Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

Stuff I Use - Part II: Lenses & Teleconverters

Lenses and teleconverters I use - and why. And lenses and teleconverters I've recently jettisoned - and why.

If you're looking for information about the cameras I use, you're in the wrong place! Go to "Stuff I Use - Part I: Cameras for that information. And, if you're looking for info on everything else I use (like support systems, bags, backpacks, etc.) - go to "Stuff I Use - Part III: All the Other Stuff I Drag Into the Field!" for that.

• ORIGINAL POST DATE: 1 March 2011.
• UPDATE #1: 5 February 2014: Major re-working to include the acquisition of the AF-S 24-120mm f4 VR; the AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR; and the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR and the sale of the AF-S 200mm f2 VR and the AF-S 200-400mm f4 VR.

Stuff I Currently Use: Lenses

I currently use Nikon branded lenses only. I'm not at all opposed to purchasing and using 3rd party lenses (such as Tamron or Sigma), but to date have not run across anything in their line-ups that I need or want (or match up well enough against their Nikon counterpart to entice me).

Here's what I'm currently using, in order of most to least value to me:

1. AFS-Nikkor 400 mm f2.8G ED VRII. I lusted after this lens since its announcement in August of 2007. I managed to resist the urge to buy it until February of 2010. I wish I hadn't waited so long. In short, this lens is simply spectacular. Sharp beyond belief AND with beautiful bokeh (out of focus zones). Super fast auto-focus, especially when paired with a pro body. The downside? Size and weight (it's huge and heavy) and PRICE! How practical is this lens for day-to-day shooting? If one is disciplined enough, has the right cases/backpacks to carry it, and is strong enough, it is possible to haul this lens into the field. But, realistically, only the most serious of shooters would do so. Like with the 600mm f4, the VR function of this lens dramatically extends the usefulness of this lens - it IS possible to hand-hold this lens and get sharp results. Of course, no one in their right mind would WANT to hand-hold this lens if they could avoid it, but it IS possible.

More details about the 400mm f2.8 VRII:

Image Quality: I could not find a single parameter of image quality where this lens doesn't excel - fantastically sharp (edge-to-edge), virtually without chromatic aberration, great colour and contrast, fantastic bokeh, and more! What's the "more" I refer to? Resolution. Take a shot of a distant forest. Then magnify the image - again, again, and again. Hmmm...what's that you see? Individual leaves. This is a lens that just BEGS for a high-resolution camera to really shine (and show off it's amazing resolving power).

Autofocus performance: Fast, fast, fast. I have no objective way of measuring autofocus speed, but none of my telephotos - including my 200 f2 - is noticeably faster in focusing than this lens. Birds in flight - even fast flying ones - don't begin to challenge the AF speed of this lens.

VR Performance: Excellent. As mentioned above, the VR function significantly extends the range of usefulness of this lens - whether on or off a tripod. Unless you're panning, I always use "Tripod" mode when shooting from a tripod and have found that I almost always get sharper results than when I turn the VR off. When hand-holding the lens I use "normal" VR mode and have captured sharp images down to 1/60s. But beware - this is a HUGE lens and even with the VR some users would NOT be able to hand-hold this lens (and no one in their right mind would do it voluntarily). But, in a pinch, some will find it CAN be hand-held.

Performance with Teleconverters: Excellent. The large f2.8 aperture allows autofocusing with ALL of Nikon's teleconverters (including the 2x TC) and this lens "pairs up" with TC's very, very well (possibly as well as the 200 f2 VR does). This is a huge bonus - add a 1.4x TC to this lens and you have a 550mm f4 lens that produces images close to the quality of the 500mm f4. And, it makes a pretty awesome 800mm f5.6 lens when paired with the TC-20EIII 2x TC. That's a BIG, BIG plus!

My final word on the 400mm f2.8 VRII: For me, the optical quality and speed of this lens (both in terms of light gathering capability of the large aperture and the AF speed) overcome the negatives associated with the bulk, weight, and price of this lens. But it isn't for everyone. Those looking for other alternates to "getting to 400mm" with their Nikons are encouraged to check out my "4 Ways to 400mm" Field Test.

2. AFS-Nikkor 600 mm f4G ED VRII. I acquired this lens in July of 2008 and within two months it had become my most critical lens. This surprised me - I didn't anticipate using it nearly this much, but the VR function of this lens extends its "usability" dramatically (compared to its non-VR predecessor). This lens is a truly professional instrument and, like any fine instrument, takes some practice before you can play it well. At the time of writing this, I have been shooting with it extensively for the past 4 months on both a D3 and a D700 and, once I learned how to truly "play" this instrument, it has produced stellar results.

So why is this "most critical lens" now placed as only my second most important lens? One reason: my acquisition of the 400mm f2.8 VR in February of 2010.

Some specifics about the 600 f4 VR:

Image Quality: The sharpness of this lens rivals Nikon's legendary lenses - the 200mm f2 and the 400 mm f2.8 VRII. In short, you simply can't expect anything better from this lens. The "N" coating is effective - even strongly back-lit scenes exhibit good contrast. Bokeh is buttery smooth and exquisite.

