Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR ii Lens (In-Depth Review)

What You Need to Know

The Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 vr ii lens is my most used lens.  If I’m shooting portraits, I have the 70-200 on my camera or with me for the shoot.  It has a fast aperture for low light and blurry backgrounds, and the focal range of 70 all the way out to 200 is extremely versatile.

The Nikon 70-200 is almost always rated the best 70-200 on the market (even better than the Canon), but new competitors such as the Tamron 70-200 are far less expensive and offer 99% of the quality.

The question of whether to choose this lens is not so much a matter of if you want it or not.  Trust me, you want this.  The question is if you’re willing to pay the premium for this lens when the Tamron is so close to the exact same thing for a lot less money.

The only real negatives to this lens (other than the price which I’ve mentioned) are the weight of the lens and also the fact that creative sun flare has never looked real great on this lens in my experience, which is relevant if you like shooting natural light portraits.  Also, I find myself wishing it had a better close focus distance (1.4 meters – 4.6 feet).  It’s an improvement over the older version of this lens, but I still wish it were shorter.

Who Should Buy this lens: Professional photographers who are willing to pay a premium for the ultimate lens.  While this lens is most popular among portrait photographers, it is also an excellent choice for indoor sports photographers because of the fast aperture and snappy focus.

Image Quality

Sharpness: This lens is probably the sharpest telephoto zoom on the market from any lens manufacturer.  It is the gold standard.  Though it is not perfect, it’s rather incredible to see this level of sharpness from a fast zoom.  When you buy a prime lens with an average maximum f-stop, you expect sharpness; but on a lens such as this, getting perfectly sharp images throughout the range is a tremendous feat of engineering.

I tested this lens at 200mm to find where the sweet spot in the aperture is, and found the sharpest result at f/7.1, but even wide open it performs extremely well.  Oh, and nevermind the fact that the newspaper in the test below is upside down.  It gives the test character.

Sweet spot test at 200mm.

100% Crop sweet spot test at 200mm

Vignetting: Personally, I have never found vignetting (darkening around the edges of the frame) to be an issue in the least, but Ken Rockwell’s test revealed some vignetting when zoomed in to 200mm.

Color: On par with other lenses of similar quality.  No negatives to mention.

Contrast: On par with other lenses of similar quality.  No negatives to mention.

Chromatic aberration: I have never seen any significant chromatic aberration on this lens.  This is thanks to the 7 Extra-Low Dispersion Glass elements in the lens.

Flare: This one is tough to explain.  This lens is quite resistant to lens flare in general, but sometimes I find myself wanting to shoot portraits with a little creative sun flare behind the model.  The lens resists a little sun flare, but if there is a lot of light pouring through the lens it has a tendency to make the entire image turn yellow/orange.  This really isn’t the best lens for creative sun flare.

Close-up or Macro Capability

This lens does not do well as a close up lens.  It does better than some other 70-200mm lenses and it does better than the VR 1 version of this lens, but I do often find myself wishing I could use this lens for a quick macro of the bride’s ring or a flower when out shooting.

The problem is not so much the close focus distance, but that the focal length is not as advertised when focused up close to the lens.  Some reviewers found the actual effective focal length to be around 134mm when zoomed in all the way and focused as close as the lens can focus (1.4 meters).

Compatibility

Works perfectly on any Nikon DSLR.  Works well on both a full-frame or a crop-sensor camera.  In fact, I really like this lens on a crop sensor camera because I love the 105mm to 300mm focal length.

Build Quality

This lens is built like a tank.  Seriously, it’s incredible!  Just take a glance at this thing and you can see why it costs so much.

The most important part of the lens build quality is the fact that this lens is fully weather sealed.  That doesn’t mean it’s waterproof, but it does mean that it’s unlikely that you’ll get an excessive amount of dust between the lens elements, and it means that you can be out shooting in a pretty decent downpour of rain without worrying too much.

Having a weather sealed lens is also important because you don’t have to worry when shooting in humid environments (like the beach or a swamp or shooting on a hot day after a rain shower).

You’ll also notice the metal construction of the lens body and rubberized grips over the zoom and focus rings.  While I do wish the lens could be built lighter, it’s nice to know you have a lens built with solid materials.

Weight

One major consideration when purchasing this lens is the overall weight. This lens weighs 54.3oz (1540 grams).  That’s about the same weight as an average text book.

Many of the students in my online photography classes ask me what the best portrait lens is, and I always point to the 70-200.  The only time I’ve had a student come back to me and say they don’t like this lens is when they say it’s just too heavy to carry around for a shoot.

So the biggest consideration here is whether you’re the type who wants the ultimate in image quality, or if you are the kind who wants portability and a system that won’t get in the way as you travel or walk around with your camera.

