Review: Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens

3 lbs of glass and metal. Member of the "Holy Trinity." Touched with magic Nano coating. A staple in any Nikon pro's bag. One of the best 2.8 zooms ever created by Nikon. The 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. Let me start off by saying that if you are reading this review, and have the need for this lens, just buy it. It is flat out incredible, and easily the best zoom I have ever owned. Period.

Last year, I began shooting more and more weddings, and realized that my old Nikon 80-200 2.8 AFD lens wasn't gonna cut it anymore. AF was decent, but the lens was disappointingly soft wide open (I had to shoot it at f4), and produced weird polygon shaped bokeh b/c I had to shoot it at f4.

I decided to look into the 70-200 versions that Nikon produced. I was able to borrow the VR1 w/a D700 when I did commercial work for University of Hawaii, and loved it. fast AF, gorgeous bokeh, built like a tank. However, it had noticeable vignetting on the D700, and wasn't available new (for an investment this big, I wanted the 5 year warranty), so I decided to examine the VRII. Of course last year, the horrible tsunami disaster in Japan last year crippled Nikon's factories, and drove prices of the VRII through the roof. I remember seeing it on Amazon for $3000!!! I couldn't believe it. I decided to wait.

In the mean time, my good friend David Lau lent me his VRII on multiple occasions, allowing me to shoot everything from sports to weddings with it. This opportunity was very valuable because I got to thoroughly test the lens before purchasing it. From all the shooting I did with this lens, I basically found that it did everything the VRI did, but better. In October, prices dropped to the MSRP and I picked one up from Amazon for $2400. This review is a sum of my experiences since then. 

Build Quality

This lens costs $2400 for a good reason: it's built like a tank. Aside from its magnesium body, rubber bumpers, metal lens mount, and dampened zoom/focus rings, this lens also features weather sealing throughout, including tight shut lines and a rear gasket to guard against dust and moisture.

Being primarily a wedding photographer in Hawaii, this lens has gone to the beach a lot, and I've also shot with it in light rain. At wedding venues and commercial events, it gets bumped around a lot on chairs and doors, and this lens has held up perfectly to all the use. 

Metal lens mount with rear gasket. It's nice that the rear element is also recessed in the lens, preventing it from getting damaged. 

The switches are recessed and tough to change, which prevents accidental switching while shooting. These are my settings 95% of the time. The only thing that changes is the VR, when I absolutely need it. I'll talk about this later on in the review, but I rarely use VR and mostly keep it off. 

Nikon's gold branding of their pro-series lenses. 

The tripod mount is very well designed on the VRII. Solid metal, just like the lens, and features a quick release lever, in addition to its main metal knob, which both secure the mount to the lens. I normally leave mine off, since I use the Black Rapid strap with my cameras, and secure the strap's mount straight to the lens. Doing this keeps the lens and camera closer to my body, which helps when I need to reach for it while shooting. 

front element w/filter off

lens mount and CPU contacts

If you notice in the previous photo, I don't have the included Nikon lens hood mounted on my 70-200. If there is anything that irritates me about this lens, it's the included lens hood (on the right). It's unbelievably flimsy compared to Nikon's other pro lenses, and prevents the lens from standing on its front end. I researched an alternative hood online, and chose to go with the Fotodiox lens hood (on the left). It resembles the VRI lens hood (which I absolutely loved), plus it allows the lens to stand on its front. *Note: some blog readers just informed me that Fotodiox is no longer selling the HB-48 version...maybe check out ebay??

70-200 VRII on my D300

f2.8 | ISO 200 | 1/1600 sec 

Image Quality

Aside from a real-to-life colors (esp. skin tones) and eye-popping contrast that you get with Nikon's pro lenses, this lens is incredibly sharp wide open at 2.8. Like to the point where it's not even funny. The sharpness alone was enough justification for me to get this lens. My shooting style for telephoto has changed because of this lens, since I've been able to shoot it wide open 90% of the time, instead of stopped down like on my old 80-200 AF-D.

100% crop of the previous image. Both straight off the camera (as are most images in this post). 