Autofocus performance: Exceeded my expectations by a significant margin. I expected it would be fast enough to capture slow-moving birds in flight (e.g., eagles at moderate distances) but I never expected I could use this lens to capture swallows in flight (which I have successfully done). Initial acquisition of focus considerably faster than on the 200-400 VR and appears almost as quick as on the 300 f2.8 VR. Definitely impressive for a lens this big.

VR Performance: GREAT! I find that the VR function significantly extends the range of usefulness of this lens - whether on or off a tripod. When shooting using a tripod (moderately large Gitzo with Wimberley head) I ALWAYS use "tripod mode" except when panning birds. I have run numerous tests and have found that I virtually always get sharper results with VR on (tripod mode) than when the VR is off. When shooting off a monopod or hand-holding the lens (yes, you CAN hand-hold this lens, but not for long!) I use "normal" VR mode and have captured sharp images down to 1/100s. Note that one moose-like Nikon sponsored photographer states that the "tripod mode" of the VR should only be used when you're "absolutely locked down" - my experience is that this is NOT correct. Use Tripod mode whenever on a firm tripod (unless you're panning). Using "Normal" VR on a firm tripod CAN degrade image quality. Sorry moose - in my experience the manual IS right (and the info on your website misleading).

Performance with Teleconverters: Better than anticipated - see the "Teleconverters" section below for more info.

Some final comments on the 600 VR: This is a truly massive lens and many users would find it far too big and heavy to hand-hold. I chose this lens over the 500 mm VR primarily because I already owned the wonderful 200-400 mm VR and couldn't justify the price of the 500 VR for a gain of only 100 mm in focal length (over the 200-400). I am very happy with my decision to go with 600 VR - however, if one does not already own the 200-400 and is considering the purchase of a long telephoto lens, I would encourage them to look also at the optically wonderful and lighter, smaller, and less expensive 500 mm VR.

3. AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR. The latest version of this lens is a huge upgrade over its long-in-the-tooth predecessor - image sharpness is much better, autofocus is much better, VR is noticeable better, and contrast is better. The only real downside to the lens is build quality - those used to shooting with Nikon's absolute best built professional lenses will likely find the build quality of this lens somewhat lacking. On the other hand, those moving UP to this lens from kit lenses will probably be thrilled with its build quality. At the time of this writing (February 2014) I have put the 80-400 through one very tough field season of use and it's still humming along just fine. Which suggests to me that perhaps the build quality of this lens is perhaps good enough for most users?

Because the focal range, size and weight, and price tag of this lens will likely make this a lens that MANY, MANY nature and wildlife photographers will consider purchasing, I field-tested this lens extensively. Here's the executive summary from the field test...

The Executive Summary: The AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR is a significant and worthwhile upgrade from its predecessor. It's an incredibly versatile lens that will meet most of the needs for many, many nature and wildlife photographers. The build quality doesn't match Nikon's best and most expensive lenses, but for most uses it's simply good enough - and it stood up to a full field season of rugged field use with nary a problem. The autofocus system proved to be accurate and fast enough to capture any action - from birds-in-flight through to running mammals. The Vibration Reduction technology permitted me to effectively hand-hold the lens at manageable "real-world" shutter speeds (1/focal length and often slower) for all focal lengths. Optical quality? While one can find a Nikon lens that's sharper at virtually every focal length, this is a solid performer over its entire focal range and it produces images sharp enough to please most any user. Image sharpness was comparable to the almost legendary 200-400mm f4 VR at all overlapping focal lengths. The size and weight of the lens makes it extremely portable - whether in a backpack, waist-mounted holster system, or in your carry-on luggage on a plane. Taken as a whole, and for almost any nature or wildlife photographer, this is as close to a "must-have" lens as you can get.

Want way more detail? My full field test of this lens, including many sample images, is available here.

4. AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f4 VR. I acquired this lens early in 2013 thinking I would test it and then soon return it and go back to using my 70-200mmm f2.8 VRII as my "go-to" lens (for things like longer distance landscapes and animalscapes). Now, almost a year later, you couldn't pry the 70-200mm f4 VR out of my hands. And, most tellingly, I virtually never use my 70-200mm f2.8 VRII anymore. Why? First, there's the obvious - it's smaller and over a pound lighter and thus a lot easier to lug around. Second, the VR is absolutely excellent - in fact, it's so good that the 70-200mm f4 VR is the only lens that I'll regularly hand-hold with my D800e. Third - my own testing has shown that the optical performance of the f4 version of the lens is equal to the f2.8 VRII version and shows even better corner sharpness than the f2.8 VRII lens on the demanding D800/800e.

I am planning to write a full field test on this lens so will reserve further comments on it until that time (stay tuned).

5. AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f4 VR. This is another lens that I acquired in 2013, but in this case I bought it for use as a "walkaround" lens (often on hikes where I would be carrying the 24-120 and only one other lens - either the AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR or the AF-S 80-400mm VR). I have to say that this lens is probably one of Nikon's most underrated (and under-appreciated) lenses. I won't argue that it's "tack sharp", but it is quite sharp edge-to-edge (on high resolution FX cameras) from 24mm to about 95mm. After that, there IS noticeable edge softness when shot on a D800/800e (the edge sharpness is less noticeable on the 24 MP D600 or the 16 MP D4). But the overall focal range, coupled with the effective VR, combine to make this a very handy, very usable lens (one that's easy to hand-hold and easy to carry).

