A favourite of photojournalists and wedding, portrait and event photographers, the 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom lens has a reputation for good control over curvilinear distortion, as its available focal lengths are typically easier to correct. Further appeal comes from the constant, fast f/2.8 aperture throughout the entire focal range.
The five lenses on test here, from Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Sony and Tamron, also come equipped with, or have access to, optical stabilisation, which makes handheld use possible even in low light and at telephoto settings.
While these lenses are all designed for use on a full-frame camera, those using the APS-C format will be able to enjoy a 105-300mm focal range (or 112-320mm when used with Canon APS-C-sized sensors). This extension makes this kind of lens ideal for more distant subjects, such as wildlife and sports.
Add a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter (when the lens is used with a full-frame camera), and the focal range becomes 98-280mm and 140-400mm respectively. Many of the AF points in Canon and Nikon autofocus systems operate down to f/5.6, which means the operational AF speed on a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens with 2x converter should not be affected. Compared to Nikon’s 200-400mm lens (street price around £4,950), this 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and teleconverter combination is much less costly.
With Tamron having launched a new version of its 70-200mm f/2.8, there are now two up-to-date, third-party versions of this lens, and both are more affordable than the proprietary models.
The size and weight of each lens in this test provide a good balance when mounted on a professional or enthusiast-level DSLR, but not entry-level models. Even with enthusiast-level cameras, it is best to add a battery grip.
Carrying all five lenses for this test (plus three professional DSLR bodies) made for a very heavy kit bag – indeed, one lens alone weighs around 1,500g. These are not the sorts of lenses to take on a day trip, but are best suited to specific jobs where the right support will be available to bear their weight. That said, with weight comes quality.
These lenses are reported by existing users to be virtually as sharp as many fixed-focal-length lenses, which is impressive given their zoom range. They have been used in various situations to get a feel for their handling, speed of focusing and quality of out-of-focus areas. Images taken with each lens, of both technical and real-life subjects, have then been scrutinised for sharpness and distortions.
Announced in January 2010, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM is a direct replacement for the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM from 2001. Today, the difference in price between the two lenses is considerable.
On the surface, the lenses appear virtually identical, but considerable work has been put into the innards, with new lens construction and AF motors.
Sporting Canon’s off-white metal barrel, the newer lens has an excellent weather-sealed build. Like the Nikon lens, the lens mount has a rubber ring to prevent moisture and dust entering.
Focus and zoom rings have a tactile, ridged rubber surface. Along with the Sigma lens, the Canon zoom ring has the most narrow turn from its 70mm to 200mm position, of approximately 60°. This is handy for quickly snapping between each end of the focal range, but makes more precise adjustments harder to achieve.
The focus ring is very deep at around 45mm, and is therefore easily located even with one’s eye to the viewfinder.
Four switches on the side of the lens adjust the AF and stabilisation modes. As with the Nikon and Sony lenses, these switches vary in size to make it easier to tell them apart without a visual check.
Switches include a focus limiter to 2.5m or the full range down to the minimum 1.2m (which, along with the Sony lens, leads the group), AF/MF, stabiliser on/off and the two stabiliser modes: one for static subjects and the other designed to counteract panning movement.
The petal lens hood measures 95mm deep, is lined with felt to reduce reflections and has a lock to prevent the hood from being knocked off accidentally. Its ends are flat, which means the lens can be stood upright when the hood is attached.
As with the Sony model, the sturdy collar can only be removed when the lens is not mounted to a camera.
Handheld testing going through the shutter speeds at the 70mm, 135mm and 200mm focal lengths shows that the 4-stop Image Stabilizer is consistently effective for up to 4EV. For example, eight out of ten shots were sharp when taken at 200mm and 1/15sec, which is impressive stuff!
The complex lens construction comprises 23 elements in 19 groups, five of which are ED elements and one is fluorite. This is the only lens with eight diaphragm blades, but a round aperture is still created and the out-of-focus areas are pleasant, regardless of which aperture is used.
Canon’s Ultrasonic Motor (USM) provides quiet and reliable AF. The Canon and Nikon lenses top the group for speed.
