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Nikon 70-200 f4 VR Lens Review

Nikon Finally Gives Travel and Landscape Shooters some Love!

By Nick Devlin @onelittlecamera

Svlete and Sexy - the new 70-200 f4 VR

There might be fifty ways to leave your lover, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to miss some things about them when they’re gone.  So it was when I broke up with Canon in 2009.  The one thing I really missed was my trusty EF 70-200 f/4L.   Adorned with its $8 rubber lens hood, that lens accompanied me all over the world, giving back beautiful images at every turn.  Best of all, however, it was a great travelling companion: light, compact, inexpensive and it didn’t snore. This lens filled the all-important telephoto/portrait niche and beautifully complemented either a 16-35mm or 24-70mm. This kind of two-lens setup is the staple of many of the world's most successful travel and landscape shooters, and the lack of a lightweight but high quality lens in the 70-200mm range was a gaping hole in the Nikon lineup.  It was not until this past December that this finally got fixed. 

Like many photographers, it was with great excitement and openness-of-wallet that I greeted the news of Nikon’s new – and decade overdue – 70-200mm f/4.  While I love my erstwhile 70-200mm f/2.8, it remains a lens best suited to photojournalism with strong shoulders.  The much smaller and lighter f/4 version seems like a blessing on paper, so is it? Overall, the answer is "yes".  Nikon's f/4 lens is every bit as good as I remember its Canon counterpart being, and leaves very little to desire in terms of image quality.  It is, however, a different beast than its faster cousin.

Frosty Cat tails, Alberta, December 2012 
Nikkor 70-200 f4 VR, f9, 1/500th, ISO 100

 THE PHYSICAL STUFF

In many fields, the 70-200 f/2.8 lens is bread-and-butter.  When I worked as a photojournalist, a million years ago in a land called Ektapress, the Canonikon 80-200mm f/2.8 was the money lens. You shot everything with it, from spot-news to sports to portraits to feature pics of kids running through water fountains on hot summer days. You wore the barrel to bare metal and then bought another one. These lenses were built not only for speed, but for battle. 

But as a landscape photographer, a lens of that size is a liability.  Even stripped of its tripod-mount, the f/2.8 lens is a heavy beast.  Its svelte new sibling is both shorter and a lot lighter.  The tech specs corroborate what the hand already tells you: the f/4 lens comes in at 850 grams versus 1540 grams for the f2.8 (30 vs. 54 oz.).  That’s a lot, and it feels like it.  To put it in concrete user terms, I have never held/carried/mounted the D800 with the f/2.8 lens attached, but rather always carried or held the lens. The camera just happens to be attached to it.  The lens was the boss and the camera was along for the ride.  With the new f/4 version, however, the D800 becomes the focal point of weight and balance once more. I could carry this latter combination for hours, whereas my wrists recently got tired in less than an hour of handheld shooting with the f/2.8.

Think Kim Kardashian versus Jennifer Garner:

 

The Side-by-side Posedown

Lighter at what price?

Assuming the f/4 lens can get the job done optically (as we will see below that it does) the operative question for many serious shooters will be whether this lens is sufficiently durable to stand up to professional level use in a variety of distant and not always hospitable environments.  At close to $1,500 by the time taxes are factored in, this is not a consumer-priced lens.  The catch is that the 'pro-ness'  of the f/2.8 is largely synonymous with its metal bulk.  While this perhaps reflects the fallacy that heavier is sturdier (ignoring the shear number of elements needed to make all that light converge at the right place at f/2.8), most photographers will nonetheless expect a lens like this to feel sufficiently solid that they can imagine beating it up while trekking around their city/province/world.

Light is nice (really nice!) but what are we giving up with all those shed grams? Well most obviously the new lens is a stop slower. A stop of sharp light at 200mm requires a lot of lens, ergo the f/2.8’s weight and girth.  Beyond its slower aperture, the f/4 lens also comes without an integral tripod mount.  A tripod mount is probably a good idea, but Really Right Stuff will no doubt make a better and lighter one than Nikon’s accessory collar, so I can take a pass on that for now. But even with the lens collar removed, the f/2.8 still feels massively bigger.