When the VRII came out, the big thing for the lens was that it was designed for FX. This means aside from the corner to corner sharpness on a FX sensor, this lens also vignetted a lot less than the VRI, which supposedly was designed for DX. I'm a DX shooter, so this really hasn't affected me. However, I chose the VRII because FX is on the horizon for me :)

Vibration Reduction (VR)
This lens features the newest VRII module, which Nikon says will give you 4 stops advantage of handholding. As a photographer, I bought a lot of Nikon's older film lenses, or thirty party stuff like Sigma and Tamron when starting out (college student = limited budget), and never had VR on any of my lenses. The 70-200 VRII is actually my first VR lens that I have ever owned, and let me say, the technology blows me away. As long as the subject in front of the camera is relatively static, I can handhold to some ridiculous shutter speeds. The photo above was taken w/VR on, lens racked out at 200mm, @ f4.5 | ISO 400 | 1/20 sec. Unbelievable.

What's interesting about Nikon's VR is that since it's built into the lens, it moves the image in your viewfinder, allowing you to get a more accurate reading on composition. When the VR is active, you can hear a slight whirring and clicking in the lens. A VERY important tip: never disconnect your lens when the VR is active (not sure how you'd manage this), but supposedly this can permanently mess up the VR mechanism. 

VR, 200mm @ f2.8| ISO 640 |1/15th sec.

As mentioned earlier in the review, I leave my VR off 95% of the time. There are two reasons for this. 1. VR sucks your battery life terribly fast. The VR element is frantically moving to compensate for horizontal and vertical movement of your hands, and this action consumes a lot of juice. Granted, the VR only activates when you half press the shutter, but it still is very taxing on the camera battery. 2. I developed as a photographer without VR. This means I basically learned to shoot steady without it (i.e bracing on a railing, leaning against a wall, using a monopod, etc). Also, I find myself shooting more moving subjects (people) instead of static subjects (landscapes), making VR useful to me only in certain situations (detail shots at weddings). However, it's definitely good to have, and has gotten me crisp shots in some tight spots. 

f2.8 | ISO 200 | 1/2500 sec 

Focal Length

70-200 is a very useful focal length, and when paired with a wide zoom like a 17-55 or 24-70, you have a large focal range covered. I personally like the 70-200 past 180mm, since the compression and subject isolation both help to produce compelling images. If you look throughout this post, most images are shot around 180-200mm.

Speaking of 200mm. The VRII has been getting a lot of flak for suffering from acute focus breathing, esp. at 200mm. Some shooters say they only get the equiv. of 134mm at the 200mm end when close focusing. I must admit, I was concerned when I heard about this, but once I started using the lens, I quickly forgot about it. I'm so used to moving with my feet compose my images (half my lenses are primes), so I've never really noticed the focus breathing. But that's just me :)

f5 | ISO 400 | 1/8000 sec

This lens is very handy for candid images...

Thanks to Nikon's magical Nano Coating, this lens resists flare and ghosting very well. Part of my style is shooting straight into the sun, especially for portraits, and having the Nano coating really helps the color and contrast of my image. This example was taken at Pipeline Beach at sunset...

f4.8 | ISO 400 | 1/2500 sec

Auto Focus
For my line of work, AF performance is so critical, and this lens nails it beautifully, even in the toughest situations (pictured above). I thought the VRI focused fast...I was wrong. The AF on this lens is instantaneous, and very accurate. The lens tracks subjects well on my D300, even when I am using the outer focus points in AI servo. Part of the reason for this stellar performance in the VRII is the fact that there is only one, small glass element group that is moving when focusing. My old 80-200 focused by moving the entire front element group, which is heavy, and produces noticeable torque. The AF-S module on the VRII is also incredibly quiet and hunts far less than the old Nikon screwdriver AF lenses.

When the subject matter I photograph involves a lot of motion, I usually grab this lens. Stuff like...

f2.8 | ISO 200 | 1/4000 sec

jumping athletes at a beach volleyball tournament...

f4 | ISO 400 | 1/3200 sec

f2.8 | ISO 200 | 1/800 sec

happy, running, engaged couples...

f4 | ISO 400 | 1/2500 sec

or determined cross country runners. 

f5 | ISO 400 | 1/3200 sec

The VRII has also become my go-to lens for surfing. During the winter months, when the huge swells come in, I'm out on the North Shore with this lens and a D300...

plus a TC-17E 1.7 teleconvertor from David every now and then...

f5.6 | ISO 400 | 1/2500 sec

f5.6 | ISO 400 | 1/3200 sec

f3.2 | ISO 250 | 1/1600 sec

One of my favorite qualities of this lens :) The bokeh (as seen above), can be absolutely amazing! The only lens that matches this bokeh is my 85mm 1.4.  