Image: Taken at f/5.6, the out-of-focus lights show slight polygonal edges rather than being completely round
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM specifications:
Street price: Around £1,800
Filter diameter: 77mm
Lens elements: 23
Diaphragm blades: 8
Minimum focus: 1.2m
Lens mount: Canon EF
Nikon’s first version of the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens was announced in 2003, with its successor arriving in July 2009.
Immediately it is clear that this lens is built to a high standard. Its barrel is made from magnesium alloy with the same dappled finish as the company’s professional DSLR bodies.
A rubber ring around the lens mount is an indication that the lens is weather-sealed to prevent dust and moisture entering the rear of the lens hen it is mounted on a camera.
This is the largest and heaviest lens in the group, but any differences in size and weight are negligible. Like all the lenses ere, zooming and focusing are achieved internally, so the 209mm length of the lens remains unchanged during operation, and will not suck in dust while zooming, as is the case with some less expensive zooms.
Each lens has a ring to control focusing and one to control zooming. The Nikon model has a third ring at the front, which serves as a tactile grip but has no other function. The grip is handy for holding the lens at the front, but it is possible to confuse it temporarily with the focus ring.
Each ring has a ridged rubber finish that is easy to grip, wet or dry. The zoom and focus rings turn smoothly, and offer a satisfying resistance that aids precise control. It is possible, in one motion, to rotate the ring from 70mm to 200mm, while focusing from the minimum 1.4m to infinity requires at least two turns.
There are four switches located on the side of the barrel, including a focus limiter (to 5m), on/off control for the 4-stop Vibration Reduction, ‘normal’/‘active’ stabilisation modes and manual/auto focus (with manual focus override).
Unlike all the other lenses, the tripod collar is built into the lens. Its standout feature is that the mount on the ‘collar’ is detachable, while all the other lenses require the collar to be removed entirely.
The supplied petal-shaped lens hood is around 70mm long and handily features a lock that prevents accidental removal. The hood’s ends are curved rather than flat so, rather impractically when mounted on the lens, it cannot be placed upright without tipping over.
The refreshed optical construction comprises 21 elements in 16 groups, with seven ED elements. Nine diaphragm blades create a round aperture.
Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor is near-silent in operation and very speedy, although this is dependent on the camera and system being used. Simply put, with this lens mounted on a D300S or D4 and with the ‘right’ AF mode selected, expect the responsive AF to achieve a sharp shot.
Image: The Nikkor lens has pleasant out-of-focus areas, even at f/5.6
Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II specifications:
Street price: Around £1,600
Filter diameter: 77mm
Lens elements: 21
Diaphragm blades: 9
Minimum focus: 1.4m
Lens mount: Nikon F FX
Sigma has rightly established a reputation for building excellent-quality lenses that cost much less than proprietary versions. The company’s 70-200mm lens is by far the least costly in this group, at around £900.
Announced in September 2010, the lens is available in Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony Alpha, Pentax K and Sigma mounts, and for this test the Nikon version was used.
At 1,430g, the Sigma lens is the lightest in the group, but is still quite a weight to carry around. It is a long lens at 197mm, but it does not rotate or extend during zooming.
The zoom ring rotates clockwise from 200mm to 70mm, which matches the operation of the Canon lens, but is the opposite direction to the other three versions. Changing from 70mm to 200mm can be made in a single turn. However, the rotation of the zoom ring could do with a little more resistance, as it turns all too easily.
Unsurprisingly, given its lower price point, the overall feel of the lens is good without being class-leading. The barrel’s high-quality plastic has a smooth finish unlike any DSLR, and the lens does not feature weather-sealing like the Nikon and Canon versions.
The lens collar has a hinge, like the Tamron version. However, the collars on these lenses do not feel as sturdy, with the hinge being an added potential point of weakness under heavy use.
Supplied with the lens is a large hood measuring 107mm. Again like the Tamron lens, the hood’s interior is ridged to reduce reflections.
A simple two-switch set-up on the side of the lens is for AF/MF and stabilisation. The latter has three options: off, single-axis panning and dual-axis stabilisation.
The lens construction comprises 22 elements in 17 groups, two of which are ‘F’ low-dispersion (FLD) elements (similar to Canon’s fluorite element), and three special low-dispersion (SLD) elements. The focus group of lens elements is at the rear of the lens, hence the front-end zoom ring.
