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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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
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