Which lenses for your Nikon D800?

By David Newton - Tuesday March 12 2013

Lens Recommendations
Introduction | 24 Mpix to 36 Mpix, is there any good reasons to switch? | Nikon D800 and standard lens choices | The Nikon D800 and telephoto lenses | The Nikon D800 and wide-angle lenses

In this third section of the Nikon D800 review, we’ll be looking at the telephoto lenses. These are models with a focal range of 70-200mm or 70-300mm and we have also included the super-zoom or “all-in-one” lenses with focal ranges from 28-300mm.

Of the lenses currently tested by DxOMark, there is one or two that are not yet available. Notably, prime lenses around 200mm or longer have not been tested as well as (at Mid-March 2013) the Nikon 70-200mm VR II lens. However, these will be added in the coming months as the labs get to do their testing.

D800-&-optics-IIb

As we’ve seen in the standard lens test results, when using the Nikon D800, it pays to look for the best lenses, because the camera is so demanding of lens performance. As we’d expect, when comparing the lenses in these groups to the best standard prime lenses, the telephoto models lose out. However, interestingly, the 70-200mm lenses do score approximately similarly to the standard zoom lenses, suggesting that optical quality is not dropping off that sharply in this focal range.

01

The 70-200mm lenses perform remarkably well compared to other lenses tested. As expected, lenses with a large focal range, 70-300mm or 28-300mm super-zooms tend to show the lowest scores.

02

Within this test group, the 70-200mm lenses are clearly the best choice for the highest image quality.

70-200mm

The 70-200mm focal range is exceptionally popular – for good reason. This focal range covers a lot of requirements and is used regularly by photographers in most genres. As we’ve seen, the fact that these lenses tend to perform better than other lenses within this class has also made them a favorite choice.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II 2699 29
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR 1399 28
Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED 1850 26
Tamron SP AF 70-200mm F/2.8 Di LD (IF) MACRO Nikon 770 26
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM Nikon 1699 25
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO Macro HSM II Nikon 949 25
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO HSM Nikon 880 23

The best 2 lenses tested are both Nikon models: in the Overall score, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VRII and the Nikon 70-200mm f/4G ED VR come out on top with scores of 29 and 28, respectively. With a price of $1,399, the Nikon 70-200mm f/4 ED VR is not only a top choice, but also a good bargain – as much as a lens costing over $1,000 can be considered a bargain.

The top three 70-200mm lenses so far tested on the Nikon D800, with the Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/4G ED VR coming out top.

If you need a faster maximum aperture than f/4, then the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II is the best in its class. If the Nikon is out of your price range, the $770 Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Di LD (IF) and the less-recent $1,850 Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED both score a very good DxOMark score of 26. In all areas, the two are seemingly equal, so your choice will eventually come down to brand loyalty and price as much as any image quality concerns.

The one thing to keep in mind is that the latest Tamrom 70-200mm f/2.8 lens has not yet been tested. Once the lens has had its turn going through our labs, we expect to possibly see some shift in these two last places, especially since the Tamron lens did so well when tested on a Canon-mounted version.

Apart from the Nikon f/4 lens mentioned above, the Tamron also makes a good value for money option given its retail price of $770. If the slight loss in image quality compared to the Nikon f/4 lens does not bother you, the Tamron model could even be considered the best choice when price and performance are weighed up.

70-300mm

The 70-300mm focal range is often seen as a “kit lens” length as many double zoom camera-lens combinations include a 70-300mm lens. They are effectively cheap lenses that offer a decent focal length, but generally the compromises made in achieving the large focal range mean image quality suffers.

Lens Price ($) DxOMark
Score
Nikon AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED 669 20
Nikon AF Zoom Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED 196 20
Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 DG OS Nikon 359 19
Tamron SP 70-300mm F4-5.6 Di VC USD Nikon 449 19

The “best” lens and the best value for money lens from the four 70-300mm lenses tested on the Nikon D800.

Of the four lenses, the Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED comes out as the top choice for two reasons – firstly, it has the highest sharpness score of the quartet, managing 12P-Mpix and secondly, because it features Nikon’s Vibration Reduction system. With such a long focal range, having VR is a real benefit in achieving sharp shots while handholding and so this lens makes the best choice.

However, if paying $669 for a lens like this seems a bit too expensive, the best value for money option is the Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG OS. This is for largely the same reasons as the Nikon lens – it puts in the second highest sharpness score and also includes an image stabilizer function. Priced at $359 it is a good choice if value for money is your major concern.

Super Zooms

Buying a Nikon D800 and then fitting a super-zoom lens may seem a bit like buying a supercar and running it on cheap fuel, but there is a place for these lenses as they are functional, especially if you are travelling and do not want to carry the weight of several lenses in a kit. However, as with the 70-300mm lenses, there is a compromise to be made in the lens design – if not, we’d all be using 28-300mm lenses!

Lens Price ($) DxOMark
Score
Sigma 120-400mm F4.5-5.6 DG APO OS HSM Nikon 999 19
Nikon AF Zoom Nikkor 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED 300 17
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR 1050 17
Tamron 28-300 F3.5-6.3 XR I A Nikon 600 16

Of the four lenses tested by DxOMark, there are two that really stand out. The first is not a true super-zoom in the sense of being an all-in-one lens, but instead offers the longest focal length that will be of interest especially to those shooting sports or wildlife. It is the Sigma 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6 DG APO OS HSM. With a sharpness score of 12P-Mpix, it beats the other lenses and doesn’t really lose out greatly in any other area, hence why it top scores with a DxOMark Overall score of 19.

The three best lens choices in the super-zoom category

For a true super-zoom, the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR makes the best choice. 10P-Mpix is not great when compared to shorter focal lengths or prime lenses, but within the compromises of the super-zoom design, it is not a bad result. At $1050 though, it is the most expensive lens tested in this category, though it does include Nikon’s VR system. Because of the high cost, unless you really need the extended focal range, you may do better to look elsewhere.

For a value for money option, the Nikon AF Zoom-Nikkor 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED offers a good alternative. While it lacks the 300mm focal length, the much lower cost of $300 makes it an attractive proposition as in a direct head-to-head with its more expensive stablemate, the only area it really loses out is in the chromatic aberration tests, which is why its overall score has suffered.

Conclusion

With a Nikon D800, your best option for the highest quality images in this focal range is to stick to the 70-200mm models. As ever, these offer the highest sharpness scores in the range and best image quality overall. The other lenses have their place in the kit bag, but they suffer from too many compromises to make them an ideal choice when trying to maximize the performance of the Nikon D800.

In the final section, we’ll look at the wide-angle lenses, both primes and zooms. Stay tuned!