Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Hands on Review: 
Nikon 70-200mm f/4 G ED AF-S VR lens

Finally.  Nikon re-introduced a lens type that disappeared with the demise of the constant aperture f/4 80-200mm AI-s zoom Nikkor that had been a mainstay of travel photographers looking for quality optics in a light weight package.

After running tests on the new Nikon 70-200mm f/4 G ED AF-S VR lens, I have to say  the wait is over.  This newer version is all that a travel photographer could have hoped for and more.

The older 80-200mm f/4 Nikkor zoom  shown here on an even older Nikon Ftn camera, was always one of my favorites for carrying around.  Produced from 1981-1998 it was a convenient mainstay in my travel photo kit with its comfortably large push-pull combined zoom and focus collar.

As a lens type, this zoom and fixed aperture range is perfect for working outdoors when you want your lens kit to be portable without sacrificing any of the quality of the larger f/2.8 lens in this zoom range.  Weighing 1.87lb (.85kg) and measuring 7" (17.78cm) in length with a diameter of only 3.1" (7.87cm) due to its smaller f/4 aperture, this lens is a very compact package.  It feels very comfortable in the hands and is well balanced on a pro body like the Nikon D600 or D800 camera.  The primary reason for choosing a lens like this over its larger brother the f/2.8 model is portability and convenience without loss of quality.  The fact that it is priced about a thousand dollars less doesn't hurt matters either.

The lens is equipped with a new VR purported to be equivalent to a 5-stop speed reduction.  This definitely helps overcome the loss of a full f/stop from f/2.8 to f/4.  I am always skeptical about lens stabilizer claims, but I did receive very acceptable results at lower shutter speeds.  There is an accessory tripod collar, the Nikon RT-1, available for the lens if you are like me and like to gain the extra stability and sharpness that only a balanced camera-lens package on a tripod can offer.

Of course the advantage of having a lighter weight lens by giving up a full aperture only works if the lens also comes up the the same optical standards as its larger f/2.8 big brother.  The 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens is a lens I use quite frequently so I am very familiar with its performance, which is excellent.  I'm happy to say that the performance of the smaller f/4 version of this zoom range is not only as good, but may be a bit better.

This hand-held test was shot at f/8 at 1/100 second with the lens fully extended to 200mm. You can download a very large, full res version by clicking here.  Note that the lens sharpness, while excellent overall, does degrade somewhat towards the corners with a flat subject such as this.
One feature of this lens that makes it even more versatile is its ability to focus close.  As opposed to the f/2.8 model, which focuses to 4.6' (1.4m), the f/4 model focuses down to 3.8' (1m).  This is significant at 200mm focal length in that it allows a nature photographers to take semi-macro close-ups of their subject without having to be too close.  It also makes this lens very useful for full portrait head shots -- something that is impractical with the f.2.8 version.

I took this photo of a Nikon SP rangefinder camera with the 70-200mm zoom set to a 200mm focal length and  its minimum focus distance to illustrate how close it can go.  Such close-up ability adds considerably to the versatility of the lens.  Often times when traveling I want to grab a close-up shot of something, but don't want the inconvenience of carrying an extra macro lens with me.

Its ability to focus close coupled with its high resolution makes the 70-200mm f/4 lens valuable as a portrait lens.  It covers the prime portrait focal range of 70-135mm and makes it easy to zoom in and out as the subject moves.

These two images illustrate the different close focus ranges of the two Nikon 70-200mm lenses.  The photo on the left was taken at the closest focusing range of the f/2.8 zoom.  The photo on the right shows the closest focusing range of the f/4 zoom.  Quite a difference.
 With the added advantage of close focusing added to the high resolution properties of the lens, I began to speculate about making this lens even more practical by adding other attachments to increase its versatility.

The Nikon Teleconverters can be used with this zoom.  Using something as extreme as the 2x converter does mean dropping the f/4 aperture to f/8, but you can use the 1.4x at f/5.6 and the 1.7x at f/6.3 -- not bad for the added convenience of extending the zoom range out to 340mm.

