The Big Test!

5 years, 4 months ago 11

When I got home last night from pro calls in Knoxville, I found a box from the UPS guy!  It was the long awaited new Nikon 70-200 AF-S VR f4 lens (above far right).   I’ve really been interested in the lens because it would complete my f4 series of Nikon’s top zooms of that speed range.   I wanted to wring it out and had a bunch of other lenses I wanted to compare it to.  So I took the following lenses and shot one of my favorite Christmas decorations our on the back deck.


First why do this????!!!  I was not worried about Nikon making a bad lens, and I wasn’t expecting any surprises but I have a personal philosophy that goes like this, Test your cameras and lenses and once you know they  are capable of making well exposed, tack sharp images, with accurate color, you will know when that’s not what you are getting, who is at fault!!!!  If I know my gear is capable, the only thing left to do, is make sure my technique is a good as my gear!!  The way to improve is to set standards and then work hard to meet them.  If you are wondering if it’s the lens or camera, how will you know when you’re getting your act together!?


So I tested the following lenses on a D600, set at ISO 800, and tripod mounted with the VR turned off for those lenses that had VR.  I used a remote release, the wireless Nikon ML-L3.


80-200 AF f 2.8 (the old push pull model from the 90’s)

70-200 f4  Manual Focus ( Last of the great MF push pull zooms from Nikon)

70-300 AF-S VR G f 4.5-5.6  (Current model)

80-200 Manual Focus f4.5 (the classic 1960’s and 70’s lens)

70-150 f3.5 Series E (made famous by the late Galen Rowell.  His Rainbow over the temple shot was made with this lens)

70-210 f4-5.6 AF

50-135 f3.5 Manual Focus

105 f 2.5  Manual Focus (Classic portrait lens from the 70’s)

70-300 AF f4.5-5.6 (older push pull model)

105 Micro Nikkor Manual focus f 2.8 (Set the standard for Micro lenses along with the 55 Micro Nikkor f 2.8)

24-120 AF-S VR G f4 (current and best 24-120 zoom)


This was the target


I could pull samples from each lens and publish them here,  but,  A. On the web you couldn’t see the difference between them (no lens was bad), and B.  You would strain your eyes terribly trying!!!!


Trust me, I just did, so let me tell you how I scored them!  (purely subjective by the way…..)


Best all around:  (Ease of use, overall sharpness, speed of focus, quality of construction, and price, plus effectiveness of VR, if it had it).


1.  The venerable 70-300 AF-S VR G f4.5-5.6.  Slightly less sharp than some of the others, but plenty sharp for almost any use.  Focuses fast, has very good VR ,(not up to the new 70-200 AF-S VR f4 though, it’s simply insane), Current Holiday price of a little under $400. makes it a steal!!!  Compact easy to carry, it’s a winner.


2. The new 70-200 AF-S VR f4  (killer VR, very sharp, almost as good as the sharpest lens tested, very fast focus, very well made, but lost some points on price, but worth it, if you need to shoot handheld and want all the rest!!)  Slightly bigger than the 70-300 AF-S VR.


3.  The 80-200 f 4.5 & 80-200 f4 manual focus classics (the sharpest lenses tested excluding the 105 Micro Nikkor which was our comparison lens.  Cheap (around $150. for mint ones), still readily available, but no VR, no auto focus, slow to work with, but they render superlative results if you are careful and patient, not so hot for action work.)


4.  The 70-210 f4-5.6 AF was the killer bargain of the bunch, still very available for around $120. to $150 bucks and tack sharp (among the three or four sharpest lenses tested!).  Auto focus is slow but it will focus very close and is made very well!  No VR.  If you happen to own Nikon 5T and 6T diopters they work great with it, and the MF 80-200 f4 as well.


The 24-120 was just thrown in to see how well it held up, it did very well, but is slightly less sharp than the sharpest lenses tested, but not enough to keep me from using it all the time!  It is still a very, very sharp lens.  Remember the comparisons were made at 100% crops

The 105 f 2.5 is still one of the best portrait lenses ever made and the 105 Micro Nikkor still will be my 105 Micro lens in the future.  The 50-135 and the 70-150 Series E are both tack sharp, and very useful when you want to carry a small manual focus lens, they held up to their sterling reputations without even sweating.  They also were tested among the upper half of sharpest lenses.  I’m very partial to the 50-135 since I used it to shoot much of my first America From 500 Feet book!  The print show form that book were 24X36 prints!!


