Nikkor Zoom Comparison
The lenses being compared in this review are all constant aperture zooms within the 70-210 range, and all can be easily found for under $900US.
The question burning on many people's minds, as it has been on mine, is "Is there a huge difference between these lenses?". I've seen images taken with the 80-200 f/4 AIS ($100) that look like they could've been taken with the 80-200 f/2.8 ($700-950). Is the f/.2.8 really worth that much more money? Is AF necessary with these zooms? Which one is sharpest? Which produces the best bokeh? Which resists flare the most? Do they all produce similar hues? These are some of the questions I hope to answer in this comparison/review.
And for the record, no, I am not getting paid by Nikon or by a third party to review these lenses. Just as I did with the Samyang vs. Nikkor, this is all on my own, with my own money and time. Reviewing gear is both fun and rewarding for me. What my reward is I'll keep to myself, but let's just say "Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it sure brought him a lot of pleasure."
One lens that I did not include in this review is the 80-200 f/2.8 AF-S. The reason? It still sells for over $1000US, even though it's been discontinued. The lenses listed below sell for less than $1000 used, and the only one still in production is the 80-200 f/2.8 AF-D which costs over $1000US, but has been in production for so long that used copies are plentiful, and sometimes cheap, and often in very nice condition.
These are the lenses I'm comparing in this review:
This lens is the version with the "square" opening at the lens mount. It is the sharper version of this lens with a better optical design than the original one. It is fully metal. The original one had problems with chromatic aberrations wide open. I can vouch for those statements as I owned one when we lived overseas; stopped down the MK1 was a gem, but wide open it was horrible. So why didn't I include it? Simply because it's not a stellar performer wide open, and I sold mine a while back. Supposedly the MKIII version doesn't exhibit as much CA, and it's supposed to sharper from the get-go.
80-200 f/4 AIS
This lens is a "legend" that's been touted by some on the net as being sharper than even the current VR lenses. I didn't make that claim--this fellow did. I've had this lens for a year, and I do have to admit it is one heck of a sharp lens. This is also the lens that was used by "The Man Behind The Lens". It's reputation has established itself around the world as being one of Nikon's sharpest lenses. Considering the price, the bokeh isn't bad either, especially at the far end where you can use compression to your advantage.
Some have called this lens the lighter version of the "Nikkor legend" (see above). I beg to differ. They are very different beasts. Many shy away from this lens because parts of it are made out of of plastic; however, most people don't realize that the threading (aka helicoil) inside isn't plastic. If plastic bothers a photographer then why would so many people lust after the newer 24mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 "G" lenses? They're housed in plastic bodies. Materials are only a small component of lenses; it's the glass and the optical formula that count. Having said that this lens is going up against some lenses not just with strong reputations, but also made of much more durable materials--does that make a difference? Keep reading to find out.
Supposedly this is the AF version of the series E lens. Having seen and played with both, I can tell you they are not the same lens. In any case, if the Series E is as good as the 80-200 f/4 (which is extremely sharp) then this lens may be the greatest hidden gem of yesteryear, and quite possibly the greatest bargain of today! It's a lens of simple design. There are no buttons, switches (well, one to lock the aperture), and there's no focusing ring! The only ring is the zoom ring! Can this be manually focused? You bet, but it's done in a way that at first doesn't seem obvious. Keep reading to find out more about this lens.
This is the first generation of the f/2.8 AF lenses. I chose this one because the optical formula used is the same one that's used in the D version. Others have compared D lenses to non-D lenses and have done the work, so I felt there was no use in re-inventing the wheel. This lens is $150-250 cheaper than the "D" version, and just as good, because they're both still push-pull zooms. Does the "D" feature make a difference? Yes, but only if you're using TTL flash. Most people who use off-camera flash set everything manually, so the feature, in my books, is pretty useless if you're into that kind of flash photography. Save your money. Ken Rockwell was right about the "D" feature of AF lenses, as well as some things he's said about this lens.
