This is an in-depth review of the new professional Nikon AF-S 70-200mm F/2.8G ED VR II lens that was released in July of 2009. The Nikon 70-200mm lens is a professional-grade lens that was introduced by Nikon in early 80’s in a shape of 80-200mm f/2.8 constant aperture lens for professional news, sports, wildlife and portrait photographers. Since then, Nikon has been enhancing and redesigning the lens every 4-5 years, making it faster, sharper and more versatile by enhancing the optics and introducing new features.
The latest generation of the 70-200mm lens is no exception – Nikon completely redesigned the lens, adding more “ED” (Extra-Low Dispersion) optical elements, making this lens sharper than the previous version. Nikon also added the new Nano Crystal Coat to this lens, which is supposed to minimize ghosting and lens flare. Other new features include a brand new “VR II” vibration reduction system, which provides a four stop benefit over non-VR systems and a new “A/M” focus mode for auto-focus priority.
So, compared to the older 70-200mm (which is a superb lens), this lens is supposed to deliver better sharpness and vibration reduction, better resistance to ghosting and flares and less vignetting on full frame bodies (which was a major weakness of the older lens). In this review, I will do my best to provide a thorough analysis of this lens, along with image samples and comparisons against other Nikon lenses.
1) Technical Specifications
- Focal length: 70-200mm
- Maximum aperture: f/2.8
- Minimum aperture: f/22
- Lens construction: 21 elements in 16 groups (with 7 ED and some Nano Crystal Coat-deposited lens elements)
- Picture angle: 34°20’ – 12°20’ (22°50’ – 8° with Nikon DX format)
- Closest focusing distance: 1.4 m/4.6 ft. (throughout entire zoom range)
- No. of diaphragm blades: 9 (rounded)
- Filter/attachment size: 77mm
- Diameter x length (extension from lens mount): Approximately 87 x 205.5 mm/3.4 x 8.1 in.
- Weight: Approximately 1,540 g/3.4 lb.
Detailed specifications for the lens, along with MTF charts and other useful data can be found in our lens database.
2) Lens Handling
Just like its predecessors, the Nikon 70-200mm VR II lens is built like a tank to last a lifetime. It is made of solid metal and can easily withstand tough weather, occasional bumps and is well protected against dust and moisture. The 21 optical elements within the lens, along with the metal body add to the weight – making it 3.4 pounds in total weight, which makes it necessary to hold the lens with one hand, while holding the camera with another. The lens feels solid in hands and the zoom ring is easy to rotate from 70 to 200mm and vice versa. The focus ring is located close to the zoom ring, making it easy to reach it with fingers for manual focus, without having to move the hand to the front of the lens barrel. Compared to the older version of this lens, the zoom ring is a little longer, while the focus ring is a little shorter, which was a smart move by Nikon. After-all, this lens is created for automatic focusing and the focus ring does not get nearly as much use as the zoom ring.
3) Focus Speed and Accuracy
When it comes to speed of focus acquisition, the 70-200mm is one of the best performers in the Nikon line of professional lenses. The lens autofocus system with SWM (Silent Wave Motor) is quiet, while focusing is instant and accurate, even in low light conditions. I recently shot a corporate event with this lens and I was amazed at the speed and accuracy of focus when mounted on an FX sensor. Here is a good example of how the lens focuses in a very dim environment:
As you can see in the picture, the room was poorly lit with candles and very dim light and yet the lens focused fast and dead-on, wide open at f/2.8. Out of approximately 250 pictures that I took that day, only about 5 were slightly out of focus, mainly due to the limited amount of light in the meeting room.
4) Vibration Reduction – VR II
The new vibration reduction system in this lens is truly amazing! I loved my old 70-200mm, but it made me nervous to shoot it below 1/40-1/50th of a second. After I got the new 70-200mm VRII in my hands, I decided to see what I can get with this lens at much lower shutter speeds. Take a look at this shot:
Unbelievable! Tack sharp at 1/13th of a second at f/2.8! Good luck trying the same on the previous 70-200mm! The new vibration reduction system really works and you can get some magical shots with this lens. Wedding photographers will absolutely love this!
