Whew…it’s been awhile since my last lens review—I’ll admit to that! The rigors of school this past semester have just been too much to handle when combined with the upkeep of personal photography and this website. Even on this short break of mine, sports assignments and a faulty internet connection do their best to keep me from posting new content. I do try to still find free time.
If you are unfamiliar with my review methods, please see this post first!
The 70-210mm f/4 E by Nikon is the last “consumer” zoom to be reviewed in my long journey of working with this series of lenses over the past months. As some readers may know, I have a general negative bias towards zoom lenses. This is not from an image quality standpoint (though prime lenses tend to perform better anyway)—rather, when artistry is taken into account. A photographer can easily get lazy with composition when all they have to do is zoom in and out with the lens rather than their feet. This is more true with the 70-210mm with its 3x zoom range compared to the 2x zoom range of the 70-150mm f/3.5 and 36-72mm f/3.5. Generally speaking, however, this lens is by all means a telephoto (especially on APS-C or smaller sensor-cameras), so its use still is limited.
Supposedly this lens’ optics were used in Nikon’s first autofocus telephoto zoom, the Nikon 70-210mm f/4 AF. Does this mean its performance was superb even by non-Series-E standards? Let’s take a look!
Full Name: Nikon 70~210mm 1:4 Series-E
Dimensions: 6.14 inches/156mm in length, 2.85 inches/72.5mm in diameter, with a very heavy weight of 25.75 ounces/730 grams! For reference, this is over twice as heavy as the tested NEX-7 camera itself!
Close-focus: marked at 2 feet/.56 meters only at 70mm, and you can’t get any closer than that. At all other focal lengths the close-focus is 5 feet/1.5 meters. Interestingly enough, the maximum reproduction ratio at 70mm and 210mm appear to be about the same. Though trying to hold a 210mm lens steady focused close is a pretty impressive feat to attempt.
Average Online Price: $110 for good condition, $130 for mint
Miscellaneous: 7 straight-bladed aperture stopping down to f/32 (at 70mm this can give some VERY deep depth-of-field), focal lengths marked at 70/85/100/135/210mm, depth-of-field curves marked for f/11 and f/32, infrared focusing curve, 62mm metal filter thread (the only Series-E with a filter thread different than 55mm), metal mount, effortless push/pull one-touch focusing and zooming mechanism, optional CL-35A hard leatherette case (not pictured, mine is pretty beat up), macro mode at 70mm
Big, bulky lenses already have a couple strikes against them when it comes to standing up to my four pillars of shootability. The 70-210mm is no exception here, but given its focal range and aperture, I would never really consider it a walk-around lens anyway. A couple great uses for this lens could undoubtedly be outdoor sports photography and single-person portraiture at the maximum f/4 aperture. Regardless, let’s assess the four pillars:
- Small size? No. In fact, this is the largest Series-E lens by a very wide margin.
- Light weight? Not hardly. Again, the 70-210mm is the heaviest Series-E by many ounces.
- Smooth operation? Yes! The one-touch push/pull zooming and focusing mechanism is superb and designed for manual focus, unlike the awful 2-ring focusing and zooming systems used today. The damping of the zooming is perfect.
- Generally favorable optical performance? Yes! The 70-210mm is easily the best zoom in the Series-E line-up, and given its versatility, could possibly be the best Series-E lens, period.
As far as build quality, the 70-210mm is built just like the other Series-E’s. That is, an undetermined combination of lightweight metal and plastic. By the weight and feel of this lens, there seems to be a lot more metal than plastic in the construction—great for toughness, bad for carrying around!
There isn’t a whole lot I can say here: the 70-210mm excels in every aspect save for flare control. This is a great lens, one that can only be nitpicked on for the few shortcomings it inevitably has due to the nature of it being a zoom. So…let’s do some nitpicking.
To keep the size of this review manageable, I have chosen to only analyze lens characteristics at the wide, middle, and telephoto end of this zoom (70/135/210mm, respectively). Starting off with central sharpness, the following are all 100% crops (meaning clicking on them will NOT make them larger) of the wide-open, optimum, and fully stopped-down apertures from top to bottom.