This is the two-ring version of the f/2.8 lenses. I chose this because it's a lens that has been in production for many, many years. You can still buy it new, but why bother when fantastic used samples are readily available in many places for much less! Of all the lenses t his is the heaviest well-built lens. It's got a tripod mount which the other lenses in the review lack, and it's got two rings, a limit switch, and an AF/MF switch. But does that equate to better pictures, and by better I do mean technically better images and more pleasing bokeh? Keep reading to find out.
A word of caution about these tests--the 70's will naturally be slightly wider than the 80's, just as the 210's will be slightly narrower than the 200's. It's not a big deal, at least in my books, but I did not want to try and worry about where to place my tripod during each shot--it's not that I'm lazy, but just a bit more practical, especially when shooting in a forest! I used 80 as the bench mark for where to place my tripod to keep the framing alike for each lens--so the 70's will be slightly wider, but not by much. Besides, trying to find 200mm on a 210 lens isn't the easiest on some of these lenses (either it's not listed, or it's too tricky to get to without chimping and checking, and that's only for the AF one!). Also, please disregard the mention of AIS for the 80-200 f/4.5. It's an AI lens, but I accidentally printed AIS on the paper when I performed the tests--I didn't want to rush back home just so I could correct that.
So where's the 75-150? Good question. After thinking long and hard about it I decided not to include it in the other tests simply because it doesn't have as much reach as the others. It wouldn't have been a very fair comparison. Having said that, there's plenty of evidence out there that it's no slouch, but not having the same reach wouldn't have been a fair comparison.
Each lens handles differently, including the older manual focus zooms. They all differ in weight, handling, size, and the way each approaches focusing.
Use the following color key with the chart:
Excellent Feature It could be better Terrible Feature
** Manual focus with the 70-210 f/4 AF is strange. You have to disengage the AF motor from the camera (that little pin that sticks out of the f-mount). If it's not disengaged you risk ruining the focusing gears in the lens.
*** The macro features of the 70-210 f/4 AF can only be used by switching the camera to MF. The macro features of the f/2.8 lenses are available without having to switch anything. The macro feature of the 70-210 f/4 E will only function @ 70mm.
Each lens handles differently due to its size, focus throw, and how the front rotates.
The push-pull version is about as heavy as the 2 ring, but it's a pain to hold because there's no tripod mount. It's also a bit strange to work with as the limit switch is a thin ring with preset limits. It's so thin that someone with large hands or using gloves might have a difficult time working with it. When the lens is set to AF you can keep rotating the zoom ring, which kind of makes it hard to take hand-held shots as things can slip around. Sure, your images may come out focused and at the right zoom length, but probably not framed how you meant to frame them. This is especially true if you use this lens in the winter with big gloves. Optically, there's no doubt about the prowess of this lens. And I won't deny that it's worlds sharper wide open than my 2-ring lens @ f/2.8. However, its handling and weight really make it an awkward lens to use. There is a third-party tripod mount you can buy for this lens, but it's neither pretty or convenient, and it doesn't eliminate the issues I've mentioned before.
The manual focus zooms all handle about the same, with the lightest being the f/4.5. They're all one-touch zooms--meaning you use the same ring to zoom and focus. It works, but if you're not used to manual focusing and zooming with one ring it can get tricky. A visual aid like a Katzeye screen can really help, so do steady hands. Depending on how sloppy the ring is could r eally make or break these older zooms. The Series E and the f/4 AIS are about the same size and weight, but much lighter than the f/2.8 zooms, and the f/4.5 is the lightest of all of them and uses 52mm caps. However its bokeh isn't very pleasing.
All of the zooms have filter threads that rotate as youn focus. This can be problematic with filters like a CPL or graduated filters. The nice thing is all of them have metal filter threads, which is great because so many lenses nowadays use plastic, and plastic is so much easier to ruin.