Like most of the other lenses in the group, this Sigma model offers an Optical Stabiliser that allows the use of shutter speeds up to a claimed 4-stops slower than a non-stabilised equivalent. It is, in fact, the first telephoto zoom lens from Sigma to feature stabilisation. Around eight out of ten shots were sharp when taken at 200mm and 1/30sec, which equates to around a 3EV stabilisation.
The lens uses Sigma’s Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM), which provides quiet AF (although some Pentax and Sony cameras do not support the HSM function). Autofocus speed when compared directly to the Nikon lens is not quite as responsive in all lighting conditions, but is quick nonetheless.
Image: Like the Canon lens, the bokeh of the Sigma model shows slight polygonal edges rather than being completely round
Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM specifications:
Street price: Around £900
Filter diameter: 77mm
Lens elements: 22
Diaphragm blades: 9
Minimum focus: 1.4m
Lens mount: Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax, Sigma, Sony Alpha
The Sony 70-200mm is the oldest lens in this test, having being announced in June 2006. More than six years on, it still commands a high price that almost equals the most expensive models in this group.
In the hand, Sony’s lens feels like a solid bit of kit, with a durable metal barrel in the company’s distinctive professional Alpha off-white colour.
It is not officially weather-sealed, however, and it lacks the rubber ring on its lens mount. In practice, this may never prove a problem, but is something worth considering for anyone likely to take the lens into extreme conditions.
Both the focus and focal-length rings are wide and easy to locate with eye to viewfinder. They are smooth to rotate and easy to grip, even in wet conditions, thanks to the ridged rubber surface. At least three turns of the focus ring are required to travel from 1.2m to infinity, while the focal range ring needs a 90° turn to zoom from 70mm to 200mm.
At 90° intervals around the front of the lens are three AF-stop buttons, so no matter the orientation of the lens, one of these buttons is close to hand.
This is the only lens in the group that does not have optical stabilisation – but it does not need to, because Sony provides its stabilisation in-camera instead. So given a lack of stabilisation and weather-sealing, £1,600 seems a little steep.
Three switches control autofocus and include AF/MF, a focus limiter to the minimum 3m or full, and a direct manual focus (DMF) corrector mode for standard or full-time control. Autofocus overrides control of the manual focus ring in standard, and vice versa in full time.
Supplied with the lens is a durable, 100mm-deep, petal-shaped lens hood. Its flat ends enable the lens to stand upright when it is attached. The inside is lined with felt to reduce light reflections reaching the lens, and a window opening on the underside provides access to any filters that may be in use.
Like the Canon version, the supplied collar can only be removed when the lens is not mounted on a camera body.
By number alone, the lens construction is the least ‘complex’ in this test, consisting of 19 elements in 16 groups, four of which are ED elements.
Sony’s Super Sonic wave Motor (SSM) provides near-silent autofocus. Of course, AF speed is affected by the camera system being used – the responsiveness of the Alpha 99 is different to that of the Canon EOS-1D X, for example.
The AF of the Sony set-up is reliable and speedy, but not quite to the extent of the Tamron and Canon lenses when used on the EOS-1D X, or the Nikon lens used on the Nikon D4, although it is a match for the Sigma lens when mounted to a D4.
Image: Like the Nikon lens, the bokeh in this scene taken with the Sony lens is nicely rounded
Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G specifications:
Street price: Around £1,600
Filter diameter: 77mm
Lens elements: 19
Diaphragm blades: 9
Minimum focus: 1.2m
Lens mount: Sony Alpha
Launched just a few months ago, the Tamron 70-200mm lens is the newest model in the group. The initial asking price is lower than those of the proprietary lenses, as would be expected of a third-party model, and it could come down even further. However, at £1,400 it is still significantly more expensive than the Sigma lens.
Currently, the Tamron zoom is available in Canon EF, Nikon F and Sony Alpha mounts, with the Canon version used for this test.
At 196.7mm long and weighing 1.47kg, this is one of the shortest and lightest lenses in the group, although, as already mentioned, any difference in size and weight between these bulky lenses is hard to notice.
