Better and better: AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR lens review
When it comes to camera lenses, fast and accurate matter, but usability is key. Nikon’s new AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR zoom lens is better than its predecessor in both regards. Still, is it worth the investment to upgrade? I’ll highlight a number of features and changes to help you evaluate the improvements and decide whether upgrading lenses makes sense for you.
Even though Nikon didn’t label this lens the VR III, it’s the third generation of the VR 70-200mm lens. At 7.9 inches long and just 50.5 ounces, this new 70-200mm f/2.8 is lighter and slightly more compact than its predecessor (8.1 inches long and 54.3 ounces).
Function buttons have made a comeback on the AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR. While there were several buttons on the original 70-200mm VR, there were none on the 70-200mm VR II. The four function buttons on the new lens can be programmed from your camera’s menu (on select DSLR bodies) or used with any DSLR in one of three modes: AF-L, AF-On, Off. These buttons are a lifesaver when you want to easily access a function or override your focus settings to get a critical shot.
Nikon decreased the minimum focus distance from 4.6 feet to 3.6 feet, which will be a boon for wedding and event photographers, or anyone who just wishes they could get a little closer to their subject.
VR image stabilization continues to be impressive, especially since Nikon has fine-tuned it yet again. Instead of 3.5 stops effective shutter speed, the new 70-200mm f/2.8 boasts four stops. I had no problems shooting handheld at slow shutter speeds. The VR on-off switch has three settings now: Off, Normal, and Sport.
Unlike previous versions of the lens, the AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR lens relies on Nikon’s electromagnetic diaphragm mechanism (the E designation in f/2.8E, not to be confused with the Series E lenses from the 1980s) to control the aperture. This won’t be problematic unless you’re using a DSLR or SLR model released before the Nikon D3 or D300, as older bodies rely on mechanical diaphragm blades.
The AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR lens features 18 lens groups comprising 22 lens elements. There’s one fluorite element (lighter than glass, corrects chromatic aberrations), one high refractive index (HRI) element, six extra-low dispersion glass (ED) elements, and others with nano crystal coating to eliminate internal reflections. The front lens element has a fluorine coating to repel dust, water droplets, and oil.
Both of the predecessors to this lens had effective focal lengths that diverged depending on the focus distance. This has been fixed, and Nikon claims the lens has no focal length changes (aka, focus breathing) across the entire length of the zoom range.
I put the lens through a number of shooting experiences. It was fantastic in both studio and location portrait sessions with natural light and studio strobes. Its performance was amazing with nature and wildlife. Quick focusing and aperture adjustment were much appreciated at a youth T-ball game. I can also confirm that the lens performance shines in a dimly lit church sanctuary.
The focus plane is sharp, even to the edge of the frame. Bokeh on out-of-focus areas of an image is lovely, and there’s minimal vignetting. The VR technology allowed me to shoot handheld at 1/40 second without blur.
Most significantly, the construction of the lens elements practically eliminates unwanted lens flare. I shot a series of test images with the lens at different apertures, panning closer and further from the sun. While I did find some major lens flare, it wasn’t happenstance. Regardless, the image retains a respectable amount of contrast rather than washing out as typically happens with lens flare.
Most of the changes I’ve mentioned are, without question, improvements. But there’s one design change that may prove an issue for some: Nikon has reversed the location of zoom and focus rings. Nikon states it made the change to enhance handling and provide more stable handheld use. Depending on your shooting style, you may be able to adapt to the change seamlessly. But it could cause a timing hitch for a pro using multiple cameras and lenses at an event, as this setup is different from other Nikkor lenses.
The AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR is a fantastic lens with many improvements over previous versions. It performed well in every application I tested. It was more responsive than previous versions, and I appreciated that the function buttons have returned. Just two caveats: the zoom/focus ring swap could be a deal breaker, and this lens is an investment. You’ll need to evaluate it for yourself and see if it’s worth upgrading. Will the improvements add to your bottom line? If so, it’s worth the $2,799.95 price.
Betsy Finn owns Betsy’s Photography, a portrait studio in Michigan.