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Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR-II review

Posted in gear, products, review on December 10th, 2009 by gregr

The original Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens (Amazon) has been around for quite a while, and has been a workhorse lens for many of us. It has a number of characteristics, however, that aren’t ideal for folks shooting full-frame FX cameras like the D3 or D3x; namely corner softness, light falloff or vignetting, an older VR system, and susceptibility to flare when shooting a backlit subject. So when the new 70-200mm f/2.8 VR-II (Amazon, B&H Photo) lens was released, I ordered one, with the hope of replacing my original lens.

I’m going to write this review from my own perspective as a fashion and beauty photographer. I typically use this lens between 105 and 200mm, for anywhere from half-body shots to tight beauty shots. Things like corner softness and light falloff aren’t as important for me as better VR, and wide-open performance at short distances. Landscape shooters will have a whole different set of requirements for a lens, and for the most part, I won’t be addressing some of these things.

All testing was done with a Nikon D3x, using NEF files. Except as noted, all shots taken with a tripod, mirror lockup, and remote trigger. No output sharpening was used on any of the photos we’re looking at here.

The elephant in the room

As I mentioned, I shoot from close distances at the long end of the range with the original 70-200, looking for tight framing for beauty and head shots. One of the characteristics of the new lens is the “breathing” of the effective focal length as you zoom in. At minimum focus distance (about 4.5 feet), the effective field of view is approximately 135mm, rather than about 190mm of the older lens. To illustrate this, here is a comparison of the new and old lenses, both at an indicated 200mm, both at roughly their minimum focus distance:


(click for larger version)

This is a significant difference in framing. The reason for this has to do with the internal focus lens design; the old lens was also an IF design, but obviously dramatically different.

Sharpness at minimum focus distance

Let’s take a look at the overall lens performance at its highest magnification, such as one might use for a head shot. In this case, I’ve tried to match the field of view between the new and old lenses; the new lens was set at an indicated 200mm, and the old lens was set to 135mm. As you can see, I didn’t get the field of view matched exactly, but it’s close enough to evaluate the difference.

For reference, this is the overall frame we are looking at:


The focus point was on the model’s right eye, showing the following detail:


(click for larger version)

Be careful when looking at the full size versions that your browser isn’t scaling the images; click on them to zoom into 100% if you need to.

We can see that the new lens is critically sharp even at f/2.8 at indicated 200mm at closest focus distance; this is quite an impressive performance. The older lens (at 135mm) appears to be a touch soft at f/2.8, better at f/4, and critically sharp by f/5.6. It’s worth noting that we are at extreme magnifications from a 24MP image here, with no output sharpening – for most applications, the old lens even at f/2.8 will deliver acceptable sharpness.

Just for fun, let’s look at some images at maximum magnification with the old 70-200 at 200mm; reference image:


And the close-up detail:


(click for larger version)

Here we see the problem I was hoping the new lens would solve; at 200mm at MFD, the old lens is a bit soft at f/2.8, improved by f/4, and great by f/5.6. Note we are focused fairly near the center of the frame; it gets softer if you move the focus point further out. Unfortunately, the new lens cannot achieve this magnification, so this particular shot cannot be duplicated.


There is another impact of the reduced effective focal length, and that is the perspective changes between the lenses. For purposes of this write-up, I’ll just focus on the background behind the subject.

The new lens at 200mm at MFD achieves the same framing as the old lens at roughly 135mm at about the same distance. But another option with the old lens is to keep the same framing of the subject, but back up a few feet and use 200mm instead. The impact of this, aside from some small perspective changes on the subject herself, is to change the appearance of the background…and to effect what is known as the bokeh, or the appearance of the out-of-focus areas of the image.

I demonstrate this here. The subject is the focus point, but quite underexposed in order to more readily draw attention to the background. The left column is the new lens at max magnification at 200mm, and the right column is the old lens, at 200mm, from further away to achieve roughly the same framing.


(click for larger version)

[note, these shots taken handheld]

If you look at the last row (at f/16), you can see what the background actually looks like, and the difference between the two perspectives; then peruse the f/2.8 and f/4 versions to see the difference in “bokeh”.

Wider focal lengths

I don’t usually shoot the 70-200 at the wide end for my work, but I thought I’d run through a quick test anyway to see how the two lenses compared to each other, and also to the fabulous Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 (Amazon). Overall scene:


And the close-up detail:


(click for larger version)

All of the lenses performed well here, although interestingly the old 70-200 seems a touch sharper than the new one.