The really obvious difference, however, is build-feel.  I don’t say build ‘quality’ because it is impossible to predict how durable the f4 will prove over time, but even a brief fondle tells you that the f/2.8 lens is made of metal whereas the f/4 version is principally constructed on plastics; very, very good-feeling plastics, but plastics nonetheless.  Not that long ago, I would have disparaged the f/4 lens on this basis. However, Nikon’s new f/1.8 lenses (the 28/50/85 series) have shut me up.  Optically, these lenses match or outperform their much sturdier, metal f/1.4 counterparts. It might seem like an anathema to say that lenses assembled in Thailand or China, on plastic chassis, are the equal or ‘real’ lenses made in Japan of metal and Samurai-spit, but optically this seems to be the new ‘true’.

Durability, of course, remains a question mark.  Will these lighter, less heavily constructed lenses retained their edge after four or five years crisscrossing the globe on vibrating airplanes and bouncing taxis? Maybe not, but I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that the weight and price advantages they offer make them worthwhile.  If I have to replace this lens a little earlier, so be it.  I will have carried it more, and more happily in the interim.

I should qualify this by saying that, for the casual enthusiast, there should be no issue of build-quality.  There is nothing ‘bargain’ about the feel whatsoever. The zooming and focusing feel are identical to every other higher-end Nikon lens.  It’s a very nice lens to use.

Mouse over for a 100% view:

Icy Locks, Toronto, January 2013
Nikkor 70-200 f4 VR, f8, 1/500, ISO 320

OPTICS

This, of course, is the all important question for landscape shooters.  We don’t lug D800Es around to get sub-optimal images (query why I still own the 24-120???).  On this front, my initial short answer is that I can see no difference whatsoever between the f/2.8 and f/4 lenses in terms of resolution and micro-detail. I’ve pointed both at quite a lot of brick and tree bark in contemplation of this article, and I have yet to find an image where the faster lens is visibly better.

On the other hand, what I have found is that the f/4 can render an astonishing level of detail.  The shot below is a casual point-and-shoot image of a mountainside, taken while we were shooting the Sigma DP1&2 video review.  It was taken hand-held at 1/500 of a second at f8. 

Mouse over the image to zoom to a 100% view of the area inside the red box:

 

Mt. Kidd
Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR @ 200mm, 1/500, f8, ISO 500

What is remarkable about this wholly unremarkable image is that I had to zoom in to 400% (on a 36MP image) to see that the lens was trying to distinguish each individual branch on a dead tree in one of the colours, more than a mile away, but that the sensor had run out of gas first.  I can see this level of resolution to the edges of the frame, and almost as much in the corners.  It looks just as good (though obviously less detailed) at 70mm.  There is simply nothing more to ask a lens than this. The same level of detail comes through at 70mm as well, and well out to the edges, with only minimal reduction in resolution at the far corners. **Please bear in mind that these are web jpegs and have been subject to significant crushing, compression, sharpening, etc., and do not look as good on your screen as they do in their full original form.**

Well, ok, we'll indulge the pixel peeping a little bit, simply because it says a great deal more about the performance of the lens than a lot of narrative.  Here is another artless search for random distant detail, first showing the full frame and then two crops which I have attempted to make 100% if the gremlins of web-compression will allow it.  The narrow gauge wires atop the smokestack are crisply resolved, as are the numerous lines on the stacks in the lower centre-right. To my eye, the detail of the image is approaching the limits of the sensor and atmospheric interference is also coming into play.

Gas Plant, Alberta, December 2012
Nikon 70-200 f4 VR (@200mm), f7/1, 1/500 @ ISO 100

 

100% detail

 

Refinery Stacks - 100% detail from above

Performance Wide Open

Even at f/4, where the f/2.8 lens should have an advantage, I have been able to detect very little difference.  At 70 and 200mm I thought I saw a teeny, eensy, teeny, weeny little advantage in contrast for the f/2.8…..at 2:1 magnification on screen.  And no, I’m not reproducing those tests here because that kind of pixel abuse is not to be promoted <grin>.   The bokeh, or out of focus rendering, of the lens was just fine.  Not anything like a 75mm AA Summicron, but totally acceptable for an f/4 zoom.

I also wouldn't hesitate to us this lens for studio portraiture. It focuses quickly and silently (as expected) and performs as well as anyone would want on a portrait-shoot, throughout its range. 

The f/4 lens did seem to have a slightly  warmer colour reproduction than the f/2.8 version – though again only very slightly.

