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Nikon 70-200 f/4G ED VR AF-S Zoom Lens Review

by Shun Cheung, January 2013 (updated March 2013)


Nikon has a long tradition of high-quality, short to mid telephoto, constant f2.8 AF lenses that are from either 70 or 80mm to 200mm. It began with four different versions of the 80-200mm/f2.8 AF from 1988 and throughout the 1990’s. In the last decade, there has been two versions of the 70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S with vibration reduction (VR). In particular, the current VR II’s quality is legendary. However, what was missing had been a high-quality f4 version with AF-S. While those f2.8 zooms are great, they are expensive as well as big and heavy. After a long wait, finally we have a new 70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR, with what Nikon refers to as 3rd-generation vibration reduction (VR III).

What I like about the new 70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR is that it is indeed much lighter and smaller, although at $1400 with an optional removable tripod collar that costs an extra $200+, it is not exactly inexpensive.

Construction

The 70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR has a solid, metal construction throughout its barrel. The focus ring and zoom ring both rotate smoothly. There are four switches that control AF, focus range limit, and VR. They are all well made and feel solid when you push them. Around the lens mount, there is a rubber gasket that seals out moisture; that is now a standard feature even on consumer Nikkor lenses.


Optical Performance

Nikon’s earlier 70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR II (second version) has set a very high standard for 70-200mm zooms. I own both version 1 and 2 of the f2.8 zoom. While version 1 is a very good lens already, it is well known that at 200mm, it is extremely soft into the corners. When Nikon introduced version 2 in 2009, I was impressed by the further optical improvement. To say the least, the new 70-200mm/f4 is a tough act to follow. While the new lens is also very good, I have to say its high performance is now expected given the high standard set by its bigger brother.

Sharpness

Overall speaking, sharpness is very good throughout its zoom range from 70mm to 200mm, even wide open at f4, but edge sharpness improves when we stop down to f5.6. This new lens is better on its long end than on its wide end.

Distortion

Similar to most zoom lenses, the new 70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR exhibits some barrel distortion on the 70mm (wide) end and some pincushion distortion on the 200mm (long) end. Both are easily correctable in post processing. I would say distortion is not a concern.

Chromatic Aberration

Chromatic aberration is very well controlled. I have captured a lot of high-contrast scenes with this lens, and only very minor chromatic aberration is noticeable. One of my standard tests is capturing an image of a US stop sign under bright sunlight and then checking the amount of “bleeding” from the red area inside the stop sign to the white area. There is no problem at all with the new 70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR.

Vignetting

Since this is a slower maximum f4 lens, vignetting is present mainly wide open at f4. When I captured an uniform-color sky, I can clearly see that the corners are darkened. When I stop down to f5.6, most of the vignetting disappears and it is completely gone by f8.


Focus Breathing?

By definition, a lens’ focal length is measured when it is focused to infinity. However, an aspect of the 70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR II that has been discussed extensively is its “focus breathing” problem. That is, when it is focus to near-by subjects, its effective focal length becomes much shorter. While most lenses have that similar effect, it is especially serious on the f2.8 VR II version. Personally, I never feel that it is such an important issue that warrens so much discussion, but on the internet, small problems tend to get exaggerated. In any case, I am glad to report that this is not an issue on the new 70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR. See my comparison among four 200mm Nikkor lenses, all focused to a clock that was about 7 feet/2 meters away from a D700 mounted to a tripod. The 70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR version 1, 200mm/f4 AF-D macro and the new 70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR all produce similar results, while the f2.8 AF-S VR version 2 clearly covers a lot more subject area, indicating a much shorter effective focal length.


Auto Focus

Since this is an AF-S lens with its own built-in AF motor and its elements are not huge as an f4 lens, auto focus is rather quick and accurate on this lens. However, under dim light indoors or at night, there is still a difference between a lens whose maximum aperture is f2.8 and one that is f4. When it is dark, the 70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR still has superior AF, regardless of whether you actually use that lens wide open at f2.8.

Vibration Reduction (VR)

VR is not a feature I use very often, but Nikon’s third-generation so called “VR III” on this 70-200mm/f4 AF-S is the best I have seen. With the new 70-200mm/f4 set to 200mm, I can routinely get sharp images hand holding down to 1/20 sec on demanding DSLRs such as the D800E, D700, and D7000. The result is truly astonishing. However, at such slow shutter speeds, if there are people or animals inside the image, frequently their motion would cause blur results in the final image. Therefore, at 200mm we still would like to maintain a not-too-slow shutter speed, such as at least 1/50 sec, in most situations.


The RT-1 Tripod Collar

Nikon’s RT-1 removable tripod collar is an optional accessory for the 70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR, and it costs over $200. In the past, Nikon has made some removable tripod collars that do not rotate very smoothly, such as those on the 80-200mm/f2.8 AF-S and 300mm/f4 AF-S. The RT-1 is a clear improvement with much better rotation, although it is still not as smooth as those collars that are permanent (some with a removable foot), such as those on the 70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR, both versions, the 200mm/f4 AF-D macro and the various Nikon super teles such as the 200-400mm/f4 AF-S VR.

