The Long And Short Of It

NIKON’S TWO NEW LENSES, the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8E ED VR and the AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm ƒ/5.6E ED VR, may seem like minor improvements to the Nikon lens lineup, but actually offer significant benefits not conveyed by the names alone. While the most outstanding aspect of their names is the Vibration Reduction the “VR” stands for, the optics deliver a lot more than implied by the image stabilization in their names.

AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8E ED VR

The new 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 VR lens replaces Nikon’s most reliable and most trusted zoom, the stalwart FX-format AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED, which was released in 2007. While prime lenses are known to be sharper and more accurate than zoom lenses, the 2007 edition of the lens, and the Zoom-NIKKOR 28-70mm ƒ/2.8 that preceded it, were the benchmark for zoom lens performance.

So good was the 24-70mm G that if you asked just about any Nikon-using working professional what was in their camera bag, one of the first lenses listed would be the 24-70mm. It was a given to have that lens, in the same way that if you asked a film buff who their favorite directors were, you’d more than likely hear them say “Hitchcock” early on in their list.

The 24-70mm G lens was known for exceptional sharpness, brightness from edge-to-edge and swift autofocus—especially in comparison to third-party zoom lenses, and the fast ƒ/2.8 aperture made the lens suitable for dimly lit scenes.

The 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 VR lens adds image stabilization, as the name implies, which Nikon says is equivalent to a four-stop advantage. Their understated press release also mentioned the optical improvements in the lens, but perhaps underplayed them.

Nikon says the lens now has a “combination of one aspherical ED glass element, a first for Nikkor lenses, aspherical lens elements, ED glass elements, an HRI…lens element, and Nano Crystal Coat…” for “even better resolution and softer, more natural blur characteristics than did the 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED.”

After using the lens for several weeks, this feels like a marketing understatement. While the VR aspects are great, much of the benefit from the upgrade to this lens lies in the improved optics. In our testing, I shot with the new lens on a Nikon D750 and let several Nikon pros shoot with it attached to various bodies. The results ranged from (and these are actual quotes) “Wow!” to “[Expletive], that is super-sharp.” For discerning pros to be able to see improved sharpness in their images says a lot.

The sharpness of the new Zoom-NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8E ED VR lens is pretty apparent, and the image stabilization allows it to be used handheld in low-light conditions that might otherwise need a support. Photo by Jordan Matter

Less noticeable were the “more natural blur characteristics” of the press release. Uniformly, we felt the lens had very similar background blur (often called “bokeh”) to the previous lens, which isn’t a bad thing. The previous Nikon lens has a nice, gentle bokeh to it, not as pronounced as lenses like the Sigma ART lenses, but not as flat as lenses like the 200-500mm we tested, either.

With VR active, Nikon claims four stops of stabilization, and that seems on par with our experiences. Generally, the total number of stops achievable in a company’s laboratory testing is greater than you might noticeably experience in the field (how exactly do you tell how many stops “better” you’re shooting), but the VR definitely adds to the low-light and slow-shutter-speed usability of the lens.

I’m usually comfortable shooting handheld down to about 1/15th with the 24-70mm G and was able to maintain that in light conditions much lower with the VR lens than I would have been able to achieve with the G lens. I was routinely able to shoot two to three stops lower ISO than normal at that shutter speed, with the result being a cleaner file.

Many users might think of VR in a wide, fast zoom as being a bit of a gimmick, but once you see the power of image stabilization, it’s hard to think of going back. (And, if you do want to go back, the stabilization can be disabled on the side of the lens.) It’s just simply better to shoot a lens that compensates for shooter motion, and the resulting images benefit. That the 24-70mm lens is so widely used in reportage and news work must have been on Nikon’s mind when deciding to add VR, as shooters in the fray will benefit greatly from the added image stabilization.

The trade-off for the added sharpness and image stabilization is size and price, both of which are increased relative to the 24-70mm G lens. The new VR lens is slightly, but noticeably heavier at just about 100g (just under a quarter-pound), and is just marginally wider and almost an inch longer, as well. The new lens carries a price of around $2,400 versus $1,900 for the previous lens.

Size and price not withstanding, the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8E ED VR is a worthy successor to the previous 24-70mm G lens, and one of the first pieces of glass any professi
onal photographer should put in their camera bag.

AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm ƒ/5.6E ED VR

The 200-500mm ƒ/5.6E ED VR lens is a surprising one. With a maximum aperture of ƒ/5.6 and a retail price of around $1,400, it doesn’t seem like this lens would end up being more than a novelty—an inexpensive lens for the outdoor enthusiast with mid-range image quality. Testing the lens, however, I think Nikon may instead have crafted one of those rare lenses that’s both affordable and versatile. While avid birders and big-game photographers might love the lens, it may also turn out to be a secret tool of portrait shooters, as well.

The 200-500mm ƒ/5.6 ED VR is much more affordable than the company’s FX-format AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G ED VR (by more than $1,000), a lens that’s often a go-to choice for photographers looking for a long-reach telephoto.

With a longer focal length, the 200-500mm ƒ/5.6 ED VR is designed to be used exclusively as a long telezoom. Considering the relatively low price, you’d expect the lens to have mediocre performance, but the 200-500mm ended up shining in my tests, at least in terms of image quality.

While a lot of budget zoom lenses suffer from light falloff at the edges, the 200-500mm exhibits minimal falloff, and it also maintains good edge-to-edge sharpness, surprising in a lens of this price point.

This lens is certainly good for capturing birds in their native habitat, but the sharpness and edge brightness make it an exceptional portrait lens, too. In fact, this is the reason I think the 200-500mm might end up in the hands of a lot of professional photographers, as telephoto lenses have traditionally been used in portrait work due to the unique look created by their compression of a scene.

The VR in the 200-500mm makes the lens handhold-able at 500mm, at least in good light. I was able to shoot the 500mm at the longest setting in daylight at speeds down to around 1/15th of a second without any issues, which is particularly impressive considering its size (around 10 inches at the smallest zoom setting, not including hood) and weight (2300g, or a touch over 5 pounds).

The AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm ƒ/5.6E ED VR is a ve
rsatile lens, enabling a photographer to reach out and capture a subject with good background isolation and excellent edge-to-edge sharpness. Photo by Jordan Matter

There are two VR modes, standard and sport. Nikon says the sport mode allows for better tracking of erratically moving subjects. In my testing, this was difficult to ascertain because of the two drawbacks of this lens—autofocus speed and close-distance shooting.

For my first tests, I headed to our local skatepark, a surefire location to find erratically moving subjects. There are a few excellent vantage points around the park, most notably at the top of a bowl where the skaters usually ride toward and then up.

At the 200mm focal length, I could follow the skaters as they started their runs from the far end of the park, but lost them as soon as they started to close in on my position. Nikon says the minimum focus distance is about seven feet, so I should have stayed locked on to the skaters until they hit the very base of the bowl, about eight feet down and a dozen feet away, but here I ran into the other compromise in a lens of this price, AF speed.

This isn’t a particularly fast-focusing lens—you’re not going to see this lens on the sidelines of a major league game anytime soon. It’s definitely suitable for the sidelines of a little league game, and you definitely could shoot sports from afar, but frenetic motion combined with the longish minimum focal distance means it’s not a lens designed for close-combat sports photography.

Photo by Jordan Matter

With that in mind, I wish Nikon hadn’t put the term “Sports” on the VR switch, as it conjures up a lens that can capture the end-zone catch at the end of the fourth quarter to win the game. I wish it had been labeled “active” or “erratic” or some other term to indicate a mode that captures subjects that are moving in a nonlinear direction, but doesn’t make the lens seem like it’s suitable for fast action sports.

The lens lacks the full metal construction of the higher-end Nikon lenses (but what do you expect at this price point), but doesn’t feel much less durably made. It does not, for example, feel like the build of a kit lens, but it doesn’t feel as refined as the 24-70mm, either.

Aside from those caveats, I think this lens is one of those rare combinations of price and image quality that elevates what could have been a mediocre lens into a great solution for a number of photographic problems.

Outdoor photographers, especially birders and wildlife photographers, should jump on this lens, and the portrait photographer who usually uses primes or zooms in the 70-200mm range should consider it as well. The ability to generate the unique look of a long-telephoto portrait, when needed, may well be worth the purchase price of this lens.

List Price: $2,399 (AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8E ED VR); $1,399 (AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm ƒ/5.6E ED VR).

You can follow David Schloss on Twitter and Instagram @davidjschloss.

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