 

Crisp Edges, Toronto, January 2012
Nikkor 70-200 f4 VR, f7.1, 1/500, ISO 100

AUTOFOCUS ISSUES

Irritating issues with autofocus seem to be the new normal. The same holds true with this lens.  The cat tails and frost photo at the top of this article is a prime example.  Using traditional TTL Phase detection AF (that is, focussing using the viewfinder and not live view), the cat tails are simply not ideally sharp.  These are very high contrast subjects, which filled the small AF frame markers in the viewfinder. But they’re just not  sharp.  It may be that my attempt at fine-tuning the AF on the lens was flawed.  But man is this irritating! While I dislike using electronic viewfinders, I have to say that the enhanced reliability of focusing off the sensor itself could convert me one day if this keeps up.

Suffice to say that this – and really all lenses – are best focused on a tripod, with live view.  Now if only the live view implementation on the D800 were better…..


 

VR  (Vibration Reduction)

Like all VR , it works.  Likely quite well.  But don’t let this fool you into thinking you will be capturing 36MPs of detail if you’re shooting hand-held at 1/60th of a second.  You won’t. You’ll get a much better, more useable image than before but, for ultra high resolution cameras, hand holding remains a major doom.  For many photographers, however, the ever-improving VR technologies are a great blessing.  My advice, though, is to dial-up the ISO to get a higher shutter-speed, even with VR on, up to about ISO 1600.  The results are so clean that the balance between stability and noise favours an ISO-cheat for a few clicks of shutter speed.

I'm simply not willing to rave about VR on this lens they way we did when it was first introduced in this focal-range.  Some form of image stabilization ought to be the norm on any lens of this price. Yes, it is a significant techincal advance and advtange, but it's time to start taking it for granted, irrespective of what the marketing people might want us to think.  Exclamation marks should be reserved for lenses without VR.


 

VALUE

At $1,399, the f/4 lens costs $1,000 less than its f/2.8 cousin, at least on paper.  Throw in $200 for a tripod collar (seriously Nikon!?) and the gap narrows even more.  All of this makes the f/2.8 seem like pretty good value.  In the end, however, one should not chose between these lenses on price.  If you can only afford the f/4, get it.  If you need speed, get the f/2.8.  There is nothing that the f2.8 lens cannot do, so if you already have one, the question is whether the cost of owning a second 70-200mm lens is worth the weight advantage.  If you need a lens principally for travel or landscape, the f/4 offers a compelling advantage. There will be a number of used f/2.8s on the market, but my guess is that owners will be slow to relinquish them even if they also buy the f/4.

For those who care about such things, the f/4 lens comes only with a little shammy pouch, not a solid case as does the f/2.8.  I've always found that hard-cases are a nice idea that only end up consuming closet space, so this is not much of a downside, but the plastic snap-shut sarcophasgus that the f/4 lens is shipped in hardly provides the stuff of unboxing legend.  Since it's the optisc that count, this kind of peripheral cheapness shouldn't really bother anyone. It all goes in the recycling anyway.


 

THE $1000 QUESTION

So, assuming all things are equal, which lens does one get? The f/2.8 is a terrific optic and, even in the modern age of vastly improved high ISO, that extra stop does count for something.  Since much of the best light occurs, by definition, at the margins of the day, it is not unusual for photographers to be grasping for a slightly wider aperture or tweeking the ISO setting upwards to get a shot.  While the 'rules' of landscape photography suggest we should always be on a tripod and at an optimum working aperture, the reality of capturing images in the field are very different. Nature does not always play by our rules, and there can be a very fine line  between capturing great light and getting an image which lacks the accutance to really convey the power of the scene. 

One place I stumbled across that line more than once was Antartica.  Which literally hours of golden light, stretching well into times normal humans would consider the middle of the night, Antartica offers no end of spectacular imaging opportunities at marginal light levels.  One is also always shooting from the deck of a moving, vibranting ship, making any form of fixed platform support impossible.  Raising the ISO reduces the real resolution and the available bit-depth for post-processing, so it comes at a real cost, especially if one if trying to convene majestically subtle tones.  Sometimes, speed is the answer.

 

4:00 am on the Antarctic Peninsula
Canon EOS-1 MkIII, EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS, f2.8, 1/500th, ISO 1250

IN THE END

For most mere mortals chasing fixed pixels  a good 70-200mm f/4 is just the ticket. Thankfully, Nikon users now have that option. This lens is very good, showing what modern optical design can achieve, it is pleasing to use and the cost is bearable, though by no means a bargain. How it will hold up to many happy years in my travel bag, only time will tell.

 

By Nick Devlin  @onelittlecamera
January 2013.  

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Concepts: Lenses, Light, Photographic lens

Entities: Nikon, Canon, Antartica, Thailand, Japan, China, ISO, bare metal, Antarctic Peninsula, Nick Devlin

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