Astonishing Images, Finally Focused: Nikon 70-200mm F2.8 VR S Review

The bokeh on the Nikon Z 70-200mm f2.8 VR S is delicious, but the autofocus lags.

The 70-200mm f2.8 lens is meant to be a workhorse lens that can move seamlessly from one genre to the next. Now, Nikon has brought that workhorse to the Z mount system. The Nikon Z 70-200mm f2.8 VR S is a $2,600 lens that boasts closer autofocus and lighter weight than competing lenses. And, as the name suggests, it pairs a lens stabilization system with the in-body system on many Z bodies.

The Nikon Z 70-200mm f2.8 VR S continues with the excellent sharpness, bokeh, and colors that I’ve come to expect from a Z mount lens. The quality, in fact, even comes close to a prime lens. A workhorse lens needs to deliver top performance, and Nikon’s Z bodies are a bit behind the competition. Can dual autofocus motors give the Z 70-200mm the workhorse ability to move from portraits to sports? While the lens is near perfection, performance is slightly stunted by the Z body.

Editor’s Note: We’ve updated this post as of May 2021.

Too Long, Didn’t Read

The Nikon Z 70-200mm f2.8 VR S delivers superb bokeh, sharpness, and color all inside a lens that’s lighter and focuses closer than similar lenses. And with a firmware update on the Z6 II, it’s no longer horrible for sports.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Spectacular bokeh and color
  • Excellent sharpness
  • Weather-sealed
  • Plenty of controls
  • Much closer focusing than other 70-200mm lenses
  • Stabilized

Cons

  • Autofocus missed about 20 percent of the time for sports
  • Hood lock is annoying but does loosen up with use

Gear Used

I paired this lens with the Nikon Z 6 II body.

Innovations

Most 70-200mm f2.8 lenses have a minimum focus distance of more than three feet. The Nikon Z 70-200mm f2.8 VR S can focus from just 1.64 feet away at the widest angle and 3.28 feet away at full zoom. That’s due in part to Nikon’s new multi-focusing system, which uses two motors for faster autofocusing and less aberration. By comparison, Nikon’s similar F-Mount lens and lenses from Sigma and optics for other systems like Sony has a minimum focus distance of more than three feet. Canon’s mirrorless 70-200mm f2.8 comes closer at 2.3 feet.

Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR S Tech Specs

These tech specs were taken directly from the Nikon USA website:

  • Zoom Ratio: 2.9x 
  • Maximum Aperture: f/ 2.8 
  • Minimum Aperture: f/ 22 
  • Format: FX 
  • Maximum Angle of View (DX-format): 22°50′ 
  • Minimum Angle of View (DX-format):  
  • Maximum Angle of View (FX-format): 34°20′ 
  • Minimum Angle of View (FX-format): 12°20′ 
  • Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 0.2x 
  • Lens Elements: 21 
  • Lens Groups: 18 
  • VR (Vibration Reduction) Image Stabilization: Yes Lens shift using voice coil motors (VCMs) 
  • Diaphragm Blades: 9 Rounded diaphragm opening 
  • ARNEO Coat: Yes 
  • Nano Crystal Coat: Yes 
  • ED Glass Elements: 6 
  • Fluorite Elements: 1 
  • SR (Short-Wavelength Refractive) Elements: 1 
  • Aspherical Elements: 2 
  • Fluorine Coat: Yes 
  • Super Integrated Coating: Yes 
  • Autofocus: Yes 
  • AF Actuator: STM (stepping motor) 
  • Internal Focusing: Yes 
  • Minimum Focus Distance:
    • 1.64 ft. (0.50m) at 70mm zoom position
    • 2.07 ft. (0.63m) at 85mm zoom position
    • 2.23 ft. (0.68m) at 105mm zoom position
    • 2.62 ft. (0.80m) at 135mm zoom position
    • 3.28 ft. (1.0m) at 200mm zoom position 
  • Focus Mode: Auto/Manual 
  • Filter Size: 77mm 
  • Approx. Dimensions (Diameter x Length): 3.6 in. (89 mm)  x  8.7 in. (220 mm) Distance from camera lens mount flange, Based on CIPA guidelines 
  • Approx. Weight: 48 oz. (1,360 g) Without the tripod collar, Based on CIPA guidelines
  • Lens Type: Zoom

Ergonomics

The 70-200mm f2.8 isn’t a category known for portability. The Nikon Z 70-200mm f2.8 VR S weighs 48 ounces and will take up a good 8.7-inch slot in your camera bag. It’s heavy enough to create a very front-heavy set-up with the Z 6 II. This isn’t a lens that you’re going to want to shoot with for eight hours straight, but I did come out of a nearly two-mile hike with this lens on one shoulder and another camera system on the other without any major soreness.