Vignetting / Light falloff

The old 70-200 had fairly significant light falloff into the corners when used on full-frame Nikon bodies. The newer lens reduces (although doesn’t quite eliminate) this effect. Focus your attention on the top corners in these photos; the bottom corners are a bit harder to interpret due to the lighting and framing:


(click for larger version)

Interestingly, the new 70-200 seems to be even better than the 24-70 at 70mm in this regard, which is something I would not have expected.

Vibration reduction

I don’t have actual photos to post here; however, in practice I found the new VR system to be very effective; dramatically more so than the original VR lens. For example, I’ve got several shots at an indicated 200mm at 1/13 sec which are truly tack sharp, something I’ve rarely if ever achieved with the older lens. There are plenty of other articles on the net with examples of this.


The contrast of the new lens when shooting backlit subjects is dramatically better than the older lens. Example:


(click for larger version)

This is a bit of a worst-case example, with the background many stops brighter than the subject, but should at least give you an idea of how the new lens deals with backlighting as compared with the original lens.


Nikon’s new 70-200mm lens has a lot going for it. Incredibly sharp optics, dramatically better VR, much reduced light falloff, and excellent contrast even in severe lighting conditions. It’s unquestionably the best zoom lens in this range I’ve ever used. Everything about the new lens appears to be significantly better than the old lens…but…

The field of view at close focus distances, for my work, is a problem. The original 70-200 is my go-to lens for beauty and head shots, and the new lens can’t reproduce the same framing that I can get (and regularly use) with the original. In these cases, I can’t step any closer to the subject (because I’m already near the minimum focus distance), so the only option would be to crop into the files. There are plenty of pixels to do this with the D3x, for headshots and the like when 8×10 or 11×14 is likely to be the largest print required; however, for commercial and other work, I don’t want to be forced to crop into the files.

There’s always a tradeoff…

[EDIT Dec 12 2009: I re-shot the 200mm MFD images on the original lens, which are now better than before at f/2.8 through f/5.6; not sure what happened originally, but I think I must have had a bit of vibration when I was shooting. In any case, the text and associated images are now updated.]

If you found this review useful, use our links here to purchase this new lens, or any other gear you need, at Amazon or B&H Photo!

Brigitte Magazine and professional models

Posted in modeling on October 11th, 2009 by gregr

So Brigitte Magazine has decided to stop using professional models for its shoots. An interesting decision, separate from your feelings about the whole size zero debate. For a photographer, professional models are usually a pleasure to work with – they know their angles, they know what looks good, they take direction well, they will bring ideas if you want them, and are just generally easy to work with. They will deliver. Amateur models, and the girl next door, may or may not have these qualities…and finding out might well require more time on set to pull the best shot possible out of them. That of course can lead to longer shoots and higher fees for everyone else on the set.

Karl Lagerfeld (and other designers I’m sure) are less that excited about this…it will be interesting to see how it plays out when they’re asked for samples to shoot with. Given Brigitte’s popularity, I’m sure the magazine will get what they want, but there probably aren’t a lot of size 6 samples floating around, so I suppose skinny “regular people” will be what we’ll see.

Fashion and Lingerie

Posted in gear, shoots on March 22nd, 2009 by gregr

Here’s a shot from a fashion-lingerie shoot a few weeks ago:


Shot with natural light coming in the window.

This was also the first actual shoot I’ve done with the Nikon D3x. As compared with the D3 (a fine camera in its own right), the images I’m getting from this camera are simply stunning; the detail is amazing (24.5MP), and the contrast and color qualities, while hard to describe, are by far the best of any Nikon camera I’ve used. The files (at base ISO) are amazingly noise-free – you really have to see them to believe it. And all that combined with the handling characteristics of the D3, makes for an excellent combination for fashion shooting either in studio or on location…much more convenient, IMHO, than medium format rigs, if the 75MB (8 bit) or 150MB (16 bit) files are sufficient.

Model Melissa, makeup by Heathyrre.

Elinchrom RX and BX strobes

Posted in gear, lighting, products, strobe on March 7th, 2009 by gregr

Ages ago, I posted about my first studio strobes, and in that post I said I would write again about what I switched to. Well, just over two years later, I’m getting that post done. :-)

Right now I’m using the following:

These address all of the shortcomings I complained about in my previous post; the accessory mount is solid, they have a switchable ready-beep and won’t fire when partially charged, they have digital controls, and I’ve found the shot-to-shot consistency to be rock-solid.