Although I no longer have my old 70-200mm lens (I sold it at a higher price than what I paid for it 3 years ago) to compare with, I feel that the bokeh actually looks better on this lens than on its predecessor. I went through some of my archived images and I can say that the bokeh on the previous 70-200mm does look a little harsher, although I rarely shot the older lens wide open, due to softness at very large apertures between f/2.8 and f/4.
Anyway, I still had to do a bokeh test of this lens against the Nikon cream machine and the king of bokeh – Nikon 85mm f/1.4. Take a look at these image samples:
As you can see, the bokeh on the new 70-200mm VR II is very comparable to the bokeh of 85mm f/1.4 – it is very smooth and “creamy”.
Vignetting has been reduced at lower focal lengths, but at 200mm it is still quite noticeable when shot against a plain bright background. Nothing to worry about though, as it can be taken care of via post-processing software like Lightroom with a single click. Here are some test shots that reveal vignetting at different focal lengths and apertures:
As you can see, stopping down the lens to f/5.6 and smaller almost completely gets rid of vignetting.
7) Chromatic Aberration
When it comes to chromatic aberration (CA), the lens has very little lateral CA from 70 to 85mm. As you zoom in, lateral CA definitely increases, with 200mm showing the highest levels at the maximum aperture. Unfortunately, stopping down does not do much to reduce chromatic aberration. Take a look at the below chart by Imatest:
The good news is that you can typically address lateral chromatic aberration issues in post-processing software pretty easily. The levels are not extreme to the point that you would have to do anything special – just enabling the lens correction module in Lightroom will take care of the problem immediately.
Distortion is controlled quite well on the lens, with the shorter focal lengths having practically no visible distortion. As you zoom in towards 105mm and longer, there is a bit of barrel distortion, with the strongest effect at 200mm. If you happen to use the lens for architectural work and for photographing textures and patterns, you can take care of the problem in Photoshop or Lightroom very easily by using Lens Corrections.
9) Ghosting and Flare
I have used the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II in many environments, including bright sun shining directly at the front element of the lens. While telephoto lenses are not designed to handle ghosting and flare well, Nikon’s Nano Coat definitely makes a huge difference when handling bright sources of light. In many cases, you will be able to photograph without any visible flares in your images, but it all depends on the location, the angle of the light source, whether you have a filter attached and whether the front element of the lens is clean or not. If you use a cheap filter or your front lens element is dirty, expect to see pretty visible ghosts and flares in your images. So if you plan on shooting against the sun, make sure to remove filters and clean that front element! If you don’t have a filter and your front lens is clean, then just pay attention to the location of the source of light in your frame – sometimes even moving the source of light in the frame by just a little will help significantly reduce ghosting and flare in your images. As always, make sure to keep that lens hood attached, as it helps a lot when shooting with the sun overhead!
10) Tripod Support
I rarely use this lens on a tripod, but if you need to mount it on a tripod for whatever reason, the tripod mount is very stable and sturdy, just like on its predecessor. Since nothing changed on the tripod mount and the leg is the same as on the previous model, I was able to re-attach my RRS “L-10 Lens Plate” on the lens leg and it worked perfectly! When mounted on a tripod, don’t forget to turn “VR” off.
11) Focus Breathing / Increased Field of View
The new Nikon 70-200mm VR II has a larger FoV (Field of View or Angle of View) compared to the older version at close focus distances. Some people refer to this phenomenon as “focus breathing”. I spotted the difference while doing a comparison of this lens against the Nikon 300mm f/4.0 AF-S. With a 1.7x teleconverter mounted on the lens, I could not produce a similar field of view at 300mm when standing very close to the subject – the lens was far off. Even at 340mm (200mm x 1.7x TC) the lens was shorter than what Nikon 300mm was giving me, which is not good news for those who want to use this lens for close telephoto work. When I did a similar comparison with my older 70-200mm, I didn’t have that big of a difference, so there is definitely a loss in magnification at both short and long focal lengths when in close focus. If you stand further away (13-15+ feet) from the subject with focus near infinity, the field of view issue goes away and the focal length returns back to normal. This happens due to focus “breathing”, an effect when focal length changes with the change in focus distance.
So, how pronounced is this difference, especially on the long end at 200mm? At the closest focus distance (4.6 feet) @ 200mm, the lens is like a 120mm lens. As you move about 10 feet 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. Does this present a problem? For most people it doesn’t. For those that like to get close to smaller subjects, it sure does. At longer distances and when focused close to infinity, the new and the older lens have almost exactly the same field of view (near 200mm).
