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):
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:
If you are wondering how sharp the image is, here is a 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:
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.
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.
6) Lens Sharpness and Contrast
Photographers choose expensive professional 70-200mm lenses for their excellent sharpness and consistency in sharpness throughout the focal range, at their maximum apertures. The Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II is excellent in that regard – it yields extremely sharp images wide open at f/2.8 and if I stop it down, I only do it to increase depth of field. When Nikon announced the 70-200mm f/4G, the first thing I did was look at the provided MTF charts. As I expected, the MTF charts showed a very positive picture. Here are the published MTF curves from Nikon (click on each image to open a larger version):
Per Nikon, this lens delivers excellent contrast across the full frame (solid red line). Sharpness starts out very good at 70mm and improves even more towards 200mm (solid blue line). There is a little bit of field curvature on the wide end, but it is off the center, so it should not be noticeable. Center, mid-frame and corner performance should all be excellent, especially at 200mm.
While I don’t always trust MTF charts from Nikon (since they are only theoretical), this one is pretty dead on with my lab assessments (see my Imatest results further down below).
So after I looked at the MTF data, I decided to compare it to the MTF data from Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II. Take a look at the following comparison:
At 70mm, the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR yields better contrast from center to corners than the 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, which is very impressive. The Nikon 70-200mm f/4G seems to start off a tad worse in the center sharpness-wise, but yields better corner performance wide open (again, my lab tests confirm this). Now let’s see what happens at 200mm:
We see even a better pattern here – the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR not only has better contrast wide open, but its resolution is also significantly higher throughout the frame, especially in the corners.
What does this all mean? It means shoot the lens at f/4 with confidence at any focal length and only stop down if you need to increase depth of field.
7) Teleconverter Compatibility and Performance
The Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR is compatible with all three of the current Nikon teleconverters: TC-14E II, TC-17E II and TC-20E III. I have received a number of requests from our readers, who asked me to tell about my experience with these teleconverters – which ones work well, which ones don’t. Specifically, most people seem to be interested about how the lens works with the Nikon TC-20E III.
The Nikon TC-14E II has always been my most favorite teleconverter and it is a must-have for any photographer that wants to expand the range of telephoto lenses. The reason why I like this teleconverter so much, is because it almost does not affect the performance of lenses, or their focusing abilities. And the same is true for the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR – the TC-14E II works extremely well, making it a 98-280mm f/5.6 lens. Autofocus speed and accuracy did not drop at all and the lens resolved a lot of detail wide open, making this combo very suitable for any kind of work.
My experience with the TC-17E III was fairly short, because I am not particularly fond of this teleconverter in general. I mounted the TC-17E II on the 70-200mm f/4G VR (equivalent to 119-340mm f/6.7) and tested it out both indoors and outdoors. When shooting outdoors in bright light, the TC-17E II did quite well. AF speed and accuracy were both good and sharpness was fairly close to what I was getting with the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II with the same teleconverter. I expected the lens to suffer like my Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR does when using it with the TC-17E II, but it certainly did better. In less than ideal lighting conditions though (especially indoors), AF speed and accuracy did suffer visibly more, with some loss of contrast.
As you may already know, I am quite pleased with the performance of the Nikon TC-20E III, which I reviewed back in 2011. The TC-20E III turned out to be a much better teleconverter than the old TC-20E II, which only seemed to work well with a couple of high-end super telephoto lenses. It performed surprisingly well with the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, which I reported in my review of the lens. So when testing the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR, I wanted to see how well the TC-20E III would couple with the lens when it comes to sharpness, autofocus speed and accuracy. Unfortunately, because of distance limitations, I was not able to put the setup through my Imatest lab (which I took care of later, so I will reassess the performance of my telephoto lenses later this year), so I had to resort to simpler evaluations. There is quite a bit of loss of contrast with the TC-20E III, similarly to what you would see with other lenses, which is expected. There is also visible loss of sharpness wide open at f/8, which does not seem to improve by much when stopped down to f/11. Autofocus performance and accuracy are also a mixed bag. With the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II + TC-20E III, you can get pretty decent results even in less than ideal lighting conditions, because it is still an f/5.6 lens. Stopping down the lens to f/8 improves sharpness dramatically and it becomes a great combo for wildlife photography. So focusing with older Nikon bodies like D3s and D700 works well with the 70-200mm f/2.8 + TC-20E III combo. However, with the 70-200mm f/4 + TC-20E III mounted on my D3s, the situation was not the same. AF speed and accuracy suffered by a lot and my D3s hunted for focus quite a bit when photographing birds. I stopped after a few tries, because I got frustrated. On my Nikon D800E though, the experience was not as bad, so if you happen to own the latest Nikon DSLRs, you might find this combo usable.
If you are looking for a good wildlife lens + TC combination, I would not recommend the 70-200mm f/4G VR with the TC-20E III. Yes, you can get decent results on the latest Nikon DSLRs, but it is nowhere close to what you can get with the Nikon 300mm f/4D AF-S + TC-14E II. The latter does not have VR, but if you are into birding, you will be shooting at 1/1000 and higher shutter speeds most of the time anyway and you want VR turned off at such high shutter speeds. VR is only useful for slow shutter speeds, when light conditions are poor.
8) Color Rendition
If you have been shooting with Nikon lenses for a while, you might have noticed that Nano coated lenses produce better colors than non-coated lenses. Although Nikon states that Nano Crystal Coat helps reduce ghosting and flare, in my experience it also improves overall colors and contrast as well. Nikon has been exclusively using this coating technology on higher-end lenses and if you compare some of the recent lenses with their older counterparts that do not have it, you will probably notice the difference in color rendition as well. On some lenses, the effect is stronger than on others. For example, I find that the nano-coated Nikon 24-120mm f/4G VR renders superior colors than the older Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 and the new Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR, both of which do not have Nano Crystal Coat. Straight out of the camera, images just look better on the 24-120mm VR. When testing out the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR, I found that it renders colors the same way the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II does, which is excellent. Again, I think it is because both the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II and the 70-200mm f/4G VR have similar lens coating.
