In the world of fast primes, not often are the specs of “200mm” and “f/2” combined in the description of a single lens. Inherently large and heavy, the ultra-fast design of a 200mm f/2 has long enabled photographers to effectively shoot telephoto in very low light as well as create stunning subject separation simply not possible with a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. Though the available light advantage afforded by the f/2 aperture is somewhat offset by the high-ISO abilities of modern digital sensors, the extra depth-of-field control still has its place in creative photography. Additionally, when used on an APS-C sensor camera like the NEX-7, a 200mm f/2 helpfully acts as a 300mm f/2.8 would on a full-frame camera.
Though it should come as no surprise, telephoto primes such as the Nikon 200mm f/2 are somewhat bulky and cumbersome even used with a suitable DSLR like a d300 with its vertical grip. When a lens of this caliber is mounted onto a comparatively tiny mirrorless camera such as the Sony NEX-7, the combination looks outright comical. That said, it is far more important to see how the lens performs in front of an unforgiving 24-megapixel APS-C sensor in making photographs rather than how the kit may turn heads at an event. Read on to find out how the 200mm f/2 stacks up as the professional fast telephoto it aims to be. As always, if you are unfamiliar with my lens review style, please read up on this post first!
Full Name: Nikon NIKKOR 200mm 1:2 AI-s ED
Dimensions: 5.4 inches/138mm wide, 7.4 inches/222mm long, with a massive weight of 5.6 pounds/2.55kg! Even more weight is added with the metal HE-4 hood as well as the lens strap. Undoubtedly, the 200mm f/2 is heavier than any modern camera body, but even more-so when attached to a 12-ounce lightweight mirrorless camera like the NEX-7.
Close Focus: Marked at 9.5 feet/2 meters, and cannot focus much closer. Though not a macro lens by any means, the 200mm can still focus close enough for headshots.
Price: Varies anywhere between $1600-$3000 depending on the condition of the lens and accessories included
Miscellaneous: 9 straight-bladed aperture stopping down to f/22, internal focusing, 122mm built-in protective filter (no filter threads), 2 huge elements of ED glass, built-in telescoping hood, optional HE-4 metal hood extension, rear drop-in 52mm gelatin/metal filter holder, rotating tripod collar with 90-degree turns marked, metal mount, leatherette front cap, optional carrying strap, optional CT-200 trunk case.
Akin to my description of Nikon’s 300mm f/2.8 AI-s ED, the 200mm f/2 is not a lens meant for general daily photography. By design it is a specialty optic for sports, events, portraits, and other very specific outings on either a tripod or monopod. Handheld shooting is possible, especially on a bulky DSLR, but attempting an extended shooting session without an external support is simply asking for trouble. Lenses like this have a tripod mount for a reason, use it when you can! Further, to minimize the risk of damaging or tearing off your camera’s mount, take great care to NEVER let the lens hang from the camera; always support the kit by the lens when transporting or shooting. Also, do not let this lens drop to the ground for any reason. The 200mm f/2 is built strong enough to take the fall, but anything it lands on will probably be crushed.
As far as actual operation, the 200mm f/2 functions just as well as any other AI-s NIKKOR. The internal focusing keeps the lens the same size regardless of focus distance (this also helps to keep dust and moisture out), the focusing action itself is buttery smooth, the aperture ring clicks with authority at each f-stop, and the lens mounts very smoothly and securely to any F-mount. In addition, the tripod collar can easily tighten into position, and the external hood locks in place with a quick turn. Everything about the lens is designed to last a lifetime and beyond. All this said, how does this “super-chub” of a telephoto measure up to my four pillars of shootability?
- Small size? The exact opposite. Thanks to the physics of optics, there is no way to make a compact 200mm f/2.
- Light weight? Strike two. The all-metal construction, combined with the large internal elements of glass help make this lens one of the heaviest primes out there.
- Smooth operation? Extremely so. The smooth focusing and aperture rings, all-metal mount, and integrated hood and tripod collar all combine to create a very pleasant manual-focus shooting experience.
- Generally favorable optical performance? Absolutely! Not without its faults common in fast glass, the 200mm f/2 is more than capable of helping to create amazing photographs, even wide-open.
