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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:

framing-sm.jpg

(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:

sharp-ref.jpg

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

sharpcompare-sm.jpg

(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:

200close-ref.jpg

And the close-up detail:

200close-sm.jpg

(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.

Perspective

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.

bokeh-sm.jpg

(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:

70mm-ref.jpg

And the close-up detail:

200close-sm.jpg

(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:

200close-sm.jpg

(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.

Contrast

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

contrast-sm.jpg

(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.

Conclusions

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!

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:

melissa_20090224-298-edit700

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.

To tether or not to tether…

Posted in gear on February 13th, 2007 by gregr

…that is the question.

Tethered, by the way, means shooting with the camera connected directly to a computer; the photos typically download to the computer as you shoot, and you can view them immediately. There are ups and downs to this.

There are lots of advantages. You can preview the actual lighting on the model before shooting too much, and make minor adjustments. The crew can watch the images as they come up, and make adjustments as necessary (lighting, hair, makeup, etc). The art director can make sure you’re getting the images you need. And you can show images to the model occasionally if you wish. And with some medium format digital backs, you don’t have a choice. :-)

There are downsides though, too…first, you have a cable coming out of the camera. Depending on the location, this can be a deal killer. And second, you really have to be careful about where the screen is, which direction it’s facing, and who’s looking at it. The one thing you do NOT want is for the model to be able to see the screen while you’re shooting – they can’t help but get a little distracted by it. And what I’ve found is if the computer is close to the set, the model will pick up on the reactions of those watching the screen, so you have to be careful about that as well. If they frown, she’ll assume things are going badly; if they laugh, she’ll assume she looks funny (or is being funny :-).

Whether a shot is good or great typically comes down to the interaction and chemistry between photographer and model – and anything that distracts from that is a risk.

And one more thing I’ve found, while shooting tethered to a laptop…be SURE that your computer can keep up with the shots coming from the camera. In one instance, shots were taking on average about 4 seconds from shot to screen. The camera would buffer 10-15 shots, but then I would have to wait for them to download before I could continue shooting. When we’re close to a shot I like, I’ll sometimes shoot 1 shot every second or so for maybe 30 seconds, getting lots of slight variations to choose from later; when I’m in a groove like this, and the model is working with me and knows exactly what I want, there is NOTHING more annoying than a technical limitation that makes me slow down. In this case, the limitation was hard drive speed, so lesson learned – don’t skimp on the computer!

So should you shoot tethered? In the end, it depends. I’ve found that my crew typically prefers it, so they can make sure everything is going perfectly, and it’s nice to know FOR SURE that you got the shot you need. There are certainly advantages – but be careful, and don’t let the temptations of the screen disrupt the shoot!

How to choose a lens

Posted in gear on January 1st, 2007 by gregr

Every now and then, someone will ask me “what lens should I use?” or “do you think this lens would be good?”. The answer is nearly always “it depends”, and the first thing I ask is what the person intends to shoot.  Let’s assume for the purposes of this post that the answer is “people.”

Focal length

The first question is focal length – and that just depends. :-)  Personally, I use anywhere from about 30mm to 200mm for my fashion and glamour work, and that’s on a Nikon digital body with a 1.5x crop factor.  The big thing to worry about is normally the perspective distortion you’ll run into if you use a short lens, and end up having to get very close to your subject.  Longer lenses also have perspective issues of their own (in that they tend to “flatten” images), but it’s generally a pleasing perspective for photographing people.

The focal length question is also related to how much room you have to shoot.  If your studio is 50 feet long, you will have no problem shooting full-length shots at 100mm if you wish.  But if space is more cramped, or you want to be closer to your model, you may need to go with a wider lens.

Max aperture

The max aperture is a more touchy question, as the price of the lens is often directly related to how wide the max aperture is.  Having a “fast” lens gives you two advantages: first, it lets you shoot at that max aperture (duh!), in the event you don’t have a lot of light or you want to limit your depth of field.  And second, it lets more light into the autofocus mechanism in your camera, which will generally let it focus faster and more reliably.  Let’s dive into each of these for a moment.

How often are you going to be actually shooting at f/2.8, or perhaps even faster?  Good question.  When I first got started, I thought I’d be shooting down there a lot in the studio…turns out I actually don’t all that much.  You can take some cool shots with very wide apertures; it just depends on your style and what you’re trying to achieve.  Note, however, that I do use f/2.8 or faster fairly often when shooting outdoors…just not often in the studio.

What about the autofocus advantage?  This one is big.  When you’re setting up a shot in the studio, often you’ll have all of the ambient lights off (or turned way down), and you’ll be setting up the shot with just the strobe modeling lights on.  These modeling lights are sometimes nice and bright, but not always, especially with big softboxes or other modifiers.  If you don’t turn up the ambient lighting before you start shooting, you’re just going to have the modeling lights – which means you won’t have a ton of light to focus.  You’ll likely have enough – just not a lot…which means the more light your lens can pull into your camera’s AF mechanism, the better off you are.

Variable aperture

The last thing I’ll mention about lenses for studio work is this – be careful about variable-aperture lenses.  Many “consumer-grade” lenses (meaning ones that are reasonably priced!) have a variable maximum aperture.  So for example, Nikon makes a 55-200mm lens that has a maximum aperture of f/4 at 55mm, and f/5.6 at 200mm.  The problem comes if you’re in the studio, using strobes, and shooting on manual…you may need an exposure of f/4, and when you set up the shot (at say 55mm), everything is great.  Then during the set you zoom in for a close-up of your model’s face – and your camera is suddenly (and silently) shooting at f/5.6.  You’re now a whole stop underexposed – and you might not realize it until you download your images later.

For that reason, all of the zoom lenses I use for studio work (or any other times where I’m shooting on manual) are constant-aperture across their zoom range.

Sharpness

This one never ceases to amuse me.  On some of the internet forums, people obsess for days over whether a certain lens is sharper than another; and I’m not afraid to admit that I was one of them when I first got started. :-)  But here’s the thing…

Most lenses are very sharp when stopped down a couple of stops.

Now, that’s a pretty big blanket statement to make…but if you buy a name-brand lens (Canon, Nikon, Sigma, etc), it’s generally going to be true.  So if you can live with shooting at f/8 or f/11 (which is common in the studio), most lenses are going to be plenty sharp.

However, if you want to shoot with a lens wide open, or close to it, that’s what separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.  If you need tack-sharp at f/2.8, or f/4, then do some research.

So for shooting people, do you need that sharpness?  Interesting question.  I about fell over when I read a forum post that said something to the effect of “for shooting people, you really don’t want a very sharp lens, because you’ll have to retouch more.”  Not sure I would go that far. :-)

My take – yes, you want a lens that’s nice and sharp.  And it’s not because you want to see every last pore on someone’s face – you usually don’t.  But there are parts of an image you want nice and sharp.  For example, fashion shooting isn’t only about skin, but it’s also about products – and there might be details in the product that you need absolutely tack-sharp, depending on what you’re shooting and how large it will be printed.

So anyway, lots of random thoughts in here…hope it’s helpful to someone!