I am planning to write a full field test on this lens so will reserve further comments on it until that time (stay tuned).

6. AFS Micro-Nikkor 105 mm f2.8 ED-IF N VR. This is a really handy lens. Like really handy. I carrying it around a LOT when I'm out hiking. It's sharp, but not as sharp as the 200 micro. And it has quite good bokeh (but not as good as some of the longer focal length lens described above). The autofocus is fast enough, especially given that you're likely to turn it off for close-up work anyway. And the VR works well, even though you're likely to turn it off if you're doing serious close-up work with it mounted on a tripod anyway. But, if you're hiking around without a tripod during wildflower season, you couldn't find a handier lens. And, you can actually get some great macro shots while hand-holding this lens (check out this Crocus or this Arnica). Handy.

7. AF-Micro-Nikkor 200 mm f4 ED. When it comes to doing serious close-up work, this lens is likely to come out of my bag first. This lens could be used to define the term "image sharpness" - I don't think it would be possible to make a sharper lens (UPDATE: Yes it is possible to make a sharper lens - and Nikon makes it. It's the 200 mm f2 VR described below). And, because of its longish focal length, it offers a comfortably long working distance for photographing flowers, insects, and small birds like hummingbirds. Good bokeh, but not as pleasing as that found on the 200 VR or the 300 VR. Downside? Expensive for what it is. Real slow autofocus (but who uses autofocus for close-up work anyway?). Aesthetically challenged. Hard to find (I had to wait almost 6 months for Nikon to have enough orders to justify building up another batch). But sharp, sharp, sharp. Did I mention it was sharp? It is. AND, that sharpness holds at long distances - it's hard to find a better option for distant landscapes.

8. AFS-Nikkor 16-35 mm f4G ED VR FX. Introduced early in 2010, this wide-angle zoom is a really good all-round wide angle performer that more and more photographers are gravitating too. The relative "slowness" of the f4 aperture is nicely offset by the VR function with the net result being that this lens is VERY "hand-holdable". As an FX lens, this lens works equally well for users of BOTH DX and FX cameras. This lens is very sharp (especially at wider angles) and has almost NO chromatic aberration. So...why so low on my "value to me" list? Simply because I DON'T shoot wide angle lenses very much. If YOU do - well this is a great lens to get your hands on!

9. AFS-Nikkor 24-70 mm f2.8G ED FX. This lens has received exceptionally favourable reviews and is already being considered by many as the new "king and reference standard" for short to medium focal length zooms. I have no disagreement with these views. Then why is the lens at the bottom of my list of lenses most valuable to me? This list is a reflection of what's of value to me - not lens quality. Given the subjects I currently focus on (pun intended), both telephoto and macro lens have more value to me than wide angle lens or wide angle zooms. If this lens was equipped with a VR it would likely climb much higher on this list.

10. AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f2.8G ED VR II. A near legendary lens. So why is ranked as my least important lens? Simply because since acquiring the newer AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR I have hardly touched this lens (other than to test it against the f4 version). But here's what I thought about it BEFORE acquiring the f4 version:

This much-anticipated and highly sought-after lens is similar to its precursor EXCEPT it was designed to cover the larger image sensor of the "full-frame" (FX) Nikon bodies. The previous version was NOT a DX lens, but in practice did not sufficiently cover the larger image sensor of the FX cameras to produce good edge-to-edge image sharpness, particularly when shot at 200mm. Besides offering improved performance for the FX bodies, this lens also has the new "VR II" designation, which means it is designed to offer image stabilization equivalent to shooting at shutter speeds 4 full stops "faster" than a non-VR lens (the previous lens 70-200 mm offered a 3-stop advantage over non-stabilized lenses). The lens is very similar in appearance to the previous version but lacks the multi-function buttons (AF-ON/AF-Lock) found near the distal end of the barrel found on its precursor. And, the new lens has Nikon's "N" designation - meaning it has Nikon's "Nano-crystal" coating to improve contrast (and colour) particularly in situations of backlighting. To my mind (and experience with other N lenses), this is not a trivial thing. Because this lens is destined to be very popular, and many will be considering purchasing it, I'm providing more detail of my field "testing" than with most other lenses on this page.

The Executive Summary: This lens is a very, very solid performer that I use a LOT for day-to-day shooting (but, for obvious reasons, not quite so often for wildlife)! It is VERY sharp at all normally-used apertures (which means f2.8 thru f11 for me) though not quite as sharp when shot wide open. The bokeh (quality of the out-of-focus zones) is superb and at f2.8 rivals that of the venerable (and amazing) Nikon AFS 200mm f2 VR. The autofocus is blazingly fast. The VR works as advertised (which means very, very well!). Teleconverter performance (with the 1.4x TC-14EII) exceeded my expectations dramatically. BUT, the lens is NOT completely perfect - edge-to-edge sharpness is not stellar at 200 mm at larger apertures, though this limitation can be overcome by stopping down to only "reasonably small" apertures. Plus, some users will find the reduction in focal length when focusing the lens on very close subjects troublesome. But, in my opinion there are enough subtle improvements (and some not-so-subtle improvements) in this lens that combine to make the "whole package" markedly better than its precursor. For me, and I suspect many FX body owners, this lens is as close to a "must-have" lens as any on the market. DX body owners who don't already own the previous iteration of this lens will love it (and I highly recommend it for them). For DX body owners who already own the previous version - you know, that "old" (but nearly legendary) lens works so well on DX bodies already that I couldn't really recommend swapping your current lens for this one (unless, of course, you have money to burn).

