Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
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.
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.
La Jolla Cliffs
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.
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.
Barrel Distortion at 70mm
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Nikon 70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR lens with HB-60 hood and RT-1 removable tripod collar
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.
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.
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.
Nikon's three 70-200mm AF-S VR lenses compared
70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR II
70-200mm/f4 AF-S VR
Optical Construction (elements/groups)
Minimum Focus Distance
4.6 ft/1.4 m
3.28 ft/1 m
8.1 in/205.5 mm
7.0 in/178.5 mm
54.3 oz/1540 g
30.0 oz/850 g
Built in collar with removable foot
Optional collar RT-1 from Nikon and other third-party options, completely removable
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)…