Photography / Hands-on Review

In the Field: Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 G and E Lenses Compared

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Show me a serious DSLR or mirrorless camera shooter and I’ll show you somebody who has a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens tucked away in his or her camera bag. Paired with its wider-angle counterpart, the equally fast 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom is a must-have lens for 35mm shooters, and variations of this optical formula are available from no fewer than seven camera and lens manufacturers.

Nikon’s latest offering to the genre is the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR, a constant f/2.8-aperture zoom that features a number of notable improvements over its very able predecessor, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G E VR II. Compatible with all FX-mount Nikon cameras, the new zoom is equally at home as a 105–300mm equivalent zoom on DX-format Nikon cameras.

Upgrades can be found inside and out.  Six extra-low dispersion (ED) lens elements plus one Fluorite and one High Refractive Index (HRI) element have replaced the 7-ED-element design formula used in Nikon’s previous 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. In addition to Nano Crystal and Super Integrated lens coatings, the front and rear lens elements of the new lens have dust, moisture, and smudge-proof Fluorine coatings.

For maintaining greater exposure accuracy when capturing longer bursts of higher-speed continuous burst rates, the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR sports an all-new specialized electromagnetic aperture mechanism that is compatible with all current and select earlier-generation Nikon cameras.

The older AF-S Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8G E VR II (top), and new AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR (bottom)

Length- and width-wise, Nikon’s new AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR zoom (bottom lens in above photo) measures within a couple of millimeters of its predecessor (top lens). The newer lens is also a tad lighter than its predecessor (3.15 lb versus 3.39 lb) even though it contains more lens elements (22 elements in 18 groups versus 21 elements in 16 groups). The 9 round-bladed aperture and 77mm filter size remain unchanged, with the exception of the aperture diaphragm’s new electronic control.

Though equal in overall size to previous-generation HB-48 lens hoods, the butterfly cuts on the new zooms HB-78 lens hood (included) are shallower compared to earlier-generation hoods, which makes the shade more effective at preventing stray light from striking the front lens element.

If you’re familiar with previous-generation Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 zooms, you’ll quickly note that the zoom and focus rings have been reversed—you now zoom with the forward ring and manually focus the lens using the aft ring. According to Nikon (and, I’m assuming, customer feedback) this is a more natural, intuitive arrangement. Personally I prefer the earlier arrangement, but again, that’s my preference.

For locking focus on the fly, there are 4 focus lock buttons positioned around the circumference of the lens barrel between the zoom and focus rings. These buttons allow you to lock focus on fast-moving subjects by simply pressing a button on the lens barrel as opposed to fumbling around trying to find the AF-lock button on the back of the camera (a plus in my book!)

The new lens has an improved control-switch layout and a set of four focus lock buttons located around the circumference of the central part of the lens barrel

For my money, one of the bigger pluses of Nikon’s new zoom is that it focuses down to 3.61' (0.21x), which is about a foot closer than its predecessor’s 4.6' (0.12x). This is the difference between capturing a comfortable headshot and the ability to focus tighter into your subject’s face. Needless to say, the closer focusing abilities of this lens should make a lot of photographers happy—close focusing is good, regardless of the subject matter.

Along with a Sports and Tripod mode, Nikon claims a 4-stop Vibration Reduction system in the new lens, which is up from 3.5 stops of VR control on the 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. As with its predecessors, the new zoom features weather-sealed, magnesium-alloy construction and the option to manually override the AF system on the fly. In addition, the lens’s redesigned detachable tripod collar now rotates on ball bearings, which makes for smoother and quieter transitioning between vertical and horizontal.

Nikon 70-200 f/2.8E FL ED VR Picture Gallery

Photographs © Allan Weitz, 2017

86mm; f/11
86mm; f/11
92mm; f/11
96mm; f/11
150mm; f/5.6
150mm; f/11
200mm; f/2.8
200mm; f/11
102mm; f/11
200mm; f/2.8

Before I get into the subject of image quality, it’s important to note both the old and new versions of this lens perform extremely well and produce impressively sharp, vibrant photographs. It’s also important to note we didn’t bench-test these lenses—all comments are subjective and based on eyeballing the results at 100%. The new AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR was supplied by Nikon and an older 70-200mm f/2.8G E VR II was ordered, at random, from store stock.