At first, I hated the accessory mount…but then I realized it was the speedrings I was using that I hated. I have some Photoflex speedrings, and they don’t have a rotation-locking mechanism (short of getting out a screwdriver and tightening them up); so in some cases it’s hard to tell if the speedring is completely locked onto the strobe mount. I’ve had softboxes fall right off the strobe because of this. 

Then I discovered other rings; for example, the ones that come with Elinchrom’s own softboxes. These have a much more secure (and easy to adjust) anti-rotation mechanisms, so it’s quite clear when the mount is locked in. Seriously – it’s like night and day.

Breaking plates – behind the scenes

Posted in lighting, shoots on March 5th, 2009 by gregr

A couple of days ago, I posted the following shot from my dangerous kitchen series:


I thought it might be fun to show some shots of how the plate-breaking part of all this actually went. :-)

I shot the plates in a studio; the setup looked something like this:


The plate was suspended from two A-clamps, which were hanging from a overhead bar, going diagonally across the set. There’s a black v-flat behind the plate, and also one to the left (in the direction of impact); the former to provide a near-black background, and the latter to stop the pieces of the plate from flying too far around the studio.

For lighting, I used two Nikon SB-800s; one on a stand you can see on the left, peeking over the black flat, and then another over to camera right. Both were positioned to mimic the direction and ratio of the lighting used for the model, already shot in a kitchen. I used pocket wizards for triggering them. I shot a single frame per plate, using a Nikon D3.

This shot shows the detail of how the plate was hit:


My assistant used the flat head of a hammer to strike the plate, and had his arm covered with a black towel.

There were laser and sound triggers available, but I started out clicking the shutter manually. The whole process turned out to be highly addictive (can’t tell you how much fun it is to break plates like this!), so I never ended up stopping to set up an automatic trigger. In retrospect, I probably should have, but in the end I ended up with a shot I could use. Out of the 14 plates, I missed one completely, and the rest you can see below (click for larger):

I had a total of 14 plates; 10 fairly heavy dinner plates from a restaurant supply house (top 3 rows in pic below), and 4 cheap Correlle plates from Walmart (bottom rows). As you can see, they broke in very different ways.

The Correlle plates took me off guard – both because I happened to catch two shots where the plate has just shattered but still in the shape of a plate, and also because of how violently they shatter. The mess in the studio was pretty well contained at first, but once we got to these last 4 plates, we had little shards of plate everywhere!

All the shots were at 70mm (to match perspective with the shot of the model), at f/11. It was even one of those rare moments when I used a protective filter on my lens, hoping to protect it from flying pieces of plate. :-)

Anyway, hope this is interesting for some folks!

(note – some of you reading this via RSS may have seen this post before the referenced photo was posted…sorry about that, WordPress user error. :-)

Dangerous Kitchen – part 2

Posted in shoots on March 3rd, 2009 by gregr

Following on the previous post, here is the second of the two-shot story:


I’m planning on a follow-up post in the next few days with a behind the scenes look at the making of this shot.

Model Andrea, styling by Anita.

Dangerous Kitchen – part 1

Posted in shoots on March 1st, 2009 by gregr

Here’s the first shot from a short two-shot story, about life in a “dangerous kitchen.”

Second half coming up!
For those curious about such things, the main light was to camera right, close to the brick wall. Fill light from near camera position. The flying celery was added from a combination of three shots of it flying in this same location.
Model Andrea, styling by Anita.

Reuters 2008 Pictures of the year

Posted in misc on December 4th, 2008 by gregr

I always like looking through the various “pictures of the year” collections…this one from Reuters. I couldn’t stop clicking “next”.

Reuters: Pictures of the year 2008

David Griffin at TED

Posted in Uncategorized on October 12th, 2008 by gregr

If you haven’t already seen it, go take a look at this TED presentation by David Griffin, photo director for National Geographic. Well worth the 15 minutes!

David Griffin: Photography connects us with the world

Photos on grass

Posted in Uncategorized on July 7th, 2008 by gregr


This is totally cool…photographs actually “printed” on grass. Story at Creative Review.

[via Boing Boing]