Adding lens accessories can increase the versatility of this zoom.  Of course this is only works well on a high performance lens, which this is.  Top left is a pair of extension tubes (12 and 20mm); number 2 is the Nikon 1.7x Teleconverter; number 3 is a pair of 67mm close up filters.
By far the best optical solution for decreasing the close-up focus range is through the use of extension tubes because it does not degrade the optical system.  The Nikon version of these attachments does not support auto-focus so I use tubes supplied by Sigma or Kenko, both of which transmit lens information to the camera body and allow auto-focus.  Close up filters, while practical, are not the best optical solution, particularly at longer focal lengths and more open apertures.  I only use multi-coated, high end digital versions of these filters and stop the lens down to overcome the softness and chromatic aberrations these filters add.

You can extend the macro capability of this lens to macro range with the addition of close-up attachments. This photo was take with a stack of three extension tubes.  Using extension tubes instead of close-up filters maintains the sharpness of the lens.
Rather than pack a macro lens in my travel kit, I may just add a couple of close-up extension tubes to my camera bag for the occasional times when I want to move in to a more macro range.

Moving in very close with an extension tube added gave a very nice out of focus bokeh to the background with the lens aperture wide open.
My best surprise was how well this lens performed with the Nikon Teleconverters, even with the 2x. The optical quality at the longer focal lengths appeared on a par with actual prime telephoto lenses.  Adding a 1.7x Nikon Teleconverter increased the zoom range to 119-340mm at f/6.3.  On a DX camera I would probably opt for the 1.4x extender, which would mean a conversion to a 147-420mm focal length with only a one-stop loss to f/5.6.  For the addition of one small telextender this is a very practical addition to a lens kit.

Focus of this lens was swift and accurate, definitely up to pro standards.  I was able to grab the shot below as I spotted the squirrel out of the corner of my eye and quickly swung the camera into place.

A maximum aperture of f/4 does not always allow for the same type of bokeh you can achieve with a faster f/2.8 lens, but it is pleasing here nonetheless.
A Nikon 1.7 telextender was added for this shot of a hummingbird, and a wide open aperture assured a very soft background at f/4.  It was necessary to increase the ISO to 640 to achieve a shutter speed of 1/1600 that would sufficiently stop the fast beating wings.

These images show the use of Nikon Teleconverters on the 70-200mm lens.  On the left the 2x Teleconverter increased the focal length to 400mm.  On the right the 1.4x Teleconverter increased the focal length to 280mm.  Click here to download a full res version of the 2x and click here to download a 1.4x full res version.

It's a photo like this that convinced me of the high resolution qualities of this lens.  Here the 70-200mm was equipped with the 1.7x Teleconverter that increased its focal length to 119-340mm.
In addition to its Nano Crystal Coat this lens also has a high degree of multi-coating on its elements to keep flare to a minimum and color contrast crisp as seen in the photos below.

Shot into the setting sun with the foreground tree in shadow did not cause any problem for this lens/camera (D800) combo.  Colors are bright and crisp overall with no flaring.

I particularly like the star shape of the sun peeking through the trees in this shot of Walden Pond at sunset.  Once again, the color and contrast are bright and clear and the shadows maintain good detail.

Bottom line:

The Nikon 70-200mm f/4 lens took a long time to arrive on the scene, but it is a lens that is definitely worth the wait.  It has pro-quality build, optics, and performance in a light weight, well balanced package -- perfect for use in travel or landscape photography where you may want to lighten your load of equipment but not sacrifice any of the quality. 

The ability to add accessories to increase focus distance and extend the zoom range with very little loss of quality makes this an even better option as a "do everything" long zoom.  I have already added this lens to my travel kit along with two extension tubes (12 and 20mm) and a 1.7x Nikon Teleconverter.  I'm all set for my next trip.

This is definitely one of the best lenses Nikon makes.

The close focus capability of a lens with this quality and zoom range is a definite plus for me.


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  2. Thank you for such a detailed review, especially the info about the teleconverters. I am currently renting this lens and a 300mm f4 before making a purchase decision. The beauty of design and low weight of the 70-200 f4 lens has me in love with it but I need more focal length, so your experience using a 1.7x teleconverter is extremely helpful to me. Thank you!