Compared to 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses from other manufacturers, this Nikon version is slightly heavier.  For comparison, the Tamron version of this lens is 4.5% lighter, and the Canon 70-200 is about 15% lighter.

After posting this review, here's what a few readers of the site had to say on the Facebook page.  I agree with them.

After posting this review, here’s what a few readers of the site had to say on the Facebook page. I agree with them.

Versatility

The versatility of this lens is perhaps its best quality.  Many photographers enjoy shooting with prime lenses because they are usually fast and sharp.  The 70-200mm lens acts like a prime lens… but at different focal lengths.  It’s sharp and fast like a 70mm prime.  It’s sharp and fast like a 200mm prime, and it’s sharp and fast at all the focal lengths in-between.

The 70-200mm is generally used for portrait photography.  In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a wedding photographer who doesn’t use one; however, that is not to say that it is only useful for portrait photography.

If you shoot indoor sports such as basketball, wrestling, swimming, or gymnastics, the 70-200 is an excellent option because of its relatively telephoto focal length and fast aperture for light gathering.

While I personally don’t use long lenses for landscape photography very often, Michael Fry (one of the premiere landscape photographers in the world) uses his 70-200 for landscapes all the time.  In fact, it’s his favorite landscape lens.

Durability

Getting data about durability of lenses can be tough because few photographers own more than one copy of the lens, so all evidence is anecdotal; however, data from LensRentals.com which owns a large number of these lenses shows that this lens is less durable than you might think, given the solid build quality of the lens.

The three most common problems they saw with the lens are (1) Jammed zoom, (2) Optical issues, and (3) Footplate issues.

Roger from LensRentals had this to say, “70-200 f/2.8 lenses are likely to fail no matter who makes them. We think of them as ‘built like tanks’ because they have that heavy, all-metal case. That case, though, is as packed with mechanics and electronics as anything you’ve ever seen. There’s a LOT of stuff in there that has to work perfectly. Inevitably, some of that stuff breaks.

Price

Check current price on Amazon

There is no doubt that this lens is extremely expensive at over $2,000 (US); however, for professional photographers or advanced amateurs who want to know they have the very best, this is it.

Input from Other Reviewers

  • Roger Cicala from LensRentals noted that the lens hood for the 70-200 works great when placed forward in shooting position, but does not always lock into place when in reverse.  I haven’t personally found this issue on my copy of the lens hood, but LensRentals sees enough of these that it’s likely a common issue.
  • Ken Rockwell noted that the vibration reduction on this lens gives about 3 stops of better performance than if there were no vibration reduction.  Nikon advertises 4 to 5 stops.
  • DPReview noted that this version of the lens is sharper at the corners when shot with a full frame camera, but that the sharpness is equal to the VR 1 version of this lens when shot on a crop sensor (APS-C sensor) camera since the corners are not utilized on these smaller sensors.
  • Gordon Laing praised the focus speed of this lens–giving it a rating of .6 seconds to acquire focus from infinity to 1.4 meters.
  • Nasim Mansurov (who writes excellent, in-depth reviews) praised this lens in combination with the Nikon 1.4x teleconverter.  I was interested to read this because my experience has been the opposite.  This leads me to wonder if the problem is with my particular lens/teleconverter copies.
  • DXOMark finds that this lens is sharpest at 135mm and f/2.8.  I can agree with the 135mm as a sweet spot, but my own testing shows f/7.1 to be sharper.

What do all the acronyms mean in the lens name?

AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II Lens is “marketing speak.” Let me break this down for you into “human speak.”

AF-S means that this lens has a silent wave motor.  From a practical standpoint, this means your lens will focus quickly and accurately.  It also means that if you use a less expensive DSLR without a focus motor (such as the D5300, D3200, etc) then you will be able to still autofocus with this lens.

Nikkor means that this lens is made by Nikon.  Why can’t they just call them Nikon lenses?  Because they can’t.

70 means that the widest this lens can zoom out is 70mm

200 means that the furthest this lens can zoom in is 200mm

f/2.8 signifies that this lens can open up to a large f/2.8 aperture and shoot at that aperture when zoomed out or zoomed in.  That’s excellent for low light shooting.

ED means the lens has some “Extra low dispersion” glass elements in the lens, which reduce chromatic aberration.

VR means this lens has vibration reduction built into the lens.  This is a technology that counterbalances the natural tremble of your hands to allow you to shoot in low light with slow shutter speeds and still get sharp shots.

II means that this is the second version of this lens.  The original version of this lens was good, but the vibration reduction is better on this version, it’s a tad sharper at 200mm, and this version fixed the vignetting problem that was evident on the original version.

Lens means you put it on your camera :-)

Technical Specs

Focal length: 70-200mm is what Nikon advertises, but take notice of comments above about the effective focal length at different focus distances.