This zoom lens has a reputation that has stood the test of time. It's sharp at all apertures and produces very decent bokeh @ 200mm wide open. It's not quite as creamy as the f/2.8 lenses, but performance-wise it is the best bang for your buck. Yes, it's manual focus, but manual focus isn't very difficult.
Having said that these lenses are getting older, and finding one that doesn't have zoom creep and whose focusing is still nicely dampened is difficult. I am unsure how much it would cost to fix one of these, but my copy's focusing is nicely dampened plus it has no zoom creep and that makes focusing so much easier. If you're on a budget this is the lens to get. Given the right circumstances it'll be very difficult to tell the difference between a picture taken with this lens and the more expensive zooms. The only gottcha is it's manual focusing, which doesn't sit well with some people and certain styles of photography. In all fairness manual focusing isn't as difficult as some people make it to be, specially with focusing aids like a Katzeye focusing screen.
Bokeh Part I:
This test was done in two parts: at the wide end of the zoom and at the far end of the zoom from wide open to f/16. The setup was rather simple: a small square where the model stood and markings on the ground for my tripod, so I wouldn't have to reframe every time I switched lenses. Those lenses that have 70mm & 210mm will appear slightly wider and slightly narrower than the others, but that's expected. I'm not going to waste time calculating how many inches I had to move the tripod in order to ensure that 210mm looked like 200mm or vise versa. That's impractical in a forest! So take this for what it is--a test showing you the bokeh these zooms are capable of producing at their wide and narrow ends.
Waist-Up Bokeh Comparison f/2.8 through f/16 @ 70mm & 80mm:
Waist-up Bokeh Comparison f/2.8 through f/16 @ 200mm & 210mm
The above shots were taken using my camera's meter. I just went by what it said was the correct exposure. WB was kept at cloudy since it was an overcast day. For whatever reason the push-pull 80-200 f/2.8 appears to have more light transmission than the 2 ring version--I found the same to be true indoors. I attribute this to the coatings because from what I could gather they should both have the same optical formula. And looking at them they do appear to have slightly different coatings. It may be sample variation, but I've owned 2 different 80-200 f/2.8 lenses and both were slightly soft wide open.
Here's a quick look at the bokeh produced by these lenses wide open and with compression (aka zoomed out to their full length):
This little contact sheet quickly shows how the f/2.8 lenses really blur out the background. However, the other lenses aren't far behind. To my way of seeing things the 80-200 f/4 AIS comes very close, and it's worlds cheaper than the f/2.8 lenses. But I'll stop rambling on this and let the pictures speak for themselves.
Bokeh due to compression and optical formula are only one aspect of a lens, and only one aspect of photography. Not every picture requires a super-blurred-out background, and not every picture has to have compression. Which as you'll soon find out can be distracting if not used carefully.
There was a slight shift in my tripod, which is why the tree on the left moves slightly. I was working in a forest, so this was to be expected, even with markings to help me keep the distance and framing as consistent as possible. It's not easy working in a forest, but this way we also had it more or less to ourselves and avoided getting pestered and stared at by passersby.
In my opinion the F/4 AIS and AF come closer than the other lenses to the bokeh
produced by the f/2.8 lenses.
Gaussian or not?
This is a subjective view more or less from the center of the above images. To my way of seeing things the 80-200 f/2.8 produces bokeh that has more gaussian blur to it. That's a good thing, because the more gaussian it is the less bokeh "circles" you'll see (that or the larger they'll be so you see fewer of them). In other words, much nicer and smoother bokeh; the gradients and transitions in the out of focus areas will be much smoother and blend far better. Followed closely behind the f/2.8 lenses are the 80-200 f/4 and the 70-210 f/4 AF. The f/4.5 lens produces bokeh that would've been considered nice back in the 60's and 70's. If that's the look you're after, then avoid the other zooms. If creamy bokeh is what you want go with, an f/2.8 lens or the 80-200 f/4 AIS or the 70-210 f/4 AF lenses; the others aren't as nice.
