A Nikon Alternative to the Usual 70-200mm f2.8 Lens. A very workable choice.

This lens is a Nikon 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 G VR. It got launched into the market around 2006, covers the FX frame and has second generation VR. I guess the question is, "is it good enough to use in place of the much more expensive Nikon 70-200mm models?" Of course everyone's lens use will vary and some readers will have very high standards for imaging output while others will be more than satisfied at the performance. That's just the way the granulated market falls out.

Will it be sufficient for nearly every use we would normally have for this lens's faster and pricier brethren?

I've used a number of f2.8 telephoto zoom lenses that fall into the range of 70-210mm. I owned the Sony Alpha series version as well as the Sony Alpha f4.0 version. I've owned a number of Nikon 80-200mm f2.8's (both push pull and dual ring) and I've owned versions of each from Canon). In every case, if you desperately need that full f2.8 aperture
you have no choice but to buy it. But our fascination with fast zooms, like the 70-200mm f2.8 is rooted in the our preferences from the days of film and early digital, a time period in which the one performance parameter that was less than stellar for either media was the ability to delivery high ISO performance with (even) tolerable noise. Early digital cameras were plagued with obvious noise at most ISOs over 250 or 400. In that period it made sense to chase fast glass as a way of getting the shots needed in low light will trying to maintain a reasonable shutter speed.

If we look at the situation today we find that most full frame cameras made since the "Sony chip revolution" are much, much better at delivering noise free files, sometimes at ISO up in the nose bleed range.... 6400 and even higher. At a certain point even a lens with a more modest aperture becomes adequate, if it is sharp enough. And there are other attributes to consider as well.

In this same equivalent focal range I have the 40-150mm Olympus Pro zoom lens which is a superb performer and which set me back somewhere close to $1,500. Since the used Nikon D800s constitute more of a secondary system to me there's no way I want to spent the nearly $3,000 that Nikon asks for their current 70-200mm f2.8 and, in fact, I'm always looking for cheaper alternatives that can deliver the goods for my own particular uses.

I owned the Nikon 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 G VR in the past, back when I shot originally with the D700s and D300s for the first go round. It was a lens that I didn't appreciate enough at the time but it went away in some trade deal many years ago; before I had a chance to do any rigorous testing. Lately I've played with several versions of an older, manual focus zoom in the same range; the Nikon 70-210mm f4.0-5.6. Optically it is surprisingly good but the manual zoom is a limitation for fast moving work. If we worked only with stationary subjects, camera on tripod, and focusing with live view, I imagine I could make very decent photos with the manual focus lens but the focusing screens in the D800s just aren't going to give me what I need when shooting rapidly shifting live theatre under lower stage lighting. There are many situations where the auto focus really does come in handy...

At any rate, I was out at Precision Camera asking the repair department to do what they could with my crippled 20mm lens and I chanced by the Nikon used lens case and stopped to window shop. There were no less than three of the 70-300mm lenses in very, very good shape. I got my sales associate to put one on a body and reacquainted myself with it. It was as good as I remembered. 

I mostly agree with the lens reviews I've read from most of the people online: Thom Hogan reviewed it. Ken Rockwell did his magic on it. The various lens review sites worked it over pretty well. We all came to the same conclusion: from 70-200mm it's a really solid performer. It's perfectly competent wide open, gets better to f8 and then (on all but the big pixel size cameras like the D700) succumbs to the lens lessening vagaries of diffraction from f11 and beyond. But even at 300 mm it's only slightly behind the performance it delivers at the smaller focal lengths; it's very usable if you understand that you'll need to add some contrast and maybe dick around with the clarity slider in post processing. 

For anything exterior that I would shoot it's a perfectly good substitute for the more glamorous spread of f2.8 lenses and it weighs less than half to boot. The cherry on this optical sundae is that you also get a really nice implementation of vibration reduction which will grab you back about three full stops of stabilized shutter speeds. The final word: This lens sold for nearly $700 over most of its life, in fact, it's still listed at that price, new, on Amazon.com. All the ones I handled at Precision Camera were prices at a little under $250 as "used, mint." 