Want more detail? My full field test of this lens, including some sample images, is available here.

Stuff I HAVE Used (But Don't Anymore): Lenses

Here's what I've recently jettisoned, and why I decided to jettison them...

AFS Nikkor 300 mm f2.8 G ED-IF N VR. After owning this lens for a number of years, I sold my copy in March of 2010. Why? Not because it wasn't a good lens - it's a GREAT lens. BUT, I also own the 200mm f2 VR which, when paired with the 1.4x teleconverter, produces images of comparable (or arguably even better) quality. This lens was designed to be shot hand-held and wide-open. But the 300mm f2.8 VR (and VRII) has great optical characteristics, stunningly fast autofocus, and a great VR function. Unbelievably smooth and pleasing out of focus zones. An absolutely wonderful lens for shooting birds in flight, especially when one uses a DX body for that extra "reach". And, as an added bonus, this lens pairs up VERY well with Nikon's TC-20EIII 2x teleconverter and produces excellent results as a "pseudo" 600mm f5.6 super-telephoto!

AFS-Nikkor 200-400 mm f4G ED-IF VR. A solid, solid performer and probably one of the most commonly owned lenses among "serious" wildlife photographers. But I sold mine in July of 2011. Why? Because after purchasing my 400mm f2.8 VR in February of 2010 I almost never used this lens. And, when I went back and checked the focal lengths I used this lens at (good old Lightroom filtering helped with this), I found that the vast majority of the time I had shot it between 380 and 400mm. So why keep it? Any regrets about selling it? A few, until I acquired (in 2013) the AF-S 80-400mm VR - then those regrets completely evaporated! Here's what I said about the 200-400 BEFORE I sold it:

Prior to acquiring the 400mm f2.8 VRII and the 600mm f4 VRII, this was undoubtedly my favourite lens. I captured thousands and thousands of memorable images with this lens. And, before I acquired those big "primes" I definitely felt I could not do what I do without this lens. While I do NOT use this lens as much as I used to, I still believe it is a top-notch, versatile telephoto that has all the advantages (and almost NONE of the "typical" disadvantages) of a zoom lens. It is very sharp, has great contrast, very good bokeh, vivid colour saturation, a reasonably fast autofocus, and exceptional VR performance. With care most users should be able to hand-hold this beast. The downside? Not cheap. Not small or light - but the laws of physics and optics are laws, not guidelines. And...optically the performance of this lens falls off a LITTLE in shaprness when focused on distant subjects (starting at about 300 or 400 meters). While some have made a big deal of this "flaw", in practical terms I rarely use this lens to photograph subjects at 400m or more so this limitation almost never shows its head.

AFS-Nikkor 200 mm f2G ED-IF VR. Phenomenal lens - possibly the sharpest lens made by Nikon. But I sold mine in February of 2013. Why? Just didn't use it much. Why? Real-world practical issues: its size and weight made it awkward to carry (or fit under a rain cover) and I found few instances where I really needed the f2 aperture. Here's what I said about the lens BEFORE I sold it:

If I was asked what my "best" lens is, it would come down to either this lens or my 400mm f2.8 VRII. While the 200mm f2 is one of my favourite lenses to shoot, it really isn't my most valuable and/or useful lense (simply because it is a little short in focal length for some wildlife shooting). Yes, it's REALLY heavy (2.9 kg or 6.4 lbs!) and REALLY bulky for a 200 mm lens. Yes, its stock tripod mount was wimpy (this was easily remedied by replacing it with one by Really Right Stuff). And, its stubbiness and weight combine to make it tricky to handle. But the optics - unbelievable! Many folks rate the "legendary" 70-200 VR zoom as a "10 out of 10" optically (I don't, by the way). But if the 70-200 is a "10", then the 200 f2 VR is a "15" out of 10 - it's that good. It pretty much defines the term "sharp"! And, with bokeh (out-of-focus zones) to die for. Autofocus performance? It focuses pretty much as fast as my eye does - stunning! But based on the reviews of this lens, I expected ALL this when I bought it. But there was one more really unexpected bonus - amazing performance of this lens with teleconverters! I don't know if its because this lens is so good optically that you could put ANYTHING in front of it and still get great results or if it's some rare "optical synergy", but this lens produces AMAZINGLY good images when using ANY of Nikon's current teleconverters. Yes, the combination of f2 200 VR with TC-14E II (1.4x) works BEST, but the other two teleconverters work almost as well and produce professional-quality results, even when shot with the lens wide open (yes, you read that correctly). Historically, I NEVER shot with teleconverters - but I use them with this lens all the time. In fact, when I combine the f2 200 VR with the 1.4x converter it becomes a 280 mm f2.8 lens AND I prefer images shot with this combination MORE than those shot with the 300 f2.8 VR. Bonus! A complete review of this lens can be found on Bjorn Rorslett's website.

