Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S Focus Speed and Performance
The first optical feature we’ll cover is focusing performance, a critical factor for lenses like this that are meant for sports and wildlife photography. The 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S autofocuses quickly and almost silently, with very impressive accuracy both in the viewfinder and in live view. This is as much due to the camera as the lens, but it’s still great to see the trend continue on the 70-200mm f/2.8. The accuracy is fantastic and even better than a Nikon DSLR in live view (which itself is very accurate).
Because of the large f/2.8 maximum aperture across all focal lengths, the Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 focuses in very dark conditions without any issue. Compared to an f/4 lens, the 70-200mm f/2.8 can autofocus in conditions with half as much ambient light. And compared to an f/5.6 lens, it can autofocus in just a quarter the ambient light.
Focusing speed was fast enough to allow us to photograph birds in flight with minimal issue. The limiting factor to getting sharp wildlife photos with the 70-200mm f/2.8 S was not the lens’s focusing speed, but rather the camera’s focus tracking performance. While Nikon has been steadily improving the hybrid PDAF system on their mirrorless cameras, there’s still a bit to be desired, and it may not be until the upcoming Nikon Z9 that we can see the Z 70-200mm f/2.8’s true potential. For now, though, I have no issues with this lens’s autofocus performance at all.
In terms of manual focus, I’m not a fan of focusing manually with a focus-by-wire system. The Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8’s focusing system depends not just on how far you turn the focusing ring but also how fast. That can make it trickier to pinpoint the right focusing distance compared to a mechanical system. Still, it’s workable, and it’s no different than on most other Nikon Z lenses.
We found no focus breathing on this lens regardless of focal length. This is welcome news considering that one of Nikon’s earlier 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses (the F-mount 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II) had considerable focus breathing issues. However, note that the Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S is not a parfocal lens, meaning that your focus point will change somewhat as you zoom in and out. This can be a potential issue for videographers, although it’s usually a non-issue for photographers, since most of us are in the habit of refocusing the lens upon changing composition or zooming in.
Lastly, the close-focusing capabilities of this lens are about as expected. There’s a maximum magnification of 1:5 when zoomed into 200mm, which jumps to 1:2.5 if you’re using this lens in combination with the Nikon Z TC-2.0× teleconverter. Dedicated macro photographers will surely be better off with the Nikon Z MC 105mm f/2.8 VR S or even the Nikon Z MC 50mm f/2.8, but in a pinch, the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S can get you some decent close-ups.
The Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S has good distortion performance, with almost no distortion at 70mm and steadily increasing pincushion distortion as you zoom in. You can see this in our measurements below:
The distortion at 200mm measures almost 2%, which isn’t terribly high but is noticeable if you’re photographing architecture or some other subject with straight lines. Incidentally, this performance is almost identical to that of the F-mount 70-200mm f/2.8E FL VR, whose distortion graph you can see below:
I almost thought we were using the same graph for a moment! While I don’t consider 2% pincushion distortion to be completely negligible, it’s not very much and is easily correctible in post-processing.
In fact, many photographers will never see this distortion in the first place, no matter their subject. The reason is that Adobe Lightroom (along with Nikon’s own editing software) has a built-in lens profile for the Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 that almost completely removes distortion. Although this profile can be disabled in Lightroom if you’re shooting with a newer Z-series camera like the Nikon Z6 II or Z7 II, it’s something that most photographers will leave enabled by default anyway. On older Nikon Z cameras like the Z6 and Z7, this profile cannot be removed.
The Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S is the single sharpest zoom lens we’ve ever tested at Photography Life. It’s actually one of the sharpest lenses we’ve ever tested, including primes. Here’s how it performs at 70mm:
This is amazing performance right out of the gate. The lens reaches its maximum center performance wide open at f/2.8! The midframe is also near the maximum at f/2.8, and the corners are already very good, too. Stopping down to f/4 gives you maximum overall performance, with excellent sharpness everywhere, including the corners. As with all lenses, performance drops at narrower apertures like f/11 and f/16 due to the unavoidable effect of diffraction.
The story is very similar at 85mm, where central sharpness is highest at f/2.8 and the sharpest aperture overall is f/4. This is very unusual for any lens but especially a zoom. On most lenses, the sharpest aperture in the center is around f/4 to f/8, while the sharpest aperture overall tends to be f/5.6 or f/8.
Once again, we see amazing performance overall. This is actually the sharpest focal length on the Z 70-200mm f/2.8 S in the corners, where its f/5.6 performance is amazingly high – higher than many lenses ever get in the center at any aperture. This is a seriously sharp lens.
This time, corner sharpness wide open has dipped slightly, but it’s hardly bad and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to use it. If you’re concerned (though you shouldn’t be), you’ll be happy to see that it improves a good bit at f/4 and especially f/5.6, at which point it’s extremely sharp.
Lastly, here’s 200mm:
Many telephoto zooms are weakest at their longest focal lengths, and while this is technically true on the Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 S as well – at least in the center and midframe – it doesn’t matter; the lens remains an excellent performer at 200mm. Central sharpness is fantastic throughout the range, except, of course, at f/16 due to diffraction. Corner performance is very good and remains remarkably steady regardless of which aperture you pick. Overall, f/2.8, f/4, and f/5.6 are the best apertures at 200mm, and all of them are practically interchangeable in terms of sharpness.
In terms of other sharpness issues, we found no focus shift or field curvature at any focal length – a very impressive sight. Although most 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses tend to be well corrected overall, this one is just on another level. You’ll see that with more context on the next page of this review, where we compare the Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR’s performance against other lenses that Nikon Z users may be considering.
