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Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR
(2003 - 2009)
(replaced by 70-200 VR II in 2009)
© 2009 KenRockwell.com

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Nikon AF-S VR 70-200mm  f/2.8

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (77mm filters, 51.8 oz/1,468g with tripod collar). enlarge. I'd get mine at any of Adorama, J&R, B&H Photo-Video, Ritz or Amazon. They're all great stores, the problem is finding it in stock. It's often out of stock because pros buy them as fast as Nikon can crank them out, especially with the new D3 and D700, they are more in demand than ever. It helps me keep adding to this site when you use these links to get yours, thanks! Ken.

 

June 2008      More Nikon Reviews

NEW: Replaced by the 70-200mm VR II as of Fall, 2009.

 

Optics:

   as rated by working pros who use it every day
  for tripod-huggers just reading about it online

Ergonomics:
Usefulness:
Availability:   (rarely in stock new)
Overall:   (found around the neck of every pro)

Ideal for: All-purpose pro tele zoom. Perfect for news, sports, indoor sports and theatre.

Not for: Manual focus film cameras.

Introduction     top

Intro     Specs      Performance     Usage     Recommendations

Ritz Camera

adorama

I personally buy from Ritz, Adorama and Amazon. I can't vouch for any other ads.

 

If you have $1,650 then this Nikon 70-200 is the best midrange telephoto zoom ever made by Nikon, except that it ws just replaced by the 70-200 VR II.

The Nikon 70-200mm VR is a professional lens intended for use on film and full-frame FX cameras, and therefore my review will address this 70-200mm from this full-frame perspective. In the few instances I refer to the amateur DX format, I'll call it out.

The only reason not to get this lens is the price, size and weight, all of which are to professional standards. You can get the same superb optical performance in lenses that cost much less, but they won't have VR, or they'll require moving a switch to get to manual focus, or they won't zoom, or they won't autofocus. If you're shooting DX, the 55-200mm DX VR is just about as sharp, but doesn't move as fast or take as much of a beating.

The reason the 70-200mm VR costs ten times what other equally sharp lenses might cost are because the 70-200 VR also offers:

1.) Fast f/2.8 speed for low light, soft backgrounds and action-stopping shutter speeds.

2.) Built tough: all metal except for rubber gaskets and bumpers.

3.) Built to last: many markings are engraved to outlast all of us.

4.) Fast, quiet AF with a silent wave motor. You won't scare sensitive subjects as other AF lenses might.

5.) Instant manual-focus override: just grab the focus ring at any time

6.) Vibration reduction so you can leave the tripod at home.

7.) Three AF-Lock buttons to lock focus when pressed and held. These are extremely handy once you learn to use them.

8.) Better bokeh than most other Nikkor lenses.

This 70-200mm f/2.8 VR is one of the two lenses used by most professional photographers every day. The other lens is usually a wide zoom on a second body.

Nikon's other 80-200 f/2.8 AF costs much less and offers the same great optics and fast f/2.8 aperture as the VR lens, but doesn't offer advantages 4~7 above. Nikon's previous 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-S offered most of the advantages of this 70-200mm VR, except for vibration reduction.

If you're contemplating getting this lens, just get it. If you're more familiar with the plasticy $500 - 1,500 VR lenses like the 18-200mm VR, 70-300mm VR, 24-120mm VR or the 80-400mm VR, then you've in for a pleasant surprise. The mechanical quality of the 70-200mm VR is several steps above any sub-$1,500 lens. It's completely metal, completely solid, and a pinnacle of professional durability, optical quality and precision.

The 70-200 VR is a little lighter than my $1,500 80-200mm AF-S.

Compatibility

This AF-S lens works perfectly with every Nikon DX and FX digital SLR. It also works perfectly with any but the very cheapest or oldest Nikon AF film cameras. It sings on the D3 as well as the D40.

Because it's gelded ("G," or has had its aperture ring removed to save cost) it's 99% useless with manual focus cameras. For manual focus cameras, the much less expensive 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-D works much better.

See Nikon Lens Compatibility for details with your camera. Read down the "AF-S" and "VR" columns for this lens.

History

See Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 History for explanations and photos of all the various models made from 1978 through today.

Nikon 70-200mm VR

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR. enlarge.

 

Specifications        top

Intro     Specs      Performance     Usage     Recommendations

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR.

Identity Plate: Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR.

Name: Nikon calls this the Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED-IF.