AFS-Nikkor 70-300 mm f4.5-5.6 IF ED VR G Zoom. I acquired this lens in December of 2008 as a "stop gap"/temporary solution to fill the focal length hole in my lens collection that was created when I sold my 70-200 mm f2.8 VR. Although this lens ranked fairly low for me in value and usefulness, I know it's a lens that many Nikon users will be considering, so I'll give a few more details here than some of the other (and more valuable to me) lenses have received. In late November of 2009 I acquired my 70-200mm f2.8 VRII zoom lens and my reason for owning this lens disappeared. So, I sold it.

General comments and caveats: If you search the web you will find many very good to excellent reviews of this lens. Which is NOT what you'll find here. I think the main reason for this is that this lens will be viewed very differently by different photographers depending on whether they are "upgrading" to this lens (usually from a kit lens) or are using it after spending a lot of time shooting with Nikon's pro glass. To be fair, I started using this lens after using some of Nikon's best professional lenses for a number of years. Does it stack up well against them? No. But it costs about 1/10th to 1/20th of what some of my other lenses cost. If it performed as well as them (or even close) I'd be a total idiot for buying the pro glass! However, when you combine this lens's focal range with its small size, light weight, and its effective VR function, you have an extremely versatile lens. Add in the very low price compared to pro glass, and you really do have tremendous value. But, in day-to-day use you do have to make a lot of compromises to squeeze the best out of this lens - read on to see what I mean...

Image Quality: In the focal range of 70 to 200 mm the image is relatively/acceptably sharp - though not as sharp as the 70-200 mm f2.8 VR when used on a DX camera body. If the Nikon 200 mm f2 (possibly Nikon's sharpest lens) is considered the reference standard and given a sharpness value of "10", I would rate the 70-300 about a "6.5" in the 70-200 mm range. In the 200-300 mm range, I would reduce the rating to the 5.5 to 6 range. If you stop down to the f8 range (or a little smaller as you approach 300 mm), then you could probably add an increment of 1 or so to both of these ratings. So you can squeeze a relatively sharp image out of this lens, but not something so sharp that the viewer would ever give it an "oh-my-god" (which is something you hear a LOT with the 200 mm f2 VR!).

Unfortunately, between 200 and 300 mm chromatic aberration in the form of simultaneous yellow and purple fringing becomes an issue. If you're a RAW shooter (and I'm guessing many users of this lens would actually be JPEG shooters) this is easily handled with most good raw converters (but it is one more thing to do during image processing). JPEG shooters will have more work to do to solve this problem (how much will depend a little on the camera they're mounting the lens on).

How good is the bokeh (i.e., how smooth are the out-of-focus zones?)? Only Ok - definitely not good. And, if you are shooting this lens stopped down to extract maximum sharpness out of the lens, in many instances your out-of-focus zones won't be too out-of-focus. So...in day to day use you can pretty much forget about producing tack sharp images with buttery smooth out-of-focus zones. In this "apparent sharpness" regard (a combination of lens sharpness combined with smooth, soft out-of-focus zones) the 70-200 mm f2.8 VR far outperforms the 70-300 mm VR.

Full frame coverage? I've shot this lens with a D3 and D700 exclusively and have had no issues with vignetting or any appreciable drop off in sharpness towards the image edge. Please bear in mind that I primarily shoot wildlife and much of the time edge-to-edge sharpness isn't a big issue for me. I HAVE tested this lens shooting landscapes and when stopped down to f8 or smaller edge sharpness seems just fine.

Autofocus performance: When shooting in a warm environment this lens has decent autofocus speed. Not as fast as Nikon's best primes (or best zooms), but it's not bad. However, in cold conditions (below the freezing point) the autofocus speed decreases dramatically, almost to the point of being slug-slow. I have watched for this when using pro lenses, but have never noticed any cold-related autofocus performance declines when shooting with them. I suppose this is another reason you fork out the big bucks for the pro lenses!

VR Performance: Just fine - works as advertised! The VR function makes this lens much more versatile and usable than it would be without it. There are two things to watch when using the VR. First, TURN THE VR OFF if you are shooting from a tripod. That's what it says in the manual and they're right - image sharpness will go DOWN if you leave the VR on (especially if you're shooting on a very solid tripod). Second, keep an eye on the VR switch - whenever I pull the camera and lens out of my sling bag the VR switch seems to get bumped to the "Off" position. No matter how much I try to avoid this, it invariable gets accidentally turned off. It would be nice if you could somehow lock the VR on...

Build Quality: Acceptable considering the price. Zoom and focus rings work smoothly and the lens does have a rubberized O-ring on it's rear mount to help prevent dust and moisture from getting into the camera. Lens hood seems to work well in shading the front element, but is easily knocked off even with a light bump.

Performance with Teleconverters: Nope - not compatible with TC's.