The way the RT-1 works is similar to the removable tripod collar on Sigma’s 70-200mm/f2.8 OS, which we reviewed back in 2010. You loosen a knob to rotate the collar and then pull that knob to disengage it to remove the entire collar. On that Sigma lens, I have some concerns that one can accidentally disengage the lens and drop it. Nikon’s design seems to be more secure so that it is very unlikely that one would drop the lens (possibly with the camera body attached) by unintentionally loosen the knob too much.

Some third-party tripod collar and quick-release plate suppliers such as Kirk Enterprise and Really Right Stuff
provide alternative collars.

Teleconverters

The 70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR is compatible with all Nikon TC-nnE teleconverters for AF-I and AF-S lenses. My general experience is that zoom lenses tend not to work well with teleconverters, but one of the few exceptions is the 70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR II. This f4 version works quite well with the 1.4x TC-14E. With either a 1.7x and especially a 2x teleconverter, it becomes a very long and slow 400mm, f8 lens that has a lot of restrictions. On high-pixel DSLRs such as the 36MP D800, diffraction will begin to affect image quality at f8, and if you need to freeze any action, you’ll need to use mid to high ISO even under daylight.

Compared to Nikon’s 70-200mm/f2.8

An obvious comparison is Nikon’s 70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR and VR II. It is well known that version 1 of the 70-200mm/f2.8 is very soft into the corners near 200mm, and that problem does not improve when you stop the lens down. Therefore, version 1 is not a good landscape lens where most people prefer corner-to-corner sharpness. Version 2 (VR II) eliminates that problem but since it is still f2.8, it is a big and heavy lens. f2.8 is great for indoors such as weddings and parties as the faster lens will improve AF speed and accuracy. That version would be my choice for photography under dim light.

The new 70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR is much lighter and smaller. It is great for outdoor work, especially hiking, landscape photography, etc.


Conclusions

The new 70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR is a welcome addition to those of us who have been expecting a more light-weight medium tele zoom from Nikon. Following the footsteps of the legendary 70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR II, this new lens certainly does not disappoint. Both its optics and construction are up to Nikon’s current highest standards. However, the most impressive feature on this news lens is Nikon’s third-generation vibration reduction, which is astonishingly good. I can routinely hand hold this lens at 200mm and down to 1/20 sec or so while still getting very sharp results. Therefore, to some degree a tripod is not necessary in a lot of situations.

The one reservation I have with this lens is the cost. At $1400, it is more expensive than some third-party 70-200mm/f2.8 zooms with image stabilization and a tripod collar included. It is also more expensive than the other two Nikon constant f4 zooms that are wider, namely the 16-35mm/f4 AF-S VR and 24-120mm/f4 AF-S VR. All three lenses are manufactured by Nikon’s factory in Thailand.

Unlike Nikon’s 70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR zooms, the tripod collar on this new f4 version is removable and is an optional accessory at extra cost. It is reasonably well made but its rotation is still not completely smooth. For those of us who demand the best sharpness from a lens, a tripod collar is necessary.

Nikon 70-200mm/f2.8 and f4 Specifications Compared

The specifications compared here are for the current version of the f2.8 AF-S VR II and the new f4. The f4 lens is a lot smaller and lighter.

70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR II 70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR
Maximum/Minimum Aperture f2.8/22 f4/32
Optical Construction (elements/groups) 21/16 20/14
Minimum Focus Distance 4.6 ft/1.4 m 3.28 ft/1 m
ED Elements 7 3
Nano Coating yes yes
Filter Diameter 77mm 67mm
Length 8.1 in/205.5 mm 7.0 in/178.5 mm
Weight 54.3 oz/1540 g 30.0 oz/850 g
Tripod Collar Built in collar with removable foot Optional collar RT-1 from Nikon and other third-party options, completely removable
Lend Hood (included) HB-48 HB-60

Where to Buy

Nikon 70-200 f/4G ED VR AF-S Zoom Lens
Price as low as $1159.00 from 4 retailers
$1159.00
$1396.95
$1349.95
$1396.95

Nikon 70-200 f/4G ED VR AF-S Zoom Lens, (compare prices). From the Nikon website: Compact and lightweight, FX-format compatible telephoto zoom lens covering focal-length range from 70 to 200 mm for superior mobility; Nano Crystal Coat effectively reduces ghost and flare; VR (Vibration Reduction) minimizes camera shake by offering the equivalent of a shutter speed approximately five stops faster; Silent Wave Motor (SWM) realizes quiet AF operation, two focus modes are available — A/M (autofocus with manual override, AF priority) and M (manual focus)…


Text and photos © 2013 Shun Cheung.

Article revised March 2013.

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



Wenhan Xue , February 26, 2013; 08:12 P.M.

The cost is more when considering tripod collar. 

Phil Phillips , February 27, 2013; 12:27 P.M.

Using my D800, I found that the focus tracking with the 1.7x teleconverter to be very good- daylight shooting a rugby match. If you have a Really Right Stuff camera plate and pano outfit a maybe less elegant alternative to the $195 tripod collar is to use the multipurpose rail to balance the lens.