The large and notably fast telephotos from all lens manufacturers (think 200mm f/2, 400mm f/2.8, 600mm f/4), regardless of the era in which they were produced, all exude quality in optical performance. The technical improvements made to lenses after Nikon introduced ED glass into its telephotos and Canon with fluorite elements into their FD lenses have all been marginal. While modern optics may have a slight edge in sharpness, chromatic aberration control, and functionality (image stabilization, autofocus, slightly lighter), the impressive performance of these old telephotos combined with their much cheaper price keeps them in demand for manual focus shooters to this day. The 200mm f/2 AI-s is no exception, and has solidified itself as a permanent part of my kit.
To cut right to the chase, the 200mm f/2 AI-s is no slouch when it comes to sharpness across a broad aperture range. Provided you can nail focus with the razor-thin depth-of-field this lens produces, even on the pixel-dense NEX-7 this fast telephoto doesn’t disappoint. Below are 100% crops from the center. (Disclaimer: the tripod I use, which works well with most of my lens collection, shows its weaknesses with lenses as heavy as this. You may get sharper results or not depending on how sturdy your lens support system is, as well as how fast the shutter speed is):
Wide open, expected spherical aberration robs contrast, but there is still plenty of detail to recover in post-processing. However, from f/2.8-16, sharpness and contrast are more than good enough for reproduction work, and detail at f/5.6 reaches its peak. At f/22, diffraction robs too much sharpness to be of much use.
Now let’s take a look at the corners:
The corners of the 200mm f/2 show a very similar story to the center, spherical aberration and diffraction respectively rob contrast and detail at f/2 and f/22, while the f/2.8-16 range shows no corner smearing, and good detail and contrast right to the pixel level. f/16 seems to show a bit more diffraction softening here than in the center, but the difference is slight. For all intents and purposes, this lens is extremely uniform across the frame at all apertures. Though not as cross-frame sharp as the 105mm f/2.8 Micro, the 200mm’s evenness in image quality makes it a great candidate for panorama stitching.
The difficulty in taking advantage of the sharpness this lens can offer comes with its unwieldiness. The combination of its heavy weight (lens support vibrations) and large surface area (wind drag) make it difficult to avoid blur when handheld at shutter speeds slower than 1/1000. Braced to a monopod, the slowest I have gone with sharp results is 1/100, but even then, I have to pay close attention to my technique and still risk some blur at the slightest twitch.
Sharpness at Infinity
Though “super” in speed, the 200mm f/2 AI-s only reaches the supertelephoto field-of-view when used on a camera with a sensor no larger than APS-C. Even then, its reach still isn’t substantial. This lens finds use primarily in events, sports, and other uses that rarely sees it focus to infinity. That said, for any far off shots, the lens still maintains critical cross-frame sharpness at f/5.6. Below is a 100% crop of a half-moon, center on the left, corner on the right. Click for full-size:
Just as in the test charts, there is a slight drop-off in sharpness at the image periphery even at f/5.6, but it is negligible unless you sit on your computer comparing crops at 200% magnification all day. Don’t be that guy.
Sharpness at Macro
If you need the 200mm focal length combined with macro-range focusing, look at Nikon’s 200mm f/4 AI-s Micro-NIKKOR. The 200mm f/2 AI-s only focuses to 9.5 feet, so anything closer than headshots is usually a no-go. That said, when you need sharpness at the close end, f/5.6 is again your best bet:
Despite the high strain on the optical formula to focus so close, there is still plenty of detail wide-open even at the 200mm’s closest focusing distance and at the edge of the frame:
All in all, sharpness should be of least concern when shooting with the 200mm f/2 AI-s. If you can manage to get past the factors of a sliceably-thin depth-of-field at f/2, tripod/wind vibrations, and weight, this lens can deliver sharp images at whatever aperture you need. Before shooting with a lens like this, be sure to look up long-lens techniques to help ensure sharper shots.
Also of note to nitpickers such as myself, the 200mm f/2 AI-s produces a flat image free from field curvature, and also exhibits minimal focus shift.
What good is a super fast telephoto if it cannot produce a pleasing rendition of out-of-focus areas? Nikon knew this when they designed this lens, and the 200mm f/2 AI-s has wonderfully smooth bokeh in every sense of the word. Click on the comparison below for larger crops:
A hallmark of a good lens is when there isn’t much to say about it. Apart from a bit of edge doubling in close-foregrounds (middle right figure) at f/2.8 and f/4, bokeh on the 200mm f/2 is smooth at every aperture and focus area. Impressive.