The accompanying photographs were taken with a tripod-mounted Nikon D810 with image stabilization turned off and a 10-second time delay on the shutter to further minimize camera shake. Each scene was photographed with each lens at three apertures (f/2.8, f/5.6, and f/11) and at a variety of focal lengths in a bid to see how the lens performs throughout its focal range.

So which of the two zooms is the better of the two? Stopped down a bit under average lighting conditions you’d be pressed to tell the difference between them. The image files are sharp with excellent contrast, little if any chromatic aberration, and believably rich color. The differences between the two become more noticeable when you zoom into the corners of images captured at f/2.8—the lens’s widest aperture.

When viewed up close at 100%, the edge detail in photographs captured with the newer 70-200mm f/2.8G E VR II at f/2.8 are noticeably better. Once stopped down past f/8 or so, any differences between the two lenses greatly diminish, making the images they produce perceptually indistinguishable from one another, but wide open there’s a notable difference between the two.

Full image area captured with Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR at f/11

Corner detail @ 100% at f/2.8 from old lens (left) and new lens (right)

Corner detail @ 100% at f/5.6 from old lens (left) and new lens (right)
Corner detail @ 100% at f/11 from old lens (left) and new lens (right)

Detail in the central portion of the frames of the old lens (left) and new lens (right) at f/11 are not as drastically different as the differences between the corner details of the old and new versions of Nikon’s flagship 70-200mm zoom lens

Something to keep in mind is that viewing a photographic image from a proper viewing distance in its entirety—regardless of the final image size, is different than eyeballing the picture inches from the monitor at 100%. I’m not poo-pooing the differences in edge detail between these two lenses but, at the end of the day, both of these premium zooms deliver the goods.

So is the new lens worth an additional $700 over the cost of its predecessor? If you tend to shoot wide open and want and/or require edge detail that’s as sharp as the details in the sweetest spot of the middle of the frame, yes… it’s worth it. If the feel of the repositioned zoom and focus rings resonates better with you, or if you like the idea of focus lock buttons at your fingertips, again it might be worth it. If, however, neither of these attributes—nor any of the other upgrades found on the newer zoom tip the scales for you, purchase the older model and pocket the difference. You still have a fine zoom in your bag.

Do you have experience with Nikon or other brand 70–200mm f/2.8 zooms? If so, what are your thoughts about them? Post them in the Comments section, below.

Discussion 21

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So glad Nikon brought back the focus lock buttons. I shoot sports professionally and use that feature a lot. 

I owmed the older 70-200/2.8 VRII zoom for several years, and was more than satisfied with it, but when the new 70-200/4 VR came out, I quickly changed tp the newer version for two main reasons: 1) the old f2.8 lens focussed down to about 1.3 meters, but was by then at that distance only a 70-135 (approx.) lens, so that it was useless as  a long lens at close range. 2) The f4 version weighed only about half that of the f2/8 version, a huge difference when you are photographing events for several hours, and since the  VR on the f4 lens was considerably better I could still photograph in equally low lightinng as with the f2.8 lens (providing of course the subject was still.  2) The f4 lens focussed down to abou1 meter, and was still a 70-200 lens rather than a 70-135 - a huge difference. I understand that the new f2/8E lens does much better at maintaining its true focal length and focusses much closer than the older lens, but the weight (an important factor for a photographer in his mid 70's!) is still pretty much the same as before, so I'll still stick to the f4 lens!

Permission granted... I also have an aversion to heavy gear...

AW

For landscape photographers the Nikon 70-200mm f/4 is a fine alternate: you save a lot of money, some weight and size, and still retains good image quality. Partnered with a Nikon D750 it also is able to use the Nikon tc 1.4 too. 

All points taken.

Thanks Alan!

AW

I have the f2.8/70-200mm Tamron in my bag.  I bought it remanufactured for around $650 4 years ago for basketball.  I takes amazing shots inside a gym.  My camera is a Nikon D7000.  I found that the 70-200mm was not the right lens for a relatively cramped gym so the next year I bought a 28-70mm f2.8, also Tamron remanufactured ($480??).  I use it now for basketball and it has the same excellent performance.  Many of the gyms I shoot in this season have upgraded to LED lighting and that has made a great improvement to my photos.  They are so bright!  I now use the big lens (70-200mm) for my kids' soccer games.  I can cover the whole field with it. I also use both lenses for our annual beach trips to the Outer Banks for North Carolina.  Again, wonderful shots with those two lenses, especially near dusk.   I do not regret buying either lens and I have recommened them to others.  Next I want a 600mm for wildlife.