9) Vibration Reduction – VR III
When I read about Nikon’s announcement of the new Vibration Reduction III technology in the 70-200mm f/4G VR, I was a little skeptical that it would be in any way better than VR II. While image stabilization technology is certainly effective on any lens, I never quite agreed with Nikon’s bold “4 stop advantage” claims in their VR II. In my experience, 2-3 stops is a more realistic number. So when Nikon announced VR III with “5 stops of advantage”, I wondered if it meant an improvement of 1 stop over the realistic 2-3 stops, or another marketing lie.
Unfortunately, measuring any image stabilization performance is a difficult task. There is no way for me to provide any quantitative data, because it would require a complex setup that involves machines shaking the camera in a certain manner and direction. And trying to do a measurement by hand-holding the lens and reporting on the number of sharp vs blurry shots is never accurate either, because there are too many variables involved.
Having used the lens for a month, I came to a conclusion that the new VR III system is indeed more effective than VR II. I tried shooting at very slow shutter speeds with both the f/2.8 and the f/4 lenses and my hit ratio with the 70-200mm f/4 was better. Again, I won’t be able to provide any numbers here and it is hard to say how much better it is – probably between half a stop to a full stop (depending on the situation) is a good guess. I cannot say that my results came out better just because of the newer VR though. Keep in mind that the 70-200mm f/2.8 is about twice heavier than the f/4 version, so weight could have been the reason for better sharpness in my case. Either way, I really liked how the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR handled vibrations and I felt like it worked better than on my f/2.8G VR II.
When looking at bokeh performance, it is not very useful to only look at a single lens – I personally find side by side comparisons with comparable lenses much more useful. Therefore, I tested all four 70-200mm lenses in similar conditions. The first bokeh comparison shows how the lenses compare in rendering highlights (all shot at f/4 with comparable field of view):
While none of these highlights look as smooth as from portrait primes like Nikon 85mm f/1.4G, it can be clearly seen that some look better than others. In this case, I was rather surprised to see Sigma render highlights so well when compared to Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II – similar edges, but slightly smoother inside the highlight shapes. It certainly does not suffer from the “onion” bokeh many Tamron and Sigma lenses typically have, which is great. If you look at the specifications comparison from the earlier part of the review, you will see that Sigma has the most complex optical formula, with more lens elements and groups than other lenses (including the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II).
The Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Macro also looks good, but my sample had a serious issue when stopping down to f/4 – the aperture was actually smaller, closer to f/5.6. You can see it from the crop above; bokeh highlights look smaller in comparison. I dismounted the lens and tried a few other things and this issue reoccurred every time.
Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR seems to render bokeh highlights the worst in this group. The outer edges look OK with some visible fringing, but the inner part of the circle certainly does suffer from dirtier look. If we look at the less visible highlights, I cannot see that much difference though.
But bokeh is not always just about highlights though, so let’s take a look at how the background is rendered with less visible highlights:
In all honesty, I cannot see any differences worth noting between these lenses – all four produce pretty smooth and pleasing to look at bokeh.
The Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR produces a rather high amount of vignetting wide open at longer focal lengths. It starts out fairly low at 70mm, but the effect quickly increases, with 135mm producing the highest amount of 2.35 stops on average. Stopping down the lens to f/5.6 reduces vignetting quite a bit, but it still stays around the 1 stop mark even at f/11-f/16, as can be seen below:
And here is a a graph that shows the spread of light falloff across the image frame at 135mm, f/4 (worst vignetting levels):
Again, vignetting is relatively easy to fix in Lightroom via the Lens Correction module.
12) Ghosting and Flare
Coated optical glass elements certainly help with handling ghosting and flare on the 70-200mm f/4G VR. Take a look at how it handled direct sun when compared to the rest of the group:
Colors on the building were preserved the best on the 70-200mm f/4G VR, but I still like the way the 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II handled the bright sun in the corner, with less noticeable and better looking ghosting.
The Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR has more noticeable distortion when compared to the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II. It suffers from both barrel and pincushion distortion at short and long focal lengths and pincushion distortion is most pronounced at 200mm. Here are the measured distortion results from Imatest:
In comparison, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II has a lot less barrel distortion and less noticeable pincushion distortion at 200mm:
Gladly, distortion is not a major problem and can be quickly fixed in Photoshop or Lightroom using the Lens Correction filter.
14) Chromatic Aberration
When it comes to lateral chromatic aberration, the lens seems to handle it quite well, even in high-contrast situations. Imatest measured a little more CA at 70mm, 85mm and 105mm compared to 135mm and 200mm focal lengths. Here are the results from my lab measurements:
Longitudinal chromatic aberration / LoCA (which is the effect of color fringing in front of and behind the focused area) is also handled well at large apertures.
15) Lens Sharpness and Contrast
Let’s take a look at how the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G measured in my lab environment at 70mm:
Just like the MTF charts showed, the lens shows excellent performance in the center, with a slight degradation of image quality in the mid-frame and the corners.
The performance of the lens improves at 85mm, especially in the center.
Zoomed in to 105mm, we again see excellent results from the 70-200mm f/4G VR. Corners also increase in resolution at f/8, as can be seen from the above graph.
The lens performs the best at 135mm, where it shows excellent performance across the whole frame.
Lastly at 200mm, we see superb center performance wide open, but at the cost of corner performance. Stopped down however, the lens reaches superb performance across the frame.
Now let’s see how the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR compares to other lenses.