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Just the Lenses: The Great 200mm Shoot Out

Published March 26, 2015

For those of you who haven’t read our ‘Just the Lenses’ posts before, these take advantage of our Trioptics Imagemaster optical bench to compare lenses from different camera mounts with no camera involved. Why is that different? Because all other forms of testing (DxO, Imatest, or even photography) tests the camera-lens combination. Sensor architecture, micro lenses, in-camera image processing and other things affect those results. A third-party lens on a Canon 5DIII will have different results than the same lens on a Nikon D800 for example.

Our Trioptics Imagemaster MTF Station

Since we’re into optics, we like testing just the lenses themselves, eliminating all of those other variables.

The 200mm focal length is one that people use frequently, whether for action photography, long portraiture, or as a short telephoto lens. There are a lot of different ways to get there, too. Most people use a 70-200 zoom lens. A few use a 200mm prime. And if you shoot Canon or Nikon, at least, there are both name brand and third-party options to consider at that focal length. So testing all of the lenses that can shoot at f/2.8 and 200mm for those mounts seemed like a fun idea.

Meet the Contestants

We stock a lot of lenses that can shoot at 200mm and f/2.8 aperture for Canon and Nikon mount cameras:

We tested each of these lenses at f/2.8, 200mm at infinity focus distance (another advantage of the MTF bench is that it tests at infinity, not at 20 feet or so). For each lens we tested 5 copies, and each copy was tested in 4 quadrants. The MTF results were averaged (we ended up with 20 readings for each lens). All lenses were checked for proper centering on OLAF, our 5-micron pinhole collimator prior to being tested.

Checking lens centering on OLAF. Optical adjustment mallet shown on right. 

 

So What Did It Show?

Let’s start with the best of the best, the MTF curves of the 200mm f/2.0 lenses tested at f/2.8.

These are both awesomely superb lenses and looking for differences between them is really just hair splitting. The Canon has a bit better resolution in the center, especially at higher frequencies. The Nikon has less astigmatism off axis. Because of the astigmatism difference the Canon has better sagittal resolution in the corners, the Nikon better tangential resolution. But both are just awesomely good.

Next, we’ll go to the best of the rest, the 70-200 f/2.8 IS II and 70-200 f/2.8 VR II at 200mm and f/2.8. 

Notice I’m not exactly letting the suspense build up here, am I?

Again, the minor differences are just hair splitting. The Nikon has a tiny bit better high frequency resolution in the center, the Canon is just a tiny bit better in the edges and corners. Not that you could tell any of this in a photograph, the differences are really small. These are widely considered two of the best zoom lenses made and the MTF graphs back that impression up.

Speaking of the best zooms ever made, let’s flip the graphs around and (assuming you were going to shoot them at f/2.8) look at how well the MTF curves of the zooms compare with the equally legendary f/2.0 primes. Although let me be clear, there’s a lot more to the differences in the prime and zoom lenses than just MTF.

Well, my comments are just stating the obvious. There’s a reason people wax poetic about their 200mm f/2.0 lenses. They are spectacular. But the zooms are damn good.

Here’s an example of how good, we’ll compare the Canon 70-200 f/28 IS II with what was once one of my favorite lenses, the Canon 200mm f/2.8 prime. The MTF graphs will show you why it isn’t my favorite anymore; the newer zoom designs are just better than this older prime lens. It’s still a good lens, but clearly not as good as the Canon zoom. (Although it may still be a better value, you can get the f/2.8 prime pretty cheap. Not to mention that it’s very small and stealthy for a 200mm lens.)

A similar comparison is the Canon IS II with the much less expensive, and still very good Canon 70-200 f/2.8 NON IS lens.

Scroll up and down and you can understand why I liked the 200mm f/2.8 rather than the non IS zoom back when the Non IS zoom was state-of-the-art. But neither can compete with the IS II zoom from a resolution standpoint.

OK, So What About Those Third-Party Zooms?

Glad you asked. Let’s compare the Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 OS to the Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 VC first.

This supports what many of you already know; these are both pretty good lenses. Of the two, the Sigma is a bit better tested on the optical bench. This may not agree with what you’ve heard, but remember this is a pure test of the optics of the lenses. How well the lens autofocuses, the effects of the camera’s micro lenses and image processing, and some other factors are also going to influence performance quite a bit. Think of the optical test as ‘how good the lens could possibly be’, but realize a host of real-world factors are going to also influence ‘how good the lens was on this shot’.

Just for comparison sake, let’s look at how the Sigma fares against some of the other lenses we’ve looked at. (Sure, you can scroll back and forth, but this should make things easier.)  First we’ll compare the Sigma with the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS II; and the Canon is so close to the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR II that you can pretty much extrapolate.

OK, the Sigma isn’t quite as good, but it’s still really good and a whole lot cheaper. Maybe a better comparison is to the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 NON IS.

I think those two graphs sum it up nicely. The third party lenses aren’t as good as the newest Nikon and Canon zooms, but they probably are a bit better than the older models.