I brought the lens home and immediately tested it for front or back focus and was happy to see that it did neither. I've only had it out for a walk for an hour or so this afternoon so I'll reserve final judgement for a later time. The next big test will be shooting a theatrical dress rehearsal. I will say that it's a hell of a lot nicer to carry around on a big camera than it's faster competitors.

Something to consider if you need the focal range but don't want to spend even more money on your basic gear. Seems like it would be a great Summer swim meet lens as well. 


Eric Rose said...

I had one of those 7-300's and it was a total piece of crap. Halos around anything bright. My cats white whiskers virtually glowed! I hope you have better luck. Beyond that it wasn't all that sharp either. Dumped it for an old AF 80-200 f2.8 Nikkor. Heavy as hell but really sharp.

Anonymous said...

The Tamron 70-300 is even cheaper and at least as good as the Nikon.

Ray said...

Yesterday I was at the Seattle 5th Ave Theater watching The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and thinking what a challenge it would be to photograph the play.

Wow, my hat's off to you. Lots of people on a dimly lit stage with small, rapidly moving areas of brightly lit main subjects. My answer to indoor family birthday parties is to use a bounce flash, so I don't think I'll be competing with you for business in the Live Theater sector any time in the near future.

Carry on. Report back.

Wally said...

I have one and it's good between 70-200. It gets soft between 200-300. For the money it's good for what it is.

Richard Alan Fox said...

I bought a used 70-210 4-5.6D push pull that you recommended a while back, paid less than $100 maybe $70 something, works well enough on my D800E to keep me from upgrading.
Thank you for that recommendation.

Anonymous said...

For what little it's worth, here is my take on it: I was not impressed with the 70-300, and find that the latest version of 70-200/f4 from Nikon is a far better lens. I hope you have better luck with the 70-300.

(Nikon has been my main system since 1995. Over the years, I've owned two versions of the 70-300 [AF-D, AF-G], the latest 70-200/4 [AF-S], and the older 80-200/2.8 [AF-D]. I am now using an 80-400 AF-S that I really like. I shoot more wildlife than anything in the mid-tele range of the 70-200, and couldn't afford to keep both the 80-400 and the 70-200/4. So I had to part with it, but the 70-200/4 was great - far better than the 70-300s I owned.)

Thom seems to really like the latest DX version of the 70-300, but I have no experience with it and no interest in using it. In any case, good luck with the new lens. And based on all your work I've seen here over the years, I am sure you'll get great results, regardless of the lens!


mosswings said...

Well, the 70-300's good enough from 70-200, but try doing a crop from a 300mm frame. Not pretty. And, as you might expect, the AF is really quite slow. And this is what it looks like on my DX camera.

Now, if you're shooting mostly slowly moving subjects in decent light, yeah, it's pretty great. But it's the least favored lens in my stable. But I'm not about to shell out the big bucks for the pro glass, so I suppose all this complaining is really just me being an overprivileged cheapskate... :)

Anders said...

The newest version of the 70-300mm should indeed be very good, but I haven't tried it. I tried one of the older versions, borrowed from a friend, on my then D700 and it sucked big time. No comparison to my 70-200mm f/2.8 which is the first version of the lens with VR. I would say the difference is like day and night. The first version of the 70-200mm also works great on a D810 or a D500.

Carlo Santin said...

The older Nikon 70-200 f4 is quite nice too. Not as fast but more than adequate for outdoor use. Really nice image quality on some of the older Nikon bodies, not sure how it would handle the larger megapixel cameras.

Craig Yuill said...

That model of 70-300mm lens is probably the one I use most of all. I use it mostly as a birding/wildlife lens at the longer focal lengths, but it really does excel in the 70-200mm range. I really like the smooth bokeh in the out-of-focus areas. The new AF-P version (FX format) is supposed to be even better, and should work better with the rumoured upcoming Nikon mirrorless cameras (whenever Nikon gets around to announcing and releasing them). Have fun with your new acquisition.