Without a doubt, one of the most popular and useful pieces of gear a photographer can own is the 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto lens. This lens is so amazing that it has become a staple for photographers shooting wildlife, portraits, headshots, sports, weddings, events, and even landscape photography. With Nikon and Tamron both recently updating their version of this lens, we thought it would be a great time to review them side by side and definitively name one as the "best bang for the buck."
These days the market seems to be flooded with 70-200mm telephoto lenses and choosing the best one for your specific needs can be tricky. If you are looking to buy a new lens for your DSLR camera, the most obvious place to look for a compatible lens is through the manufacturer themselves. This means if you own a Canon or Nikon camera, the most logical option would simply be to buy the lens made by that particular brand. The problem with buying professional lenses directly from the camera manufacturer is that they are expensive. The advantage of buying a flagship lens straight from the likes of Sony, Nikon, or Canon used to be that you knew you were getting the absolute best in image quality, build quality, and focus speed.
If you aren't willing to shell out the big bucks for a first-party lens, what other options do you have? In the past, third-party companies like Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina were viewed as a budget alternatives and often scoffed at by "professionals." These lenses were often not as sharp as their Nikon and Canon counterparts and the overall design and extra features almost always left a lot to be desired. Those days, however, are thankfully long gone. In the past 4 to 5 years, Tamron and Sigma have both completely revamped their approach to lens making and photographers everywhere are taking notice. Gone are the days of third-party lens manufacturers taking a back seat to "the Big Three," and in some cases Tamron and Sigma are actually producing lenses that outperform their competition.
The Inspiration for this Review
For the last month or so, I have been traveling throughout Italy, the United Arab Emirates, and the American West filming and producing Elia Locardi's next installment of "Photographing the World." If you have seen the behind the scenes from that series then you probably know that all of the telephoto images and videos were shot using one of our three Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II lenses. This lens has been our main workhorse lens for weddings and portraits for over five years so it's safe to say we know this lens forwards and backwards. I was intrigued when Tamron asked if we would replace our trusty Nikkor lens with their own version, the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC SP. While traveling throughout the Italian Amalphi Coast and the deserts of Dubai, the Tamron telephoto became the new companion for our favorite photo and video lens, the amazing Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC lens (our original review of that lens is here). Once Lee and I landed back on American soil, Tamron offered to trade out this SP lens for the brand spanking new Tamron 70-200mm Di VC G2 version of their popular telephoto lens. After a few weeks filming some of the most beautiful places in the deserts of Utah and Arizona, I thought it would be interesting to conduct a thorough side-by-side comparison — a shootout if you will — of both Tamron lenses against the two most recent versions of Nikon's 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.
As mentioned above, Lee and I are primarily Nikon shooters although we are in the process of switching over to Panasonic (more articles on that soon). Between the two of us, we have personally owned about six different Nikon "70-200mm" lenses throughout our careers. We have owned the 80-200mm f/2.8 Two Ring version, the more rare 80-200mm AF-S, the first Nikkor VR I version, and now we currently own three copies of the Nikkor VR II lens. This has always been my favorite lens I've owned and if given the opportunity, I usually try my best to create an image using this lens over any of the other lenses in my camera bag. Like all of the lenses in this review, the VR II has a fast focusing Silent Wave Motor (SWM), Vibration Reduction control, and of course a wide f/2.8 aperture for shooting in low light and maximizing that blurry bokeh background photographers love. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't even aware that Nikon had updated this lens because it was already so good, but that leads us to the next lens in this test.
Recently, Nikon updated this flagship lens with the new 70-200mm f/2.8 VR ED FL lens. It boasts a lot of new features like fluorite lenses, a new electromagnetic aperture control mechanism, a new vibration reduction system, and is constructed out of a new magnesium-alloy. Honestly, I've never been super impressed with all the latest and greatest marketing lingo as long as the resulting images are objectively better. Since this lens is now considered the flagship of all flagships in the 70-200mm world (yes even among Canon glass), it only seemed fitting that we include this lens too in our comparisons. Since I believe Nikon is still the absolute leader in image quality, I was excited to see how much better this lens was to my own Nikkor lens, especially since the price is a whopping $2,700.
The Tamron flagship telephoto lens for years has been their 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC lens. Like I said before, I had no prior experience with this lens until I took it with us to Europe in January. Since I have exclusively owned Nikon's version of this lens for my entire photographic career, I do have to admit I did look down on this lens a bit. The styling and clunkiness of it seems a bit dated, and although Tamron's similar looking 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC lens has completely replaced my Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8, I do find myself waiting patiently for Tamron to update that lens too. However, after reading a bunch of general reviews of this lens, I started to see how much people actually love this lens. This telephoto lens, which I'm going to call the SP throughout this article, has always been around $1,200 which is a great bargain compared to the pricier Nikon versions. It also has many of the most desirable features that its Nikon counterpart has too, such as Vibration Compensation, an Ultra Silent Drive Motor, and fancy micro-coated glass elements. Overall this lens never jumped out at me because I already owned the flagship from Nikon but I was curious to see how it compared because so many people ask me if it is a good option when the more expensive Canon and Nikon lenses are beyond their budget.
