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Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f4 Thomas, January 2013
 

Nikon 70-200mm f4G VR review

The Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/4G ED VR is Nikon's newest addition to the popular range of 70-200mm zooms. But this time it is not a replacement for an older lens but an alternative to the top of the range AF-S 70-200/2.8G ED VR.

Both lenses are compatible with full-frame DSLRs and feature vibration reduction to counteract camera shake. Both additionally have gold rings and constant apertures which classify them as high-end options, but where they differ is their maximum aperture: f4 on this new model compared to f2.8 on the older one.

This difference means the f2.8 version may enjoy a shallower depth of field and a one stop light gathering advantage, but allows the f4 version to come in at a lower price, a considerably lighter weight and even have the potential to deliver better quality. The big question of course is how the 70-200mm f4 performs in practice compared to the premium f2.8 model, so in this review I've compared them both using a D800 to find out.

   
   


Facts from the catalog

As usual I'll have a look at the technical data first. I've rated the features with a [+] (or [++]), when it's better than average or even state of the art, a [0] if it's standard or just average, and [-] if there's a disadvantage. To give you a better insight as to how this lens compares to its bigger brother I've supplied data for the AF-S 70-200/2.8G VR II too, denoted here just as the "f2.8" for short.

   
 
   
   

Size (diam. x length): 78 x 179 mm (3.1 x 7.0 in.) compared to 87 x 206 mm (3.4 x 8.1 in.) for the f2.8. The lens-hood adds another 36mm (to a total length of 215mm). The lens does not change length during zooming or focusing. [+]

Weight: 850 g (30.0 oz.) vs. 1,540 g (3.4 lb.) of the f2.8. The difference of almost 700g is clearly felt and a major benefit over the f2.8. [+]

Optics: 20 elements in 14 groups compared with 21/16 elements/groups for the f2.8. That's standard for modern zooms in this range. And as 14 groups have 28 air/glass-surfaces that produce a lot of opportunities for flares and ghosts Nikon has applied their special Nano Crystal Coat. The cross-section shows three extra-low dispersion elements and there's also one element with a high refractive index. [+]

Closest focus distance/max. magnification: 1.0 m (3.3 ft) / 1:3.6. In my test I was able to go down to almost 1:3.3. This is pretty useful for capturing nature close-up - see one of my images from the gallery. And it also means that the effective focal length shrinks only some 12% when focusing close. [+]

Filter-thread: 67mm = smaller than the usual 77mm of the pro-lenses. Thus filters are cheaper [+]

IS: yes, the new version 3 of Nikon's VR system. Nikon claims it gives you up to 5 stops of stabilization, one stop more than with the previous version 2. [+]

AF: AF-S with SWM (silent wave motor), so it does work on D60/3x00/5x00-bodies, manual-focus override by turning the focus ring [+]

Covers full frame/FX or smaller = very good [+]

Price: already down to 1200 EUR new (incl. 19% VAT), but that's still a lot of money, and the tripod collar RT-1 is an extra. The Sigma AF 70-200mm 2.8 EX DG APO HSM OS is 20% cheaper, the new Tamron SP AF 70-200mm 2.8 Di VC USD 30% more expensive, and the Nikon 70-200/2.8G VR hovers around 1800 EUR street price - and all three come with a tripod collar. But if the new Nikon zoom delivers performance-wise I'd say the price is adequate. [0]

Comes with a cheap flexible lens pouch, the lens-shade is included, reversible for transport, and the lens-caps are standard Nikon's. But there's no tripod collar ring as with the f2.8. That has to be bought separately for an additional 130 EUR. [-]

Distance information is relayed to the camera, so the Nikon body can do all the advanced exposure-related stuff with this lens. But this is true for all alternatives too. [+]

Aperture ring = no, just like all competitors. [0]

Sealing: yes! A rubber grommet at the lens-mount. [+]

The score in the "features-department" is 1[-]/2[0]/10[+]. So this lens checks almost all boxes. The minus-point being the missing tripod collar. But the lens is so lightweight that you can easily mount the combo via the body on a tripod. It's just that this method is more prone to residual shake than mounting the combo through a sturdy tripod collar.

 

Motivation:

A stabilized 2.9x zoom with a focal range of 70-200mm is an excellent complement to a 24-70mm standard zoom on an FX body. The new lens from Nikon is much lighter than the alternatives and thus is much easier to carry around. the one stop smaller aperture is the price you pay for this but that could be compensated for by the next-generation image-stabilizer. And if smaller and lighter means that you have this lens more often with you than a heavier and larger alternative than it's a clear winner.