A Bit of Overview

A lot of people use their 70-200mm lenses largely at 200mm, so resolution at that focal length is a big factor. But there’s a lot more to choosing the proper lens for the task than resolution at 200mm, of course. In reality things like fast and accurate autofocus, especially for sports shooters, is probably more important than absolute resolution.

The cost of 200mm lenses varies greatly and is certainly a big factor when people decide which lens they want. The Canon and Nikon 200mm f/2.0 lenses are nearly $6,000, while their image stabilized 70-200mm f/2.8 zooms are over $2,000.  The Canon 70-200 f/2.8 NON IS is about $1,500, as is the Tamron zoom. The Sigma 70-200 is about $1,200 and the Canon L prime is the bargain of the bunch at about $800.

If one just considers price and resolution then the third party lenses, which are also image stabilized, certainly offer some advantages over the Canon NON IS lens. The Sigma price is more attractive than the Tamron and the Sigma arguably is a sharper lens in the lab. (Again, I emphasize that rapid and accurate autofocus may be more important than absolute resolution at 200mm.)

My opinion, though, is that the extra cost involved in getting the brand-name zoom lens in this category is probably worth it if you can possibly manage it. The Canon and Nikon f2.8 stabilized zooms are amazing optics. The f/2.0 primes, while wonderful lenses and even better optically than the zooms, are priced like the specialty items they are. The third-party lenses and Canon Non IS are cheaper, and probably good enough for many uses. But don’t kid yourself; they aren’t as good.

Roger Cicala and Aaron Closz

Lensrentals.com

March, 2015

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

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  • Many thanks for this, finding a completely independent report without any agenda is so refreshingly and good to read. We all know there is more to a lens than just the facts and figures but when looking for a lens ,the facts and figures have to be a great starting point to look at before going further.

    Again, many thanks.

  • I have the Tamron and I’m not surprised that it is a bit weak at 200mm f/2.8. I usually shoot it nearer to 135mm f/2.8-4.0 if I’m interested in optimal resolution.

  • Thanks a lot guys, this is really excellent.

    Curious about two things:

    – did you get any results from the f/2 lenses wide open? Would be interesting to see the two top dogs go head-to-head at their most challenging aperture.

    – in order to test the f/2 lenses at f/2.8, did you have to set the aperture on the camera, hit the DoF preview button, & pull the battery, or can the test bench actuate the aperture by itsself?

    Thanks again for taking the time to put these kinds of tests together, we really appreciate it :-).

  • Great work, surprised by Sigma being better than Tamron 70-200 VC (DXO and all other sites say the opposite).

    How is the performance of the old Tamron 70-200 non USD Macro? Is it comparable with hte new version at 200mm or way below?

    The 50lp/mm is the line that matters for resolution right?

  • Leif M

    This is most interesting. Thank you.

    One question. Do lenses really get better when they are stopped down. Lenses you tested today probably can not get any better. But have you tested it.

    Lensrentals blog is currently the only place, what I know, which tests lenses this way. There was a Swedish paper magazine doing that too, but it was closed down.

  • Frederik Jørgensen

    As owner of the Canon 70-200mm F/2.8 IS II and the 200mm F/2.0 IS and not least the old 200mm F/1.8 I wpould like to see how the new 200 2.0 is versus the old 200mm 1.8

  • Carl Spencer

    I think it is awesome that you did this and it is very much appreciated I have probably the most off the wall request. I am wondering about the older 2.8 which you can pick up used for cheaper than any of these lenses. The Canon and Nikon 80-200mm 2.8 (I think the Nikon version is 2.8) and the Canon 200mm 2.8 version 1. I felt like my Canon 200mm version 1 was as sharp as my 135mm 2.0 just not as good in contrast and CA control. It was very fast, accurate and I loved the “pull out” permanent hood. The 28-80mm 2.8-4.0 was great as well and the 28-70mm was also. A lot of people may not know what I am talking about at all and availability of this lenses would be an issue I am sure so I see good reason for not doing it I understand. I am just very interest to see how far has Canon and Nikon come since the old film days since many of these lenses where made in the 80’s and early 90’s.

  • Mark Winchester

    The one element I would have liked to see added are the f/4 lenses, like the Nikon 70-200mm f/4, as many of us that own the latest Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 and f/4 lenses find them practically identical in IQ. Would be interesting to see what the machine sees.

  • John

    I really like your Scientific Blog Roger. It has good statistical samplings. It may be publishable in popular scientific journal like Physics Today. I wait for the optical bench results of popular telephoto lenses such as 100-400mm L old and II, 400mmL, 80-400mm Nikkor and Sony, Sigma and Tamron 150-600mm. Those lenses are very popular because of quality and affordable price at 400mm and 600mm. The standard lenses 24-70mm f/2.8 are also very popular. I know you already have reviews for all of them with the system but it still the same as DXOmark level. Your Optical Bench review is the GOLD STANDARD for lens review, much more objective than DXOMark.

  • Toshik

    Roger thanks for taking your time and testing lenses.

