Field Test: Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR
In the Spring of 2015, I had the chance to visit Pakistan again. One of the reasons for my visit was to go to the Northern Areas of Pakistan, specifically Hunza. I have been shooting cityscapes mostly so my camera bag is well equipped for the job, thanks to my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 and Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses which cover my needs most of the time.
Landscapes have a similar requirement in terms of focal length, but… mountains, on the other hand, are quite a different species with their own set of requirements for great captures. When you are among the mountains, you will observe a lot of action and drama happening around the peaks. And that is where you need to close in, focus and capture, therefore a wide angle or a standard zoom lens just doesn’t cut it. A range above 70mm is required and having access to a focal range of 200mm is surely a great advantage. I had learnt it the hard way during my trip to Chitral in 2014, where, as a photographer, I missed capturing some great moments because I did not have a telephoto lens.
Fast forward to the Spring of 2015, I was preparing for Hunza and had to buy a telephoto lens. Being a part-time pro and full-time hobbyist, my budget for new gear is always restricted and that can be an amazing thing if you are an optimist. This constraint forced me to clearly and honestly define my own unique set of requirement for a telephoto lens, and to investigate my lens choices thoroughly so I don’t end up wasting money on a lens that did not get the job done. Below were my lens choices:
- Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD
- Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
- Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR
Tamron has stepped up their game in recent years and being a satisfied user of the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD on a Nikon D800, I was very much inclined towards the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD. Another reason was that my friend and fellow photographer Mobeen Mazhar owns one and I have seen the output this lens is capable of, which is superb. Another contender in my list was the highly-praised (and expensive) Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II but my budget didn’t allow me to go for it and I’m happy that I didn’t even try. Finally the newest comer among the three, the lightweight Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR was my third contender and I took a leap of faith with it. I’m glad that I did.
Weight, Handling & Ergonomics
Pro-grade telephoto lenses are almost always cumbersome, heavy and difficult to carry around. The weight becomes a serious issue for those who are on foot for longer durations, especially on hiking and trekking sessions. Just a few years ago, we didn’t have alternative lens choices to address such concerns but thanks to advancement in optical technology and a healthy competition, consumers like us have hope afterall.
When Nikon introduced this lens to the market, it didn’t come with a tripod collar. Many people found this move to be dumb. I myself couldn’t fully understand Nikon’s reason behind doing that. Only when I got my hands on this lens, I realized that it just doesn’t need one. As unrealistic it may sound, believe me, this lens is so light that it just doesn’t seem possible for a 70-200mm telephoto lens of this caliber. Paired with a D800, the lens felt well balanced and using it was a pleasant experience.
Unlike its f/2.8 big brother, this lens has its 840 grams of weight equally distributed which makes it unbelievably comfortable to use with Nikon full-frame bodies including D600/D610, D750 and D800/D810. It’s actually lighter than Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, thanks to its plastic construction. But don’t be fooled when I say plastic. Everything about this lens is top-notch. But considering that it’s not metal construction, don’t expect it to take a beating like its f/2.8 big brother. But if weight and ergonomics are a concern to you, then this lens puts all that to rest and you won’t be missing the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II at all.
Sharpness & Bokeh
Regardless of which camp you belong to, Canon or Nikon, a f/2.8 in 70-200mm flavor is usually considered a benchmark in terms of sharpness and bokeh for a pro-grade zoom lens. But things are definitely changing and we are in the middle of such dramatic transition in technology. One of the great products to have come out which challenges the norm in photography is the affordable and lightweight Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR. This lens will prove its worth against the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II in the sharpness department any day.
The good news doesn’t end there. Unlike its big brother, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, this lens doesn’t exhibit any “lens breathing”. Nikon is notorious for breathing problems in their zoom lenses and the f/2.8 is no exception. Even for a lens as expensive as that, the f/2.8 suffers from serious lens breathing, which is a huge deal breaker for portrait shooters. Lens breathing is a problem that is apparent at long focal lengths. The issue occurs when you refocus a zoom lens to focus on an object that is closer within the frame. The lens seems to breath in or out and the resulting composition (after focussing to an object close to camera) looks zoomed out, so a 200mm lens feels like a 140mm lens. That’s bad news for portrait shooters since portraits look wonderful with a creamy soft bokeh and the effect of perspective compression due to longer focal lengths. But in a lens that has breathing issues, that highly demanded image characteristic is gone.