bokeh at dusk...f2.8 | ISO 640 | 1/80 sec

f2.8 | ISO 400 | 1/1600 sec

f2.8 | ISO 320 | 1/2500 sec

I LOVE how this lens renders tree bokeh!! (@ f2.8)

f2.8 | ISO 800 | 1/800 sec

f2.8 | ISO 200 | 1/2500 sec

The compression and shallow DOF is also great for ring shots...f2.8 | ISO 500 | 1/320 sec

f2.8 | ISO 250 | 1/320 sec

Alright, the big question: is this lens for you?

Generally speaking, there are three groups of people:

VRI Owners:
This is tough, since the VRI is really good to begin with. Yes, the VRII does everything a little better (i.e AF speed and IQ), but it's also $500 more than the VRI, and suffers from focus breathing. The biggest advantage of the VRII over the VRI would be the absence of vignetting on FX and edge to edge sharpness. The VRI was designed for DX, while the VRII was designed for FX. If you're a VRI owner and plan to move up to FX, well, the answer is easy. If you plan to stay at DX, you probably don't need the upgrade.

3rd party 70-200 Owners:
Tamron and Sigma shooters out there...if you have the $$ and need, go for it. The VRII does everything much much better than anything a 3rd party can offer. I've shot with both the Tamron and Siggy versions, and there's a good reason they are 1/3 the price of the VRII.

New Buyers:As a 80-200 owner, I suppose I fall into this category. The VRII changed the way I use telephoto, as I can now shoot wide open to my heart's content and track virtually any moving object with this lens. If you are torn between the VRI and VRII, go with the VRII. There's enough improvements to merit its choice. Plus, the VRI is almost impossible to find new, and any new versions are usually almost as expensive as the VRII b/c of limited supply. Look at it this way: the 70-200 is not something you want to buy used, esp. with it being such a complex piece of machinery (i.e AF-S motor and VR mechanism). Nikon has a 5 year warranty on all their new lenses...might as well get it for a lens that is so costly. Finally, by getting the VRII, you ensure the best telephoto, should you choose to go FX in the future.

That's it guys! Thanks for reading, and feel free to comment below if you have any questions or feedback for me :)



  1. Nice review. I like primes, especially the bokeh results using the Nikon 105 F2DC lens, a lens that "likes" to be at F2.8. For fast action, sports, dusty conditions, it looks like the 70-200 VR2 is the lens to have. Sell the car?

  2. Wow, Thanks for the in depth review. Blown away by the ring shots too!
    I'm a VRI user and I love that lens. Now I must look into Version II

  3. @William: The VRII is the way to go for the purposes you listed. Maybe sell a couple lenses you don't use as much to fund it? :)

    @Brian: No problem! It's always fun to write a review that brings out the lens' personality. Thanks for commenting :)

  4. Hi Reese...Found your link from FredMiranda and landed here for the indepth review. Loved the pics and the EXIF info on how you achieved it. Thanks for sharing. I was bit concerned/confused on the both DX vs FX (as I own a D300 now) and VR1 vs VR2. But from what you mentioned here, DX seem to be a perfectly viable combination for this lens. Well, b/w VR1 and VR2, as a new buyer, I guess VR2 is the way to go and almost when I was thinking may be I could find a used VR2, you shot that hope down :-). Looking at a 2500$ price tag...hell the pleasure of Photography and the heartache it gets you :-)..

    It will be a feat to convince the CEO of the hosue to approve the budget...especially when I am carrying to 18-200mm Nikon lens already (well no where close to what 70-200 can offer ofcourse, and tough to explain that to the CEO;-)....

    Thanks again for such a nice read and detailed post.

    Ramesh Perla

  5. Great review.. thanks! It was one of the final ones I read before I pulled the trigger myself.

    The bokeh on your "bokeh at dusk" picture is awesome - looks as good as any 1.4 in that shot.

    Well done - SV

  6. Congratulations Scott!! It's a wonderful lens, and I really respect its capabilities. Have fun!!

  7. woww, awesome lenses from nikon, super zoom..
    Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)

  8. Good review :). I have recently purchased this lens and it is incredibly good, Shooting 200mm handheld at 1/40 is awesome and should say something about the IQ.

    Being my first pro lens I am blown away and it really does my D800 justice.



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