Its barrel is made of high-quality plastic, rather than the metal of the brand versions. So while it is well made, it may turn out to be less durable.
A key difference between the proprietary and third-party lenses is that the zoom ring on the third-party lenses is at the front, while the focus ring is closer to the rear. This set-up works well because both rings are in close proximity – the hand can comfortably remain in the same place and access both rings, whereas the brand lenses require more of a stretch between them.
Each ring on this Tamron lens is beautifully dampened for a smooth rotation. Along with the Sony and Nikon zooms, the focal-length ring on the Tamron lens rotates anti-clockwise, from 200mm to 70mm. Canon owners using the Tamron lens will need to adjust to an opposite rotation.
Two switches on the side of the lens barrel represent a simple control over stabilisation and focusing. One switch changes between auto and manual focus, while the other turns Vibration Correction on and off.
Unlike the brand lenses, the Tamron and Sigma models do not feature a focus-distance limiter switch, which is a useful control for reducing the range the lens must ‘hunt’ to find focus on its subject.
Tamron’s Vibration Compensation (VC) offers up to 4 stops of usable shutter speeds when shooting handheld.
The complex lens construction consists of 23 elements in 17 groups, including four low-dispersion (LD) elements and one extra-low-dispersion (XLD) element to reduce distortions such as chromatic aberration.
Tamron’s Ultrasonic Silent Drive (USD) AF motor performs quietly and speedily. In a direct comparison with the Canon lens, it is hard to see a difference in speed, although the Canon version just edges it. Nevertheless, this means the Tamron lens is even more responsive than the Sony model.
Image: The out-of-focus candle lights in this image taken with the Tamron have possibly the most rounded edges of all the lenses here
Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD specifications:
Street price: Around £1,400
Filter diameter: 77mm
Lens elements: 23
Diaphragm blades: 9
Minimum focus: 1.3m
Lens mount: Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony Alpha
It may well be true that curvilinear distortion is less noticeable in
real-world images than lab images, but good control of this is still
desirable in a lens because it is flattering for portraits and less
distracting in uniform patterns such as brickwork, which would otherwise
None of the lenses here suffers badly from curvilinear distortion,
but differences can be seen between them when viewing the results from
our lab – as seen in the bowing of lines in our graphs.
each lens shows minor barrel distortion at 70mm, and by the mid 135mm
setting it has shifted to pincushion distortion, which is again almost
negligible. Pincushion becomes more pronounced at the 200mm setting, but
is not a concern.
A direct comparison shows that the Tamron and
Nikon lenses have the best control over barrel distortion at 70mm, while
the Sony, Tamron and Canon lenses are least affected by pincushion
distortion at 200mm. None of the lenses is distorted beyond
approximately 0.6% at any focal length.
Image: The bowing of lines in these charts indicates curvilinear
distortion. All five lenses control this distortion very well, and the
most extreme it gets is at 200mm, where pincushion distortion is more
pronounced. Even then, one will struggle to see the effect in most
Each lens has a complex construction, containing elements (be it ED, SLD or fluorite) that reduce distortions such as chromatic aberration. In the centre of the frame at any focal length it is difficult to find chromatic aberration in any lens, although in the bike picture there are traces in each lens.
It appears more pronounced in the Canon and Nikon lenses, but this is in part due to the slightly greater contrast and sharp edges than, say, the Sigma lens. The Tamon lens controls the distortion particularly well. At 135mm, this distortion is under control.
In short, chromatic aberration is another type of distortion that is well controlled by all the lenses and is certainly something that can be dealt with quickly post-capture.
Images: Chromatic aberration is, on the whole, well controlled in each
lens and certainly something that can be dealt with post-capture. In
this scene, taken at 70mm and f/2.8, the Tamron lens shows the best
A slight surprise is that the Sigma lens has just as good control over vignetting than the Canon lens when used at 70mm and f/2.8. The Tamron lens appears the most affected, while the Sony and Nikon versions show better control.
Used in the APS-C format, vignetting is of no concern at any setting, because only the unaffected central portion of the frame is used in an image.
