Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR Review

« »

2) Lens Handling and Build

Unlike its big and heavy brother, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, which has a weather-sealed construction and solid metal barrel, the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR is designed to be lightweight and portable. Therefore, it does not have the same tough build, which is expected from such a lens. Most of the barrel is made of plastic and both focus and zoom rings are covered with textured rubber, as seen on other recent AF-S Nikkor lenses. This does not, however, mean that the lens feels cheap in any way or that its quality is sub-par. Many of the Nikon professional lenses are also made with a hard plastic shell to make them lighter, so there is no need to worry. In fact, plastic handles extreme temperatures better than metal, because it does not expand and contract like metal does when temperatures change quickly. On top of that, it is much easier to hold a plastic lens in extremely cold temperatures without using gloves. Still, plenty of metal is used in the lens – it has a metal zoom ring (under rubber), metal mount and metal parts are used to hold optical elements. So I do not see why the lens wouldn’t last a lifetime if you handle it well. The zoom ring is easy to rotate from 70 to 200mm and vice versa, with some needed resistance. Overtime, it is normal for this resistance to get weaker – most of my zoom lenses were stiffer at first and got much easier to rotate after several years of use.

Will it live through occasional bumps every once in a while? Most likely. But I do not think it will survive a drop. As I was reviewing this lens, I happened to drop my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II from about two feet on the bare floor. The lens barrel bent and I can no longer mount filters on it, but the lens still works well. I tested it with Imatest and compared the results to previous measurements and I saw no notable differences. I doubt the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR would work the same if it suffered from the same type of abuse. So if you are a working pro and you know that you will be abusing your gear, the 70-200mm f/2.8 will probably be a better option. What about weather sealing? Again, the f/2.8 version will certainly do better in extreme weather conditions – I have used mine in dust, rain and snow and never had any issues. I was only able to test the 70-200mm f/4G VR in light snow and temperatures below zero Celsius and it worked without any problems. However, I do not think I would be comfortable using it in heavy rain. One of our readers reported that his copy started fogging up on a rainy day, so keep this in mind.

Weight-wise, the 70-200mm f/4G VR is a bliss – at 850 grams, it is 50 grams lighter than the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G and almost twice lighter than the f/2.8 VR II. I love my 70-200mm f/2.8G, but after a couple of weddings seasons, I find myself using lighter prime lenses instead. Those that use the lens on a pro body like D4 and shoot all day long will know exactly what I mean. The Nikon 70-200mm f/4G feels much lighter in comparison. It balances nicely on most Nikon DSLRs and feels just right for those long photography assignments. It would also do great as a travel lens, leaving more room in your bag for other essentials and not causing as much pain on your back. For me, weight is always a huge factor to consider, so I suggest that you weigh in your priorities.

Alert Deer

3) Compared to other 70-200mm lenses

Let’s take a look at how the lens compares to the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 and Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Macro that I used in this comparison:

FeatureNikon 70-200mm f/4G VRNikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR IISigma 70-200mm f/2.8Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Macro
Focal Length Range70-200mm70-200mm70-200mm70-200mm
Zoom Ratio2.9x2.9x2.9x2.9x
Maximum Aperturef/4f/2.8f/2.8f/2.8
Minimum Aperturef/32f/22f/22f/32
FormatFX/35mmFX/35mmFX/35mmFX/35mm
Maximum Angle of View (DX-format)22°50′22°50′22°50′22°50′
Minimum Angle of View (DX-format)
Maximum Angle of View (FX-format)34°20′34°20′34°20′34°20′
Minimum Angle of View (FX-format)12°20′12°20′12°20′12°20′
Maximum Reproduction Ratio0.274x0.12x0.125x0.32x
Lens Elements20212218
Lens Groups14161713
Compatible Format(s)FX, DX, 35mm FilmFX, DX, 35mm FilmFX, DX, 35mm FilmFX, DX, 35mm Film
Vibration Reduction / Image StabilizationYesYesYesNo
Image Stabilization5 Stops4 Stops4 StopsN/A
Diaphragm Blades9999
CoatingNano CoatingNano CoatingSML CoatingIS Coating
Low Dispersion Elements3722
AutofocusYesYesYesYes
Silent Focus MotorYesYesYesNo
Internal FocusingYesYesYesYes
Minimum Focus Distance3.28 ft.4.6 ft.4.6 ft.3.1 ft.
Focus ModeAuto, Manual, Auto/ManualAuto, Manual, Auto/ManualAuto, ManualAuto, Manual
Aperture RingNoNoNoNo
Filter Size67mm77mm77mm77mm
Tripod CollarOptionalIncludedIncludedIncluded
Dimensions3.1×7.0 in. (Diameter x Length), 78.0×178.5mm (Diameter x Length)3.4×8.1 in. (Diameter x Length), 87×205.5mm (Diameter x Length)3.4×7.8 in. (Diameter x Length), 86.4×198.1mm (Diameter x Length)3.5×7.6 in. (Diameter x Length), 88.9x193mm (Diameter x Length)
Weight30.0 oz. (850g)54.3 oz. (1540g)50.3 oz. (1430g)40.5 oz. (1150g)
Price$1,399$2,399$1,399$769