Comparatively speaking, however, the lens isn’t that heavy. The similar Sigma F mount weighs nearly a pound more, and Nikon’s DSLR lens .15 pounds more. Canon’s EF mount and Sony’s E mount 70-200mm f2.8s weigh roughly a quarter-pound more.

That larger lens body leaves plenty of space for extra controls and Nikon used that space well. The first control out from the mount is a pair of switches. One is for auto to manual focus. The other is to pick from full or a .5m to infinity focal range.

Moving towards the front of the lens rests a thin custom control ring set to aperture by default. The ring turns easily and is easy to grab because it rests just before the lens becomes a little wider. Next up is a removable tripod collar.

The first set of buttons just after the tripod collar is a custom Fn function button on the left. At the top of the lens is Nikon’s lens digital info panel. A button just underneath the panel swaps between displaying the focal distance scale and aperture.

Moving further out on the lens is the focus ring. That’s followed by another set of buttons — a second Fn function button, two focus buttons, one on top and one on the right. And finally, the zoom control ring rests at the end of the lens.

The lens includes a hood with a locking button. At first, the hood is difficult to unlock and remove from the lens to reverse. (Which is necessary even if you want flare because it covers most of the zoom ring when reversed.) However, with some use, the hood loosened up, and I ended up appreciating the hood lock rather than despising it. The front of the lens accepts 77mm filters.

Build Quality

Nikon added dust and moisture sealing to the lens along with the 70-200mm f2.8’s bevy of controls. I gave the lens a good splash, and it was unfazed. The front also uses a fluorine coating, making dust and fingerprints easier to wipe off.

The weather-sealing combined with the heft of the lens creates a high-end feel. Except for wanting to throw the hood at the wall until that lock loosened up a bit, I was impressed with the lens’s overall look and feel. It’s a well-built workhorse.

Autofocus

Working with stationary subjects, the Nikon Z 70-200mm f2.8 VR S performed nearly flawlessly, with only a small percentage of shots being just a bit soft. However, a 70-200mm is seldom used for only stationary subjects, and motion is where the lens starts to falter a bit.

At a walking pace, the autofocus was soft on only about twenty percent of the shots. This is slightly better than I expected with the Z6 II body and such a long focal length. It will do okay for slow-paced action.

The lens (or really, the Z6 II) isn’t ready for fast action, however. Shooting a puppy at a run, the camera-lens combo quickly lost focus. Focus didn’t pick up again unless I refocused with the shutter release button. However, one of my biggest complaints with the Z series bodies was that the autofocus doesn’t keep up in the most demanding scenarios like action and low light. It’s difficult to say if the lens will offer better performance with a future Z body if Nikon can improve its autofocus system.

Edited and cropped RAW file

May 2021 update: As I expected, the sluggish autofocus was actually more from the camera body itself than the glass. With firmware 1.20 on the Z6 II, the 70-200mm successfully shot a soccer game, with around 20 percent of the shots being a bit too soft. A runner headed towards me was only soft about ten to twenty percent of the time. That’s still not worthy of a professional sports photographer, but it does make this lens a better workhorse. It could perhaps see more improvement if Nikon’s Z bodies themselves continue to improve.

Ease of Use

A 70-200mm f2.8 lens isn’t a beginner’s lens. The abundance of controls means it takes a bit longer to be acquainted with everything the lens can do. Of course, you can mount and start shooting. But, to be able to reach down the entire length of such a long lens and automatically grab the proper control without pulling your face from the viewfinder? That will take some time.

Thankfully, while the lens is a heavier telephoto, Nikon has included stabilization at up to 5.5 stops. I didn’t need to use a tripod when shooting at 200mm, even in golden hour light. That simplifies the lens’s use slightly, though a tripod will still help get higher shutter speeds or work in limited light.

