by Jim McGee

I’ve been getting more serious about photography so I’m upgrading my camera and I want to upgrade to some better lenses. The reason I’m writing is that I’m not sure what zoom to buy. I looked at the 80-200mm f2.8 and the 70-300mm f4-5.6. The 70-300mm is a lot less money but it’s still got ED glass and the manager at my camera shop says it’s a really sharp lens. There’s a big difference in price. Is it really worth it?

Thanks,
John

Every month we get emails like this one.

My answer is usually a qualified “It depends…”

It depends on your shooting style. It depends on what you’ll be shooting and if you’ll be doing a lot of shooting in low light. The faster focus of the 80-200mm can make a big difference when shooting sports and the max aperture of f2.8 can make a big difference when focusing in low light or when shooting portraits.

The depth of your wallet will also have an impact. At almost $1,000 for the 80-200mm and just $300 for the 70-300mm the price difference is indeed significant. And of course the 80-200mm is going to produce sharper images – or is it?

John’s email made me think. After all we had both of these lenses in house. With the great strides lens makers have in the last few years I started wondering just how much the gap has narrowed.

More importantly the test would shed light on similar comparisons of lenses coming from any manufacturer as all lens makers have made similar advances in quality – though each would argue they have the best lenses.

So I went out and shot David against Goliath.

Very Different Personalities 
These are two very different lenses and they do indeed feel like David and Goliath. The 70-300mm weighs in at 18 ounces while the 80-200mm is a whopping 46 ounces! That’s about one pound vs. three pounds. The 80-200mm is two-thirds longer than it’s smaller sibling and a half-inch fatter (though it feels like more). That means the 80-200mm won’t fit well in many camera bags. This pro lens demands the generous interior of a pro bag and you’ll want a well padded shoulder strap.

Mount the two lenses on your camera (I used an F100 for the test) and you’ll find the feel is completely different. The 70-300mm feels light and easy to hold and focus. The 80-200mm initially feels much heavier by comparison. But this is a well balanced lens when used with a heavier pro camera; though it does feel a bit front heavy when used with lighter bodies such as the N80. How does that weight affect you when focusing at 200mm? If your technique is correct it can actually be a plus. When hand holding I find the weight of the heavier lens helps me settle in a little better and I feel like I’ve got a steadier platform. The funny thing is the shots I took during this test didn’t bear that out. There was no noticeable difference in shake or lens movement visible in shots taken using either lens. Turns out all this time the extra “steadiness” I was getting from heavier lenses was all in my head!

A design difference you won’t see on the surface is the use of ED glass. Both these lenses carry the ED designation for their use of ED glass elements. However the 70-300mm uses only one ED glass element to the three used in the 80-200mm. So on paper images from the 80-200mm should have less chromatic aberration and therefore it should produce sharper images, particularly at the upper end of its zoom range. Keep reading to see if that was indeed the case.

In the Field 
Both lenses exude a feeling of quality. Zoom and focus controls are well damped and buttery smooth. Our in-house 80-200mm f2.8 was the previous generation, which did not include a tripod collar. The current iteration of the 80-200mm has the tripod collar and it’s a welcome addition for this substantial lens. Aperture rings on both lenses take their set with an audible click. Both these lenses are comfortable on virtually any Nikon body past or present, autofocus or manual – a significant advantage in the Nikon system that is slowly disappearing with the introduction of Nikon’s new “G” lenses which have no aperture ring.

The 80-200mm is an internal focus lens so it’s size doesn’t change as you focus or zoom and filters such as polarizers and split neutral density filters don’t rotate. The nose of the 70-300mm moves in and out as you zoom; from 70mm to 300mm the length of the lens nearly doubles. The front element also rotates as you focus – a potential issue when using polarizers and split filters. Both lenses include a solid lens hood; the HB-7 hood for the 80-200mm being more substantial than the HB-15 hood for the 70-300mm.

The first thing you notice when mounting the two lenses on the camera is that the 80-200mm gives you a brighter viewfinder. This is a function of its larger f2.8 aperture. It makes a big difference when focusing manually in low light and it makes it easier for the camera’s autofocus as well. Press the shutter release part way and you immediately notice a difference in focus speed. The 70-300mm is no slouch compared to other lenses in its class but it’s no speed demon either. It should be fine for shooting your kid’s soccer team but it’s simply not fast enough for shooting college or pro-level sports. You’ll get your shots but you’ll also have a fair number of images that are “almost” sharp enough because the lens simply couldn’t track fast enough. And if you’re shooting sports at that level I can almost guarantee that “the shot of the night” will be one of the shots where the focus is a bit too soft. The 80-200mm on the other hand is fast. It’s not the AF-S version (which is a rocket) but it will hold it’s own in just about any shooting situation a pro will throw at it and that big f2.8 aperture allows you to better isolate your subject against a soft background when shooting wide open.

