In everyone's rush to own their camera company's 70-200mm f2.8 many people might be overlooking a better (and cheaper) alternative.

"Greater Tuna" star, Jaston Williams, as Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol."

Ask most photographers which zoom lenses are best and most of them will reflexively answer, "The Holy Trinity of f2.8 zoom lenses!" and, for my money, they could not be more wrong. If we're looking at 70-200mm lenses from the major camera makers you'll find that the 2.8 lenses are brutally heavy and ruinously expensive. You might also find, if you actually take the time to shoot them in a direct comparison, that the same company's 70-200mm f4.0 is much sharper over a wider range of focal lengths. 

I've owned both variants in the Canon and Nikon lines as well as the Sony Alpha 70-200mm f2.8 and now the Sony 70-200mm f4.0 and I'm here to tell you that the f4.0 versions are much more fun to use, better optically corrected than their faster counterparts and a heck of a lot easier to use during a long day of shooting. 

I know a lot of you don't put much stock in DXO's lens rankings but in the Sony family the f4.0 G version of the venerable zoom is their top choice for sharpness, resolution and all around goodness in the Sony FE zoom lens catalog. I've been shooting one since the first quarter of 2016 and I find it boring because it's so reliable and flawless. No flare, no unsharp edges, no complaints.

I've pointed out before that every increase of one stop in lens manufacturing requires something like 5X the precision and machining in order to output the same quality results. And what are you really gaining?

I you are shooting a modern camera with a Sony sensors you'll find that choosing the slower lens and then increasing the ISO to cover the one stop difference will probably get you better image quality than trying to shoot a faster lens wide open. Not to mention that the sheer weight might have a stabilizing effect (inertia, mass, etc.) for the first five minutes of handholding the faster lens, the next hour or more will show up the hubris of trying to handhold a four pound dead weight. 

When I shoot stage shows at Zach Theatre with the Sony A7Rii my lens of choice is always the 70/200mm f4.0 G lens and I'm always shooting it handheld. The combination of good image stabilization and great optical performance means I can shoot all evening long at f4.0 and not compromise image quality. An added benefit is that my left arm (the one supporting the weight of camera and lens) isn't sore the next day. 

I suspect that the much denigrated Sony 24-70mm f4.0 Zeiss lens is actually better than the newer, and much lauded f2.8 G master lens of the same focal lengths. I haven't tried them but I've got this sneaky feeling that f2.8 is just a Pavlovian dodge, dangled at photographers who are old enough to remember needing faster apertures to help with manual focusing. And it's faulty knowledge that's been transmitted to following generations. 

If you are following the "teachings" of a more experienced generation you probably need to be careful,;sometimes the old rules don't apply to new technology.  


Butch said...

Uncannily useful. I yesterday acquired a Canon 6D full-frame body and the 24-105 STM lens. That sentence will tell you a lot about my income bracket. Your thoughts confirm a feeling, backed by looking at more than 500 pages of EOS 6D Flickr Group photos over the last week) that the slower lenses are ridiculously good. Thanks, Kirk.

Bob Hamilton said...

While I totally agree with the thrust of your article, I am able to advise that the Sony/Zeiss 24-70mm f4 (my copy anyway) is crap unless it is used in the sweet spot focal length range of 35mm to 55mm which is hardly the point given the focal lengths it is able to cover - anything outside of the centre 60% is very soft at all apertures and focus distances outside of this "sweet spot" of focal lengths.
The 24-70mm f2.8 G Master lens, on the other hand, while somewhat defeating the benefits of mirrorless cameras by its size and weight, is a superb lens optically and literally blows its slower stablemate out of the water.
Kind regards,
Bob Hamilton

Peter F. said...

This all makes so much sense to me. For years now I've been happy shooting in aperture priority or manual mode, while at the same time using AutoISO. I'm sure when the preordered Olympus 12-100 F4 arrives I'll operate it the same way. F4 for people and F4 to F8 for landscapes, all the while set at AutoISO. If F4 (compared to F2.8) costs me an extra stop of ISO, so be it. (If a shallower depth of field is needed, I'll switch to my a6000 and one of my Sony F1.8 primes)

Wally said...

