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November 15, 2008 | PL | Comments 31

Nikkor 70-200VR and TC17 - a system for teleshooting

The reason I bought the Nikkor 70-200VR 2.8 was the TC17 teleconverter. I was booked on a safari to Kenya (see the page “Going on safari?” here) and I wanted something better than the 70-300 ED I had at the time. If the new 70-300 VR had been available it had been an option.Judging by the performance of the 55-200VR (see my review), the latest consumer tele zooms from Nikon has excellent image quality.

After much thinking and researching, I came up with the following candidates: Nikon 80-400 VR, Nikon 70-200VR paired with the TC17 teleconverter, Sigma 80-400 OS, Sigma 100-300. Since this was quite an investment, I wanted the latest technology - both ultra sonic focusing (AF-S on in Nikon language, HSM if you speak Sigma) and image stabilization (VR, or OS in Sigma terms). The Nikon 80-400VR (otherwise a natural choice) lacked AF-S, the less expensive Sigma 80-400 OS did not have HSM and was also rather heavy (1800 g). The Sigma 100-300 F4 HSM, lacked image stabilization, but the faster aperture would maybe compensate some for this, I reasoned. It also got outstanding reviews for image quality. I had some good experience from Sigma - the 150 2.8 HSM macro lens which was excellent both optically and in build quality.

Finally I choose between the Sigma 100-300 and the much more expensive solution - the 70-200VR with the TC17 converter (the TC14 felt too short, and I feared that the TC20 would have too much negative impact on the image quality). I arranged a shoot-out outside a store which had both lenses and took about a hundred images with my D200. At 100 percent magnification on the computer screen, the advantage of image stabilization as obvious. Images shot at 1/180s with the Nikon lens was sharper than those at 1/500s with the Sigma, which seemed to be hit or miss at that shutterspeed. The 10 mp sensor was brutally revealing - it is very hard to get critically sharp images handheld with a long lens that lacks stabilization unless you have very fast shutter speeds - and I didnt want to be dependent on the kind of light levels that would be required. I went ahead and ordered the 70-200VR and the TC17.

The basis of a system
The 70-200VR is expensive, but it is a ticket to a tele system - combined with the Nikon teleconverters, of which the TC17 seems the best compromise of reach and quality in my opinion. The combo gives you an excellent 120-340 F 4.8 and a spectacular 70-200 2.8 - both with AF-S focusing and stabilization. Counting these factors in, the overall cost and size/weight of the 70-200VR/TC17 seems more than reasonable compared to any selection of lenses in the nikon system (and any other DSLR system) that covers the same range and speed.

70-200 VRThe black, sleek 70-200 has a somewhat futuristic look, especially with the hood mounted. The placement of the zoom and focus rings makes it possible to use the lens even when the hood is mounted in reverse for transport, just as with the 17-55 2.8 lens. The build quality is impressive and so is the size and weight (1470 g). Without the long hood it is more compact, but because of the risk of lens flare, my recommendation is to keep the hood on. This lens is a cornerstone in a professional lens collection, at least for PJ:s and sport photographers. With its 2.8 maximum aperture it is fast enough to shot sports in almost any light, except possibly for the darkest gym halls. The focus is very fast and silent. Since I always use the lens hand held, I have removed the “foot” of the tripod mount, and often rotate the tripod collar 180 degrees and lock it there for a more comfortable grip (see image). I have used the 70-200VR on the D40, D50, D200 and D300. So how does it handle on the different camera bodies?

D40
With the D40, the grip is a little on the small side to be really comfortable. For this kind of big lenses an optional battery grip would be preferable, although I otherwise like the small size of the D40. Look at the classic Nikon FM - same size as the D40, but with the MD12 motordrive it had excellent handling even with the biggest lenses. The size and the heavy metal build quality of the 70-200VR makes it feel a little out of place on the little humble D40, but the results are of course good. (D40 and 70-200VR.)

D50
The D50 has a better grip than the smaller D40 and works comfortably with the 70-200VR. Just as with the D40 there is a marked difference of the finish and build quality of the lens and the camera body. The downside of using a D50 (or a D40) compared to the higher end bodies with the 70-200 is when you shoot fast action, like sports. The lens focuses fast, but you can feel that the camera response is slower compared to the D200/D300 bodies, not only in fps, but in shutter lag. You notice this because the overall operational speed is so fast with a D200/D300 combo and the 70-200. (D50 and 70-200.)

D200/D300
With the D200/D300, the finish of the lens and body are more smilar and feels to a higher degree like they are made for each other. The D200/D300 are fast in operation and fps and has very short shutterlag. Overall the D200/D300/70-200VR combos feels much faster than the D40/D50. The grip works comfortably with the lens, although I personally would prefer it a little bit deeper. The D100 had the ideally sized grip, IMO. (D200 with 70-200.)

With the optional MB-10 on the D300 you get more room for your hands and faster shooting speed (8 fps). Together with the 70-200 a very powerful combination for action or sports (see my D300 review), but also on the heavy side.
 

Image quality

The image quality of the 70-200VR is solid, it delivers what you expect from a professional lens.
A sample with 50 and 100 percent crops (ISO 200, F 5.6, 1/2000 s, 200 mm, D300, jpg):

 

Full size, here.

You can use it wide open for magazine quality images, one stop down and onwards, it is very, very sharp.
Sample wide open F 2.8 at 200 mm (with D300):


Full size here.
As a more practical illustration of the IQ - here is a 50×70 cm (20×28 inches) print from an image made with the 70-200VR and my former Nikon D200 - a 10 mp DSLR. (A4 magazine and camera for size comparision.)

