First Impressions of Nikon AFS 70-200mm 2,8G VR II

The actual name of the lens is Nikon 70-200mm 2.8G ED VR II AF-S Nikkor. What!!! I mean, who names these things? How do they expect non-photo-nerds to figure out this stuff?. Well, read on and you might find out what this lens is all about.

I have owned and used fast Nikkor tele-zooms for more than 12 years. Some of my best images from my early work were made with a Nikkor 80-200mm 2,8 ED lens 2-ring version. Soon after the VR 70-200mm 2,8 lens appeared in 2003, I ordered it and used it a lot over the years with my Nikon F5, F6 and D2X cameras, but sold it just before I bought the Nikon D700. I was convinced that I would never own a heavy tele-zoom again, but after trying the new lens I just had to have one of these monsters!. The weight of the lens is soon forgotten, because it balances very well on my FX camera and is simply a joy to use!.

The tele-zoom Advantage
While most people think of a wide-angle lens when landscape photography is mentioned, I like to think different and use a telephoto-lens to pick out details in the landscape instead of a typical wide shot. Not that I don't like wide-angel landscapes, I do!, but to me and many other nature-photographers the 70-200mm focal length range is sometimes our favourite choice to capture beautiful landscape shots, with drama and scale. The 70-200mm lens is one of the most useful and most popular focal length ranges available. Wildlife, Action Sports, Photojournalism, Travelling, Landscape, Events, Weddings, Portrait work and a myriad of other unexpected things - this lens simply does it all!. For me, it’s a do-it-all lens, with excellent sharpness across the range, altogether with beautiful colour and contrast, even at large apertures. In short, it’s everything you expect and want from a professional grade zoom-lens made by Nikon. The only downside is that with this great performance is a price tag to match.

Design, Ergonomics & Handling
This is one huge and heavy lens, but still nothing compared with my 300mm f/2,8 lens and ergonomically it balances perfectly on a pro-body like my Nikon D700. The lens feels great in your hands and the build quality is top notch, with nicely sized focus and zoom rings. The focus ring is of a nice width, making operation quick and easy when you need it, but out of the way when you don’t and the manual focus is very well damped for an AF lens. The lens uses a Nikon Silent Wave Motor (SWM): that provides near silent, accurate and lightning fast autofocus! - the speed is almost as fast as my 300mm 2,8 lens and that is nice. The lens also have the latest VR II Image Stabilizer by Nikon and its a pleasure to use without a tripod, together with my D700 I can now make images in situations that were impossible in the past. Another thing I really like is the detachable Tripod-foot, that can be replaced by a tripod-foot with built-in Arca-style plate by Really Right Stuff or other suppliers; that's something you can't do with a Canon lens! - it significantly improves handling when hand–holding the camera with the lens attached as the collar simply does not get in the way if/when you remove it. One thing I can't understand is why Nikon have not included the "Memory Set Function" like on the bigger primes! I use this feature frequently with my 300mm 2,8 prime lens, a handy feature for action photography. 

This lens is sharp, sharp, sharp! Optically however it is not without flaws! Vignetting is still on a rather high level on 200mm, almost a hotspot in some situations, especially for larger apertures on a FX camera; Nikon still did an outstanding job in addressing the problems with vignetting on FX bodies. The lens also suffer from significant distortion on FX, you'll see it on both short and long focal lengths (barrel and pincushion), but nothing to be really worried about, because the distortion is uniform and easily corrected in Photoshop using the Lens Correction tool. You can use Nikon tele-converters with this lens and my TC-1.4 II yields a still relatively fast and reasonably sharp 98-280mm f/4 lens, while adding some CA and barrel distortion. The use of Nano Crystal Coat further reduces ghosting and interior flare for even greater image clarity, issues the older lens suffered from!. The bokeh is absolutely beautiful and smooth thanks to its rounded 9-Blade Diaphragm and it gives out-of-focus image elements a more natural appearance, but without the personality of my Carl Zeiss 100mm f/2,0 Makro lens, which is still the bokeh king!. The colour and contrast of this lens leave nothing to be desired, throughout the aperture range, colour and contrast are rich and natural and Chromatic Aberrations are very low!. There’s tons of detail, arguably more than the modest 12-mega-pixels sensor of the D700 can handle, this lens is a great performer and it gets the job done, with a minimum of fuss. The lens is much sharper in the extreme corners than the old 70-200mm 2,8 lens, but I think the “micro-contrast” of my Zeiss lenses is better for landscapes, but the Nikon lens is not far behind! - Close-Focusing Focal Length "Controversy" - At the closest focus distance 1,4 meters at 200mm, the lens is more like a 135mm lens. As you move away from the subject, the focal length changes to approximately 165mm-170mm. When the lens is near infinity, the focal length is very close to actual 200mm. I don't find this a big problem because you get much sharper images at close-range, compared with the predecessor.