Image Quality

The lenses are the reason to consider the Z system, and the Nikon Z 70-200mm f2.8 VR S does not disappoint. Sharpness is only a touch removed from a Z mount prime, bokeh is spectacular, and colors are excellent.

Bokeh

With a 70-200mm lens that can focus as close as 1.64 feet away, photographers will have no problem getting delicious bokeh. The background melts away with this lens, drawing that much more attention to the sharp subject.

Points of light are rendered into soft, round bokeh balls with no onion ringing. Occasionally, harder light sources placed towards the edge of the frame will have a slight bubble look, a bit darker in the center than the edges. As with most lenses, the bokeh balls are also a bit less round at the edge. Overall, I was delighted with how this lens obliterated the backgrounds into soft blurs of color.

Sharpness

While the lens is a telephoto zoom, sharpness is still rather impressive. At 70mm, sharpness was quite close to Nikon’s prime Z mount lenses, with maybe a ten percent edge that wasn’t quite so sharp. At full zoom, that softer edge was perhaps closer to 20 percent. I had no issues with placing a subject towards the corner and still getting an acceptably sharp shot. The sharpness offers an excellent level of detail, down to the tiny water droplets and texture on a bird’s feathers.

Lens Character

As a zoom lens, the Z 70-200mm f2.8 does have some significant vignetting. The camera profile and vignette editing controls will help tame that corner darkness some if it’s not desired as a little extra character.

Barrel distortion is well controlled. At 70mm, there’s just the slightest bend. At 200mm, straight lines were near-perfectly straight. I also didn’t spot chromatic aberration.

The lens also isn’t afraid of a little flare. Backlit by a bright sun, the lens will create some colorful, circular flare to add character.

Color Rendering

The color from the JPEGs was spectacular with this lens. I loved the slightly more golden hue that I got with this lens. I shot wildlife with this lens on one arm and the Canon RF 70-200mm F4 on the other. While it’s unfair to compare an f2.8 to an f4, Nikon had the better color.

Extra Image Samples

Edited

Unedited

Conclusions

Likes

  • I love the images coming from this lens — the bokeh, color, sharpness, and character are excellent.
  • The lens has plenty of controls, including a digital info panel.
  • The autofocus is capable of shooting much closer than similar lenses.
  • Stabilization on the lens (and in most Z bodies) is a big plus for any telephoto.
  • The lens is weather-sealed.

Dislikes

  • The autofocus isn’t as fast as competing systems.
  • The hood is difficult to remove at first (but loosens up with use).

The Nikon Z 70-200mm f2.8 VR S was exactly what I had come to expect after testing several other Z mount lenses: Stellar photo quality, less than stellar autofocus. With the 200mm range, the f2.8 aperture, and the full-frame mount, bokeh from this lens is spectacular. The background melts away, while the subject remains quite sharp for a zoom lens. Color is equally stunning. And, even though most Z bodies have stabilization, the lens still packs in VR as well.

Compared to other 70-200mm f2.8 lenses, the Nikon Z lens focuses closer and in a package that’s lighter than the competition. The lens also uses that extra space well, with plenty of physical controls. And Nikon has also sealed the lens against dust and moisture.

Nikon did everything right on this lens — and with the right body, it can even keep up with some action. Updated firmware on the Z6 II improved the AF tests on this lens. With about 20 percent of shots soft, it’s not quite as good as some competing systems. But, on the right camera body, it can be a workhorse lens. The key here is the right camera body. Expect reduced autofocus performance in action with the first generation Z cameras and be sure to update firmware on the current generation bodies.

I wouldn’t hesitate to use this lens for portraits, weddings (excluding a dark dance floor, which the Z bodies don’t yet do well), or not-so-distant wildlife. I don’t yet recommend the Z bodies for sports, but this lens will still grab some good keepers with fast action. It will, however, impress with spectacular bokeh and an excellent design.

I’m giving the Nikon Z 70-200mm f2.8 VR S five out of five stars. Want one? Check out Amazon for the latest prices.

Hillary Grigonis

Hillary K. Grigonis is a photographer and tech writer based in Michigan. She shoots weddings and portraits at Hillary K Photography. A mother of three, she enjoys hiking, camping, crafting, and reading.