So what about how the lens renders out-of-focus highlights? Check out the 100% crops below:
In another excellent performance, the 200mm f/2 AI-s produces pleasing and smooth out-of-focus highlights from f/2-f/4. Starting at f/5.6, the brightest of highlights begin to show noticeable artifacts, and by f/11, even dim highlights show this distracting effect. However, if you are concerned about out-of-focus highlights at f/11, you may want to reconsider why you are using this lens in the first place.
With its ED glass elements, the Nikon 200mm f/2 AI-s manages to produce images wide-open with low amounts of chromatic aberration. Take a look at 100% crops of a worst-case scenario of dead tree branches shot against a 2-stop overexposed sky:
Wide-open with perfect focusing, there is a noticeable amount of both purple and magenta fringing around in-focus areas, and a bit of strange reddish fringing that covers the whole branch. Though the purple/magenta fringing is pretty correctable, you will not even see this much in most photographs. As a side advantage, the red fringing wide-open serves to warm up skin tones. By f/2.8, the red fringing is all but gone, and the purple/magenta aberrations begin to get under control. From f/4 and, the purple/magenta fringing diminishes even more, though never completely goes away. However, for the most critical work, there is only 1-2 pixels of fringing at f/8 in this super-contrast scene.
Large and fast telephotos like the 200mm f/2 AI-s come with two hoods, one built-in to the lens to screw-out, and another to tighten on to the other hood. This long extension of the lens (in the 200mm’s case, the hoods extend the length by a good five inches) is to help prevent stray light from hitting the massive front element. Despite multi-coatings, there is so much surface area inside the lens for strong sources of light to bounce around and cause flare. This is not a problem for most photography—unless you specialize in backlit portraits—but when the flare shows itself, it cannot be ignored. At large apertures, this flare manifests itself as veiling flare, while at smaller apertures the reflections from the large elements are visible. The below example shot at f/16 and in black-and-white to emphasize the reflections:
Not surprising from an ultra-fast lens, the 200mm f/2 AI-s exhibits a good amount of vignetting wide open, while it slowly diminishes until cross-frame illumination occurs at f/5.6. Interesting to note, however, the vignetting at all apertures is very smooth and pleasing without any hot spots. This makes it both acceptable to leave in photographs and to correct, if desired.
Long telephotos, even fast ones, tend to show no distortion. The 200mm f/2 AI-s follows this trend:
Architectural details are reproduced perfectly with this lens:
Let’s hit the old recap with this substantial telephoto:
Pros and Cons
- Impeccable build quality to the standards of every other AI-s lens ever made—if this lens is dropped, it will break whatever it lands on well before doing much damage to the lens body
- Smooth all-manual operation in every sense of the word
- Excellent and even sharpness across the frame from macro to infinity even at large apertures (sharper at f/2 than the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 AI-s is at f/2.8)
- Zero field curvature and negligible focus shift
- Buttery smooth bokeh and highlights at all large apertures with an otherworldly thin depth-of-field at f/2
- Negligible and correctable chromatic aberration from f/2.8 and up
- Smooth vignetting, see cons
- Zero distortion
- Twice as fast as a 70-200mm f/2.8
- A fraction of the cost of its more recent autofocus iterations
- A head-turner at events
- Manual focusing combined with the extremely thin depth-of-field can be challenging to photographers not familiar with manual focus techniques
- Absolutely huge and heavy—handhold only with a large DSLR
- Spherical aberration at f/2 requires a post-processing contrast boost to reveal fine detail
- Does not focus very close
- Chromatic aberrations at f/2 in the worst lighting situations can be troublesome to correct
- Noticeable veiling flare at large apertures with any strong light source in or near the frame
- Heavy vignetting (easily correctable)
The Bottom Line
If you are reading this review, you probably already know what you are looking for in a 200mm f/2 like this. You want to shoot telephoto wide-open in low light, isolate subjects in portraits like no 70-200mm f/2.8 can, and experience top image quality combined with a pleasing manual-focus shooting experience. You get all that and more with the Nikon 200mm f/2 AI-s. The cons listed above are only nitpicks to an otherwise stunning piece of metal and glass. Though the commendable Nikon 180mm f/2.8 AI-s that I owned and loved for my work is more compact and matches the 200mm f/2 AI-s in many aspects of performance, just admit it: f/2 is too tempting to pass over.
That’s all for this review, guys and gals, thanks for dropping by! To get updates on future posts, be sure to subscribe with the orange button on the top right of the page!