Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.G AFS VR II first impressions

I received my new 70-200mm AFS VR II Zoom Nikkor lens last week from Roberts Imaging after being on the waiting list since day one. Here are my first impressions using the new lens.

General Handling
The new 70-200VR is slightly shorter and fatter than the VRI, but doesn’t seem too big.  In fact, I think it feels just right in the hand.  The MF ring is smaller, and this feature, combined with a new A/M AF mode, means that you’ll be unlikely to accidentally engage MF during AF usage by bumping the MF ring.  Gone are the AF activation buttons on the end of the lens barrel (I didn’t use those on my old VRI, anyway).  The tripod foot is the same as the original, and can be replaced with an Arca-Swiss foot from RRS or Kirk— I was able to use my old foot on the new lens.
More after the jump…

AF and VR performance
In my (very unscientific) testing, AF seems a bit faster and better in dark conditions than with the earlier lens.  I’ve since sold my 70-200 VRI, so I’m unable to make direct comparisons at this time.  Either way, the AFS focusing is FAST on this lens.  The new VRII suggests that you can use this lens at shutter speeds 4-stops slower than without VR.  Using the normal math, you’d need 1/200th or faster on FX to get a reasonably sharp image at 200mm without VR.  Four stops faster would be 1/12s.  Indeed, I’m getting reliably sharp images hand-held at 1/15s, and I can occasionally get sharp shots at 1/5s!  So the new VR seems to work as advertised.  I still need to do some more testing in backlit conditions, but I think the flare/ghosting problem has been reduced.
Optical performance
The original 70-200 VR was considered a stellar lens when it first came out.  The only real drawback was its tendency to ghost/flare in back-lit conditions.  When FX format cameras appeared, significant light fall-off and corner sharpness issues became apparent.  Even stopped down, the corners on images made with the VRI appeared mushy and soft. The new VRII model is equipped with Nikon’s “Nano Crystal Coating”, and a new optical formula which appears to solve most of these issues.  The new 70-200 VRII is stunningly sharp wide open, even in the corners.  Light fall-off is moderate wide-open, but quickly disappears as you stop down (something that could not be said about the VRI).  Performance with TC-14E and TC-17EII teleconverters is also outstanding; even wide-open!
Magnification, or the lack thereof
There has been some crazy hype going around various photography forums about “focal length reduction” at close-focus distances with the VRII.  Here’s what I’m seeing. First of all, the VRI had a magnification ratio of roughly 1:6, the VRII has a magnification of 1:8.  In other words, the VRII doesn’t reproduce an image as large as the VRI.  This is most apparent at the closest focus distances; 10 feet or less.  Why?  The VRII is, like most lenses, an internal focusing design.  As a consequence, focal length is “lost” as you focus closer and closer.  That’s the trade-off you make for a lens that does not have a protruding front element.  Of course, the VRI is also an IF design, but for whatever reason the focal length “reduction” is more prominent on the VRII. My experience is this: when you look at test shots, the difference is quite apparent.  However, when you actually put this lens to use in normal situations, you really don’t notice the “issue”.  However, people who are hard-pressed to use the 70-200mm as a macro lens do have some options, like getting a Canon 500D diopter filter, using a teleconverter, or (even cheaper) using a Kenko auto extension tube.  As with all things that swirl around the Internet, it is easy to get caught up in the commotion and emotion of a small, vocal presence of people who wish negativity on everyone.  For me, I’ll continue to use this lens a LOT, and I have absolutely no regrets about selling my VRI model to offset the purchase price of the VRII.
Final thoughts
The Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G AFS VRII is a vastly better lens than its predecessor in nearly every category.  It is sharp wide-open, has better AF and VR performance, and handles TCs with ease.  Anyone who uses the current 70-200 VR on an FX body will find this lens to be an absolute upgrade, unless they make their living shooting quasi-macro shots from 5 feet away and need maximum magnification.  For DX users, the upgrade decision is not so easy, as most of the optical flaws in the 70-200 VRI are not evident on the DX frame.  However, if you shoot wide-open and use TCs a lot, then it is worth considering the VRII.  Otherwise, there will be some excellent deals for DX users looking to pick up a VRI model on the used market. 
Stay tuned and I’ll have some sample images as I get them.

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