 

Alternatives:

- Sigma's AF 70-200mm 2.8 EX DG APO HSM OS is the cheapest way (around 950 EUR) to get a stabilized 70-200mm zoom. And it has an f2.8 aperture. I hope to test this lens soon.

- The not yet released Tamron SP AF 70-200mm 2.8 Di VC USD: The cheapest listing of around 1500 EUR certainly is not a real street price yet.

- Nikon's AF-S VR 70-200mm 2.8G ED VR II is the instrument of the pros with a sturdy built and a price to match: currently around 1800 EUR.

 

Testing: Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration

Normally I wouldn't expect much longitudinal CA (loCA, a.k.a. "axial color" or "bokeh CA") with f4.0 lenses. But I tested for it anyway. The Nikon 70-200mm f4.0G does indeed show some loCA. There are magenta coloration on the left and greenish hues on the right to be seen. In that respect it is worse than its larger brother at f2.8. Note: The alternating colorations of the vertical marks on the right are a sign of color-moire only and have nothing to do with loCA.

 
Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0G VR Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration (loCA)
100% crop, 175mm, f4.0, left=closer, right=farther away

 

Sharpness and contrast

Let's have a look at the theoretical performance (MTF-charts) at the wide and the long end first:

 
Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0G VR MTF
at 70mm, f4.0
  at 200mm, f4.0

   

These charts show the lens-performance at the largest aperture f4.0. Higher values are better and the closer the dotted and the continuous lines of each color are together the less astigmatism (= resolution depends on the orientation of the test-pattern) the lens has. The x-axis displays the distance from the optical axis (=center of the sensor) in mm. I'll show you the real-life performance at 4 mm (center), 13 mm (DX-corner), and 20 mm (FX-corner) on a D800.

From the charts the new lens should perform on a very high level regarding overall contrast. Sharpness on the long end looks impressive too with a little astigmatism creeping in beyond the DX image-circle. At the short end the lens should get a little softer towards the DX-corner with strong astigmatism setting in beyond that point. But let's see how this theoretical performance translates into real life results in the sharpness test based on Siemens-stars.

What follows are near-center results (first column) followed by DX-corner results and FX-corner results on a D800. The D800 results from the DX-corner should be a very good approximation for performance on a 16MP DX sensor (like the D7000), because the pixel-pitch of both sensors are the same. But differences in the AA-filter and micro-lens-design of a D800 and a D7000 might yield different end-results.

Processing was done in Lightroom 4.2 from RAW at camera standard settings. Noise-reduction is set to 0, sharpening to 70/0.5/36/10, with no extra tone, color, or saturation-adjustment. White-balance was adjusted to a neutral white and I did some exposure compensation to make the brightness match. CA-removal is ON.

The following are all 100% crops!

Let's have a look at the performance at 70mm first:

Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0G VR
with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0G VR
with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0G VR
with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
70mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
70mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
70mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
         
   
70mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
70mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
70mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
         
   
70mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
70mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
70mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
         
   
70mm, f11, 100 ISO
70mm, f11, 100 ISO
70mm, f11, 100 ISO

These 100% crops directly from a 36MP D800 sensor confirm what we could predict from the MTF chart: very good center performance, only slightly softer DX corner, but astigmatism clearly showing in the corner of a 36MP FX sensor. You need to stop down to f8 to get better FX corners and at f11 diffraction is setting in. Some slight barrel distortions can be seen.

 

Performance at 105mm:

Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0G VR
with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0G VR
with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0G VR
with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
105mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
105mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
105mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
         
   
105mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
105mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
105mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
         
   
105mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
105mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
105mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
         
   
105mm, f11, 100 ISO
105mm, f11, 100 ISO
105mm, f11, 100 ISO

At 105mm the lens shows a similar performance to 70mm, although the astigmatism in the FX-corner is even more pronounced. Distortions are on a pretty low level.

 

Let's move on to 150mm:

Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0G VR
with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0G VR
with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0G VR
with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
150mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
150mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
150mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
         
   
150mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
150mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
150mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
         
   
150mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
150mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
150mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
         
   
150mm, f11, 100 ISO
150mm, f11, 100 ISO
150mm, f11, 100 ISO

At 150mm the FX-corner performs clearly better than at the shorter focal lengths as the effect of astigmatism is greatly reduced. Center and DX corner stay on a very good level. A slight pin-cushion distortion has developed.