 

In this size you can see small details like wrinkles in the skin of the giraffes. However, I have also made B&W crop from this image, printed in the same 50×70 cm size, but portrait orientation.

It hangs together with series of other (uncropped) 50×70 cm B&W prints. Nobody notices that this really represent a 100×70 (28×40 inches) sized print if it were the full image.

The TC-17 teleconverter


Now, about the teleconverter. The fit and finish is good, the mechanical coupling as about as good as it can be with converters and adapters. The stability can of course never be the same as that with a single lens.
For those interested in 100 percent crops - here is a (not very exciting) sample from the days when I first tried out the combo (D200/70-200Vr/TC17).
When I got the converter I tried to establish a “performance window” for my specific use - the safari. I knew I could get critically sharp images from 1/200s, 1/250s with VR activated on the 70-200/TC17 (often longer speeds, but I refer to constantly safe settings). Using the lens/TC combo wide open seemed to stretch the optical quality, but with only a 2/3 stop down I considered it to be good enough. I limited the ISO to 800 with the D200. So the default settings ended up like this: Aperture prefered auto, F5.6, auto ISO with base 200, roof 800, slowest shutterspeed before ISO-shift 1/250s.
With these settings I could just lift the camera to the eye and instantly be ready to shoot. In very good light I closed the aperture a little bit more.
A few samples:

 

 



You can see more images in this article.

I was happy with the results. Besides sharpness, I think the 70-200/TC17 delivered in the more difficult to describe areas, like microcontrast, 3-D feel, depth of the images - a lot better than my previous consumer telezoom, the 70-300 AF ED (non-VR).

Besides wild-life, another use for the 70-200VR/TC17 is sports. The speed of the AF feels a little slower with the converter, but still very usuable on a fast camera like a Nikon D300.
As an AF-experiment I shot “live” portraits/headshots of maraton runners in this years Stockholm Marathon, something the D300/70-200VR/TC17 handled with ease. Some samples:

 

All in all, I consider the TC17 to be an excellent supplement to an excellent lens. (My opinions is of course based on the performance on DX-sized sensors.)

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  1. Can TC17 fitted in 55-200VR?

  2. I have not tried myself, but I dont think it is recommended. The loss of light (1.5 stop) would make the 55-200 go down to F 9.5 wide open at the long end, probably too low for the AF-sensors.

  3. Hello. First of all, I am in awe of your photography, and have spent a few hours reading your reviews and viewing your amazing travel photos. Your writing is quite helpful - I found it as a link from a dpreview.com forum. I currently own a 1yr old D80 with the 18-135 non-VR lens. I am planning to open up a photography side business, and I need better low light equipment. I find myself shooting with my Nikkor 50mm 1.8 80% of the time, with ISO never less than 400 and an over-exposure setting of at least +0.7, because otherwise my photos seem underexposed. I do have a SB600 with a Stroboframe, so my indoor flash photography is just fine. With the new business venture, I am going to invest in a D90 with the 70-200mm 2.8 VR, using both the wonderful lens and the HD video for sports photography. In one of your responses to a posting you recommended getting the kit lens with the D90, and my wife will use this around the house. I can use my 50mm for portraits, but for my walk around lens I was considering a Sigma 28-70mm 2.8. Your thoughts on this lens vs. the Tamron equivalent, as well as on my investment as a whole? Do I need the TC17? Thank you again for your excellent insight and information. Regards - Jon B.

  4. Thanks very much, Jon:)
    My thoughts about your planned set: the 70-200VR is the best and most useful lens I can imagine for sports photography. I think you could wait and see if you need the TC17. With access to the arenas a 70-200VR usually has enough reach. The 18-105VR is very useful and a good value, so is the 50 1.8. As for the 28-70 2.8 as a walk around lens - I have no experience with the Sigma or Tamron, but they seems to get good reviews. Personally I would prefer something wider, especially if you plan to use it as your professional “normal” lens. Maybe a third party 18-50 2.8. Investing in an expensive Nikkor 17-55 2.8 is a little risky in terms of resale value since many pros are moving towards full frame.

  5. Great reviews with excellent links to full size photos. Easy layout to find and read info! Well written and very well photographed and illustrated! Good luck and thank you. I will pass your Website onto other professionals.

  6. Thank You Marcel, I really appreciate the positive feeback:)

  7. You sir, in one article have answered every question that I had, and have been scouring the web to find answers for…thank you! I’ll be picking up the 1.7 today.

    This site is now #1 on the top of my favorites list!

    Also, your photo’s are amazing and I have one other request, (if possible),….your camera settings?

    cheers

  8. Thank You Al, for your nice words:)
    About settings, I mostly use default, but I usually expose a little under (-0.3 to -0.7) to get saturated colors. I do small adjustments in Photoshop of saturation, contrast or levels, but usually very little. With my D200 I often increased local contrast by a pass of USM 40/20/0 before final sharpening, but I dont find that necessary with D40, D300 or D90.

  9. That sounds way too simple….I tend to overexpose, then regret it later during pp. Thanks again.

  10. Your article is very informative and the photographs are outstanding. I currently own the 70-200 f2.8 and was thinking of going with the TC 2.0 and coupling it on my D300 to get a 600mm. I will be heading off to North BC for a Grizzly Bear adventure and hopefully could catch some neat stuff, with this combination and my D700 with 24-70 f/2.8. Thanks.

  11. I want to shoot sports indoors i have the D90 I am a little confused i called Nikon about the 70-200 f 2.8 and she is telling me there is an 70-200 if f 2.8 and that is the one you can use the TC with. Can you help me to understand.

  12. Im obliged for the blog.Much thanks again. Awesome.

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