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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!

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.

White Lightning X1600 mini-review

Posted in lighting, products, review, strobe on December 19th, 2006 by gregr

Ah, my first studio strobes – the White Lightning X1600’s. I remember them fondly…unpacking them, the first test firings, and the first actual shoot I did with them. And I also remember selling them. So before I forget what I liked and disliked, let me write it down here, in the hopes it helps someone.

First, what I liked. The build quality was excellent – they feel like you could drop them and they’d probably still work. I also liked the 1/4 power mode – effectively giving you a 660 ws strobe with a 7-stop range; very nice.

Other plusses are the 250W modeling lamps (nice – only a few manufacturers ship more powerful ones), and the relatively quick (for the price) flash durations.

Here’s a list of what I didn’t like about them, though:

  • The little fingers that hold accessories on the end (such as speedrings) aren’t confidence-inspiring. If I was hanging a 7-foot octadome on the end of one of these strobes, especially on the end of a boom where I’m adjusting angles on the fly and such, I’d be pretty nervous that the whole thing might come crashing down. Now, I get that there are other ways to mount heavy accessories without having them hanging off the mount on the strobe, but I’d rather not have to worry about it.
  • There’s no ready-beep. This sounds stupid, but it was a deal-killer. When the strobes are fully recycled and ready to fire again, there is a little light on the back panel that goes on…but unless you’re looking at the light, that doesn’t do any good. Just a little beep is all I ask! This is especially important if your style of shooting is pretty quick – for me, this comes up in fashion shoots.
  • They will fire when partially charged. This compounds the ready-beep problem. Since there is no audible ready indicator, you have to just wait until you think the strobe is probably recycled (a second or two maybe), and then shoot again. But if you fire too soon, the strobe will still flash – just not at full power. So you get a random amount of power – not a good situation if you’re shooting where every shot counts. I’d rather they not fire at all until they are charged and ready.
  • I don’t like the slider power controls. Say you’re using several strobes, and you want to take one of them down 0.5 stops. You slide the slider thing a bit, so it looks like 0.5 stops…but you’re never sure. If you have two strobes, and you want them both down 0.5 stops, and you and your assistant each adjust one of them, it’s almost certain you’re not going to move them the same amount…so out comes the meter. IMHO, digital controls are much easier to manage.
  • Power consistency on the lower end was iffy. On several occasions, I noticed that when shooting at low power settings, the shot-to-shot power difference would vary by perhaps 0.3 to 0.4 stops. I hesitate to mention this, because this was anecdotal, and I wanted to do a bit more analysis, but I never did do that…so I mention it here in case someone else has run into this.

All in all, the WL1600’s were bulletproof and completely reliable, and I still recommend them to some folks…but the negatives I listed above eventually became show-stoppers for me and the way I shoot, and I ended up selling them and buying different lights of another brand. More on that here.