Saturday, September 29, 2012

Nikon AF-S 70-200mm F2.8G VRII Review


70-200mm F2.8 zooms are a favorite with many professional and amateur  photographers, and for good reasons. This class of lens offers a wide zoom range, from a short telephoto to a semi-long telephoto, all in one package. The lens can be used for portraits, sports, wildlife, landscapes and more. The F2.8 aperture enables photographers to isolate subjects through a narrow depth of field, and gives the ability to keep working in low light conditions.

The AF-S 70-200mm F2.8G VRII is the most recent version of this type of all purpose telephoto zoom from Nikon. This second version of the 70-200mm F2.8 offers some updates over the previous version, a new optical and barrel design, the addition of nano coatings to reduce flare, and reduced vignetting when used on a full frame (FX) camera. This lens has been on the market for several years now, but some photographers with the old version might still be wondering if it is worth while upgrading to the newer one?

Review based primarily on use on a Nikon D700.

Build Quality and Handling: 

The AF-S 70-200mm F2.8G VRII is designed to be used by demanding professionals and amateurs, thus it is built to take a beating. The lens barrel is made of magnesium alloy, and the grip, focus and zoom rings are covered in rubber. Everything about this lens feels well made, and considering the price tag of around $2100 Cdn, it had better. The impressive build quality of this lens does come at a price, particularly in terms of weight (1.4KG). If you don't like lugging around weighty gear, this is not a a lens you'll like to work with for long photo sessions.

The body of the lens features dust and moisture resistant gaskets, including the lens mount, but is not weatherproof. Thanks to those gaskets shooting in light rain or drizzle is not a problem in most cases. A rain cover would still be recommended, for shooting in heavy rain for long periods of time.

The zoom ring turns smoothly, with just enough resistance to prevent it from being slammed from one end of the zoom range to the other by mistake. The manual focus ring feels very stiff, compared to the first version of 70-200mm F2.8G VR and the 24-70mm F2.8G. That stiffness seems to offer too much resistance at first, but if you need to manual focus it almost is just right. Like other modern AF-S lenses there are no hard stops on the focus ring, so it is easy to keep turning long after you reach either end of the focusing range without realizing it.

In terms of handling the lens is comfortable to shoot with, although it does have a significantly different feel than the previous version. The barrel of the second version is more uniform in size, than the previous version. When shooting without a tripod or monopod, removing the tripod foot is recommended, as leaving the foot on makes balancing the lens in the palm of your left hand somewhat difficult. If you need to shoot with the foot attached, such as if you need to quickly remove the lens from a tripod, the grip near the front of the lens is ideally placed and does help with the handling.

Features and Controls:

The features of the AF-S 70-200mm F2.8G VRII are very similar to its' predecessor, but there have been some minor updates. Like the predecessor the VR has normal (use when standing still) and active (use in a car, train or on a boat) modes. The VR (vibration reduction) motor is now using second generation technology and is rated for up to four stops of shake reduction. In practice it is closer to 3 stops, but in very steady hands it could be possible to achieve 4 stops.

The lens also features auto focus with manual override (two modes), and a focus limiter switch (limits focus from 5 meters to infinity rather than the normal range of 1.4m to infinity). One feature the newer 70-200mm lens lacks are the auto focus buttons on the barrel. Although the omission of these buttons is a slight disappointment, I cannot say I miss them too much on this particular lens.

Auto Focus:

The 70-200mm VRII focuses quickly and quietly under almost any conditions. In good light the lens is almost flawless when it comes to obtaining focus, no matter what focus points are used. Any hunting can easily be reduce with distant subjects by using the focus limiter. When used in low light focus accuracy is higher when using cross type AF points, and hunting can take place when they are not. The abilities are limited more so by a camera's auto focus system than the lens itself.

Optical/Image Quality: 

As expected of a lens in this price range, image quality is outstanding. Sharpness, saturation and colour rendition are all extremely good. Like most telephoto zooms the lens does loose some saturation in situations when the lens is facing right into the light source. That being said, the nano coatings on some of the lens elements help reduce flare, and as a result the 70-200mm VRII is more resistant to the loss of contrast than its' predecessor.

Vignetting is still present, but to a lesser degree on full frame bodies (FX) than the previous version. On a DX body vignetting does not seem to be an issue. Chromatic aberrations are present, but have not proven to be field relevant. Varying amounts of pincushion distortions are present, but like chromatic aberrations, it does not seem to be field relevant.

The lens is sharp right from F2.8 and only gets better as the aperture is stopped down. Beyond F8 performance levels off, beyond F16 diffraction becomes the limiting factor. Edge performance is good, but does not come close the center until the lens is stopped down to at least F4. Between F8 and F10 maximum sharpness across the frame can be achieved. 

Sample Images: (Click On Images For Larger View)
185mm F2.8, 1/500s, ISO6400
200mm, F4, 1/640s, ISO2500
200mm, F2.8, 1/640s, ISO6400
105mm, F4, 1/1600s, ISO200

Comments and Conclusion:

The Nikon AF-S 70-200mm F2.8G ED VRII is an impressive lens, and considering the price and features it should be. There are many options in the 70-200mm range, from inexpensive consumer zooms, its' predecessor, to third party alternatives, but in all honesty none of them reach the level of performance at wide apertures that the VRII Nikkor does. The colour rendition and contrast also stand out against competitors that share the Nikon mount.

Soon after the release there were a lot of negative comments made about the 70-200mm VRII, but I haven't noticed any of the issues in the sample that I have been working with for the last month. The focus breathing issue that I read so much about is there, but hasn't proven to be an issue in the real world. The lens is truly a stellar performer, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone considering a 70-200mm F2.8 lens for a Nikon DSLR.

If you have the previous version of the 70-200mm F2.8G VR, is it worth upgrading to the VRII? That is a tough call. Sharpness has been improved, but not so much that an upgrade is a must. Auto focus speed is similar, again not enough difference to warrant an upgrade. Build quality is, for all intensive purposes, the same. Reduced vignetting on FX bodies and improved flare resistance, thanks to the nano coatings, are the only noticeable improvements in the real world. Saturation and colour rendition are similar, but again, slightly improved in the new lens. If I had the VRI, I would only upgrade if I shot a lot of back-lit images, where flare could be an issue.

Pros:
  • Sharp right from F2.8, across the entire focal range
  • Fast, accurate and Silent auto focus
  • Built to last
  • Dust and moisture resistant gaskets
  • Vibration Reduction is outstanding, better than the VRI
  • Excellent colour, saturation and contrast
Cons:
  • Weight could be an issue to some users (not me)
  • The price. It costs around $2100 and there are less expensive alternatives, if you don't need to have the latest and greatest
  • Focus breathing, only apparent when focusing close to the minimum focusing distance. This issue has been greatly blown out of proportion by some users, and is a minor issue.