The tele system – Nikkor 70-200VR and TC17

 
Edit: This blog has moved to http://dslr-video.com/blogmag. Please visit me there.

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 VR The 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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9 Responses to “The tele system – Nikkor 70-200VR and TC17”

  1. Very interesting reading and nicely layed out, Perl.
    I’m off to South Africa on Saturday, visiting amongst other places the Kruger National Park. I have the same combination as described but after much deliberation (hope I don’t resent it), I’m opting for focal length and using my Bigma+D300. I wholly agree that the 70-200VR+TC17 is a great combination!
    Thank you for putting so much effort into your review.
    Cheers – Herman

  2. Hi Perl,

    I love this combo because it can produce very sharp images and is very versitile and I use it whenever I go hiking in the Mts. Without the 1.7TC the 70-200 is a good landscape lens and with the 1.7TC it gives reasonable reach (340mm) for birds or wildlife. I find that with the 1.7TC I need to stop it down to about 5.6 to get very sharp images.

    By the way, my decision to purchase this combo was based on seeing your African images, which you posted in dpreview a number of years ago.

    cheers,

    Ken

  3. I’ve taken over a million photos with this lens/TC combination, and will continue to use it until I can afford the 200-400 f4. The lens alone focuses faster and is sharper, but the TC adds a great compromise of reach without too much sacrifice. I’ve bought the Sigma 50-500 (TWICE) and found it to focus more slowly and inconsistently than this combination.

    You can see 150,000 photos I’ve taken with this lens/TC combination on my website here: http://www.pbase.com/billmcintyre/

  4. Thanks for taking the time — this is great info. I have an old-school 80-200 af-s on the way and I am considering this TC combination with the D2h.

  5. Nice review. I am contemplating on getting TC-14 or -17. Still can’t decide. I wish there was a way to try both and compare images. I am just worried that 1.7X will degrade the quality of the otherwise superb 70-200 lens. Am I wrong? 🙂

  6. @ML I have the very same dilemma and concern

  7. OPAL KULDEEP Says:

    Hello Perl

    Excellent review, I am owing D300 and 70-200mm VR II, wanted to add 1.7 and your review has supported my thoughts.

  8. Very much appreciate the comparison. I have a D800 with the 70-200mm VR II and looking for extra reach as well. Leaning towards the 1.7 after reading the forum remarks.

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