On the contrary, the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR is free of this problem. And I feel like a lucky person because I got the best of both worlds in a package that is lighter, cheaper and equally competent in most scenarios I shoot.
Contrast & Color Rendition
Like people, a lens has many characteristics which define it. Some of those characteristics is contrast and color. These characteristics affect the look and feel of an image that the lens captures. A brand such as Carl Zeiss is known for its punchy contrast, razor sharp crispness and a rather cool color rendition which makes it ideal for those looking for that surgically clean, purely digital and futuristically punchy and contrasty images, perhaps for architecture, cityscape, commercial and product photography.
Similarly, some lenses produce more film-like images with softer contrast and natural color rendition and the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR is one such lens. It produces images that, to me, have just the right amount of contrast and lovely colors that aren’t excessive in any way. This makes it an all-rounder lens for portraits and landscape work as well.
The Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR is a superb lens for people on a budget, on the move and for the serious photographer who doesn’t want to compromise on image quality.
Focusing performance is a critical characteristic of a lens that should never be overlooked. Gone are the days of manual focusing so unless you are a world war veteran, stick to AF and a good one too. But great AF performance usually comes at a higher price. The Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II performs great in locking focus onto moving objects and it’s fair to expect it from a lens that costs around 2,400 USD.
To my surprise, the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR performed admirably, which I would not be hesitant to say that it was almost as good as its big brother. Focusing was swift, smooth, precise and hassle free which elevated the experience of using this amazing lens.
A 200mm focal length is not adequate for sports or wildlife photography but I still wanted to give it a shot. Well, it doesn’t hurt to be a dreamer. While my visit to Islamabad, I had an opportunity to visit Rawal lake before Sunrise. I was lucky to find some birds enjoying the rising Sun and hunting for breakfast in the lake which seemed like a good chance to test this lens AF performance on small moving objects.
Here are some shots that came out focused.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Handheld AF Performance
Let me remind you that this lens is not made for birding or action. Out of all the shots of the diving birds at Rawal lake, about 50% came out with the birds perfectly focused and the rest were a miss. As I said, I didn’t expect this lens to perform like a 500mm prime but for the money you pay for this lens, it’s an absolute monster.
Under the same lighting conditions, I took some portraits of my friends without giving them a chance to pose and say ‘cheese’.
For any Nikon user looking out for a telephoto lens at this focal range, he should give this lens some serious consideration. Unlike the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD, this lens has a predictable, reliable and quick AF performance and unlike its big brother Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, this lens exhibits no breathing issues which makes it a respectable candidate for portraiture work as well.
One of the best features of this lens is Nikon’s latest and greatest version of VR, rated for up to 5 stops of vibration compensation. Though I haven’t had the chance to test it out fully but from my use of this lens so far, I have been able to consistently get tack sharp shots at 1/50 of a second or slower shutter speeds at 200mm like the one below:
D800, ISO 100, 1/10 sec, f/4 at 200mm handheld
So if you are concerned about losing a stop of light by not getting the f/2.8 version, stop worrying. This lens is amazing at keeping those hand vibrations at bay a lot better than its big brother and even the Tamron f/2.8 offering. Plus it’s manageable weight makes it a pleasant experience to use over longer durations. And last but not least, Nikon has successfully created a lens which is not only affordable and lightweight but is also optically excellent and will serve all Nikon high-end DSLRs and that includes the resolution monster D800/D810. If you are using a Nikon full-frame DSLR, this lens is a match made in heaven. D750 users will have the added advantage of using a higher ISO to compensate for its f/4 aperture without sacrificing image quality.
User Experience Index
In case you haven’t got the time to read through the entire article, here are our scores for performance of this lens in various applications.
Based on my field test and experience working with this lens till today, I highly recommend it for serious hobbyists and professionals using Nikon full-frame DSLRs.