 

Performance at 200mm:

Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0G VR
with Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0G VR
with Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0G VR
with Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
200mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
200mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
200mm, f4.0, 100 ISO
         
   
200mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
200mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
200mm, f5.6, 100 ISO
         
   
200mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
200mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
200mm, f8.0, 100 ISO
         
   
200mm, f11, 100 ISO
200mm, f11, 100 ISO
200mm, f11, 100 ISO

At 200mm the performance wide open is very good, even in the FX corner. The pin-cushion distortion is now clearly visible.

 

Performance at large distances

The Siemens-star test-targets are shot at a distance of 40x focal length (i.e. at 4m for 100mm f.l.). But performance of lenses also depends on the shooting distance. Therefore I do another series of test-shots of a landscape dubbed the "Unremarkables" where you can measure distances in km, not meter. Processing was done in Lightroom 4.3 from RAW at Adobe Standard settings. Noise-reduction is set to 0, sharpening to 70/0.5/36/10, with no extra tone, color, or saturation-adjustment. There's no tinkering with vignette-control so you see it here as it is produced by the lens. Focus was acquired at the largest aperture in contrast-based AF and not changed for other apertures.

You can click on each image to access the large original. Please respect our copyright and only use those images for personal use.

The main image shows the complete scene at f4.0 to give you an impression of the angle of view and to judge vignetting. This is followed by one row of 100% crops at different apertures each from the middle and the right (FX-)border. Let's start with 70mm focal length:

Unremarkables at 70mm: Infinity shots with Nikon Nikkor 70-200/4.0G VR on a D800
70mm, f4.0, 200 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
70mm, f4.0, 200 ISO, center
 
70mm, f5.6, 200 ISO, center
  70mm, f8, 200 ISO, center
 
   
70mm, f4.0, 200 ISO, border
 
70mm, f5.6, 200 ISO, border
  70mm, f8, 200 ISO, border

Great performance right away in the center from f4.0 on with a very contrasty and sharp image. Center performance peaks at f5.6 while corner performance remains a bit mushy even at f8.

Unremarkables at 105mm: Infinity shots with Nikon Nikkor 70-200/4.0G VR on a D800
105mm, f4.0, 200 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
105mm, f4.0, 200 ISO, center
 
105mm, f5.6, 200 ISO, center
  105mm, f8, 200 ISO, center
 
   
105mm, f4.0, 200 ISO, border
 
105mm, f5.6, 200 ISO, border
  105mm, f8, 200 ISO, border

At 105mm a similar picture emerges: very good center performance right from the start peaking (again) at f5.6 while the border needs stopping down to f8 to produce good sharpness.

Unremarkables at 150mm: Infinity shots with Nikon Nikkor 70-200/4.0G VR on a D800
150mm, f4.0, 200 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
150mm, f4.0, 200 ISO, center
 
150mm, f5.6, 200 ISO, center
  150mm, f8, 200 ISO, center
 
   
150mm, f4.0, 200 ISO, border
 
150mm, f5.6, 200 ISO, border
  150mm, f8, 200 ISO, border

At 150mm the border becomes considerably sharper and is quite good even at f4.0. Again it can be observed that closing the aperture to f8 (and beyond) starts reducing the excellent center-sharpness by showing the effect of diffraction.

Unremarkables at 200mm: Infinity shots with Nikon Nikkor 70-200/4.0G VR on a D800
200mm, f4.0, 200 ISO; Below: 100% crops from the main image at different apertures
 
   
200mm, f4.0, 200 ISO, center
 
200mm, f5.6, 200 ISO, center
  200mm, f8, 200 ISO, center
 
   
200mm, f4.0, 200 ISO, border
 
200mm, f5.6, 200 ISO, border
  200mm, f8, 200 ISO, border

And finally at 200mm focal length the lens repeats its very good performance at 150mm with even a tad more definition at the borders. Excellent!

All-in-all the performance of this lens is quite impressive across the range of focal lengths albeit the lens seems to be at it's best on the long end. Keep this in mind when you need corner-to-corner sharpness at lengths below 130mm and close the lens to f8 for improved FX-corner performance. Above 130mm the lens performs beautifully even wide open. And f5.6 is all you need to stop down to achieve very good performance even in the corners of the FX frame.