The red in the image indicates where I made the crop.
BOKEH PART II:
And just because I felt like it (and to satisfy you insane bokeh-lovers out there)...
Head and Shoulders Bokeh Comparison
This should give you insane bokeh lovers out there enough to chew on for a while.
Some may call this an impractical test. I beg to differ. I think it's a very valid test because it shows several things--first how compression affects backgrounds, and secondly how backgrounds can become distracting. 85mm primes were made for head and shoulder shots, and for good reason. I'll let the pictures show you how.
The compression and the aperture are two variables I could control on the zooms to sweeten the bokeh. I kept the framing of the model more or less the same for each shot. This should give you an idea of what compression does: it tends to exaggerate sizes in the backgrounds. Some like it, some don't. I believe there are times when it's appropriate, and there are times when compression doesn't help a picture much. It is an artistic judgement and one that has to be judged within the context of the image. Personally, I prefer primes for these types of shots, but there are times when zooms and AF can come in handy, as this picture from my Flick stream demonstrates.
I believe zooms aren't always the best idea for head and shoulder shots. First, they're heavy, they keep you away from the subject, and they may be intimidating to smaller children/shy subjects simply due to their size. A prime portrait lens like the 85 is small and light, forces you to be close to your subject and to capture a more intimate moment, and it doesn't stick out and draw attention to itself. Having said that, it is possible to take head and shoulders shots with zooms, but it's not always wise. In a crowd, a zoom is probably much easier to use; but with shots that are setup, a prime, in my opinion, is a much better bet. But to each his own!
The only lens I didn't test was the 80-200 f/2.8 Push-Pull. It's got the same compression as the 2 ring, though for whatever reasons my push-pull has more light transmission and is sharper than the 2-ring @ f/2.8. I saw this both indoors and outdoors, so it's clearly not the light.
Of all the zooms, I like the bokeh produced by the f/2.8 2-ring the most; however, compared to the Samyang the background is exaggerated and seems distracting due to lens compression. The tree is clearly wanting our attention, as much as the model. Nevertheless, its bokeh is far more gaussian (nice smooth blurred out transitions/gradations) than the other zoom lenses, which is why people have raved about this lens. It produces nice bokeh, but I rave about it because it just handles well. The other lenses have plenty of bokeh "circles", but the transitions/gradations in the blur aren't as smooth.
Having said that, the other zooms aren't far behind the f/2.8 and cost a fraction what the f/2.8 costs. Of the others, it's a close call between the 70-210 AF and the 80-200 f/4 AIS. Their backgrounds are almost the same. The only zoom that didn't produce a nice background was the f/4.5. Its compression and resulting bokeh are far more distracting than the others.
Here's a good example of what compression does to an image. I personally like the looks of the image to the left--the focus is more on the model and less on the background. With the zoom the lake and the forest suddenly take up more room. There are times, I suppose, when you'll want something like that, especially when you're trying to take pictures of lights at nighttime and want larger bokeh "circles" in the background, or when you have a more uniform background and you really want to separate your subject from it.
The moral of the lesson? Get an 85mm for head and shoulder shots. Primes are much lighter to carry around, and they get you closer to your subject. Use a zoom for when you want large bokeh at nighttime (assuming you can properly focus the zoom in the dark) or you don't want to get close to your subjects. While some may argue that a zoom also makes it more convenient to frame a subject, I would beg to differ and state what I've always stated before--you can always zoom with your feet if you have the space. Having said that, however, I do have to agree a zoom is a very convenient (though heavy) lens to use.
The infamous brick wall test--I thought long and hard about it and realized, yeah, this is probably the best way to quickly determine lens sharpness. It's certainly not sexy, but it works.
This test was done in the shadow of a large warehouse. Why in the shade? So I wouldn't have to deal with changing ambient light (it was a partly cloudy day). This allowed me to work with consistent ambient light and keep my settings the same for all lenses.