Build Quality
Its a beast of a lens that is made of metal and can easily withstand tough weather, occasional bumps and is well protected against dust and moisture - its built like a tank to last a lifetime and feels rock solid. The outer barrel is made of metal and feels just as rugged as my Zeiss lenses. Everything is just about perfect, but I think the inclusion of a plastic filter thread is a bad decision, but this might only be a concern for landscape and nature photographers who like to use filters. Photojournalists and wedding photographers, who are either going to be shooting this lens naked or with a protective filter on at all times, this isn't an issue. The lens hood is made of thin plastic, but fits securely on the lens and that's a good thing!, however I simply don't like it! - it does not feel as rugged as other Nikon lens-hoods I've used in the past, it is quite flimsy and it will definitely brake at some time or another.

I only find four alternative zooms and one prime lens to be real alternatives to this outstanding lens. The first alternative is the "old-timer", but still Top performing Nikkor AFD 180mm 2,8 IF-ED prime lens. The lens is compact and light, but gives much less light-fall at the edges and better corner sharpness compared to the zooms, but it has very slow focus, higher Chromatic Aberrations and no VR, this lens is very good on both FX and DX cameras. If you're a DX shooter and have no plans of upgrading to a FX camera, you should look at the older version Nikkor AFS 70-200mm 2,8 VR I as a good and much cheaper alternative. This lens should be easy to find second-hand at good prices. This lens can't match the VR system offered on the new lens and it has higher Chromatic Aberrations and flares easily, but still a great value for a DX shooter. The older Nikkor AFD 80-200mm 2,8 ED lens is very compact and much lighter than the other two, but does not offer AFS or VR, but if you're a landscape shooter and stop the lens down to f/5,6-f/8,0. This lens performs on a very high level and its much cheaper than the other two zooms, one problem is the lens-hood that does not lock securely on the lens. If you are on a budget or don't need fast apertures, I highly recommend the Nikkor AFS 70-300mm 4,0-5,6 VR lens, it is compact, light and offer both AFS and the newest VR II system. The lens is sharp especially on a DX camera and performs very well on a D700, but I don't like the plastic construction, slow autofocus or slow aperture, but at a third of the price of an 70-200mm, its a real bargain. I have owned all four lenses, during the past 14 years, but none of them can match the handling and performance of the new King. Update: The new Nikkor AFS 70-200mm 4,0 VR is a perfect lightweight alternative and it has the newest VR system; the optical and mechanical quality is very high and I would recommend this new contender to everyone that don't need the fast autofocus of the more expensive 2,8 version.

The new Nikon AFS 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II is a much improved lens and better than its predecessor, especially on FX cameras. The performance of this lens is outstanding throughout the focal lengths and the new VR II system helps BIG-TIME in getting shake-free images at slow shutter speeds of 1/30 and below. If you work in challenging conditions you will appreciate the lens, while others might look at the older version as a good alternative, especially if they are shooting on DX bodies.

Rating: Build Quality: 9/10 - Handling: 9/10 - Optical: 9/10

Conclusion - Pros:

+ Great optical performance!
+ Hardly any Chromatic Aberrations!
+ Smooth bokeh! (Out of focus image rendition)
+ Silent, accurate and lightning fast autofocus!
+ Extremely efficient Image Stabilizer (VRII)
+ Manual focusing with a smooth feeling - NO delay!
+ Durable design with Weather sealing.
+ Detachable Tripod-foot
+ Usable with tele-converters!
+ Nano coating keeps flare and ghosting to a minimum!
+ Rich accessory kit.

Conclusion - Cons:

- Hotspot - Vignetting is visible on FX at 200mm! (Easily corrected in PS)
- No "Memory Set" or AF buttons like the bigger primes!
- Significant distortion on FX (barrel distortion)
- Close-Focusing Focal Length "Controversy"
- A Flimsy and inefficient Lens Hood
- Plastic filter tread!
- Big price tag!

Jesper Tønning at work with his 70-200mm VRII lens, Image by Geriche Images

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