When using the lens on a DX body, you can use it wide open without worrying about a degradation in performance.

Nikon 70-200mm f4.0 sample images

The following images were taken with the Nikon 70-200/4.0 on a D800. Each image was recorded in RAW and converted with Lightroom 4.3 at Camera Standard settings. Noise-reduction is set to 0, sharpening to 70/0.5/36/10, no extra tone, color, or saturation-adjustment was used. You can click on each image to access the large original. Please respect our copyright and only use those images for personal use.

The first shot should give you an impression of the bokeh that this lens can produce wide open. The 50% crops are from the background, the sharpest point, and the foreground in the overall image and demonstrates the rendering of out-of-focus elements.

Flowers: bokeh shot with Nikon Nikkor 70-200/4.0G VR at 180mm f4.0 on a D800
 
Main image and all 50% crops: 180mm, f4.0, 100 ISO

A maximum aperture of f4 is not really the best precondition to produce good bokeh - and it shows. Foreground and background still show lots of detail. On top of that highlights both in the background and foreground have a slight outlining and show the cat's-eye effect. It is better than the nervous bokehs that typical kit-lenses produce but it is surpassed by the bokeh of its bigger brother as is demonstrated in the following comparative shot.

Bokeh comparison with Nikon Nikkor 70-200/2.8G VR at 200mm f2.8 on a D800 (50% crops)
   
200mm, f2.8, 100 ISO
 
200mm, f2.8, 100 ISO
  200mm, f2.8, 100 ISO

The following image shows an old castle wall. It is a good example how the lens resolves the fine structures and cracks at f4.0.

Castle wall: shot with Nikon Nikkor 70-200/4.0G VR at 200mm f4.0 on a D800
 
Main image and all 100% crops: 200mm, f4.0, 100 ISO

Next up there is a bouquet of orchids captured from 2.3m at largest aperture.

Flowers: shot with Nikon Nikkor 70-200/4.0G VR at 165mm f4.0 on a D800
Main image and all 100% crops: 165mm, f4.0, 1/25 sec, 100 ISO
 
   
f4.0, 100 ISO
 
f4.0, 100 ISO
  f4.0, 100 ISO

Using a tele-converter can extend the useful reach of this lens. I tried the Nikon TC-17E II which converts the lens into a 120-340mm f6.7 zoom. All functions like AF-S, VR, and the correct recording of EXIF data are retained. Make sure though that you have a body that can auto-focus at f6.3 or stay with the 1.4x converter which would give you a 100-280mm f5.6 zoom. The following shot demonstrates that the resolution of this lens can even bear an additional 1.7x magnification. Great!

Car: Nikon TC-17E II tele-converter plus Nikon 70-200/4.0G VR at 340mm f6.7 on a D800
Main image and all 100% crops: 340mm, f6.7, 1/250 sec, 200 ISO
 
   
f6.7, 200 ISO
 
f6.7, 200 ISO
  f6.7, 200 ISO

The final sample image gives you an impression of the close-up performance. The image was captured at 200mm focal length and at the minimum focus distance of 1m. Stopped down to f8 it gives you very nice details and still produces a pleasing background blur.

Plant: close-up shot with Nikon Nikkor 70-200/4.0G VR at 200mm f8 on a D800
Main image and all 100% crops: 200mm, f8, 1/10 sec, 100 ISO
 
   
200mm, f8, 100 ISO
 
200mm, f8, 100 ISO
  200mm, f8, 100 ISO

For more examples check out all my high-resolution Nikon 70-200mm f/4.0G VR sample images.

 

Comparison to Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f2.8 VR ii

Before completing a proper shootout between all stabilized 70-200mm zooms available for Nikon mount here's a little teaser to give you an impression of how the new Nikkor performs in comparison to its bigger brother. I'll show only the Siemens-star test-shots at f4.0 but they are a good indicator of relative performance. The first row is always the 70-200/4.0, the second row shows the 70-200/2.8, both at f4.0. All shots are at ISO 100.