Summing up the 70-300 mm VR: If you are upgrading to this lens from a Nikon kit lens (and have not had much or any experience with Nikon's best lenses), you will probably love this lens. It is small, light, easy-to-use, and will produce acceptably sharp images over a variety of situations and with many subject types. Combine this with it's low price and you'll likely feel this lens offers great value! But...if you are accustomed to using some of Nikon's best lenses you will probably immediately notice this lens's optical limitations and the compromises you have to make to squeeze acceptable image quality out of it. But it's still cheap! And, I will continue to use this lens as a very acceptable "walking around" lens - it's just SO convenient!

AFS-Nikkor 70-200 mm f2.8 G ED-IF VR. While until recently this was my second most important lens, I've now sold it. Why? Because of it's sub-optimal performance on FX (full-framed sensors) cameras. The 70-200mm VR is NOT a DX lens - it is supposed to work fine on a full-frame (film or digital) camera. However, there are an increasing number of reports of "issues" when this lens is used with the D3. These reports include vignetting when shooting wide open (solved by stopping down one or two stops), and quite soft corners when the lens is set to the longer end of its focal range and focused towards infinity. Bjorn Rorslett reports that "For landscapes at 200mm, you need to stop down way too far to get the corners just barely acceptable, even to f22 in some cases." (read Bjorn's full comments here.) Bjorn further speculates that "...the covering power of this slim design simply is not adequate for a good performance across the entire FX frame...". My experience is that Bjorn is usually spot-on with his observations, so it's likely that he's right and I expect we'll hear more and more reports about these issues shortly.
But what about the performance of the 70-200 mm VR on DX cameras? It's a great lens - matches the 200-400 mm VR in most characteristics but with slightly quicker autofocus capabilities. Some (like Bjorn Rorslett) claim that this lens has close to the most pleasing and beautiful bokeh (out of focus zones) they've ever seen. I would agree that it's excellent, but I like the bokeh of both the 300 mm f2.8 VR and the 200 mm f2 VR considerably more. This is one of the few lenses I've used that can focus fast enough to keep a dog or wolf running at full speed directly at me in tack-sharp focus. When I owned this lens I used it about 10% of the time when shooting wildlife - the only reason I don't use it more is its moderately short focal length. One downside to this lens - it comes with a crappy lens hood (it falls off with only the slightest of nudges - I've already donated one or two of these to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean).

Stuff I Use: Teleconverters

I have to admit that I've never been a huge fan of teleconverters. This is probably because when I first discovered them years ago I had far too high an expectation of what they could deliver. After my initial disappointment, my teleconverters became expensive paperweights. Then, just a few years ago, I started noticing that several top professionals (e.g., Arthur Morris) use them and often get quite satisfactory results. So...I acquired all 3 of Nikon's current teleconverters and began using and testing them in a far more systematic manner. What follows is a summary of my current thoughts about Nikon teleconverters (and how I use them).

A. Nikon's Series II Teleconverters.

Caveats and Qualifiers. Some important contextual information to keep in mind:

1. Comments Are Based on NIKON'S SERIES "II" TELECONVERTERS and under FIELD CONDITIONS. My opinions, as expressed below, are derived from using NIKON teleconverters - the 1.4x TC-14EII, the 1.7x TC-17EII and the 2.0x TC-20EII. My comments may or may not be applicable to other brands. The opinions are based on use under actual field conditions, not rigorously controlled lab conditions. The ultimate question I'm always trying to answer during field testing is "Will I be able to regularly produce top quality and saleable images using ________" (fill in the blank with any gear item).

2. Different Photographers, Different Standards. When I say "...using the TC-17EII with Nikon's 200-400 mm VR zoom doesn't work for me" that's EXACTLY what I mean - it doesn't work for ME. It may well work for you and you may be absolutely happy with the resultant images. In other words, because what constitutes a "good image" varies with the photographer, I do NOT claim that my views have universality. This is simply a record of what works for me.

3. Acceptable Image Degradation. You'll hear me use the term "acceptable image degradation" - here's what I mean: There are times when an image is noticeably "degraded" (e.g., less sharp, less contrast, less vibrant colours, etc.) when viewed at 100% magnification on a quality computer monitor - BUT that degradation is either manageable and/or reversible through digital editing or virtually irrelevant (to MY eye) when the image is printed. When this situation occurs I call it "acceptable image degradation". Not surprisingly, when the the image degradation is not manageable/reversible through digital editing or the degradation is readily noticeable when the image is printed, I refer to it as "unacceptable image degradation."

MY Teleconverter Rules & Guidelines. Here's the take home lessons I've derived from my field tests using teleconverters:

1. The Greater the Magnification of the Teleconverter, the Greater the Image Degradation. This is hardly surprising, but it's worth noting that I'm NOT just referring to image sharpness. I've found that I almost always get MORE of a decrease in image contrast and colour saturation when using the 1.7x TC-17EII (compared to the 1.4x TC-14EII). And these parameters decrease even more if I use the 2.0x TC-20EII. Another noteworthy point is that I find that obtaining accurate focus becomes increasingly difficult, finicky and critical with the TC-17EII and the TC-20EII (again, compared to the TC-14EII). In fact, I find that this problem becomes so prevalent when using the TC-20EII that I almost always have to manually over-ride the autofocus (with almost all lenses).