Carrying the weight of the two is quite a difference as well. For me the 80-200mm on the F100 is simply too heavy to be comfortable around my neck for an extended period, even when using a neoprene strap. When carrying glass this big I find it’s far more comfortable to carry it on my shoulder. The 70-300mm with it’s lighter weight is much more comfortable around your neck or when weighing down your shoulder in a camera bag. You’ll really feel the difference at the end of the day or after a long hike. The extra reach of the 70-300mm over the 80-200mm is also a welcome addition. That extra 100mm can be the difference in being able to fill the frame with your subject. Not a small consideration, and an even bigger difference if you’re shooting digital (where these become 120-300mm and 105-450mm lenses respectively).

Finally there is the question of reliability. The 80-200mm is solidly in Nikon’s pro lineup. That means a more rugged build quality and ability to stand up to abuse. The 70-300mm has a solid feel and is well built but it’s still a consumer lens. That means I wouldn’t expect it to hold up to extreme weather conditions and pro-level physical abuse the way the 80-200mm will. So if you expect to climb mountains, hike the desert or shoot in the rain forest on a regular basis look no further than the 80-200mm. If you only plan to do these things occasionally as a tourist and you take reasonably good care of your equipment you shouldn’t have any problems with the 70-300mm.

I shot these two lenses in a variety of nasty conditions that included 11-degree temperatures with high winds and a very wet wintery day that had both lenses and photographer soaked to the bone. Neither lens missed a beat. Both continued to operate without a hitch in the cold and neither developed a problem in the rain.

Image Quality 
To compare the lenses I shot everything from landscapes off a tripod to handheld action shots, and of course some test images that would give me a good benchmark.

What I found was that the 70-300mm produced images that were pretty damned good compared to the 80-200mm. While a test bench might show an edge to the pro lens a 22x loupe and a light table didn’t up to 200mm when shooting in the middle f-stops. Some slight softness was beginning to show up at 300mm at f5.6 and f22, and some edge softness was apparent when shooting wide open throughout the zoom range, but it would take quite a large print for this to become apparent. That’s really saying something.

Let me be clear, this isn’t a criticism of the 80-200mm, which is well known for its sharpness and quality. It is saying a whole lot for the designers who crafted the 70-300mm for they have indeed met a high standard.

So it now becomes less a question of pure image quality and more a question of competence in different shooting situations.

 

Up to 200mm image quality from both lenses was excellent with no obvious quality difference. At 300mm the 70-300mm was beginning to show some softness compared to its performance at 200mm under a 22x loupe, but frankly we’re splitting hairs. An 11×14 print would still look good. Can you tell which is which?

Conclusion 
These are both quality lenses but they are aimed at two very different types of shooters. The trick is to figure our which type you are and buy the right lens.

The amateur who buys the 80-200mm will soon tire of hauling around its bulk and the lens will start spending more time in the drawer than on the camera.

Likewise the pro who buys the 70-300mm will be frustrated by its slower autofocus speed and will likely damage the lens at some point through hard use.

That said the 70-300mm will find it’s way into more than a few pro bags as a backup lens or as a street shooter where it’s light weight, sharp optics and ability to “not look like a pro” will be a plus. And the 80-200mm will find it’s way into some amateur bags of shooters who simply want the best without compromise or who simply like the idea of shooting with pro-level glass.

The big surprise for me was the image quality of the 70-300mm. That’s not to say that every 70-300mm will perform as well. Every manufacturer, including Nikon, has different quality levels of this focal length (for example I wouldn’t expect the 70-300mm f4-5.6G to perform as well).

This 70-300mm f4-5.6D ED is targeted to the pro-sumer not the entry level photographer. If you’re considering a similar lens from another maker be sure you’re looking at a pro-sumer quality lens and not it’s entry level sibling – a class of lenses you’re almost guaranteed to be unhappy with.

As for David and Goliath here, well you’ll be happy with either one – as long as you’re honest with yourself about how you really shoot.

Street Prices
80-200mm f2.8 D ED  $910
70-300mm f4-5.6 D ED $305
Nikon is currently offering rebates on both these lenses of $100 & $50 respectively.