Joseph White , March 03, 2013; 09:56 P.M.

Thank you for the review, very helpful.

One question - is the collar an absolute necessity? It seems like with a weight similar to a 24-70 f2.8, which is not able to use one, that a collar might be useful but not required.

Shun Cheung , March 04, 2013; 08:54 A.M.

Since the tripod collar is an optional accessory, it seems clear Nikon feels that it is not absolutely necessary. As I mentioned, vibration reduction (VR) is extremely good on this lens.

 

However, for those who demand critical sharpness and precise composition, a tripod is still helpful. Back in the early 1990's, Nikon's 80-200mm/f2.8 AF zooms (versions 1 and 2) had push/pull zoom and no tripod collar. One of the most common complaints on internet forums (net.news) back then was the lack of a built-in tripod collar on that lens. Finally Nikon listened and added a tripod collar to the 3rd version, introduced in 1996. Of course, that was before VR was available.

Steve Johnston , March 20, 2013; 08:01 A.M.

Thanks for a very good review.  I have used a tack-sharp AF Nikkor 80-200 ED version I, since 1989 or 90.  I have not "upgraded" to a newer version because it is so good.  I use it on my 800E with great results.  I wish it had a tripod collar though.  Is one made that will fit on it?  Thanks.

David Palmer , July 10, 2013; 01:27 A.M.

I have had this lens for a few months and absolutely love it. Very easy to handhold, VR is astonishing (sharp at 1/20s @200), lovely build quality and ergonomics. I use it with a Nikon TC-14E II with great results, and I would recommend the Kirk tripod collar which is around the same price as Nikon's but much more solid.

Victor Rotaru , January 10, 2014; 07:10 A.M.

In the construction part of the review, you say  that the lens has a solid, metal construction which is not correct. I don't want to criticize but i guess this is misleading for many who wish to buy the lens because they will have quite a surprise .

regards, 
Victor

Shun Cheung , January 10, 2014; 09:06 A.M.

In the construction part of the review, you say  that the lens has a solid, metal construction which is not correct. I don't want to criticize but i guess this is misleading for many who wish to buy the lens because they will have quite a surprise .

regards, 
Victor

Victor, dropping a lens on a hard surface is not part of my lens test routine, but that was exactly what I did to the 70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR test sample last year.

Carelessly, I left my camera backpack half unzipped in my car trunk. When I got to a parking lot, I took the backpack out and put in on my back. The 70-200mm/f4, D300, and D7000 immediately fell out from about 4 feet (over 1 meter) and hit asphalt.

Surprisingly, there is no damage to the D300 at all. The battery popped out from the battery compartment of the D7000 and broke the little latch that holds it inside. Otherwise, both cameras continued to work flawlessly.

There is some scratch and minor damage to the front of the 70-200mm/f4; see the attached image. I immediately used that lens on the D7000 for an hour. I checked AF and the entire zoom range. I also re-tested VR at 200mm, 1/15 sec hand held. I was delighted that the only damage from that 4-foot drop was superficial.

So I can speak from experience, which I sure hope that I won't repeat, that this lens has excellent construction. So do the D300 and D7000 bodies.

Image Attachment: fileoQKlkx.jpg

Victor Rotaru , January 11, 2014; 04:18 A.M.

Thank you for your prompt reply.  I didn't want to imply that it is not a well made lens or that this is not an excellent review. Actually i own it and optically the lens is as good as it gets. I was just referring to the part of the review where you say it's made of metal, which is not. I also owned the Canon version and i can attest that their version, certainly is metal. in any case, Nikon wen't through this plastic road from each lens change from ,,D'' to ,,G'' and in an age where we change cameras every 1-2 years, I can see why.I still have some ..old style'' lenses like the 85mm/1.4D, 135mm DC, 28/1.4D, 14/2.8D and as far as built is concerned, they are in another league. 

Shun Cheung , January 11, 2014; 06:53 A.M.

Victor, unfortunately, since I already have both versions 1 and 2 of the 70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR and added the 80-400mm AF-S VR late last year, I have yet to buy a 70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR myself, so I have no lens to verify at this point. The test sample from Nikon that I managed to damage a bit was returned a long time ago.

 

In these days, it is common to use a metal frame inside high-end cameras and lenses and then add a plastic and rubber shell outside. Even huge lenses such as the 500mm/f4 and 600mm/f4 have sections of their barrels in carbon fiber. In fact, Nikon has used more carbon fiber on the newer versions so that they can be lighter, which is a major plus. Those outer barrels are no longer all metal from end to end. I should have made that clear in my description.

 

I think the new high-end lenses are just as well made as the older ones, but people tend to associate metal and weight with quality. The main vulnerability of these modern zooms is actually the zoom mechanism and the VR mechanism. I was quite concerned that those parts were damaged after the drop, and I am glad that this lens stood up in that one occasion.

 

I am still planning to get the 70-200mm/f4 some time this year once there is some rebate and sell of my older version 1 of the f2.8. When I carry one of those heavy super telephotos, I would much rather have a lighter lens to cover the 70-200 range.


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