I have to agree on the lighter lens. I use a legacy F2.8 nikon 80-200 on a D7200 and a monopod stays in the trunk so I can use "the beast".

Noons said...

Indeed! The 2.8 aperture lenses might have been important in the days of film and low iso sensors. And the odd maniac of very shallow depth of field, much better served with a wide open prime lens anyway.
Nowadays f4.0 is perfectly fine with just about any serious dslr or mirrorless camera. No need for the great dead weights of 20 years ago!

Michael Matthews said...

Good to know. Now that we're shooting routinely at speeds of Tri-X-times-4 and above it certainly makes sense. In earlier days, though, I got the impression that f/2.8 Nikon zooms were an entirely different class of lens, way beyond what I could afford. My use of them was through borrowing, of necessity. Each time I used one the result was noticeably better. I hope it wasn't just falling into the trap of thinking anything that big, heavy, and expensive must be superior. The images -- in the viewfinder, on-screen and in print -- offered the kind of clarity one experiences in looking through air that is crystal clear versus just clear. High altitude, low humidity Sierra mountains clear versus near sea level everyday ordinary. Or maybe my 3.5-5.6 lenses were just bad.

Gato said...

I've had the feeling that the newer generations of mid-range lenses are so good there is very little to be gained for the price and weight of the premium grade. Good to hear it confirmed. And that in some cases the slower lenses are even better.

With stabilization and the ISO we have available there are not many of us who really need the extra speed. If I can get equal or better image quality (and in some cases a longer zoom range) for 1/2 or 1/3 the price and a bunch less weight, I'm there.

Carlo Santin said...

Hmmm, my latest lens purchase is the Nikon 70-210mm f4, the old AF-S one I think? I paid $130 for it a few months ago. Works great on my D300, very sharp. No VR, but with a monopod I can't complain. I can't really justify the price of the big 2.8, not for my purposes.

What about someone purchasing something like the Sony RX10 II instead? Nice range at a constant 2.8, wonderful lens with a camera attached to it. Unless I'm a hardcore sports shooter working in dimly lit gyms then that would be my preference.

Shmeeko said...

Sometimes, having an aperture of 2.8 is very useful. I know that's not what Mr. Tuck is saying here and I have to agree with him on most everything he does say about the matter.

As a Canon user, I tried very hard to justify the extra cost and weight (especially the weight) of the 70-200mm f2.8. Ended up getting the f4 IS instead and I've never regretted my decision. It's perfectly sharp wide open, well balanced and very easy to handle.
Interestingly, when I tried a borrowed or rented f2.8 version, it wasn't as sharp wide open. Kinda defeats the purpose.

Anthony Bridges said...

I've had my Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS for almost seven years now. I use it mostly for portraits and the occasional event. At first I shot it at f/2.8. I needed to do extra sharpening in post. Nowadays, I shoot it at f/3.2 instead for this purpose.

I heard the II of this lens is sharper at f/2.8. That lens is $1950. The 70-200 f/4 IS is $1100 and has good reviews. F/3.2 and f/4.0 is not that different.

Norm Snyder said...

Something [well, my own experience] tells me that the same principles apply to prime lenses, as well. I recall much preferring my 90mm Tele-elmarit to the much heavier Summicron. In exchange for a lot less weight, I sacrificed one f-stop, and gave my neck or shoulder a break over the course of the day. At f4, I could barely tell them apart. The Summicron was, of course, cooler...

James Weekes said...

Well, now you've got me steamed. I have a beautiful 12-35 f/2.8 lens on my Micro 4/3 gear, and love it. The only wish I have is when I travel, If it could shrink a bit. Nobody in Micro 4/3 land seems to make a 12-35 f/4.0. Do you know of any?

Jim Hughes said...

I had the Nikon 70-200 f2.8 and sold it to buy the f4 version because of the weight, and have never been sorry. The f4 is gorgeous wide open, has great image stabilization, and is easy to carry.