Wide-open at all apertures, the amount of sharpness is very good (though 210mm is comparatively soft), with total perceived sharpness only hampered by veiling haze caused by spherical aberration. For critical work in the center stay in the f/5.6-f/11 range (where sharpness is outstanding), and make sure to stay away from the small apertures unless large depth-of-field is a concern; diffraction noticeably sets in starting at f/16 at all focal lengths.
Moving on to corner 100% crops:
A pleasant surprise here, the optimum aperture for corner sharpness at all focal lengths is at f/8. Wide-open, corners at 70mm look just fine, getting super sharp at optimum. At 135mm, things are a little soft at f/4 but sharpen up a good degree at f/8. Finally at 210mm, detail is hidden wide-open from vignetting, and the optimum aperture never really gets all that sharp—however, with little corner smearing there isn’t much to complain about. At all focal lengths, diffraction becomes noticeable in the corners by f/22. All this in mind, staying around f/8 at all focal lengths is a safe bet, but seeing as corners are rarely in focus at large apertures anyway, feel free to shoot wide-open.
For contrast, the optimum aperture is f/5.6 at all focal lengths. With regards to field curvature, the 70-210mm exhibits none that is noticeable. The same can be said about focus shift (applying only to DSLR shooters): there’s a tiny bit between f/4 and f/5.6, but it isn’t really enough to warrant using your depth-of-field preview button.
All said, I am very impressed with the overall sharpness across the frame with the 70-210mm, especially considering this is a zoom lens! You can draw your own conclusions as to how much better corners would be with a micro 4/3 sensor or worse they would be with a full-frame FX sensor.
Sharpness at Infinity
To assess the 70-210mm’s sharpness at the infinity focusing distance, I shot the all-too-familiar local clock-tower. Unfortunately at the time of testing, it was always too cloudy to get a clear shot of the moon (the best test of “true” infinity for a telephoto lens).
In all these examples, the corners (right) never can match the sharpness of the centers (left). True corner-to-corner sharpness cannot be obtained with this lens at any aperture or focal length. That said, the drop off in sharpness as an image moves from the center of the frame is hard to notice in actual photographs.
Sharpness at Macro
With the 70-210mm’s handy macro mode at 70mm, you can get adequately close to small things for photography without needing to crop much, if at all. Sharpness is also excellent at the close-focus distance of 2 feet/.56 meters.
For the 70-210mm, sharpness is an area it generally excels in at all focal lengths and focus distances (save for some comparative softness at 210mm). But what about bokeh?
One interesting thing I found when examining the bokeh smoothness with the 70-210mm was its consistency at all focal lengths (tested at 70/135/210mm) just like sharpness performance. In all cases, far-off background and foreground bokeh is smooth with some busier near-foreground bokeh at f/4. As the lens is stopped down, background bokeh generally stays smooth, while foreground bokeh becomes more busy. Pictured below are four examples, from f/4-11 at 210mm.
With regards to bokeh highlights, the 70-210mm is again a consistent performer at all focal lengths. Starting wide open, out-of-focus highlights are circular with soft edges. At f/5.6 the aperture shape is clearly visible, but highlights are generally free of artifacts. From f/8 on, the artifacts and outline of the highlight become more prevalent. The following are 100% crops at 135mm:
I was honestly worried about chromatic aberration—namely, purple fringing—with the 70-210mm f/4 given its fast f/4 aperture. After all, if there is extreme purple fringing at f/4, it can be a pain to shoot and remove this aberration in the situations where a fast shutter speed/low ISO is needed. To assess chromatic aberrations, I shot this dead branch outlined against clouds overexposed to almost clipping levels of brightness. Keep in mind, this is an absolute worst-case scenario:
At wide-open (left), there is some noticeable purple fringing at about 5 pixels wide. Already at f/5.6, the purple fringing is essentially gone—what’s there never gets bigger than a pixel in width. By f/8 there is absolutely no fringing. Even in this worst-case scenario at f/4, the fringing can easily be removed with Lightroom 4′s excellent de-fringing sliders:
With regards to other longitudinal aberrations, such as green and magenta “bokeh fringing”, this lens has some, though I never saw it become a problem in actual photography.
