is no cropping otherwise. Whether a lens registers as ‘long’ or not depends on your foreground placement – is there any, is it in focus, or is it dramatically close to the lens?

  27. I love this type of review, just get to the point, what-its-like, backed up with solid, well-composed photography.

  28. Ming. Wonderful shots. Love the Cuba stuff so far. Looking forward to more. The muted “retro” colors excite me. It’s my favorite thing.

    Curious. Did you see much “out of use/abandoned” structures in Havana?

    • They’re not retro colours – that’s really the colour of the place. Everything has faded from lack of maintenance and money.

      Quite a number of abandoned buildings, but they’re all really still in use in one form or another, if only by squatters…

  29. I do love this lens, sharp, great color and microcontrast. Love the last photo, perfect light.

  30. I noticed your painterly compositions, very impressive. The caption on lost helps. What building/structure is in the untitled photo? Really like the shot.

Trackbacks

  1. […] tried recently. But only since Havana have I used anything much longer than that; in this case, the 70-200/4. Back story: I was in Singapore on assignment; a student requested an individual workshop, and I […]

  2. […] bring any more gear down with me, but partially because I’d very much enjoyed what the D800E/ 70-200/4VR did for me in Havana; the perspective worked well for urban situations and especially when I wanted […]

  3. […] set was shot with a Nikon D800E, Nikon 70-200/4 VR, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus and Ricoh GR. […]

  4. […] set was shot with a Nikon D800E, the 70-200/4 VR and Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus […]

  5. […] required very high shutter speeds to handhold consistently; even lenses with good VR such as the 70-200/4 I found could be used down to perhaps 1/focal length at best; everything else was 1/2x (borderline) […]

  6. […] This set shot with a Ricoh GR, Nikon D800E and the 70-200/4 VR. […]

  7. […] photoessay is the second part and conclusion of the previous photoessay-review. It’s a little broader in scope and less human-scale than the previous one; this is […]

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