ED AF VR
by Jim McGee
While testing with this lens I was approached several times by curious Nikon shooters. They talked about vibration reduction as if it were the answer to all photographic problems. It's not. Let's face it, if it were, Canon would have put Nikon out of business by now!
So let's forget about vibration reduction and talk about the lens first and then about what vibration reduction will and won't do for you. The lens is worth talking about even without the VR.
The optics are first rate throughout its wide zoom range. The optical package consists of 17 elements in 11 groups. Three of those elements are ED glass which helps maintain sharpness and prevent color fringing at longer focal lengths. Pick it up and you can feel the effect of all that glass. This lens is no lightweight at 47 ounces with the tripod mount attached. That makes it a touch heavier than the venerable 80-200mm f2.8. Remove the tripod collar for handheld shooting and you drop 7 ounces bringing the weight down to around 40 ounces. But while its no lightweight, it is well balanced, especially when mounted to a heavier body such as the F100 or F5. A rounded 9 blade diaphragm opening provides pleasingly soft out of focus backgrounds for isolating subjects and making those subjects pop out from the background.
The lens has an attractive matte black finish and sports a two-ring design for focus and zoom. The rings are rubberized and ribbed, making them easy to find by feel when your eye is to the viewfinder and easy to grip, even with wet hands. The focus ring is smooth and well damped - as you would expect from a pro-level lens. The zoom ring is biased slightly on the stiff side to prevent creep when pointing the lens upward. Run it out to 400mm and point it straight up. It won't move. Filter size is 77mm, a common size for those shooting higher end Nikon glass.
A feature I really liked was the manual/auto switch design. A narrow third ring, instead of a switch, located just inboard of the focus ring makes it easy to switch quickly over to manual focus by feel to tweak your focus "just so" before pressing the shutter. The switch can also be locked out in either position to prevent accidentally switching modes; but it's hardly necessary. I kept it in the unlocked position the entire time I had the lens and never once had it slip positions. A limit switch helps prevent autofocus hunting.
Extras included with the lens include a soft case made of ballistic nylon that can be adapted to work with interchangeable systems from Tamrac and Lowepro. A serious hard lens hood is included that can be reversed for storage. A removable, hefty, rotating tripod mount is included.
Compatibility & Teleconverters
Body compatibility is a different issue. Nikon is justifiably proud of the fact that it has now produced over 30 million F-mount lenses. In theory any F-mount lens will work with any Nikon body going back to the original Nikon F camera first produced over 40 years ago.
Reality isn't quite as neat as the theory. Owners of new generations of both lenses and bodies learn there are idiosyncrasies of how metering and focus technologies work together or in some cases won't work together. The introduction of VR technology is no exception. Vibration reduction required additional electrical contacts on the lens mount. That means the vibration reduction function will only work with some current and future Nikon bodies. On those bodies not compatible with VR, the lens functions like any other Nikon D lens. Currently compatible bodies include the F5, F100, F80/N80, D1H, D1X, and the D100. The entry level N55 & N65 are not VR compatible.
Kissing Cousins the VR and the 80-200mm f2.8
It really depends on your shooting style. These lenses solve two different problems. With its vibration reduction technology the VR can shoot in low light right alongside the 80-200mm. Both are rugged and both have sharp optics. But the VR can't match the 80-200mm for its ability to isolate a subject in that 80-200mm range. At 400mm it does a great job, remember depth of field decreases with focal length, but whether you're shooting runway models or wildlife the 80-200mm will provide that additional isolation in its focal range.
Shooting both lenses side by side I did get one surprise. The VR was better balanced for handholding - noticeably so. The 80-200mm had never felt unbalanced to me in the past, but when shooting the two lenses back to back the 80-200mm felt front heavy by comparison.
The rule of thumb is you shouldn't hand hold past one over the focal length that you're shooting or 1/400th of a second at 400mm. Nikon claims that vibration reduction will allow you to pick up an additional 3 stops handheld. If you already have a steady hand, VR conceivably allows you to shoot at shutter speeds well beyond that formula. As I processed more rolls of shots taken with this lens I became increasingly open to taking shots at shutter speeds that bordered on ridiculous and found myself amazed at the results. This image of the baby osprey in its nest was taken from a sailboat bucking through light chop in the Chesapeake Bay. It was shot handheld at 400mm and yet its tack sharp. There is just no way I could have gotten that shot without vibration reduction. The system in the VR also picks up when you are panning with a moving subject.
Vibration reduction is turned on and off via a three position switch on the left side of the lens. VR mode 1 reduces vibration from the moment the shutter is lightly pressed and the meter is activated. This allows you to see the effect in the viewfinder. Mode 2 only activates VR when the shutter is fully depressed. Since the viewfinder is blacked out at that moment you don't see the effect in the viewfinder. Mode 1 definitely creates more drain on the batteries since VR is active much longer, but I found this to be the mode I used most since it gave me a feel for how effective it would be in the final image.
Look for a detailed article on how both vibration reduction and image stabilization work in an upcoming issue.
In Use The lens was a joy to use and the more I used it the more I pushed the limits of the vibration reduction. Images were of the sharpness that you expect from a professional lens in this price range. Center and edge sharpness were excellent out to 300mm. From 300mm to 400mm shooting wide open a little edge softness was creeping in. But this only showed up in a test shot designed to look for it. In reality at 400mm you're usually isolating a subject shooting wide open and blurring the background so any softness in the corners is a moot point anyway. If your subject requires sharpness out to the edges just stop down to f8 and the images were sharp edge to edge at 400mm. Color and contrast were excellent and there was no color fringing at 400mm thanks to the ED elements. The only addition I would make would be to add rings for a camera strap to the lens body. Though it's not a monster like the 300mm f2.8, at almost 3lbs I'd feel a little better if the strap was to the lens rather than the camera body.
However street prices for this lens in the $1,400 to $1,500 dollar range will limit its use to pros and those who are serious about their photography.