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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.
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!)
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
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.
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.