Here's the comparison at 70mm:

Comparison at 70mm, f4.0
on Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Comparison at 70mm, f4.0
on Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Comparison at 70mm, f4.0
on Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
70-200/4.0G VR at 70mm, f4.0
70-200/4.0G VR at 70mm, f4.0
70-200/4.0G VR at 70mm, f4.0
         
   
70-200/2.8G VR ii at 70mm, f4.0
70-200/2.8G VR ii at 70mm, f4.0
70-200/2.8G VR ii at 70mm, f4.0

Comparison at 105mm:

Comparison at 105mm, f4.0
on Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Comparison at 105mm, f4.0
on Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Comparison at 105mm, f4.0
on Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
70-200/4.0G VR at 105mm, f4.0
70-200/4.0G VR at 105mm, f4.0
70-200/4.0G VR at 105mm, f4.0
         
   
70-200/2.8G VR ii at 105mm, f4.0
70-200/2.8G VR ii at 105mm, f4.0
70-200/2.8G VR ii at 105mm, f4.0

Comparison at 150mm:

Comparison at 150mm, f4.0
on Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Comparison at 150mm, f4.0
on Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Comparison at 150mm, f4.0
on Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
70-200/4.0G VR at 150mm, f4.0
70-200/4.0G VR at 150mm, f4.0
70-200/4.0G VR at 150mm, f4.0
         
   
70-200/2.8G VR ii at 150mm, f4.0
70-200/2.8G VR ii at 150mm, f4.0
70-200/2.8G VR ii at 150mm, f4.0

Comparison at 200mm:

Comparison at 200mm, f4.0
on Nikon D800
100% crop from center
Comparison at 200mm, f4.0
on Nikon D800
100% crop from DX-corner
Comparison at 200mm, f4.0
on Nikon D800
100% crop from FX-corner
   
70-200/4.0G VR at 200mm, f4.0
70-200/4.0G VR at 200mm, f4.0
70-200/4.0G VR at 200mm, f4.0
         
   
70-200/2.8G VR ii at 200mm, f4.0
70-200/2.8G VR ii at 200mm, f4.0
70-200/2.8G VR ii at 200mm, f4.0

As you can see the new 70-200/4.0 is topped by the 70-200/2.8 in the FX corners at 70mm and 105mm when shooting at f4. At 150mm the 70-200/2.8 seems to have a weak spot and the new lens is slightly better across the sensor. At 200mm both lenses are basically on a par. Again all these comparisons are made at f4, which means the f2.8 model has been closed by one stop.

More complete comparisons including the Unremarkables and Bokeh shots at different apertures will be presented in the up-and-coming 70-200mm shootout.

 

Focus, build quality, and image stabilization

Focus accuracy and repeatability is critical to consistently produce sharp shots. Repeatability (the accuracy of focus on the same subject after repeated focus-acquisition) of this lens is excellent with no outliers over a series of 40 shots. And there is almost no performance variation whether the lens focuses coming from infinity or from minimum focus distance. The lens focuses pretty fast: around 0.6 sec from infinity to 1.4m, which is good value and as fast as its bigger brother.

The focus ring has no slack/play between its movement and the focus-action has a throw of around 135 degrees, which makes accurate focus wide open up to 130mm easy. But at 200mm the focus throw becomes almost too short for precision manual focus. The focus ring is easy to grip and movement is a little stiff as is the zoom-action. But that may become smoother with the time. AF-operation is pretty quiet on the outside, but if you record video with the built-in microphone every focus-movement starts and stops with an audible "clack" and the AF-drive can also be heard in-between - although at a lower level than the noise from its bigger brother. The VR-system is very quiet and no sound is recorded from it. Shaking the lens does produce slight noises.

In general the impression of build quality is that of an upmarket albeit not pro-level lens: A high quality plastic construction combined with a weather sealed metal lens-mount, and nine rounded aperture blades.

To test the effectiveness of the image stabilization I did a series of over 40 test-shots hand-held at 200mm with VR=ON at 1/25 sec and with VR=OFF at 1/200 sec. Rating the sharpness of those images at 100% magnification on a scale from 0...5 the sample of images with VR=ON was skewed towards a better sharpness over the sample with VR=OFF, although the latter sample had the benefit of a 8x faster shutter-speed. So VR on this lens gives you an advantage of more than 3 stops. When re-doing this test at 1/13 sec the sample with VR=ON on average showed less sharp results than the reference-sample. So indeed something between 3 and 4 stops of effective stabilization is possible with the latest VR version 3. These represent the best results I ever saw in testing image stabilization so far. Excellent!

 

Summary and verdict

Now, let me wrap things up in my Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f4G VR verdict.

 
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