Moving to one of the few weaknesses of the 70-210mm, flare control is not good. However, considering the 13-element construction, there was bound to be multiple instances of flare in my testing. Take note of the embedded video, shot in black-and-white to emphasize the flare reflections:
Ouch. Not only are there multiple blobs based off of the position of the sun in the image, but there are also multiple veiling flare reflections that lower contrast. This kind of veiling flare can really hurt the dynamic range of an unedited scene in this snap:
When using the 70-210mm around strong light sources, take special care to either use a lens hood, shield the front element with your hand, or keep the light behind you to avoid both flare reflections and veiling flare this zoom suffers from.
As a full-frame 35mm-designed lens, the 70-210mm can be expected to not suffer from much vignetting when used with the APS-C sensor NEX-7. This expectation mostly follows through; vignetting at 210mm wide-open is the only instance where it could possibly be noticeable:
Distortion control on the 70-210mm is about on par with what could be expected from a 3x telephoto zoom: some barrel distortion at 70mm and some pincushion distortion at 210mm. At 135mm, it generally flattens out.
All this taken into consideration, let’s hit the old recap!
Pros and Cons
- Great build quality, notwithstanding that this is a Series-E lens. Most of the lens is solid metal!
- Smooth operation thanks to the excellent push/pull zooming and focusing mechanism
- Larger focal range than any professional 70-200 zoom (oh okay, only 10mm on the telephoto end!)
- Fast f/4 aperture throughout the focal range for adequately fast shutter speeds/low ISOs as well as good depth-of-field separation
- Handy macro mode at 70mm that retains good performance
- Very good sharpness starting wide open at 70-135mm
- Optimum sharpness and contrast is consistent at all focus distances (usually peaking at f/8 and f/5.6, respectively), save for some lowered contrast at macro (70mm)
- Very smooth bokeh at f/4 at all focal lengths, smooth background bokeh at other apertures
- Out-of-focus highlights handled well at the larger apertures
- Great control of chromatic aberrations
- No vignetting at 70-135mm
- Heavy and long! This is not a walk-around lens
- Not as fast as a fixed f/2.8 70-200
- Close-focus distance at other focal lengths besides 70mm is long
- Sharpness at 210mm is relatively soft compared to the shorter focal lengths
- True across-the-frame sharpness is impossible to achieve (NOTE: the detail fall-off from the center still isn’t that noticeable)
- Foreground bokeh past f/4 is slightly busy
- Bokeh highlights past f/5.6 are distracting
- Purple fringing at f/4 is present, but easy to edit out
- Bad flare performance in every regard (typical for a zoom lens, though)
- Some slight vignetting at 210mm
- Some distortion at both ends of the lens, easy to correct in post processing
- One of the more expensive Series-E lenses, but you get what you pay for
- Manual focus only, just in case you didn’t know
- Not an AI-s Nikkor, but it only lacks the name; the 70-210mm easily performs as any great AI-s zoom should
The Bottom Line
The Nikon 70-210mm f/4 E is a lens I can recommend to any photographer wanting a fast telephoto zoom on a budget—if he/she is proficient with manual focus, of course. The optical performance combined with its versatility easily makes it one of, if not the, best Series-E lenses I have used (as of writing this review, I have now tested them all!). As long as the lens is used in situations suitable for it—outdoor sports photography/portraiture/landscape come to mind—and strong light sources are kept in check, the 70-210mm is entirely proficient at producing exceptional images. Keep in mind that most of my aforementioned “cons” on this lens are simply nitpicks on the lens’ stellar sheet record for performance!
For more samples, don’t forget to check out my first impressions of this lens.
That’s all for this review guys and gals, thanks for dropping by, and bearing with me as my internet connection still faults me every 10 minutes (uploading the flare video was a nightmare…)! Regardless, I made sure to use the web when I had it, as this review was LONG overdue. Next post should be a basketball-themed sports shootout from my recent games. I’ll have a bunch to share soon! And one final note, up next for review is the exotic 50mm f/.95 HyperPrime!