Now that you know exactly what four lenses are included into this test, let me summarize the findings shown in the video above.
Focus Breathing Test
It was only recently that I heard the phrase "focus breathing," and honestly it didn't seem like that big of a deal to me. The basic concept behind focus breathing is that unlike expensive cine lenses used for video, most DSLR lenses do not hold their true field of view when focus is adjusted. Fstoppers writer Tihomir Lazarov posted a great article about the difference between cinema lenses and DSLR lenses, and in that article he shares a great video showcasing how this phenomenon works.
Apparently when the Nikon VR II lens was released years ago, the Internet was up in arms about how poorly that lens performed near its minimum focusing distance. Compared to prior versions of the lens, the overall magnification at 200mm and around 4-5 feet was significantly worse on the Nikkor VR II. This means if you enjoy shooting detail shots at a wedding, tight headshots, products, or other types of images that border on the edge of macro photography, you were bound to be disappointed that your new $2,300-plus lens actually performed worse than its predecessor.
Normally I would not care to even run this test because in the real world I don't think this would affect me much. Although I did notice this decrease in zoom at 200mm when shooting weddings, it was never enough to make me question my purchase. Also since I do own a few macro lenses and the massive increase in megapixels in today's cameras has made digital cropping acceptable, I can't think of many situations where lens breathing would make or break my day. But since this is a highly discussed topic online and it would potentially present problems in the "apples to apples" sharpness test coming up, I figured this would be a great first test.
As you can see in the images above, every lens displayed significant focus breathing at 200mm when shot at or near the minimum focusing distance. Because the VR II lens had the worst minimum focusing distance, I placed the camera 4.6 feet away for this particular test. The total zoom or reach on the Nikon FL lens is pretty obvious and in some certain situations could offer an advantage over the other lenses, but if we are absolutely honest with ourselves, I don't think this test alone would cause me to choose the much pricier Nikon FL lens over any of the others. Shockingly, all three of the other lenses almost look identical. As you can see in the video review, this focus breathing problem becomes less and less noticeable as you move the camera further and further away.
Winner: NikKor VR ED FL
Perhaps the most important test everyone wants to see when comparing a group of lenses like this is the sharpness test. Which one of these lenses is the sharpest? Now if you have ever tried to conduct your own sharpness test you very well know that there are a million variables that can skew your results. Some of those include getting a bad copy of a lens, camera shake inadvertently being introduced into the test, VR being left on, was in-camera micro adjustments made for every lens, what f-stop was used, which focal length was used, and on and on the list can go. Although my college days were spent in biology and chemistry labs, I'm the first person to tell you that if you want the most scientific test with MTF charts and multiple focal length comparisons using those goofy ass charts everyone buys then please wait for the more technical reviewers to release their comparisons. As a wedding and portrait photographer, the main thing I was interested in was how sharp are these three lenses wide open at f/2.8 and zoomed it at 200mm? I've found that this focal length is the hardest to nail tack sharp images at and in most journalistic style situations I'm going to be shooting wide open.
Because so many people are going to be curious about this test, I've decided to release the actual Photoshop file I created so that you too can download it, zoom around, and come up with your own conclusions. As mentioned in the video and as seen in the previous test, the Nikon FL lens did produce a slightly more zoomed in image at 200mm than the other lenses. In order to compare all four images easily, I aligned everything in Photoshop which did have to stretch three of the images in order to line them up accurately to the image shot with the Nikkor FL lens. This probably does give a slight disadvantage to the other lenses but since the three other lenses produced photographs that were so similar in field of view, the alignment affect is pretty negligible at least among those three images.
The first conclusion I can definitively say is that the Nikon FL lens is clearly the sharpest overall. From corner to corner, this lens shows the most detail out of the group.
The second takeaway is that the Nikon VR II lens is very inconsistent from edge to edge. In the center of the frame, this lens is perhaps the second most sharp but if you look at the Ditto or the Diamond Compressor you can clearly see that both the Tamron lenses are much sharper. This could be because the VR II lens is the oldest lens of the group and the other lenses are almost brand new. We do send in our lenses to be serviced about once a year but it is hard to say exactly why the Nikkor VR II lens is so soft in this test. Even though the VR II lens might be a little more sharp than either of the Tamron lenses in the center of the frame, I am going to rank this lens last because of how soft it is around the edges.