Believe it or not the old 80-200 f 2.8 AF (not the new current III) was the weakest of them all.  Why did I not throw in the current 70-200 AF-S VR f 2.8 III?????  I am sure it would have tested right up at the top with the best lenses, but for me, it’s just to big and heavy to carry around. It is still the preferred lens for photojournalists and sports shooters who need fast focus and f 2.8 speed, and VR,  that’s just not me.


The good news is if you have the budget there are some astounding lenses out there to consider, and if you don’t, there are still great used lenses that perform very well too!!  Not getting super sharp telephoto shots??  It’s not the lens!




the pilgrim

11 Responses

  1. Thanks for this test and love the results. I love my 70-300 and I will say that it was one of my go-to lenses on our Red Rock Adventure – I used 3 lenses most of the time: 12-24, 18-105, and 70-300. All my wildlife including those deer were the 70-300. At under $400 I totally agree that it’s an amazing deal.

    • admin says:

      It’s not only a great lens, it just is not that much trouble to pack and use! The best lens is the one you have with you! By-the-way I started your book, “Knowing & Loving the Bible”, it’s terrific, it will be my December study. Please give my best to David, I sure enjoyed getting know him. Exciting times are ahead!

      • Oh that’s a good one Bill – the best lens is the one you have with you. How true is that! There is something in me that does not want to miss the shot. So I’ve got my camera always in the back seat of the car. However, now I’m going to have to start carrying lenses also. So glad you are enjoying Knowing and Loving The Bible. The Lord is at work among us and I love the great adventure of knowing Him. Lots of hills and valleys, but the view is breathtaking. Blessings to you and your family.

        • admin says:

          Same to you and yours, Catherine! I thought inviting you and David to a workshop was a nice gift to you guys, turns out I was giving a gift to myself!!

  2. Glenn says:

    Kinda wish you’d thrown in the more current 28-300 f3.5-5.6 VR in the test. I’m still trying to evaluate it vs. the 24-120 f/4 as my go to landscape lens. I tried a similar test that included my 70-200 f2.8. It stood above the other two, but no conclusive result between the first two.

    • admin says:

      I have used the 28-300 and seen a lot of results from that lens. I think it is a remarkable lens, plenty good enough to be a “go to” lens,. It may not be as legendarily sharp as the best of these, but it sure makes up for it in sheer coveinence! It’s one of those lenses that becomes one of your favorites!

    • pete says:

      Hi Glen just stumbled across this site in the search for a review for the 70-200 f/4 still unavailable in Aus, however depending on your camera if shooting dx i would suggest the 12-24 dx for landscapes, its a killer lens, if you decide to get this it is at its sharpest at 24mm f8 from my experience. If your full frame go a prime 24 or 28, the 24 f2.8d is a little soft in corners but most wont notice and a steal at 350 Hk import, and besides they are lightweight and small. I have the 28 1.8g but haven’t given it enough to recommend as a landscape lens but not a great deal of difference between a 28 and 24 in regards to view angle.

  3. pete says:

    thanks Bill for your review very helpful, however im worried bout the cost of this lens atm. For Australian buyers the 70-200 f/4 sits only 250 aud cheaper than the 70-200 f2.8 that comes with a tripod collar and a known performer if imported. The cheapest i can find is imported from US for roughly 1400 aud which is more like what I expected the lens to be released at. The lens is still yet to arrive in Australia stock but I am assuming an over price of around 2000 aud as the 70-200 f2.8 is a ridiculous 2800 aud here.

  4. john h.collette says:

    excellent article,and very informative.
    john h.collette,corbin,ky…

    • Nikhil says:

      Well, they have the swipe card in valencia and I loved it. Much bteter than this old-school system in Madrid. And I agree with you Mad Man .they needed to do this little by little .buuuuuut still it wouldnb4t have mattered because the people would have still complained (And done nothing, something very b4typical spanishb4). Every country is having itb4s cutbacks but Spain will have to endure a lot it went from a poor country to a rich one based on fake funds .and now they will have to pay. Such is life but itb4s still cheaper than my car in the US.

    • Well done to think of something like that

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