    AF-S and SWM: Silent focusing with a motor built into the lens.

    VR: Vibration Reduction, for shooting still subjects without a tripod.

    G: Gelded, meaning the aperture ring was omitted to save cost. Won't work on manual focus cameras.

    ED: Extra-low Dispersion glass for sharper pictures.

    IF: Internal Focusing Nothing moves externally as you zoom or focus.

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR.

Bottom, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR.

Focal Length: 70~200mm. Used on a DX camera, it gives angles of view similar to what a 105~300mm lens would give on an FX or 35mm film camera. See also Crop Factor.

Optics: An astounding (my use of the superlative) 21 elements in 15 groups. There are five ED glass elements and multicoating, but no aspherical elements or nano-crystal coating. I guess that's next.

Diaphragm: 9-blades. Round at larger apertures, nonagonal at smaller apertures.

Autofocus Lock (hold) Buttons: YES, three!

Close Focus Distance: 5 feet (1.5 meters), marked. It gets a little closer than that. AF stops just short of the manual focus stop, so if you're at the edge, twist the focus ring by hand and you may get what you need.

Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 1:5.6. (only 1:6.1 if you stop where the AF stops.)

Filter Threads: 77 mm, metal with rubber bumper.

Size: 8.465" extension from flange by 3.439" diameter (215.0 x 87.35mm), measured. Nikon specifies 3.4 inches (87mm) around and 8.5" (215mm) long. Nothing changes when focused or when zoomed.

Weight: 51.790 oz. (1,468.15g), measured, with tripod collar. Nikon specifies 50 oz. or 1,430 g, a little lighter than the 80-200mm AF-S or a little heavier than the 80-200mm AF-D.

Accessories: Comes with HB-29 hood and CL-M2 case.

Nikon Product Number: 2139, in catalog as of Spring 2008.

Development Announced (teaser): February 2002.

Availability as a Real Product Announced: 12 December 2002.

Available: Since Spring 2003.

Price: About $1,650 in 2008.

 

Performance       top

Intro     Specs      Performance     Usage     Recommendations

Overall    AF    Bokeh    Color    Distortion    Falloff    Ghosts    Color Fringes    

Mechanics    Sharpness    Teleconverters    Vibration Reduction    Zooming

Overall    back to Performance    back to top

As Nikon's best professional moderate telephoto zoom, one of these (or one of its earlier siblings) is in almost every professional photographers' bag.

Its optics and mechanics are superlative for everything a full-time career professional news or sports photographer would want to shoot with it, on any Nikon digital or modern film camera.

The only reason I don't have one myself is because I usually use my 80-400mm VR instead, since I shoot things that don't move and prefer the longer range.

There was a review posted on a very popular digital camera website in May 2008 that caused some confusion amongst hobbyists. That website, founded by a photo hobbyist and bought-out by a big corporation, decided to try to review lenses. They got their review of the 70-200mm VR all wrong since they lacked the perspective of a pro photographer, familiarity with optics, and most importantly, any history of shooting full-frame film.

Pros laughed at that review. Pros wrote me from all over the world telling me how their 70-200mm is the best lens they've ever owned, how they earn their living with it day-in and day-out, in the dark, in the rain, indoors and outdoors, and how other pros call them asking what lens was used for such-and-such shot since it was so sharp. One pro wrote that he's glad he never read that review, since if he did he might never take his 70-200 out of his bag!

Since that other website is written by and for amateurs, it missed the boat when it came to reviewing a pro lens. Like many reviews of just about anything, reviews are only meaningful when the person writing the review has the perspective to understand the product.

Something that confuses the innocent, as well as that other popular website, is that the 70-200 VR has a rear nodal point much further forward than other zooms, about 5" (12cm) in front of the lens mount. Most Nikon SLR lenses have their rear nodal points about an inch and a half (4cm) forward of the lens mount, and Nikon SLR viewfinders have had their condensers optimized for that ever since the 1950s.

When you use a lens with its rear nodal point so far forward, the corners of the finder often take on a darker, fuzzier double-image look because the condenser lenses and Fresnel screens are looking in the wrong place! The corners of the finder look awful, but the image on film and on-sensor are unaffected by the finder image. The original 50-300mm f/4.5 and other super-teles have suffered from this same ugly-finder effect for the same reason.

What this gobbledygook means is that you can't tell how sharp this lens is by looking through the finder. The corners will always look dark and blurry because Nikon's finders aren't optimized for this lens.