    As Charles, i also thought, that latest Canon 70-200 is ahead of Nikon, but your results show that optically difference is not that much.

    As Wes, i would also be interested in seeing results for “APS-C” lenses such as Sigma 50-150 OS, which i heard is one of the sharpest for “Crop”.

    Also 24-70 shootout, would be great addition to 70-200.

  • Roger Cicala

    Carlos, I haven’t enough copies to do that now, but from previous testing, you would lose that bet generally, although possibly not with the 400 f/2.8.
    Roger

  • Wes

    Any chance of seeing a comparison of equivalent lenses for smaller sensors? Lenses like the Sigma 50-150 2.8 OS for APS-C, the Oylmpus 40-150, Fuji 50-140, Samsung NX 50-150…

  • You wanna add my 200mm f1.8 to this? 🙂

  • Could you, would you, please do some testing on some legacy glass and compared it/them to their newer (modern) counterparts? Example would be the Nikkor ED-IF 300mm f/2.8 (original manual focus) vs the newer VR AF version or the Nikkor ED-IF 400mm f/2.8 against the new FD ED VR version that has earned it the highest PQ of any big lens. It would be really interesting to see how these old lenses compared to the new ones. My bet would be that the real difference is almost minimal and not noticeable.

  • Lee Saxon

    Really wish I knew how my Leica 180/2 APO-Summicron-R stacked up to the Nikon and Canon 200/2’s…

  • Thanks for posting. Somewhat surprised that the Nikon 70-200 2.8 VR 2 is as close as it is to the Canon version. Don’t get me wrong, I own and absolutely LOVE the Nikon but I’ve read from others that the Canon 2.8 IS 2 is supposedly “much better”.

  • Jon

    Another interesting post Roger– thanks for sharing OLAF with us yet again. I fully appreciate the time/business constraints that don’t allow for additional blog/lens testing, but would you hazard a guess as to where the Sony A-mount 70-200 2.8 would stack up? If I can quote “Roger’s Take” from that listing:

    “… I will say the Sony is at least as good as any of the others. It might be a hair better, it might be just as good.”

    So perhaps somewhere ahead of the third party zooms, but still a far cry from the CaNikon primes?

  • Richard Lemieux

    Thanks so much for sharing those measurements. I didn’t realize the newer lenses looked so good. The lens design software has obviously reached new peaks. I did some amateur measurements on old lenses I have and I find it interesting to compare with the latest lenses.

  • Roger Cicala

    Andre, we actually were very borderline with the 200 f/2.0s, but because they’re much shorter the vibration moment arm isn’t a problem. The 120-300 has a huge amount of it’s weight up by the front glass which makes balancing and vibration much more of an issue.

  • Andre

    i may be mistaken, but it looks like the tripod mount isn’t necessary…if you were to remove the tripod mount, and hood of the 120-300Sport, it would weigh just 4 ounces more than the nikon 200mm f2…of course this could still be too heavy though

  • Huh. For some reason I was under the impression that the Canon 200 f/2.8 and it’s version II had the same glass. Nice to see the II is such a great performer at an awesome price.

  • russ

    To David and Jonathan, Over at DxO, the Sigma 120-300 Sport on a Nikon D800E is a lot sharper at 200mm wide open than the Nikon 70-200 VRII on the same body with the same settings. In fact, the Nikon 70-200 looks so weak in comparison that I wonder if DxO tested a bad copy.

  • Christer Almqvist

    I like the sledge hammer in picture 2. I have one of these. Will try it out on my lenses soon.

  • Roger Cicala

    David and Jonathan, it’s too heavy for the bench, unfortunately.

  • Jonathan

    I agree with David. Somewhat surprised to see it missing, given what Sigma has done lately.

    Great post though.

  • David

    You guys do have at least one other 200mm/2.8 lens you didn’t discuss: the Sigma 120-300.
    Maybe if you ever do this again…

  • Roger Cicala

    Joel, Tom, and others – we have to do these tests when we can free up a tech and equipment to do them. This particular test took about 20 hours of MTF bench time, which is a pretty big investment for a nonprofit blog (yes, I know the blog generates some traffic and helps our Google ranking). While we do that a backlog of lenses needing optical adjustment gathers and it takes us days to catch back up. It’s just a matter of limited resources. But we get more tests done every month.

    Roger

  • Tom

    Perhaps a bit selfish, but is there any chance you can squeeze in testing of Nikon’s 200mm f/4 macro? Based on DXOMark, it’s better than the zooms, but not quite as good as the f/2.0.

    I would love to see that side-by-side with the others up there and how it stacks up.

  • Chuck L

    I can’t thank you enough, not only for taking the time to compile and publish your results, but for spending the money to create your lens test-bench array. For a company such as yours to take the extra steps to help “improve the breed”, while informing all of us, in depth, is pretty rare and amazing these days. Good on ya!

  • These are great, thanks! Any chance you could include Sony lenses too? I know the FE mount only support f/4.0 but I’m curious how the A-mount f/2.8 stacks up.

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