As I have already said above, the Tamron 70-200mm Macro lens does not really belong here – it should have been the new Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 SP Di VC USD lens instead. Since the lens was not available for the Nikon F mount at the time of testing, I could only obtain the old Macro version. I certainly have plans to test the new Tamron lens, because it seems to be comparable to the Sigma 70-200mm and a good alternative to the Nikkors.

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR Sample (3)

Let’s go over some of the feature comparisons from the above chart. The Nikon 70-200mm f/4 VR has some similarities with the Tamron 70-200mm in terms of macro capabilities. Both lenses have a minimum aperture of f/32, Nikon’s maximum reproduction ratio of 0.274x is pretty close to Tamron’s 0.32x and the minimum focus distance of 3.28 ft is very close to Tamron’s 3.1 ft. With these specifications, Nikon could have also added the word “Micro” to the name of the lens. So if you like to get close to your subjects, Nikon’s 70-200mm f/4G VR would be much a better choice than the f/2.8 versions. As I was playing with the lens’ macro capabilities, I remembered how painful it was in the past to do product and food photography with the 70-200mm f/2.8, because of its close to 5 foot focus distance. Being able to get over a foot closer with the f/4 without losing any focal length (read more on focus breathing below) is a huge advantage for detail shots.

Except for the Tamron 70-200mm, all other lenses have image stabilization / vibration reduction technology. The new Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR offers the best stabilization technology with up to 5 stops of advantage (on paper, read about my VR experience further down in the review), while both Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 and Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 are at 4 stops. The Tamron also comes short in focus motor performance – it was the loudest, slowest and the least accurate of the bunch.

Filter size of 67mm is a definite disadvantage for the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G – it is the only one in the group that does not have the standard 77mm filter thread. Given the smaller size of the lens barrel, I can understand why Nikon went with a smaller filter, but for many of us that rely on filters, it means buying additional rings to accommodate filters and filter holders. If you happen to use filters a lot, just get a 67mm to 77mm filter adapter and keep it on the lens for convenience.

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR Sample (12)

Size and weight-wise, the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR obviously stands out from the group, followed by Tamron, Sigma and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II. Its weight advantage is a huge reason why I would personally prefer it to the f/2.8 version. Having shot a few weddings with the 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, I know that a lighter alternative would be more than welcome for my neck and back. It is one thing to shoot with a lens for a few hours and another to lug it around all day. The Nikon 70-200mm f/4G is even lighter than the 24-70mm f/2.8G, which makes the f/2.8 version a beast in comparison at almost twice the weight.

Price-wise, the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G is obviously much cheaper than its bigger brother, but it falls in the same range as the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 and the new Tamron 70-200mmm f/2.8 lenses. Hence, many photographers will be looking at both Sigma and Tamron lenses as alternatives. In this review, I will go over the performance characteristics of the Sigma and compare to the Nikkors, as well as the old Tamron, but you will have to wait for my evaluation of the new Tamron 70-200mm (which I am planning to review later this year).

3) Tripod Collar

Nikon RT-1 Tripod Collar

As I have already pointed out in my Nikon 70-200mm f/4 vs f/2.8 comparison, Nikon decided to exclude a tripod collar with the 70-200mm f/4G lens and made it optional. The initial price for the optional RT-1 collar was set to ridiculous $223.95 (a pretty hefty price for a small piece of metal), which got dropped to a little more reasonable $169.95 within a few weeks. You might be wondering whether to get this optional collar or not. In my opinion, Nikon did the right thing by excluding it, because the lens does not need it for most cases – again, it is not much different than using a lens like Nikon 24-70mm. The only case where I recommend the collar, is for people that have lightweight/entry-level DSLRs and need the extra stability (for photographing landscapes, etc). Without a doubt, all entry-level Nikon DSLRs will easily be able to handle the weight of the lens, so that’s not why I recommend it. The main reason is the long length of the lens and the balance of the setup.

When shooting at very low shutter speeds at long focal lengths, the mirror slap of your camera will send vibrations to the lens. And because of the length of the lens, those vibrations might result in softer images. With a tripod collar, the setup gets a little more balanced and the mirror slap effect is greatly reduced. For heavier and higher-end DSLRs like D800 and D4, you do not have to worry about this for a couple of reasons. First, the weight of the camera is probably going to be greater than the weight of the lens. Second, those cameras have advanced exposure delay modes with up to 3 seconds of delay, which can be used in conjunction with the self-timer mode. So you can pretty much completely eliminate camera shake by using these features. Lastly, if you have a high-end camera, you probably have a good and stable tripod system, which is far more important than having the lens collar. No collar will stabilize your setup if you use a cheap and flimsy tripod. See my article on buying a tripod if you need help with picking a solid tripod system for your needs.