I also used my Kenko KFM-1100 to get "correct" exposure and figure out the shutter settings for each aperture, making sure to keep checking the light with every lens. The meter was consistent every single time I checked, and in doing this I also avoided the problem of the light transmission of each lens throwing off my camera's meter. While this may seem controversial, it allowed me to keep things consistent, so that the actual lens performance wasn't affected by what my internal meter was telling me.
I used a tripod, my RF-602's, a bubble level, a measuring tape, and gaffer's tape in order to keep the distance, plane, and camera shake as consistent as possible. For the AF lenses I let the camera's AF system focus on the wall--for the manual focus lenses I relied on the green dot.
A word of caution--one of the lenses has an aperture of f/4.5, and being a manual focus lens with an aperture ring, there was no way to set the aperture to f/4. Since the majority of the lenses do have f/4 that's how I treated this "odd" aperture.
Sharpness Comparison f/2.8 through f/16 @ 70mm & 80mm:
Near Center 100% Crop Comparison @ f/5.6 @ 70mm & 80mm:
Sharpness Comparison f/2.8 through f/16 @ 135mm:
Sharpness Comparison f/2.8 through f/16 @ 200mm & 210mm
So which lens is sharpest? Wide open they all have vignetting and aren't overly sharp. When stopped down to the f5.6-f/8 range they're all about as sharp as each other, and vignetting disappears by f/8. Where they really differ @ f5.6-f/8 is in their nighttime performance where issues like coma creep in and the f/2.8 lenses really shine there (you'll see how they do this later on, so keep reading!).
In this test, and to my way of seeing things, the push-pull f/2.8 lens edged out all the others, but not by much. The 2 ring appears a bit soft wide open, but so did the other copy that I owned a while back, so I'm thinking it's not sample variation (unless of course I just lucked out and got a stellar copy of the Push-Pull version). The other zooms compare favorably but only stopped down, and by f/8 there's hardly any difference between the zooms. That's Nikon optics for you!
Sharpness, however, isn't all there is to a lens. In my opinion, if a lens doesn't handle well, it can have all the other things right, but it's just not one that I will use much. Zooms are heavy, and there has to be a good way to hold one to make it easy to take pictures.
So where's the corner sharpness? It's there, but I'm not going to go through and crop things just to show that. It's too time consuming. If you'd really like, you could download the image and see for yourself. But please, please, please, do not post them elsewhere without permission. Please ask.
Hue Rendition/CA/Light Transmission/Flare:
I made sure to keep the WB the same and to keep the color settings neutral, so that each len's characteristic hue would show up. I did this test wide open as that is where CA tends to show up the most.
Based on my hue/color test and the night shots I took this is the order from most light transmission to the least:
80-200 f/2.8 Push-Pull
80-200 f/2.8 2 Ring
80-200 f/4 AIS & 70-210 f/4 AF
80-200 f/4 E**
80-200 f/4.5 AI
I am unsure why but sometimes the Series E shows less light transmission than the f/4 AIS and AF, but at other times it meters the same. I've seen this indoors and outdoors. I would place it up there with the other f/4 lenses, but this inconsistent behavior keeps it below the other two.
There are no images I have that I can show you their light transmission, but believe me it varies in that order. I attribute these differences to the coatings, especially to the Series. Could it be a dud? I have no idea, but now I understand why people don't like the Series E 70-210 zoom. Build-wise it's nowhere near the AIS, and in terms of light transmission it's inconsistent with both the AF and the AIS. According to some people out there on the net, these should have the same optical formula. I don't know whether they do, but if they do, I again attribute this difference to the coatings. The f/2.8 push-pull was a bit brighter than the 2ring, which was strange, but perhaps I just ended up with a stellar copy of the push-pull version. So how much of a difference are we talking here? By what I saw, no more than a 1/4-1/3 of a stop at the most. The f/4 zooms are fairly similar, with the f/2.8's being in a league of their own.
A quick and dirty test wide open and stopped down to the sweet spot for most lenses. These were hand held, so excuse the movement. I didn't have the time to use a tripod as it would've meant missing the light from the setting sun. Conclusion: they all flare pretty badly, and I had to clean my sensor after all of these crazy tests!
Low Light Shooting:
This test was done in three stages: wide open, f/8, and f/16. The f/8 images show aspects of each lens that can't be seen with the brick wall test. It's also where you see the f/2.8 lenses shine. While the two-ring version is terrible wide open, by f/8 it leaves the other lenses in the dark. It's as sharp as anything I've ever seen, and the resolution is wonderful. This was shortly followed by the push-pull version. The 80-200 f/4 lens did fairly well and I would place it on par with the 70-210 f/4. The Series E and the f/4.5 AI were about the same, with the f/4.5 slightly edging out the Series E.
Low Light Crops comparing performance wide open and stopped down to f/8:
This is where paying extra for f/2.8 really makes a difference. The 2 ring version and the push-pull zooms stopped down to f/8 left the other lenses in the dust. What's interesting about this test is the other lenses outperformed the 2 ring version wide open, but by f/8 it won by landslide. My guess is they are probably already near their peak performance wide-open, and stopping them down improves that performance a bit; but the f/2.8 lenses improve drastically, so it's pretty obvious that f/2.8 isn't their sweet spot. Having said that, I have gotten some wonderful images out of my 2-ring version and wouldn't hesitate to crown it the winner of all these lenses. It really is worth the money because it's the only one that has a decent tripod mount that makes hand-held shooting a breeze.
If you have the money and how you handle a lens is important to you, then buy the 80-200 f/2.8 AF-D 2-ring version. It may be soft wide open, but as my images have proven it can still deliver the goods in bright daylight. Stopped down it's a beast that leaves the other lenses in the dust--and just edges out the push-pull version. It's the only one that includes a tripod mount, and that makes a world of difference when working with a lens of this caliber and weight.
If you can't afford the $650-900US that the 2-ring version costs, buy the push-pull version for $350-450US. It's just as good optically, but it doesn't handle quite as nicely. As I've mentioned, I may have lucked out on my copy because it's exceptionally sharp wide open. However, hand-holding this lens is taxing and the third-party tripod mount is nowhere near as elegant as the one found on the 2-ring lens.
If you must have AF but don't have $300-450US to spare, look to the 70-210 f/4 AF. They typically run in the neighborhood of $150-250US depending on their condition. While it is lighter to hold than the f/2.8 lenses, its AF is painfully slow and it's awkward to switch to manual focus, as you have to disengage the camera lens motor from the lens.
If you don't care about AF but want performance that's on par with the 70-210 f/4 AF, look at the 80-200 f/4 AIS. It does live up to its legendary status. Its bokeh, while not as creamy as that of the f/2.8 lenses, is still nice, and in my opinion slightly better than the 70-210 f/4 AF. The price for the legendary lens varies between $90-150US.
Of the remaining two zooms, my copy of the Series E was junk. At times it appeared to have less light transmission than the other f/4 lenses, and at other times it agreed with them. The f/4.5 was at least consistent. The bokeh was way more pleasing with the Series E than with the f/4.5 lens. I do believe both of these lenses are much better than the 80-200 f/4.5 AI MKI (the original AI with a round opening at the mount). Stopped down that lens was nice, but wide open it was soft and chromatic-aberration-central.**
So in a nutshell, you do get what you pay for with these zooms, especially if you love your bokeh to be nice and creamy.
I'd like to take a moment to say a BIG THANK YOU to my wife and son for being patient with me as I worked on this comparison. They're the ones who made this possible!
~Till my next review, rambling, or post, this is, hey, hey
**Below is a sample of how nasty CA is with the original 80-200 f/4.5 with a round opening on the mount:
CA is horrid on the original version of this lens. The square mount with a different optical formula is worlds better, but is bested by the 80-200 f/4 (by a large margin).