On film, DX and FX digital, this is a very, very sharp lens from edge-to-edge on full-frame, even at f/2.8.

If you look beyond the edges, and out to the farthest few millimeters of the corners of the full FX frame where important parts of the image shouldn't be, the 70-200mm VR is among Nikon's softest lenses, but so what! Pros rarely, if ever, compose with important details in the far corners. With a tele, the corners are usually out-of focus anyway. Pros don't put distracting details, which weaken their images by leading eyes out away from the center, off in the corners. This far corner (on full-frame only) softness might irk amateurs out shooting test charts, but I've never met any pros with anything other than the highest praises for this lens. It is trivial to make photos that show this and post them on the Internet for all to see, but you won't see this in real photos composed properly. Nikon is honest about this: their MTF curves clearly show the meridional sharpness plummeting beyond 17mm from the center of the frame. (Nikon's MTF curves.)

See Lens Sharpness for more.

 

Focus    back to Performance    back to top

Nikon 70-200mm focus

Nikon 70-200mm VR Focus Ring: Simple!

Focus is fast and sure.

Manual focus is easy: simply move the focus ring at any time. It just works. Tap the shutter button again for AF.

Manual focus has two speeds: normal and slightly slower. For normal speed, grab the longer part of the manual focus ring. For slightly more precise manual focus, move your fingers forward to the slightly larger diameter section. It really does make a difference.

There are three very useful focus lock buttons.

 

Bokeh    back to Performance    back to top

Bokeh looks great. It's better than most Nikkor lenses.

 

Color Rendition     back to Performance    back to top

Color is neutral and matches my other AF Nikkors.

 

Distortion    back to performance     back to top

As in most zoom lenses, there is barrel (bulging) distortion at the shorter end and pincushion (sucking) distortion at the longer end.

Luckily it's trivial to correct the distortion by plugging these figures into Photoshop CS2's lens distortion filter. + means barrel distortion, and - means pincushion distortion. These aren't facts or specifications, they are the results of my research that requires hours of photography and calculations on the resulting data.

 
FX at ∞
FX at 50'
(15m)
FX at 10'
(3m)
FX at 5'
(1.5m)
DX at ∞
DX at 50' (15m)
70mm
+4.0
+4.0
+3.0
+1.5
+1.4
+1.2
80mm
+2.7
+2.2
+2.0
+1.0
+1.0
+1.0
105mm
0.0
0.0
-0.5
-1.0
0.0
0.0
135mm
-1.2
-2.0
-2.0
-1.5
-0.8
-1.0
200mm
-3.0
-3.0
-3.0
-2.5
-1.0
-1.0

© 2008 KenRockwell.com. All rights reserved.

 

Falloff (darker corners)    back to Performance    back to top

Falloff isn't a problem with the 70-200mm VR, unless you shoot blank walls at 200mm at f/2.8. Shoot normal subjects, or shoot at less than 200mm, or stop down, or shoot in DX, and any falloff becomes invisible. As explained at Overall, the finder shows a lot of vignetting that isn't on the film or sensor.

I've greatly exaggerated the falloff below by shooting a blank target and then presented the images against a gray background. The only time any of this is visible is at f/2.8 at 200mm, and when you're shooting at those extremes, falloff isn't likely to be a concern.

On DX it's a non-issue, since only the middle of these images is used. (see crop factor).

 

Nikon 70-200mm VR falloff on FX at infinity.

 
f/2.8
f/4
f/5.6

70mm

105mm
135mm
200mm
© 2008 KenRockwell.com. All rights reserved.

 

Ghosting    back to Performance    back to top

There is one ghost opposite the center of the image if I deliberately point it into a bright light on a black background.

 

Lateral Color Fringes    back to performance     back to top

None, on either a D3 or D300.

 

Mechanics    back to performance     back to top

Outer Body: Epoxy-coated metal.

Filter Bumper: Rubber.

Filter Threads: Metal.

Bayonet Hood Mount: Plastic.

Focus Ring: Rubber-covered metal.

Zoom Ring: Rubber-covered metal.

Markings: Zoom ring: engraved. Identity plate: engraved metal. Switches and under-barrel gibberish: paint.

Aperture Ring: NONE.

Lens Mount: Looks like Nikon standard dull chromed brass.

Ass Gasket (rear dust and rain barrier): Yes.

Made in: Japan .

Serial Number: Engraved on identity plate.