12) Lens Sharpness and Contrast
As expected from a high-end professional lens, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II does not disappoint when it comes to sharpness. When compared to the previous generation Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR, it is not only sharper in the center, but also significantly superior in the mid-frame and the extreme corners. This lens performs so well at f/2.8, that you wouldn’t want to shoot it at larger apertures, unless you need to increase depth of field or improve corner sharpness. In fact, once I saw how good the shots were coming out at f/2.8, I just kept shooting wide open and really loving the results! Best of all, the lens has consistent sharpness across the board, from 70mm all the way to 200mm. Color and contrast have also been improved over the previous 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR, thanks to better coating and superior optical design.
Here is how the lens measured with Imatest software at different focal lengths:
As you can see, the lens starts out very sharp at maximum aperture at the shortest focal lengths and its performance diminishes towards 200mm, particularly in the corners. Stopping down visibly improves sharpness, especially at f/5.6 where the lens shows the best overall performance.
13) Use with Teleconverters
The lens works incredibly well with the Nikon 1.4x teleconverter at all apertures, even wide open. Although sharpness is definitely impacted (as expected with any teleconverter), you will not notice visible drop in sharpness in your images. If the corners look a bit fuzzy, just stop the lens down to f/5.6 and smaller, and they will improve dramatically. I have tested both the TC-14E II and TC-14E III with the 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II and both teleconverters performed admirably. When measuring the performance of the teleconverters in Imatest, I did not notice any drastic sharpness differences in the center of the frame, but the TC-14E III did show slight advantages in the extreme corners. If you already own the TC-14E II, there is no need in my opinion to upgrade to the TC-14E III for use with this lens. The TC-14E III performs a tad better with the latest generation Nikkor prime lenses, as it is specifically designed for them.
The lens also performs surprisingly well with Nikon TC-17E II (1.7x TC), which is known to only couple well with a select few high-end Nikon primes. Take a look at the below image of the bird that I captured using this combo:
And here is a 100% crop of the above image to show its pixel-level performance:
The previous generation 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR was nowhere close in comparison with the 1.7x TC. On the first generation 70-200mm VR, the lens would have a hard time acquiring focus with a 1.7x TC in anything but ideal light. This lens focused marginally better in a similar environment with the same teleconverter. Again, stopping down improves sharpness quite a bit, especially towards the edges of the frame.
The Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II does a pretty decent job with the TC-20E III (2x TC), which is something I personally did not expect, as doubling the focal length of the lens rarely ever results in usable images. I have previously tried the TC-20E II with this lens and after taking a few sample shots, I took it off immediately. However, the newer TC-20E III is a whole different animal – it performs much better compared to its predecessor. Although wide open performance at f/5.6 is too soft for my taste, stopping down the lens to f/8 yields pretty decent sharpness and autofocus is quite usable with the latest generation Nikon DSLR cameras. So if you are looking for a versatile setup capable of reaching up to 400mm of focal length, the 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II is a great choice. However, keep in mind that prime lenses will always outperform this lens coupled with teleconverters, so if you are wondering if the 70-200mm with the 1.7x or 2x teleconverter would be comparable to a 300mm or a 400mm prime, the answer is a definite “no”, especially at maximum aperture.
The Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II is clearly a better lens than its predecessor. As can be seen from the test data and image samples in this review, the overall performance of the lens is outstanding and the Vibration Reduction II system clearly helps in getting shake-free images at low shutter speeds. Nikon did a great job in addressing the problems with vignetting on full-frame bodies and Nano Coating definitely helps minimize ghosting and flare issues the older lens suffered from. The only two drawbacks that I can think of are high price tag and decreased magnification. The decreased magnification might not be good news for those who need the reach at closer distances.
However, having used the lens for many years, including in weddings, I have never really felt the need for more reach, so the focus breathing issue did not turn out to be as big of a problem. It has been a very reliable lens and if you factor in the superb build quality and the weather sealing properties of the lens, it is going to be a worthy investment, as it will serve you well for many years to come.
15) Where to Buy
The lens is usually available at all big retail stores. If you would like to support our efforts, you can buy your copy at B&H Photo Video.
16) More Image Samples
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II
- Optical Performance
- Bokeh Quality
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Stabilization
- Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating