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Review: 200mm f/2G ED-IF VR Nikkor


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Editorial note: this is a republished review from Bjørn's website.

In a truly inscrutable and Oriental way, Nikon engineers took a number of people by surprise when the AFS 200 mm VR Nikkor was launched. The old 200/2 Nikkor had been one of the least known of the long Nikkors of its time. I belonged to the surprised lot, and since 200/2 always had been one of my favourite optical weapons, I grabbed the very first of these lenses arriving to Norway.

It’s no secret I’m a big fan of the great lenses of yesterday. They were built to last with a workmanship rarely if ever seen in today's products. The new AFS 200 mm f/2 G ED-IF VR Nikkor (phew – what a convoluted mess Nikon lens nomenclature is these days) sports a passable resemblance to those earlier lenses in its design and craftmanship. True, much of the lettering and numerals are just printed and probably won’t last long, but otherwise all buttons and levers are genuinely crafted and easy to use, the manual focusing collars turns in a buttery smooth fashion, and there even is a rubber gasket to the rear to impede ingress of dirt and rain. On the downside, there is "G" technology meaning you have to set the apertures from the camera, a way of working which I still find inefficient, clumsy and frustratingly slow. I own 3 different "G" lenses by now (12-24 DX, 17-55 DX and the 200 VR Nikkors), and my critical attitude towards "G" is unabated. I cannot sway away Nikon engineers from plodding along their designated track, but at least I can voice my concern. Yes, I can and I will continue to do so.

There are enough controls and locking buttons on this lens to satisfy even a Hi-Fi freak and I had to spend quite a long time in order to try learning to operate all of these. My son, comfortable with VCR recorders, proved much needed assistance in this endeavour.

There are numerous choices for VR activity (on/off, normal or active mode), locking focus, commencing AF focusing, memory set, memory recall, sound signals on or off, focusing ranges and so on. In my narrow-minded opinion, darkened by an aversion against Oriental VCR recorders and their equally incomprehensive user manuals, the controls just detract from normal operation of the lens. Murphy’s Law assures the control switch will be in a wrong position the critical moment you need any of these features. However, I admit the designers likely considered more broad-minded users than me when they implemented the impressive array of control features found on the VR lens. Sports photographers, for example, should have tons of possibilities to set up the lens the exact way they need. Personally I found a useful setup for myself and then just glued the controls into a fixed position using epoxy glue (hey, it’s my own lens, I have purchased it and can do whatever I want with it).

The AFS 200 Nikkor comes with a big soft-pouch bag holding the lens with a reversed hood and a camera. The accompanying hood HK-31 flares out way too much for my liking, so I quickly replaced it with the more appropriate and narrower HK-19 (from AFS 300/2.8 ). The HK-19 won’t reverse onto the VR lens of course, but with my quick-release plate (see below) affixed to the tripod collar, neither would the original hood. The young ones in your family are ideal targets for getting rid of the superfluous pouch, by the way. It makes a really nice holiday or hiking backpack.

The tripod collars of modern long Nikkors have been a very mixed blessing. The one of the VR lens is amongst the better designed and the foot below, sitting low onto the collar, gives minor leverage to degrade stability on a tripod. However, it isn’t as sturdily built as I for one wish, there is just a single screw hole for mounting, and the two parts are bolted together with four rather small screws. So, despite its promising external appearance, the tripod mount really is inadequate and allows to let the lens vibrate freely on its own. Not the way I want a bulky lens (mis)behave on a tripod for sure. I added a massively dimensioned plate made of 15 mm aluminium, and drilled another ¼" hole to secure the entire assembly and making it impossible to twist. Still far from perfect, but improved and that’ll do for now.

Compared to its manual-focus predecessor, the new AFS lens is a few centimeters shorter, its outline a little thinner, and the weight greater by some 0.5 kg. All of this contributes to an unexpected heft when you lift the lens for the first time. The human mind simply isn’t expecting this lens to be a true boat anchor. Shooting with it hand-held for some time is a challenge and you need the occasional break to relieve your back and arms. Nice then that the lens is meant to be put down resting on its lens hood or front, both of which are equipped with thick rubber rims to prevent damage.

The AFS speed of this lens is very fast and focusing is reliable thanks to the bright view it offers through the viewfinder. Manual operation of the lens is easy thanks to the generously sized focusing collar and its smooth movement. With all its electronic gimmickery and AFS motor, it's no wonder that the VR lens will exert a considerable drain on the camera's battery. I would estimate that my D2H lost about 40% of its total power due to the use of the VR lens, so keep a spare battery at hand for any important assignment involving this gear.

Image sharpness

In optical terms this AFS lens is more complex than the predecessor, having no less than 3 ED and a "Super ED" glass within its total of 13 elements. The lens protector in front, which used to be an optical flat on earlier Nikon telephoto lenses, now actually is glass having a negative (meniscus) power, so perhaps should be included in the design as well, bringing the total to 14 elements. The lens coating is improved likewise, and lens flare is kept well under control for such a fast lens. However, signifcant ghosting can be induced when the lens is pointed towards the sun. In all fairness it should be stressed that the manual-focus 200 mm f/2 Nikkor behaved far worse in both areas than the new VR lens.

The AFS 200 mm f/2 VR delivers sharper images than can be resolved by the current line of Nikon DSLRs. Simple as that. I no longer test lenses using film so cannot say whether the same behaviour should occur there, but nothing indicates otherwise since performance of 35 mm film is long surpassed by the best digital systems.

Set wide open, the 200 VR delivers bitingly sharp images with just a minute trace of softness and veiling flare, and stopped down one or two stops more it delivers even sharper images with higher contrast as well. From near f/16 to the minimum at f/22, diffraction effects gradually soften the image and lower the contrast, but as this only can be perceived by direct comparison to the performance further up the aperture scale, the lens convinces even at these small aperture settings. All all apertures the image has a perfectly flat field across the entire frame and if there is a light fall-off towards the corners at the wide apertures, I probably would have to use sophisticated lab measuring gear to detect this.

I compared the new lens to its manual brother, the 200/2 ED-IF Nikkor (AIS), and the VR lens delivers equal or better performance at all stops. Contrast is higher, too, and colour saturation is markedly better. The vestiges of chromatic aberration, minute as they were in the MF lens, are virtually non-detectable in the VR model. Thus, you are ensured of getting crisp images coming to life with vividly saturated colours.

The optical performance of the 200 VR was very well maintained when I shot a test series using it in combination with the TC-14E MkII teleconverter. In general, my attitude towards teleconverters has been luke-warm at best. However, I'm pleased to report that image quality of the 200 plus TC-14 combination is a close rival to that of my AFS 300 mm f/2.8 Nikkor, a very fine performance indeed. My test shots indicated the image contrast, quite unexpected, actually increased when the TC-14E/II was attached. A strange and rare form of optical synergy.

Vibration reduction (VR)

Is vibration reduction (VR) technology really the panacea to say good-bye to all unsharp images? Well, yes and no, presumably depending on your needs and ways of shooting. The technology undoubtedly may work miracles and I even managed to get a critically sharp shot at 1/10 sec hand-held, and as long as 1/5 sec with some additional support. For my notoriously shaky hands this is just phenomenal. The master VR control is located on a rotating ring to the rear of the lens. This method works much better than on other VR lenses because you can operate it by touch, there is no need to remove your eye from the viewfinder to locate the switch. I tend to select VR "Normal" mode for most of my VR-assisted shooting. The image in the viewfinder does meander a bit, but since it moves slowly, I didn't notice the feeling of seasickness I've experienced with the 70-200 VR zoom. With VR set to "Active" mode, the finder jumps more haphazardly around, but still no problem as this mode suits shooting from boats or moving vehicles, shooting circumstances than I personally can do without and accordingly try to avoid, thus killing at least two birds with one stone.

A pertinent question always lingering on my mind is whether VR influences image quality. In order to come to grips with possible ill effects of VR, I have done extensive test shooting with the 200 VR lens mounted on a high-quality, professional calibre tripod (Sachtler ENG 2 HD with the Burzynski "Protech" tripod head). For all shots, I allowed VR to run for about 1 minute to ensure it had all the vibration data it possibly could crave for, before I tripped the shutter using a cable release.

The data indicate clearly that VR does indeed degrade image quality when the lens is tripod-mounted. If the shutted speed is fast, you won’t experience this to any large extent, however, increase the exposure duration and you might be less fortunate. And to exacerbate the situation, there is a broad range of shutter speeds in which VR negatively impacts image sharpness even to degree of making the image downright unsharp. The problem area creeps in at around 1/60 sec and is fully developed at 1/15 – 1/20 sec. At slower speeds, the issue of image deterioration gradually diminishes and is largely gone by 1 sec or so. However, you get the occasional jolted picture even at such long exposures, so the message coming through, loud and clear, is simply as follows: Don’t mix VR with quality tripods.

I arrived at these results, which admittedly weren’t exactly unexpected, by carefully comparing images taken with and with VR switched on, using my D2H camera at its ISO 200 setting. All NEF files were processed in Bibble 4.0 (courtesy Eric Hyman of www.bibblelabs.com). Since everything else were kept constant, except for VR activity of course, I firmly believe this mediocre performance of VR technology is for real and not exceptional for my way of shooting with the AFS 200/2 VR lens. This is not a question of camera shake or mirror slap, because I consistently get sharp images when VR is not activated, also across the entire range of shutter speeds shown to be problematic with VR.

So, what is Nikon’s take on such issues. Officially, the brochure accompanying the lens claims there is no need to switch VR off for tripod use. We know by now this simply isn’t true. However, Nikon partially admits this statement isn’t entirely correct by adding a vague phrase about "unlocked tripod heads". Having a firmly locked tripod head ensures you will get the exact framing of the image which you may need, so unlocking the head just to allow VR to function better is not the optimal solution for many shooting occasions. You’ll be better served by moving the VR slider to the OFF position. On the other hand, if you have a lesser quality tripod, shoot fast-moving subjects, plan to do panning shots at slow shutter speeds, or simply need the tripod to ease the weight of the lens off your back, then VR might continue to be a welcome functionality and the lack of a clamped-down tripod head might not be entirely critical. You do have to know that VR can be a mixed blessing to fully appreciate its bright side and to avoid the darker side of its sophisticated technology.

Bokeh

You would expect a long, fast lens to render the background pleasantly unsharp. The manual precedessor, the 200/2, did this and the AFS version does it one better. In fact, it has about the nicest bokeh of any lens I’ve ever used. So soft, veiled and delicate as baby’s skin. Designating the out-of-focus rendition of this lens as "Creamy " isn’t encompassing enough, there are much more to it than that.

I find interesting differences in the tactility of out-of-focus rendition between the MF and VR 200 Nikkors, however. The old lens by way of its lower image contrast imparts a roundness to the entire image, often very attractive, but nowhere as endearing as the better defined yet buttery soft bokeh of the VR lens.

The Summing Up

Nikon has managed to come up with a lens which surely is one of the finest ever to emerge from the Land of the Rising Sun. My criticism of the newcomer is just nitpicking and should not detract anyone willing to put down the money to get a 200 VR lens for themselves. They won't regret it. This lens is a dream to work with and the results are a match made in heaven, too. This is simply the one lens I'm not willing to let go, a sure must-have. It is so good that I for once am willing to overlook its pitiful tripod mount.

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