Aperture: Constant f/2.8 (What’s a constant aperture?)

Lens Mount: FX (Meaning it works on both crop sensor and full frame cameras)

Glass: 21 Elements in 16 Groups (Are more elements and groups better?)

Weight: 54.3oz (1540 grams)

Vibration Reduction: Yes (four stops)

Focus Motor: Silent wave (Faster and quieter than older motors)

Filter size: 77mm (standard for many professional lenses)

Diaphragm: 9 rounded blades (How many aperture blades is best?)

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. says

    Great review and agree 100% with you! This is also my most used lens. As a full time wedding photographer I never leave home without it. The 70-200VRII is pretty much permanently attached to my Nikon D4. The only time I do not use this lens is during the bride and groom getting ready shots. This is my go to lens during the Ceremony, Reception and formal session.
    I use this lens exclusively during engagement shoots. This is not because I dont have any other lenses, I have pretty much every lens Nikon has to offer up to the 200mm range.
    I cant imagine doing a shoot without my 70-200 VRII. Yes its a very heavy lens but the sharpness, low light capability and versatility of this lens makes every ounce of this lens worth its weight in gold.

  2. says

    I own this lens for about two years now. Robber for zoom isn’t that great, stretching and coming off, same problem as Nikon 24-70 2.8

  3. Tim dennell says

    I have the Mk 1 version of this lens – though only 80-200 back in he day. 22 years old with an old fashioned push-pull zoom/twist focus model; no VR, no tripod collar – and I love it to bits.
    It is super sharp and really can used as a cheaper way of having an 85mm, 105mm, 135mm and 200mm portrait lens. Though at 200mm is softer than in the 85-135 range.Nice bokeh. Great low light performer, I use it for concerts both with and without flash; built like a tank, heavy to hold for hours but solidly reliable. VR is over rated, many primes don’t have it and VR is only useful in a few situations.
    Best of all I picked mine up used at a quarter of the price of a new version in the shops today.

  4. Eric says

    Hi Jim, great review, but I have to disagree on one point. You said it does not do good as a close up lens, which I agree with, but then said it does better than the VR1, which I don’t agree with. The VR1 does not have the effective focal length problem that you pointed out, so you can actually zoom in closer with the VR1 than the VR2.

    Unless I’m missing something, wouldn’t you say the VR1 would be better in this regard?

    And yes its pretty heavy. But I’ve noticed if you use a Black Rapid, or Carry Speed type of strap, it almost makes the weight disappear…almost. haha

    • Jim Harmer says

      Good question, Eric. I’ll have to get a hold of one to check on this, but the info I read seemed to say that this one does better despite the reduced focal length when focused up close. I’ll investigate.

  5. Chris says

    I usually read these on my ipad. Would love to save to my Pinterest board. Any chance you could add a Pin option? I just hate opening my laptop.

  6. Eric says

    Its really not that big of a deal if people are worried about this… My brother has the VR1 and I have the VR2. After reading about people talking about the effective focal length being shorter at close distances, I was worried about it, but after testing them together, the VR1 does get closer, but its not THAT big of a deal. Most probably wouldn’t notice it.

    The other features of the VR2 are just better than the first version.

    And if you need to focus closer, theres a REALLY simple solution…. just buy the 105mm macro. haha. or extension tubes.

  7. Legend says

    “It also means that if you use an older camera without a focus motor (such as the D5300, D3200, D90, etc)”

    The D90 have built-in focus motor

  8. says

    Overall I agree with your review, as I use mine all the time. The part I don’t is the weight. Yes it’s heavy, but then the competitors’ are not so much lighter. To pack so much in a fast lens necessitates the weight for all such lenses.

    No doubt it’s expensive. But if you are shooting professionally you may well want to invest in the best. The price vs value is always a contentious issues, but one could buy it cheaper used, to get the best of both worlds.

  9. Adam Collins says

    I have to agree that the 3rd party lens makers often have excellent if not superior alternatives to many Nikon lenses, at least by reviews. They are definitely worth a look. I shoot with a Tamron SP 70-200MM F/2.8 Di VC USD that is hard to fault, and is in fact totally awesome. The sharpness and contrast are stellar and the Tamron image stabilization in this lens works extremely well. Focus with sports and low light work great. It weighs about the same, works about the same and costs at least $1000 less. The images look super punchy and clean. Tamron also does super fast turn-around on repairs and service.

  10. says

    The first time I shot a wedding with this lens, I swear I thought I had some sort of arthritis by the end of the night! The weight of it truly can get the best of your hand after hours of shooting- at first- and then you build up the muscle for it! :) I love it! it’s fast and crispy clear, and it should be in your camera bag!
    http://www.kristiweaverphotography.com

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