The third conclusion I can make from this test is that the Tamron SP lens seems to be ever so slightly more sharp than the newer G2 lens. You can really see this in the corners and pretty much on every small piece of text. Overall though, I think both of these lenses are extremely sharp all things considered.
Winner: Nikkor VR ED FL
Autofocus Tracking Test
If you shoot sports, weddings, or any event where your subject is going to be moving quickly, you know how important accurate and fast autofocusing can be. Speedy autofocus is accomplished in part by the camera itself and also in part from the lens. All of these lenses have the newest electronic focusing mechanisms which are leagues better than the old mechanical drive shafts you would find in lenses like the Nikon 80-200mm. I wasn't sure if there would be enough of a difference in each of these lenses to definitively say one was better than the other but it was worth testing.
For this test I used a single Nikon D750 set to AF-C or Continuous-Servo mode and set the autofocus points to Group. This group setting is a newer autofocus option only available in Nikon's newest cameras but I have found that it is my favorite AF mode because it acts like a single point while giving you the ability to track your subject with multiple autofocus sensors. Finally, the camera was also set to Continuous Shooting Low which allows me to fire off about five frames per second. In order to average out any inconsistencies, I had Leo the dog run towards the camera three separate times per lens. I then simply counted each image that was in focus against the total number of images shot.
The most accurate camera/lens combination was with the Nikon VR II which had 81 percent of the images in focus. The Nikon FL lens came in second with 75 percent of the images in focus. For the two Tamron lenses, the G2 had 67 percent of the images in focus and the SP was right at 48 percent in focus. Overall it was interesting to see that the older Nikkor lens beat their newest lens but honestly these numbers are all pretty close. All of these lenses would be able to have about 7-8 images in focus out of 10 except the Tamron SP which was correctly locking onto about 5 images out of 10.
Winner: Nikkor VR II
Image stabilization is extremely important when using a long lens at slower shutter speeds. This is a feature I really think every photographer should make a priority when buying a professional-level telephoto. If you find yourself in a low light situation like shooting a wedding in a church or outside at dusk or if you are trying to take photos from a moving boat or unstable platform of some kind, VR is going to be an invaluable tool in creating the sharpest images possible.
I wanted to make this test as visual as possible so instead of shooting photos at a slow shutter, I opted to put the camera in live view and film video. Stabilization is even more important with video because it is much more difficult to capture usable video footage handheld than it is to snap a sharp photograph with a slow shutter. The results of this test are pretty obvious as you can clearly see that the Tamron vibration compensation appears more organic and natural. Nikon's vibration reduction, while extremely useful for still photos, seems to move in a more robotic and mechanical way. The image jumps around unpredictably and overall is less pleasing to the eye. If you are only concerned with taking still photographs this probably isn't as big of a deal as it would be for video work but you also might wind up with a composition slightly different than what you saw when you pressed the shutter. When we compared Tamron's 24-70mm f/2.8 VC lens years ago, we noticed then that Tamron's VC was superior to both Nikon and Sigma's in camera stabilization.
Winner: Tamron G2 with the SP looking almost identical
As I mentioned in the video review, it's pretty frustrating to get to the end of a review and not have a definitive answer on what is the best overall lens. On one hand, the Nikkor VR ED FL lens is clearly the sharpest lens of the bunch and it also has the greatest magnification of all the lenses. However, this lens costs over twice as much as the Tamron SP lens which performed very admirably in most of the tests. In my opinion Nikon is getting a little crazy with their lens prices (don't believe me, check out the Nikkor 19mm PC versus the Canon 17mm Tilt) and the truth of the matter is the competition is getting much, much better. With some of the ultra-wide-angle lenses and primes, Nikon actually isn't the top dog anymore.
When it comes to Tamron, I think they have an absolute winner with their new 70-200mm Di VC G2 lens. Not only is it designed really well but it's also extremely sharp, does really well with fast focusing, and has some of the best image stabilization found in any lens period. If you are on a budget and spending the extra $300 is just outside of your reach, the Tamron SP 70-200mm is still an incredible value and would be an excellent lens for those just getting their first f/2.8 telephoto.
As for the lens I actually own, I do not really see any reason to buy the older Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II lens because it clearly sits right in the middle. On one hand, you know you aren't buying the absolute sharpest lens Nikon makes, but on the other hand you are paying a significant $800 premium for the Nikon name when both of the Tamron lenses are equally as sharp if not even better.
So with all that being said, to answer the question in the title of this article:
Which Telephoto Lens is Best For the Money: Tamron 70 - 200 G2
Which Telephoto Lens Is The Best Regardless of Cost: Nikkor 70 - 200 VR FL