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR Sample (14)

Personally, I would not buy the Nikon lens collar, since I heavily rely on the Arca-swiss quick release system. If you want a quality collar, wait until Kirk and RRS collars become available and buy those instead, with a solid Arca-swiss tripod head (if you do not have one).

4) Focus Speed and Accuracy

Autofocus speed of the 70-200mm f/4G VR is excellent, I would say very close to the AF motor on the 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II. I took the lens out to a couple of birding spots around my area and while at first it felt like it was not as quick as my f/2.8, it was fast enough to photograph birds in flight. Here is a photo of a bald eagle in flight, captured from the window of my car (using Nikon D3s):

Bald Eagle in Flight

As for autofocus accuracy, I could not tell any difference in AF accuracy between the 70-200mm f/4G and the 70-200mm f/2.8G – it was equally as good in daylight and low-light conditions. Lola and I did a a model shoot in a studio with flash. I was testing some lights and the room was too bright for what I was doing, so we turned off all the lights and blocked the windows to have the least amount of ambient light in the room. Most lenses, especially variable aperture lenses, suffer in low-light conditions, with focus hunting back and forth when trying to acquire focus on a subject. The Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR did really well in such environment and most of the shots turned out to be in perfect focus. Here is an image sample from the studio shoot:

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR Sample (19)

If you are wondering how sharp the image is, here is a 100% crop:

100% Crop

I also shot a Taekwondo tournament with the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR and it handled extremely fast athletes really well at the largest aperture. Here is an example, shot at 70mm, f/4, ISO 800:

Taekwondo Sparring #3

5) Lens Breathing and Depth of Field

As you may already know, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II was a disappointment for some photographers, because it suffers from a “lens breathing” optical design, where the focal length of the lens varies depending on subject distance. At close distances, the 70-200mm loses quite a bit of the range, which can be a problem for those of us that like to fill the frame with small objects. The Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR does not have this problem – I measured its focal length and it was exactly 70-200mm, no matter how close or far I focused (compared directly to other lenses with similar focal lengths). Its optical formula is similar to that of the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Macro, which also measured about the same. Now why is this important? If you lose some focal length at close distances, it also means that you will have to zoom in closer with the f/2.8 version to get a similar field of view. And as you may already know, longer focal length translates to better subject isolation and smoother bokeh (if the camera to subject distance remains constant). When comparing bokeh on the two lenses, if I focused with the 70-200mm f/4G VR at 116mm at a distance of about 5 feet between the lens and the subject, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II required me to zoom in to 200mm to get a similar field of view! That’s a pretty significant difference in focal length…

If we use a depth of field calculator, we can plug what a 116mm lens at f/2.8 is like compared to a 200mm lens at f/4, both at 5 feet subject distance. The calculator says that the 70-200mm f/2.8 will yield a depth of field of 0.09 feet, while the 70-200mm f/4 will have 0.04 feet, because of massive difference in focal lengths. Hence, at close distances, the 70-200mm f/4G is actually a better lens to use for subject isolation. I know what you will say: “but the field of view is different”. Yes, true, but think about photographing a small subject at close distances. With the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II, you cannot zoom in any further to get the subject to appear bigger – the only thing you can do is add a teleconverter. Whereas with the 70-200mm f/4G VR, you can make the subject appear bigger (and even bigger with a teleconverter) and you have more options for better subject isolation.

Now 5 feet is obviously too close, so let’s do slightly more realistic numbers. When doing my lab tests, I measured that the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II at 200mm is equivalent to the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR at 170mm, both at a distance of 13 feet. If I plug those numbers to the same calculator this time, I end up with 0.29 feet of depth of field for both lenses. What this all means, is that the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G yields shallower depth of field than the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G from the closest focusing distance to about 13 feet, again because of difference in focal lengths. Past 13 feet, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G starts to take over, because the lens breathing effect starts to wear out and the lens recovers most of its focal length. Again, this shows that the 70-200mm f/4G would be much better suited for close-up work than the 70-200mm f/2.8.

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR Sample (20)

What about for portraiture? Obviously, one would not be interested in zooming in to a person’s face more just to get better subject isolation, especially if the subject already filled the frame. In those situations, the lens with a faster aperture still has the advantage in terms of depth of field. So if I were to take both the f/2.8 and f/4 lenses and match the field of view from both lenses, the f/2.8 lens will yield shallower depth of field. This is why I compared all lenses at f/4 when showing bokeh performance below – all lenses had to have a similar field of view with exactly the same aperture for a fair bokeh comparison.

« »