Review: Nikon 200mm f/2 VRII

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I try not to fetishize gear. When you shoot as much as I do, everything loses its luster quickly—figuratively and literally. Cameras, lenses and lights are just the sum of their capabilities, and all that matters is how they'll help you achieve different visions. But my heart still skipped a beat when the updated version of Nikon's 200mm f/2 lens showed up on my doorstep.




That Glass

Here it is next to the first and second versions of the 70-200. You can see it's even slightly shorter, but much fatter:

110628 172412 85mm f2
If this lens had a slogan, it would be "To Infinity and Beyond!" I was dumbfounded when this lens was announced—I'd used the 2004-edition 200mm f/2 VR for assignments, and it was hard to see room for improvement. Just about optically perfect; sharp as a tack and with smooth bokeh highlighting the incredible depth-of-field isolation, and lightning-fast autofocus, it had the ability to turn a possibly mundane moment like a doctoral student watching an interminable graduation speech into something special:

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Of course, Nikon had the same idea. The new lens is almost identical to the older one, with a few improvements:
•Nano-crystal coat, which helps reduce ghosting and flare
•The updated VRII vibration-reduction system, which I've definitely seen as an improvement over VRI in telephoto lenses,
•The A/M focusing mode, which keeps you from moving the razor-thin depth-of-field if you accidentally move the focusing ring.

Is it an absolutely astonishing lens? Yes, no surprise there, but it comes at a price—close to $6,000. The real question is whether it is worth $900 more than the last-generation 200mm f/2, or $3,500 more than the 70-200mm f/2.8, which loses you an f-stop of speed but is much lighter and more versatile.

There is a saying by ancient Greek poet Archilochus: "The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing." The 70-200 is a fox; the 200mm f/2 is a hedgehog. It does one thing better than any other lens in the Nikon system -- capture and stop motion in the telephoto range. Nikon's next-longest faster-than-f/2.8 lens is the 135mm f/2, which is in a whole other ballpark of autofocus speed. (Nikon did once make a 300mm f/2 in extremely limited quantities, but it was manual-focus and you had to have great luck getting one.) In fact, even the speedy 70-200 is completely outclassed in the autofocus category.

In case you don't want to take my word for it, I've made two boring-but-instructive videos with my iPhone. With each lens, I pointed first at a blank wall (zero contrast) to show how fast the lens could rack to infinity focus and back. And then I pointed it downward to where there was slight contrast to show focus lock.

The 70-200 does a very good job, but the 200 shows the kind of power Nikon puts in its exotic telephotos (even if I missed the contrast mark the first time—aiming with my knees is a new skill).

Again, lenses are just collections of their capabilities, and the major capabilities of this lens—incredible optics, extreme light sensitivity, telephoto reach, insane autofocus—add up to a powerful, precise tool for indoor sports. With cameras like the Nikon D3s and their incredible ISO range, we have a lot more ability to stop motion in poor light than we used to, but sports shooters can tell you that there can be a huge difference between being able to get 1/500th of a second versus 1/250th, which is the extra range f/2 gives you versus f/2.8.

In Use

Also indoor sports tend to have smaller fields of play that allow a 200mm lens to shine—you'd need a 500mm or a 600mm to get a baseball pitcher from the dugout, for instance. I don't shoot sports very often, but I have connections to the Trapeze School of New York and took some photos of their indoor class. Nothing tests autofocus tracking like a human body flying right at you much faster than someone could run or skate, and I needed very fast shutter speeds to keep everything sharp—1/1250th of a second. Even though it was indoors, the 200mm allowed me to shoot this at ISO 4000. Even with a D3, you would see a quality difference on larger prints if I had to use ISO 8000 instead, and the lens performed like a champ:

110619 193448 200mm f2C
But how useful is this lens for the rest of us who don't shoot sports in bad lighting all the time?

If you're just capturing people in their daily lives, you can work with much slower shutter speeds, and the versatility of a zoom can come in handy, particularly in the telephoto range. I adore prime lenses—the 70-200 is the only zoom I regularly use—so I like to "zoom with my feet" as much as anyone.