I had the 70-200mm vr II earlier, sold it in favor of 200mm.2.0 and also purchased the 70-200mm f / 4 instead. Experiencing 70-200mmm f / 4 sharper with much better Vr than 2.8 VRII version. Slightly slower autofocus on the f / 4 version than 2.8 VRII but 200mm 2.0 is clearly the fastest. All lenses are calibrated to my D810

Have not tested the new E version, but could not be happier than what I have now.

I will go for update from VR2 to this.  

If you shoot with Auto Focus frequently, then the older model may be a better configuration. 

I frequently shoot youth sports with Auto Focus - I find it easier to keep one hand on the zoom and update the AF as the subject moves.  Having to reach out further to reach the zoom ring would make it more difficult to keep the lens steady while also getting the shot.

I find that this approach is the best way to get good (in-focus and well-framed) shots of a kid stealing home, driving to the basket, or running up the sideline for a touchdown.  The action is usually too fast for me to manipulate both focus and zoom at the same time.

If you are a consumer-user seeking a zoom that will let you snap great sports shots of your active kids, then the older model may be a better fit as it permits use of the zoom while holding the lens more naturally.

How much better are either of these lenses from the VR I. (which has the focus locks at the end of the barrel)? Is it worth the jump from the I to the latest or hsould I just upgrade to the II

Hey Frank,

Not having compared all three lenses it's not for me to say.

Wish I could give a better answer.

AW

Allan Weitz, this is the most down to earth and to the point, 70-200mm E review I have read. Improved edge sharpness and more important for my use, closer focus, sound like worthwhile improvements - I own the VRii version and sometimes grab the zoom ring while trying to over-ride auto focus, so maybe the new location of the two rings might be helpful.

Thanks for the kudos el and thanks for taking the time to comment.

AW

My 70-200mm Nikor is about a 18 months old.  If I could get someone to buy my lens for $2K, I might be able to justify upgrading. But at present, I don't see any benefit to do so.  Nice lens however....

Thanks for the review - a lot of work was put into it and the photos illustrate the differences.

I still have questions about the new lens, though:

1- How does it do in Chromatic Aberration? (I hate magenta noses and poison green ears.)

2- How does it do with focus breathing (as some zoomlenses positioned at 200mm tend to become more like 130mm in reality when focusing nearby)

3- How does it do with coma and flare in circumstances that would reveal the issue easily.

4- How do you rate the bokeh, compared to the older model or other lenses?

It’s great that the detachable tripod collar now rotates on ball bearings, but would it kill Nikon to provide Arca-Swiss compatibility in these collars?  Who in their right mind is going to thread a tripod into the bottom of this lens every time?  Great news for companies like RRS and Kirk (who make beautiful after-market stuff), but bad news for the consumer.

As a  pro photographer I have long used the 24-70, and 70-200 Zooms - both as favorites.  For hand-held photography on the fly with fast moving subjects, I am keenly interested in the additional stops of the 24-70 alone, but I am not sure the extra 1/2 stop translates to a big advantage on the 70-200.

However, when you factor in the focus lock buttons and the florine elements (lighter weight a definite plus), coupled with the smooth flowing bearing lock collar for tripod mount - now my handheld or tripod photos become much easier to accomplish - and with a sharper, cleaner look.   Hands down winner for both and further proof why I seek to sell most of my lenses within 5 years of purchase to keep pace with improvements.

I own  the old model, that I bought two years ago. I didn't take more than a few hundreds shots with it. I bought it for portrait shots, that I never took, spending near 100% of my time shooting landscapes and BIF  with my 24-120 F4 VR and my Tamron 15-30 F2.8 VR, and my Nikon 50 F1.8 and the Tamron 150-600 F5-6.3. In fact I have now to justify having spent 2300$cdn to a lens that is sitting in a desk drawer. I like to print a lot on an epson 3880.   My shooting cameras are Nikon D750+D500+D7100.

So what's your point?

If you're upset about it gathering dust, you can still obtain a nice chunk of change for that 70-200 on eBay or as a trade-in to B&H's used department.

The intended audience of the article is for people who are ready to either purchase the lens outright and are deciding which one to get, or are contemplating an upgrade. Discussion of the validity or usefulness of the lens itself is a topic for a different forum.

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