Related to sharpness is coma, a lens aberration that can make dots of light in the corner of a photo look like smeared X shapes. Coma isn’t usually visible in everyday photography, but for capturing something like the night sky, it can be a factor. The Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 S isn’t directly targeted at photographing the stars, but some photographers will want to use it in combination with a tracking head for deep-sky photos. So, I wanted to put its coma performance to the test.
The images shown below are extreme crops from the top-left corner of the 70-200mm f/2.8 S wide open at both 70mm and 200mm, with pinpoint lights in the distance to exaggerate any coma on the lens. I trimmed the Nikon Z7’s 45-megapixel sensor down to minuscule 870 × 870 pixel crops and didn’t do any resizing (at least, not if you click the graphic below to see it full size):
Even though this is a stress test of the lens’s coma, I can hardly see any at all. There is the smallest hint of coma in the 70mm image and none that my eyes can pick up in the 200mm image. Either way, the levels are so low that you certainly don’t need to worry about coma in the field. If you want to do deep-sky astrophotography or nighttime cityscapes with the 70-200mm f/2.8 S, go for it.
In uncorrected images, the Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 S has fairly low levels of vignetting, although it does depend a bit upon your focus distance and focal length. It’s worst at 200mm and infinity focus, though still not bad. Here’s a full chart of vignetting levels:
The maximum of about 1.6 stops of vignetting is a good result, especially for an f/2.8 lens. At the wider focal lengths of 70mm and 85mm, there is about one stop of vignetting at f/2.8. Stopping down to f/4 cuts vignetting roughly in half, and at f/5.6 and beyond, vignetting is negligible no matter what focal length you use.
This is very good performance overall, although it’s not exactly a surprise. The F-mount 70-200mm f/2.8E FL was already a great performer in this regard, and the Z lens actually has a tad more vignetting by comparison. It’s hardly anything to worry about; most of the time, you wouldn’t need to correct it at all, especially at the wider focal lengths.
However, if you do want to correct the vignetting in post, keep in mind that Adobe Lightroom directly reads information from your in-camera vignetting reduction setting when applying a profile correction to this lens. To get full vignetting corrections automatically, you need to turn the vignetting correction to “High” in your camera menu. This is true even if you’re shooting .NEF files. It’s not a big deal because you can always add or remove vignetting manually, but I recommend turning the in-camera corrections to “Medium” or “High” to minimize your post-production work.
Lateral Chromatic Aberration
There is minimal chromatic aberration on the Z 70-200mm f/2.8 S regardless of focal length or aperture. Here’s the chart:
Anything under about one pixel is almost impossible to notice in real-world images, even with chromatic aberration corrections turned off. The 70-200mm f/2.8 just barely reaches that level at 70mm, and at all other focal lengths it has negligible chromatic aberration.
For comparison, the Nikon F-mount 70-200mm f/2.8E FL maxes out at 1.38 pixels of chromatic aberration, and the Nikon Z 24-200mm f/4-6.3 goes up to 2.63 pixels at the most (and even that is hardly bad compared to many lenses out there). In short, the performance above is one of the lowest CA levels we’ve ever seen on a zoom lens.
Many photographers pick 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses because they’re interested in capturing photos with a shallow depth of field. There’s no doubt that you can get a lot of background blur on this lens, especially at 200mm and f/2.8. But how does that blur look?
I would categorize the bokeh as relatively neutral. It’s softer than I had expected on such a sharp optic, but isn’t silky-smooth like on some lenses out there. There’s also a noticeable “cat’s eye” shape to the bokeh when using this lens, especially at 200mm and f/2.8. You can see that here:
Note that the out-of-focus highlights along the edges and corners are a pointed oval shape (i.e. a “cat’s eye”) rather than being circular. This can occasionally lead to some distracting backgrounds depending on how prominent your out-of-focus highlights are. In the image above, I’m starting to sense a bit of a round/swirly pattern overall, like a much tamer version of a Petzval lens. Some photographers will like this effect – bokeh is subjective – but others will not.
The good news if you don’t like this look is that the effect is not usually so strong. I tried to exaggerate it as much as possible in the image above. More commonly, the background blur gets out of the way of your subject with no obvious swirly pattern, and the background highlights are soft enough not to draw any undue attention.
Sunstars and Flare
Often, telephoto lenses don’t have very good flare performance when including the sun in the frame, largely due to the bigger size of the sun as you zoom in. That’s especially true for complex zooms like the Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S, which has more lens elements (21) than any other Nikon Z lens so far. However, as we’ve covered, this lens also has all of Nikon’s top anti-reflective coatings. Is that enough to break the flare/ghosting trend?
Yes and no. While this lens has good flare performance for its design, you’ll still get some ghosting when pointing this lens at a bright light like the sun. It’s best at 70mm, as you can see here:
While the 200mm performance leaves a bit to be desired:
Side by side against my Nikon Z 24-200mm f/4-6.3 pointing directly at the sun, I actually see a bit less flare on the superzoom. The two lenses are close, though, and both are pretty good.
You’ll want to use a lens hood on the 70-200mm f/2.8 as the sun will occasionally add flare even when it’s out of the frame, especially if it’s just outside the top edge of your composition. The lens hood is the most effective at 70mm but can still help when you’re zoomed in.
As for sunstars, they are basically nonexistent on this lens. Small, bright points of light don’t take on any meaningful “star” pattern with the Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S – not that it’s really a concern with telephoto lenses like this anyway. Sunstars matter more for wide-angles when the sun is more likely to be a small point of light in your image.
The next page of this review dives into the sharpness numbers in more detail, including direct comparisons against other lenses that Nikon Z users may be considering. So, click the menu below to go to “Lens Comparisons”:
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