Enthusiast Photographer Lens? Nikon Announces the 70-200 f/4

The net: Lower-priced, fairly fast glass gives Enthusiast Photographers a compelling and (relatively)  lightweight choice, but there are lots of options in this price range. It isn’t a mistake to get one, but my advice is look at other new and used options. In this price range, it is hard to wind up with a dud…

Being an Enthusiast Photographer has a lot to do with affordability.  Most of us never make any income from our photography, so the equipment you own is mainly about enjoying the process of capturing images.  And since I’m guessing most of you are like me, the amount of money you have to spend on that equipment is limited.

There are lots of great reasons to own a long zoom.  They help you get in tight on kids at recitals or on playing fields that are a long way away or the birds or animals that run away if you’re close.  On my recent trip to Europe, I spent a lot of time taking pictures of what I called “texture” for a project my niece was doing, and having 200mm of zoom was extremely useful.

Nikon just announced a new zoom aimed directly at Enthusiast Photographers – the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR telephoto zoom lens.  It offers a constant aperture of f/4 throughout the focal  (zoom) range.  This means that you can set the camera “wide open” for the best low-light performance and/or shallowest depth of field and it won’t change at all as you zoom, as apposed to my 18-200 VRII, which will automatically change to higher apertures as I zoom out, all the way to f/5.6 at 200mm.  How big a difference is that?  One full “stop” of light.  That means at f/4 the camera has twice as much light to work with, allowing you to use a faster shutter speed or a higher ISO if you need to.  Lots of people say “only one stop”, but for me twice as much is a big deal, and often the difference between getting the shot and *not* getting the shot.  One stop of ISO performance is a lot in a body – the D7000 only has “only” 1.1 stops better ISO performance than the ancient D70 (though it has many, many other advantages!).

Anyway, I’ll let you read the Nikon page on the 70-200 f/4 for the specs and full details, and offer up my opinions.

At $1399, it is a pretty pricey lens.  Yes it has the latest generation of “VR” (Vibration Reduction) technology that will let you hand-hold at very low shutter speeds.  I have to say that walking around Europe and Asia in low light with this camera and, say a D600, would have been a magical hand-held shooting experience.  That is because for shooting stuff that isn’t moving at very low shutter speeds VR is a huge help, and you won’t need a tripod.  Add that to clean files at ISO 6400 from cameras like the D600 and D7000 and you can have a lot of fun.  One word of caution, however: it won’t help you nearly as much if what you’re shooting is moving.

Also – it doesn’t have a tripod collar!  The collar is what gives you a tripod foot for good balance and stability, plus allows you to rotate from “landscape” to “portrait” orientation (horizontal to vertical) without taking the lens off the camera).  I’m sure Nikon’s logic was that VR means a tripod isn’t necessary, but there are plenty of landscape shooters shooting panoramic photos with a long zoom, bird-in-flight shooters and others who use a tripod a fair bit.  Having this 30 oz/850g lens hanging off the body isn’t going to do much for stability on the tripod.  If you want a tripod collar, Nikon is happy to sell you one for $223.95 (who came up with that price?? For that kind of money, I’d wait and see what Really Right Stuff or Kirk come up with).  That said, this lens is a much lighter alternative to the Nikon f/2.8 “pro” zooms – 30oz. vs. over 54oz. for the current 70-200 VRII and almost 52oz. for the older 70-200 VRI (so a little less than 1.9lb vs. roughly 3.4lb and 3.2lb).  1.5 pounds is a lot when you’re running around all day with it on your shoulder or back.

New 70-200 f/4 with the collar

The optional RT-1 collar…

Even without the collar, we’re now talking about money that gets you close to the older, $2399 70-200 VRII, which is f/2.8 throughout the range and one of Nikon’s best zoom lenses ever.  Of course, that isn’t chump change, either.  (but it does have a collar 😉 )

Inside Nikon’s product line, that makes me look at the old 80-200 ED f/2.8, which is great “Pro” glass for under $1100 brand new.  It doesn’t have VR, but fast glass makes up for a lot.  Or you can find a nice used copy of the first generation 70-200 “VRI” that has stability control and is a terrific lens for about the same money as the new f/4 model (though it is slightly better for DX than FX, where the new lens is optimized for FX or DX).

If you’re looking for affordability, the 70-300 VR is still a great lens for under $600 brand new and is even lighter than the 70-200 f/4 (a bit over 1.6lb), though it isn’t capable of the low-light performance.

Outside Nikon’s product line, Tokina has announced they’ll offer a similar lens, though pricing and availability haven’t been published.

Lastly, Tamron and Sigma have f/2.8 long zooms for similar money.  These are generally well-regarded and are “faster”, though I have less confidence in Sigma’s consistency when it comes to quality (which is just a personal impression – I have no data to back that up and there are many Sigma owners thrilled with their lenses).  User reviews of both of these makers tend to complain that low-light focus performance doesn’t match the Nikon-branded lenses.

Should you buy one?  Hard to say.  If you have a D600, this lens is designed for you, and is as-good or better than anything out there for the price.  I think the Tokina lens will be a very interesting and high-quality product, probably at $1299 (though it apparently doesn’t have a collar, either).

If I had the money to buy a lens in this price range, I’d be a little flummoxed.  Especially with the collar, there are a ton of options.  The good news is any of the options will net you a really nice lens.  Personally, I’d probably go with a used 70-200 VRI, though the weight and the likely quality of this lens would make it a tough call.

If you’re debating about a new body vs. this new piece of glass, the old saying comes to mind – always invest in glass.  Good lenses make any camera better (see my posts on fast glass and “should I get a new camera” for some additional thoughts), and this lens is good for any modern Nikon DSLR whether it is DX or FX.

Please feel free to post any questions, thoughts or comments!!

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