USA Version shown by: Yellow and black "Nikon USA" sticker next to identity plate.

Hood: Plastic, with metal pawl and pawl cover.

 

Sharpness    back to Performance    back to top

Of course it's sharp! It's among the sharpest zooms I've used. Its sharp on my D3 from edge to edge at every setting.

It is soft at 200mm in the farthest corners on FX. This isn't a problem for pros who actually own and use the 70-200mm every single day, but if you're shooting landscapes on a tripod with a D3X, try something else, like the manual focus 80-200mm f/4.5n AI instead.

If you're a tripod-hugger who demands the very highest sharpness in the corners at 200mm, you'll prefer the 200mm f/4 AF Micro-NIKKOR instead at 200mm. Normal people and pros love the 70-200 VR.

See more at Lens Sharpness.

 

Teleconverters, use with    back to Performance    back to top

Oddly, if you're a tripod-hugger who looks too hard in the far corners where real photographers would never put their subjects, the TC-14E and TC-17E give sharper corners than the lens alone!

Use with TC-14E (on FX)

The TC-14E doesn't give much additional magnification, and doesn't lose any performance, either.

EXIF and exposure data read correctly with the TC-14E, meaning the camera and EXIF read the effective f/stop, which now starts at f/4, and the effective focal length, which goes from 100~280mm.

Performance seems the same, on a D3, as the lens alone, except now it's a 100~280mm f/4. If you're on a tripod and looking at images at 100%, it's just a teensy bit softer wide open (f/4) and is wonderful by f/5.6, one-stop down.

AF seems as fast.

Use with TC-17E (on FX)

The TC-17E also gives excellent results. The results with the TC-17E are as sharp as the 70-200 VR alone.

In fact, corner sharpness is better than the 70-200mm naked, since with the TC-17E the corners are always sharp, and the 70-200mm alone has softer corners at many focal lengths if you're looking to hard. How can this be? Easy: the TC is throwing away the corners.

EXIF and exposure data read correctly with the TC-17E, meaning the camera and EXIF read the effective f/stop, which now starts at f/4.8, and the effective focal length, which goes from 120~340mm.

AF seems almost as fast and sure. It's not quite as fast as without a TC, but not much slower either.

Use with TC-20E (on FX)

The 70-200mm VR isn't very hot on the TC-20E. If you have all three TCs and do a direct comparison as I did, the results from the TC-20E and 70-200 VR combination are clearly inferior to any other combination, looking at D3 output at 100%.

Sharpness has little to do with real image quality, but if you count your pixels, skip the TC-20E with the 70-200mm VR.

AF, at the same resultant focal length, is slower.

AF can take longer and get more confused as the focal length creeps up, so since with the TC you'll most likely be shooting at longer effective focal lengths. The more you push it with a TC, the more likely it is to hang up.

 

Vibration Reduction    back to Performance    back to top

These are the slowest speeds at which I get perfectly sharp shots 50% of the time. See Why VR Matters for details.

On a D3

At 70mm: 1/10. At 200mm: 1/15.

With TC-20E: at 140mm: 1/25. At 400mm: 1/30.

On a D1H

at 70mm:

1/125: OK
1/60: OK
1/30: OK
1/15: OK
1/8: slight blur
1/4: blur
1/2: blur

at 200mm:

1/125: usually OK
1/60: slight blur and usually OK
1/30 Blur
1/15: OK
1/8: OK
1/4: slight blur
1/2: very blurry

No, I have no idea why there is a sweet spot around 1/10 second but blur around 1/100 at 200mm. It may be chance or the design of the lens. I'll have to test it further when I can get a sample for a while. I did see these effects repeated a couple of times.

 

Zoom Ring    back to Performance    back to top

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR zoom ring

Zoom Ring, Nikon 70-200mm VR.

The zoom ring is well done. It's mostly linear, with equal rotation anyplace along the range giving an equal percentage change in magnification. (Mathematicians call this logarithmic, not linear, but if I told you all it was the correct Log scale then I'd confuse you all.)

The zoom ring is engraved metal with white paint filling in the engraving, just as it ought to be. It's not simply painted as most other lenses today. Engraving doesn't wear off.

It's a little more damped than I'd prefer. This prevents it from creeping. I suspect with continued daily professional use it would loosen up.

 

Usage     top

Intro     Specs      Performance     Usage     Recommendations

Switches     Focus Lock Buttons

Switches

Nikon 70-200mm VR Switches

Nikon 70-200mm VR Switches. enlarge.