But telephoto lenses magnify everything, including perspective. If you're working in close with a 24mm lens, zooming with your feet might just mean leaning in a little closer. But with a 200mm, to get the right shot in a changing environment you might suddenly need to backpedal about 20 feet, which usually isn't practical. So even though I had this amazing, expensive lens, it usually stayed in the bag on wedding days, only coming out when I shot in a cathedral where I was allowed to roam around. It was perfect for that situation, since I needed the length but could do that 20-foot backpedal when I wanted to. This silhouette also shows the lack of ghosting despite a hard backlight:

110612 140550 200mm f2
I found the lens a lot more useful for portraits, which allow you to plan your position ahead of time. The 200mm f/2 is basically an eye-candy-maker. By that, I mean that everything that is shot with this lens looks amazing. It takes any situation and renders it as one thing in perfect, sharp focus, and the background into creamy, impressionistic goodness. Again, it's good at one thing, but so good at it.

110607 213936 200mm f2
The fast aperture even allows for noticeable depth-of-field blur when the subjects are farther away, like so:

110607 195719 200mm f2
But there is one last elephant in the room: The lens is heavy. Sure, it's not 400mm f/2.8-class heavy, but alone it takes up about as much space and weight in my bag as the 70-200 PLUS the D3s. Also, most of the weight is in the large front element, so the balance makes it feel heavier. I'm a young(ish), fit guy, but I'd rather not carry this around with me all day on a 14-hour shoot. And the size can be intimidating to subjects, although if you play it right they can also get excited. I'd tell them "OK, now I'm going to use my Big Scary Lens…" and they had fun with it.

110602 150921 200mm f2A
Should you buy it? It makes sense to compare it to the alternatives.

Versus the 70-200mm

For at least 90 percent of users, the 70-200 makes more sense. It's less than half the cost, it's more versatile, and it won't kill your shooting arm nearly as quickly. It's also sharp as heck. But there's no question that the 200mm f/2 does a better job at its focal length. It doesn't have the vignetting or corner softness issues of the first-generation 70-200, and it doesn't display the focus-breathing lack of magnification that the newer 70-200 shows at closer focusing distances.

Here is a comparison of the two lenses shooting from the same distance. On top is the 200mm shooting at f/2, and on the bottom is the 70-200 shooting at f/2.8. The magnification difference is obvious, and you can also see what the extra stop gets you for depth-of-field control:

110628 171714 200mm f2 8
So the question for you is: Jack of all trades or master of one? Fox or hedgehog?

Versus the 200mm f/2 version 1

This is a tougher one. I never had a single complaint about the optics of the older 200mm, nor have any other users I've ever met. So how do you top perfection? The biggest practical differences will be whether the A/M focusing mode solves problems for you (that is a big focusing ring after all, so it could be nice to disable it when you want), and whether you need the better Vibration Reduction. In most cases the people this lens was really built for—indoor sports shooters—won't care so much about that. You don't need VR at all at 1/1250th of a second. So maybe the best thing about the new lens is that you can pick up the old one for $5,000 and tell yourself you're getting a deal. But on the other hand, if you're spending that much money, you're likely the kind of person that doesn't want any compromises. If you're buying a new Porsche, you'll probably get the seat warmers. Maybe the better VR won't make a difference in most of your shots, but what about the times that it does? The photo below was taken at 1/13th of a second, ISO 6400. Technically, it ran right up against the limits of the lens's capabilities, and neither the 70-200mm or the older 200mm would have handled it as easily.

110607 205841 200mm f2
If a heavy, powerful lens in this range is right for you, it's very hard to go wrong with either the older or newer model, but the decision in the end is between you, your back muscles, and your pocketbook. Of course, there is also no shame in using a $6,000 lens for cat pictures:

110601 195620 200mm f2 2

You can read more from Ryan Brenizer at his blog and peruse his work at his website.