Image: Vignetting is evident in all five lenses at f/2.8, reduced by the f/4 setting and all but gone with the camera set to f/5.6 aperture or smaller
It is not possible to make direct comparisons between the Nikon, Sony and Canon lenses because a different camera system has been used for each to record our resolution charts.
However, as close a comparison as possible has been used, with the 24-million-pixel Nikon D600 being used for the Sigma and Nikon lenses, the 24-million-pixel Alpha 99 for the Sony lens and the 22.3-million-pixel Canon EOS 5D Mark III for the Canon and Tamron lenses.
Our resolution charts indicate centre sharpness for each of the lenses at the optimum f/5.6 and f/11 settings, and it is difficult to note any differences between them at all.
The brand lenses show slightly better contrast, with the Sigma lens a tad softer, but all five models are able to resolve up to 30 marker on our charts. This is close to the performance of the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 macro lens that we use to record the charts in our camera tests, so these are impressive results all round.
The f/2.8 and f/22 apertures provide a greater test for each lens, being the ‘softest’ settings. Again, resolved detail is similar, but there are more noticeable differences. For example, the Sigma lens is the softest at f/2.8, showing less contrast and a sort of ‘glow’ around object edges.
The Tamron lens is able to match the brand lenses, which are impressively crisp given that f/2.8 is the fastest aperture available.
A big test of the quality of a lens is at the edges of the frame, with poor-quality lenses usually having soft and distorted detail. Having recorded the same scenes with all five lenses, each model puts in an impressive performance.
There is a slight difference in edge sharpness, which is consistent with the differences in centre sharpness – that is, the Sigma lens is a little softer.
Put simply, each lens is able to carry its solid centre performance to its edges.
Image: All five portraits have been recorded using the 135mm and f/8 settings on each lens, to achieve the best and sharpest quality. At this setting, any differences in sharpness between the lenses is so minimal that it is difficult to tell the lenses apart. The impressive centre sharpness is taken to the edges, too, with detail in the shirt cuff being crisp right to the edge of the frame. When pushed to the wide f/2.8 setting, the differences are more obvious – the Sigma lens has less contrast and is sightly softer than all the other lenses
Image: The images for the resolution chart have been recorded as mentioned in the beginning of the Sharpness section. Differences between 70mm, 135mm and 200mm settings are minimal, so only the sharpest 135mm setting has been included. Each lens reaches the same marker, although the
Sigma lens has less contrast than the others.
On paper, all the lenses are remarkably similar: they are heavy, each weighing in the region of 1,500g; they are bulky, with lengths of approximately 190mm; they offer 4-stop stabilisation (in-camera with Sony versions); and they have a similar number of lens groups and elements.
To a degree, then, as I set out on this test, I was expecting to be splitting hairs. However, over the course of some use, each lens has displayed some noteworthy differences.
Each lens is constructed to a high standard but, being made of plastic, the third-party versions have less of a ‘workhorse’ feel to them. The hinge on the lens collars appears as a potential point of weakness.The Canon and Nikon lenses are the only ones that are officially weather-sealed, which could make a difference to those shooting in extreme conditions.
The zoom and focus rings of the Sigma lens turn all too easily, while the rest are beautifully dampened, but I prefer the layout of the control rings in the third-party versions.
Autofocusing is an area where the Nikon and Canon lenses have the edge, with AF motors that snap into focus very quickly. Well done to the Tamron lens, too, as it puts in a fine performance.
All this said, only the critical photographers covering high-speed action and events will be affected by these largely minute fractions.
As for image quality, each lens put in an excellent performance. Again, differences are mostly subtle: the Sigma is edged for clarity and contrast at all settings, especially at its f/2.8 aperture where it is softer than the rest.
Impressively, the third-party Tamron lens is able to match the sharpness of each brand lenses and its control over distortions such as chromatic aberration is equally good.
None of the lenses is afected by distortions to a point that cannot easily be rectified post-capture using basic raw-editing sofware.
Overall, the proprietary lenses have the edge over the Sigma optic in virtually every key area, but they come at a premium. The Tamron lens competes ably, but is priced virtually the same as the brand models and has a build quality that is not up to the same standard.
In short, each lens can proudly boast a premium performance, but the most critical, demanding photographers are best served by spending big.