2. Teleconverters Like Prime Lenses More Than Zooms. I almost always get better results when I pair ANY teleconverter with a quality prime (=fixed focal length) lens than I do when I pair that same teleconverter with a quality zoom lens (all pairings at same focal length). I don't know why this is true, but it's probably related to the fact that prime lens have only about 50% of the lens elements that zoom lenses of similar focal lengths have (i.e., you're shooting through a LOT more glass with zooms).

3. Stop 'Em Down. It's almost a truism that you will get better results with a teleconverter when you stop your aperture down (i.e, choose a smaller aperture). How much you have to stop down to get only "acceptable image degradation" varies with the lens (more on this below).

4. No Firm Between-Lens Generalizations. Notwithstanding what I said in point #1 above, it is very difficult to predict how a specific teleconverter will work with a specific lens (without testing it). Some very good lenses (e.g, Nikon's 300mm f2.8G IF-ED VR) work only "passably" while others (e.g., Nikon's 200mm f2G IF-ED VR) LOVE teleconverters. More about my experience with how well teleconverters match up with my Nikon lenses below.

5. High Performance at High ISO Cameras Help. I've found that it's easier to successfully use teleconverters with cameras that have stellar high ISO performance (think Nikon D3) than those with poorer high ISO performance. The reason for this is simple: the ability to use higher ISO's makes it much easier to stop down your lens in a field setting (especially when hand-holding the camera) and thus you get better teleconverter performance. What about the D300? I find that the D300 is about one to one and a half stops better in ISO performance than the D200 or D2X(s). When you use teleconverters in the field this will help some. But I have found a two to three stop improvement in ISO performance in the D3 (compared to the D2X). In practice this makes the camera MUCH easier to use in the field with teleconverters. But, the improvement of the ISO performance of the D3 comes from a larger image sensor - which brings up another issue: teleconverters are notoriously soft (focus-wise) on image edges - is the edge softness on the large-sensored D3 when paired with a teleconverter so pronounced that it wipes out the advantage of easier stopping down? To be honest, I've watched for this and have NOT found excessive edge softness to be a problem. Given my perpensity to use teleconverters only when photographing wildlife (and not flat walls of bricks), and the fact that I often like to isolate my subject using selective focus (with out-of-focus edges anyway), my sensitivity to this possible problem is probably quite reduced. It may be a problem for other shooters.

6. My Lenses with Series II Teleconverters. Finally...the teleconverter rules I live by with the lenses I own or have owned:

AFS-Nikkor 70-200 mm f2.8 G ED-IF VR. Acceptable image degradation with TC-14EII ONLY (forget the other teleconverters) and only when stopped down at least 2 stops. I don't think I've ever captured a successful image with this combination with an aperture larger than f6.3. I've seen LOTS of photographers using teleconverters with this lens, but I almost never match a teleconverter with this lens (hey...it's a zoom - see guideline #2 above).

AFS-Nikkor 70-200 mm f2.8 G ED-IF VRII. Now here's a nice surprise - this lens works GREAT with the 1.4x TC-14EII teleconverter. Shortly before acquiring this lens I sold both my TC-17EII and TC-20EII so I can't comment on how this lens performs with those TC's. This lens produces very sharp, very high quality images with the 1.4x TC (providing you stop down by one stop - or more - from shooting wide open). So, in this case this means very sharp images starting at f5.6.

AFS-Nikkor 200 mm f2 G ED-IF VR. This lens LOVES teleconverters. Acceptable image degradation with TC-14EII, TC-17EII, and even the TC-20EII (with care). I am comfortable shooting at ANY aperture when using the TC-14EII. With the TC-17EII I get the best results when I step down by about a stop (or more) and with the TC-20EII I've obtained my best results when stopped down by two or more stops.

AFS-Nikkor 200-400 mm f4 G ED-IF VR. Acceptable image degradation with TC-14EII ONLY (forget the other teleconverters) and only when stopped down to at LEAST f8 (my best results have come in f10 or f11 range). Focus is finicky and critical with TC-14EII (I often have to manually override the autofocus to get adequate sharpness). I've never been able to capture an image with acceptable image degradation with this lens when using Nikon's other teleconverters.

AFS Nikkor 300 mm f2.8 G ED-IF N VR. Acceptable image degradation with TC-14EII and with TC-17EII (but only with EXTREME CARE and stopping down with TC-17EII). With TC-14EII I have found the need to stop down at least 2 stops to get acceptable image degradation. With the TC-17EII I have only received acceptable results at apertures of f8 and smaller. With extreme care, stopping down to AT LEAST f8, and ONCE IN A BLUE MOON, you can get acceptable image degradation with the TC-20EII (but don't rely on this!).