M/A — M: Nikon has a typo here. Just scratch off the "M/" on the left of the top switch. The "M/A" position is a left-over name from when having instant manual override was still a new sales feature. In M/A, you're really in AF, but you also may grab the focus ring for instant override The "M" position locks it in manual focus.

FULL — ∞-2.5m: This limits the autofocus range in the ∞-2.5m position.

VR ON — OFF: Vibration Reduction. leave it on, but turn it off if you still have a tripod.

VR NORMAL — ACTIVE: Use NORMAL for hand-holding from a fixed position. Use ACTIVE if you're in a helicopter, sand rail, or motorcycle.

Focus Lock Buttons    back to Usage    back to top

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR. Focus Lock Buttons

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR Focus Lock Buttons (two of three).

Turn the 70-200mm over and you'll see three perfectly positioned rubber-covered buttons. These are AF lock buttons. On most cameras, hold them to lock focus. You have no idea how handy these are until you've used them.

Most cameras also allow you to program, in the camera's custom functions menus, to have these buttons do other things, like start AF.

They all do the same thing. There are three so you have one for horizontal shots, and one for each vertical orientation. You're on you're own shooting upside-down.

On old cameras that only had limited number of AF points, we would use these to hold focus while we recompose. I don't need these with the latest D3. (see my favorite AF settings on the D3.)

 

Recommendations     top

Intro     Specs      Performance     Usage     Recommendations

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR.

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR. enlarge.

This is the standard lens of the pros. It's not cheap, and Nikon can't make as many of them as they do the cheaper, easier-to-make lenses like the 55-200mm VR. It has never been in stock for long ever since it was introduced (just like its sibling, the 17-35mm AF-S), and Nikon's new full frame D3 and D700 are only increasing the demand. If you can't find it in stock, it's not a conspiracy, it's simply Nikon's finite ability to produce a precision product like the 70-200mm VR. Then again, maybe it's time for a new model. I don't know. I do know that I wouldn't be surprised if a new version came out, since it's been 5 years and Nikon often replaces this top model about that often.

If you're a pro or rich amateur, this is the lens for news, sports and action. For you weekend portrait shooters, this is also your lens. For serious portraits, I prefer the 135mm f/2 DC or longer lenses.

I like this lens for it's light weight (compared to other Nikon f/2.8 zooms) and ease of use. It costs a lot, too.

If you want to afford it by all means go get one. You'll love it. Everyone else I've met ho owns one loves it to death.

If you want to save money, then forgo the VR feature and get the 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-D for half the price with the same optical quality. DO NOT be tempted by used 80-200 lenses or the discount-brand lenses, since a brand new, latest model Nikon 80-200mm AF-D can be had for the same price.

For most uses I find the $140 70-300 mm AF-G is almost as good, so long as your subjects are moving slowly enough for the slower autofocus to catch and you have enough light for a short exposure at the slower f/stops without VR. The advantages of the 70-200mm VR are subtle unless you're a full-time professional; cheaper lenses are just as sharp.

Just pick up the two and you can feel the difference mechanically. Optically in good light the cheaper lenses are just about as good. The 70-200mm VR shines for pros who beat on it all day, every day, and need to shoot fast action in bad light. The 70-300mm G is probably fine for your children's soccer games if you want a lens for 10% of the price of the 70-200mm VR.

For serious amateurs and for photographing your kids at soccer, the $500 70-300mm VR is the lens to get if you don't want to afford this one.

Again, this 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (or the 80-200mm AF-D) is one of the two lenses used by every professional photographer every day. The other lens is usually a wide zoom on a second body. This is Nikon's latest professional workhorse lens.

 

More Information: Nikon, Japan. See also the press release from February 2003 and Development Announcement from February 2002.

 

Acknowledgment: Many thanks to Michael Hagen for loaning me this lens.

 

PLUG

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If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me continue helping everyone.

If you've gotten your gear through one of my links or helped otherwise, you're family. It's great people like you who allow me to keep adding to this site full-time. Thanks!

If you haven't helped yet, please do, and consider helping me with a gift of $5.00.

The biggest help is to use these links to Adorama, Amazon, B&H, Ritz, and J&R when you get your goodies. It costs you nothing and is a huge help to me. These places have the best prices and service, which is why I've used them since before this website existed. I recommend them all personally.

Thanks for reading!

Ken

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