Thursday, April 11, 2013

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


"The quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten." 
                       - Sir Henry Royce Co-founder of Rolls-Royce

That little aphorism has also been attributed to Aldo Gucci, though it was probably Royce who said it first. It's wisdom I live by; I really don't agree with Ken Rockwell's method of writing, but we the same philosophy of "The poor man pays twice." If you save up for quality, you'll be happier and spend less in the end. Do note that in both cases, Royce and Gucci are selling things way beyond the measure of what would be considered basic and necessary, so you mgiht say that there's a vested interest in that sentiment.

Flash forward to the present; the way things are priced nowadays, the companies won't even give you the chance to forget about the price, never mind the quality. (How much did you spend on that new pair of Nikes?) The Nikon 70-200 /f4 only looks inexpensive next to it's f/2.8 big brother. Compared to the expectation that you would have of how a lens of this calibre should be priced, it's a bit on the steep side.

Again, thanks to Broadway Camera.

You could forgive Nikon the price were it not for the kick in the teeth that is the the tripod collar. It really doesn't come with one. You really have to buy it extra. It really does cost $169.99. They really thought this was a good idea.

I don't know why Nikon thought that this would be a good idea, with the possible explanation being that Canon does it. Sometimes, that's the only way that you can explain product decisions made by these two companies, if the other guy does/does not do it, then we will do the same. Duopoly in the truest sense of the word. The inevitable third-party collars will become available, and what's worse, they probably won't be as good as the Nikon for some reason, further justifying the outrageous price. In my view, this is a missed opportunity. There isn't much money to be gained on collar sales when you leave room for somebody else to do it cheaper, so why not price it in a way such that the customer feels like they are getting a little something extra with their purchase. If you ever bought a new car and managed to get the floor mats thrown in for no extra charge, you know what I mean. The dealership made their money somewhere, but at least they didn't insult your intelligence by actually charging you the $200 list price for a set of mats. Instead, Nikon has gone for a different type of automotive pricing, that practised by Porsche and the trio of Germany luxury brands... charge exorbitant prices for extras like the rear window wipers.

This lens is selling for just under $1,400 USD as I write this. This is more than what the hard to find  80-200 f/2.8 AF-S lenses sell for. You get modern optics and VR with the 70-200, but with the hard to find 80-200 AF-S, you get metal construction, and despite being an old lens, you also get optical quality that will keep pace with modern zooms. It's really hard to justify the price of the 70-200, in my opinion, but can you forgive it?

The lens barrel is plastic, but it's a high grade of poly-carbonate that might be mistaken for metal if you weren't paying attention and also didn't notice the lack of heft. It's quite slender compared to the f/2.8 zooms, as was clearly designed for a consumer audience in mind. It's perfect for the D600; mounted on a D7000 or D7100, it feels right at home and balances reasonably well.

Nikon 70-200 f/4 at 70mm and f/4

Generally, this lens seems to be optimized for distance work, so the corners get a little sharper as you zoom out. Note that this is opposite of the lesser 70-300VR, which is best at the wide end and then slowly loses sharpness as you increase focal length. The older 70-300VR is a mighty fine lens for the price, but if you are going the D600 route, the 70-200 f/4 is better matched to the high resolution of the D600's 24mp sensor.

This picture looks like it has a lot of ghosting. It does, it's from the reflections inside the coolers, but it sort of makes it look like it's comnig from the lens.
Nikon 70-200 f/4 at 200mm and f/4


There's plenty of objective testing available on the web. What the numbers mean in real terms is that this lens can be summed up by the word "consistent". Sharpness is fairly consistent across the frame, and over much of the focal length range. In other words, you don't have to be so mindful of keeping it within a sweet spot, pretty much all of the operational range is a sweet spot. That's quite something considering that for much of lens manufacturing history, zooms have always had compromises of some sort... either soft when wide, heavy in distortion, or weaker at one end of the lens over the other, and in the rare cases that they didn't, the compromise was a very high price. With this lens, you really don't notice many flaws in normal use, the most noticeable being barrel distortion at the longer focal lengths.

f/4 and 70mm

More so than outright resolving power, the contrast rendition is quite pleasing on this lens, and the bokeh has a nice quality to it. It's not the creamiest bokeh I've seen, but it's not too bad in terms of fringing. You won't be able to achieve the same degree of background blur that the f/2.8 lens can, but the quality of the blur is still better than lesser priced lenses.


f/4 and 200mm


Alternatives


Sigma AF 70-200mm 2.8 EX DG APO HSM OS: Sells for approximately the same price as the Nikon, but you get f/2.8 instead of f/4.  Throughout the long history of Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 zooms, none have been in the same league as the Nikon's, though the latest seems to be closing the gap. It's weakest at 200mm, and the borders aren't as good as either Nikon for most of the zoom range, but the choice here is between the Nikon 70-200 f/4's better image quality compared to the Sigma's f/2.8. Unless you really want the extra aperture, the Nikon is better, and will retain it's resale value better as well. That said, the Sigma seems to have a slightly softer quality to it's bokeh.

Tamron SP AF 70-200mm 2.8 Di VC : Tamron lenses usually give image quality that is almost as good as Nikon but packaged in a much less expensive body. This is true for this lens, great optics, polycarbonate body and it comes with a built in tripod collar to boot. Image quality on the initial Canon units seem good all around, but this lens isn't critically sharp at 200mm; you'll need to stop down. It's going for $1,500 USD or so right now. Hard to ignore, for the same price as the Nikon f/4 lens, you're getting something that is 80% of the way to the f/2.8 version. If I had to chose between the Nikon 70-200 f/4 and the Tamron.... actually, I still haven't made up my mind. Like the Sigma, the Tamron will also have weaker resale potential, but the real dividing line for me will be focusing ability. If the Tamron is as steady as the Nikon in locking and acquiring focus, then the decision will be that much harder.

Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR I (used): If you can stomach buying a lens like this on the used market, it's probably the best of the bunch. Used copies go for around $1,500 USD, and they tend to fall into two categories, used by pros and kept in closets. The ones that have seen pro use tend to have been used a lot, but the ones bought by advanced-amateurs tend to only see occasional use and sit safely in closets otherwise. That's a common reason for sellers to get rid of one of these lenses; it's a lot of money to tie up in something that doesn't see constant use. Generally very tough, do note that these are complex lenses and you are best having them checked over thoroughly before committing to a purchase. Also note that the first versions of these lenses are better on DX than FX. The second version has better corners on FX, but also focus breathes to a higher degree. It also goes for $2,000ish (maybe less) on the used market, so it's better buying new and getting the warranty along with it.

Conclusion


Without a doubt, the image quality is excellent. It's not going to to blur backgrounds the way that the f/2.8 lens does, nor is it as portable as the 70-300VR, but it offers excellent image quality at a price that's just within jumping distance of what the majority of advanced amateurs would be willing to budget for camera equipment. That's the rub: Nikon could have made this lens a little less good, but at a more affordable price, but instead, are making you reach for it. It's not unlike how the D600 is designed to make DX shooters stretch further with wallet in hand to get to FX; and that is ostensibly the camera that this lens was made for. However, it's just as brilliant on a D7100, if you don't mind that the wide end is longer because of the crop factor. It's difficult to say that this lens offers good value, but it will keep it's resale value if you decide that you'd rather free up the money that you've put into it.. Just don't expect to see many of these on the used market soon, the owners will probably want to keep them for a while.
 

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