AFS-Nikkor 400 mm f2.8G ED VRII. Acceptable image degradation with TC-14EII and with TC-17EII (but only with EXTREME CARE and stopping down with TC-17EII). With TC-14EII I have found the need to stop down at least 1 stop to get acceptable image degradation. With the TC-17EII I have only received acceptable results at apertures of f8 and smaller. With extreme care, stopping down to AT LEAST f8, and ONCE IN A BLUE MOON, you can get acceptable image degradation with the TC-20EII (but don't rely on this!).

AFS Nikkor 600 mm f4 G ED VR. While this lens doesn't perform quite as well with teleconverters as the 200 f2 VR, it does very well with them! I have achieved professionally sharp results using the TC-14EII (1.4x TC) and 600 VR even when shot wide open. With the TC-17EII (1.7x TC) I have needed only to stop down about one stop to achieve professionally sharp results. And I have even been able to capture images with acceptable image degradation when using the 600 VR with the 2x (TE-20EII) teleconverter, but ONLY under VERY controlled conditions and only when stopped down to at least f10. In terms of colour and contrast - with the 1.4x TC I noticed no degradation of these variables, but there was a noticeable loss of colour and contrast (and autofocus performance) when I used the 1.7x TC and the 2.0x TC - but all these degradations are easily handled in post-processing. Autofocus performance is very good when using the 1.4x TC, acceptable to good when using the 1.7x TC, but poor to very poor when using the 2.0x TC (expect to have to manually override the autofocus most or all of the time when using the 2.0x TC with the 600 VR).

A few words on using Series II TC's with Nikon's 500mm f4 VR. First, I have not tried TC's with the new(ish) 500 mm f4 VR, but, based on reports I have received from photographers that I know and trust, it appears that my results with the 600 VR are similar to what others have found with the 500 mm VR. Bear in mind that when using TC's with these massive lenses your main problems are often NOT caused by the optics of the TC/lens combinations - other factors are often far more important. First, camera shake is often very difficult to overcome, even on a firm tripod (after all, pair a 2.0x TC with a 600 VR on a FX body and you're shooting at 1200 mm; paired with a DX body you're shooting with a 1800 mm lens equivalent - even the smallest of vibrations can have MAJOR repercussions at these focal lengths). Second, expect auto-focus performance to degrade when using these big lenses with TC's. This degradation of autofocus performance is minor with the 1.4x TC, a little more noticeable on the 1.7x TC, and major on the 2.0x TC (expect to use manual over-ride almost all the time when using the 2.0x TC). And third, with many of these super-telephoto lens/TC's combos (e.g., the 600 VR with the 2.0x TC) you have a paper-thin depth-of-field (DOF) at most normal working distances. This super-thin DOF will definitely limit the type/style of images you can shoot with these super-long (super-ridiculous?) focal lengths.

Series II teleconverters...the final word. In some circumstances, and with certain lenses, these teleconverters can be used to produce professional quality images. They rarely, if ever, match the performance of the quality prime lens that the photographer is hoping to "emulate" (through using the teleconverter). I CAN recommend purchasing and dedicating a spot for the TC-14EII in your field kit. With both the TC-17EII and the TC-20EII there are far fewer lenses that the TC's work well with, so I would recommend testing the TC in question with the lenses you see yourself using it with before buying the TC.

B. Nikon's Series III Teleconverters. As of February 2010 Nikon began introducing the "III" series teleconverters (beginning with the 2.0x TC-20EIII and with, hopefully, upgraded versions of the 1.4x and 1.7x series II to follow soon?) and the "rules" for teleconverters changed (for the better!).

The Executive Summary: My copy of the "new" 2x teleconverter from Nikon (the TC-20EIII) represents a dramatic improvement over its "Series II" predecessor (the TC-20EII). This means that the output using the two TC's went from virtually unacceptable (with the TC-20EII) to completely acceptable (with the TC-20EIII) for virtually any use. With all lenses tested with the new TC images were visually slightly less sharp when shot wide open (at maximum aperture size) compared to when stopped down by a single f-stop. in most cases, and with most lenses tested, stopping the aperture down further resulted in only very, very minor increases in sharpness. Both image contrast and colour saturation shot with images using the TC-20EIII showed only marginal reductions compared to when NOT using the teleconverter (while the previous model of reduced image contrast and saturation quite dramatically). I experienced the best image quality, and highest overall "usability" of the lens/TC combinations when pairing the TC-20EIII with "f2.x" lenses (the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII, the 200mm f2 VR, and the 300mm f2.8 VR). However, I was able to produce very acceptable results when using the new TC with selected f4 lenses (the 200-400mm f4 VR and 600mm f4 VR). Autofocus speed (including initial focus acquisition and focus-tracking on moving subjects) was only slightly impaired on the f2.x lenses. Despite Nikon's claim that autofocus does NOT work with f4 lenses, I found that autofocus did work (albeit in a reduced capacity) on both f4 lenses tested (but was accurate and efficient only using the more central of the D700's 51-focus brackets, i.e., autofocus with extreme outer focus brackets was completely inefficient or failed outright).

In summary - and to be brutally honest - I found the best use of the "old" TC-20EII was as a paperweight. In stark contrast, the new TC-20EIII is a useful photographic tool that has earned a permanent space in my gear bag.

Want more detail about the TC-20EIII? My full field test of this TC, including a dozen or so sample images, is available here.

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