Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 AF-S Shoot Out–VR I model vs. new VR II version

djc_0994I really didn’t want to like the new Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S ED VR II lens. Sure I knew it’d be a great lens but since I already have the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 AF-S VR and the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM in my bag I wasn’t looking for another $2K lens to add to my wish list. But so that I could pass along a real comparison of the three versions of this popular lens I got a review unit and took all of them out to put them through their paces at the local duck pond. Read on for what I found…


All three versions of the 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses we tested showed great resolution and sharpness which you can see in this image of a construction site and in the previous shoot-out we did with full resolution sample test images.First and foremost these are all great lenses (as is the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM equivalent) and all can capture professional quality images. In my face-off between the Nikon VR I version and the Sigma version I highlighted the major differences between those two as being the $700 savings on the Sigma versus the full M/A auto-focus mode and better weather-proofing on the Nikon. But of course the VR I version of the Nikon has now been replaced by the newer and more expensive VR II version so in this article we’ll focus on what you get in the upgraded Nikon lens.

VR II

From the name of course you can tell you get a better VR system. From my tests and those of others with both lenses it seems like this may be as much as  a stop of improvement (e.g. you can use a shutter speed that is twice as long with approximately the same blur). Whether this makes any real difference to you depends on how you use the lens. If you are purchasing it for action sports at high shutter speeds the VR is far less important than if you expect to use it for landscapes—either hand-held or in windy or unstable conditions on a tripod.

Auto-focus Speed

Even against a mixed and muted background of vegetation the 70-200mm f/2.8 quickly locked onto a pigeon with my D700

More important for me was to see if focus speed had improved. Not that the older version was any slouch. It is a very quick and sharp lens. But AF speed and quality can always be improved. In fairness to Nikon they don’t make any specific claims in their literature on the AF speed but when taking images like this one of a flock of Pigeons taking off the camera almost instantly locked onto one of the birds despite the multi-colored background.

I spent quite a while going back and forth between the two versions doing flight shots of birds against various backgrounds and came to three conclusions. First all the differences are really subtle and maybe even subjective so you’re not going to change your photography overnight by upgrading. Second, the VR II version felt like it focused almost before my finger got done activating the AF. It was really quick—I’d say quicker than the VR I by enough that if you shoot a lot of action you’ll get a few more images. But not earth-shaking. Third, and this one is really subjective, it seems like it let the camera focus on flying birds against low contrast backgrounds (like bushes and threes) a little more precisely than the VR I version. Remember that most of AF accuracy and acquisition is governed by the camera and I shot all these images with the same Nikon D700 to make sure I was only testing the lenses, but it really did feel like I could lock on to more low contrast subjects.

Vignetting

In portrait images like this Ring-billed Gull having a little light fall off (vignetting) in the corners can actually help the drama of the image by focusing the viewer's eye on the subject.

One reason Nikon wanted to update the 70-200 was for full-frame shooters. With the introduction of the D3 (and later the D700, D3S and D3X) photographers realized that the 70-200 had noticeable light falloff when used with full frame (FX) cameras. The two images below show the improvement in the VR II version. The image on the left was taken against a blue sky with the VR I version and the image on the right against the same blue sky just a few minutes earlier with the VR II version.

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In both cases the vignetting can be corrected fairly easily in Photoshop (ideally in Camera Raw) or Lightroom, but of course it is better to get the image as “right” as possible in the camera.

djc_1044Minimum Focusing Distance plus “A/M” Mode

One other “minor” change is the minimum focus distance (MFD). It moves in from 5 feet in the VR I version to 4.6 feet. That doesn’t seem like a lot but for doing close-up portraits it’s amazingly helpful. I spent some time taking pigeon portraits and was able to get them full frame comfortably like in this image in a way I know I would not have been able to with the older version. (The actual lens reported focus distance for this image was 1.45 meters or 4.75 feet, at 155mm, about the closest I could get without losing focus).

So while MFD is one of the most neglected specs for lenses it is also one of the most under-rated. Even a few inch improvement like this one can improve usability. The new version also features an “A/M” focus mode which like the “M/A” mode allows a manual over-ride of the Auto-Focus but is less sensitive so that an accidental bump won’t defeat the auto-focus.

Summary

The best news is that you can’t really go wrong with any of these three 70-200mm f/2.8 “pro” lenses. For sheer value it is hard to beat the $1399 price tag of the Sigma version, especially since it includes both focusing motors and stabilization for that price. And if you own the VR I version of the Nikon then you have nothing to be ashamed of. If you don’t need another stop of VR there and you either shoot with a DX sensor camera or don’t mind a little adjustment to overcome vignetting on your full frame camera there is no reason to rush out and upgrade. But the best news is that Nikon has continued improving on its own lenses with a solid upgrade in the form of the VR II version which addresses the vignetting issues, improves the VR and tweaks the MFD in about the same size and weight as the older version. The only downside is the new higher $2159 price tag.

You can buy either the Sigma version or the Nikon VR II version at competitive prices and with great service from our merchant partner, B&H and help support our free website at the same time:

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