Christmas Time in New York (As Seen Through a Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 ED VR II Lens)

There’s nothing quite like Christmas time in New York City. The traditions, the traffic, and the constant stream of tourists are equally enervating and maddening, particularly for anyone who has a camera in his or her hands. Nonetheless, one weekday in mid-December when I happened to have a Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 ED VRII zoom lens in my possession, I took a few snapshots in and around Rockefeller Center just to see if Nikon’s flagship telephoto zoom is worth the hype that surrounds it (online, anyway). There’s no better test of VR technology, after all, than the jingle and jostle of Fifth Avenue during the biggest shopping season of the year.

For those who don’t already know, Nikon’s 70-200mm f2.8 telephoto zoom lens uses seven ED (extra-low dispersion) elements in a design that offers a constant aperture across the full range of the zoom, and it employs the newest Vibration Reduction (VR) technology from Nikon, which the company claims, on its website, is equivalent to three and a half shutter stops. What this means to the casual shooter is not much, but for night work or any kind of event photography that is indoors or which may happen at or around dusk, the relatively fast aperture of 2.8 coupled with VRII can mean the difference between a noisy high-ISO image and an image that is ready to use straight out of the camera. (In practice, I found that the VR, even with my DSLR mounted on a monopod, probably amounted to a savings of about two stops indoors, which is still great, and the images I got during the events that I used this lens for were consistently sharp from corner to corner with the lens wide open.)

On the streets of New York, with no monopod, bracing the lens at times by placing my elbow against my stomach, this zoom was not exactly a lot of fun to shoot with. It weighs three and a half pounds, after all (same as one and a half kilos!), and after half an hour of putzing around, I was ready to hit the train. Still, I was impressed with what I was able to capture as I was walking, in many cases, or swinging my DSLR out of the way of a gawking, ambling crowd of touristas. The pictures that I’m including here are not meant to illustrate with any sort of scientific accuracy what the Nikkor 70-200mm can do for you, but I have included some actual size side by side crops just for comparison. (Aside from pairing up the full size and the close crop parts, nothing was done to any of these images in Photoshop, with the exception of the image taken in St. Patrick’s.)

To begin with, here are a few images from Rockefeller Center’s ice rink. As you can see, there is a lovely level of detail in this photo I took of the drummer boy who stands to one side of the rink. This was done about forty feet back at 1/160th, f3.5, and an ISO of 400.

Rockefeller Center Drummer Boy Sculpture
Rockefeller Center Drummer Boy Sculpture

Here’s one of the rink itself, at a slightly higher ISO of 500 and a shutter speed of 1/320th (f6.3). This was shot at the short end of the lens, since I was on the rail.

Rockefeller Ice Rink Skaters
Skating at Rockefeller Center at Christmastime

Prometheus is always a delight to photograph. Here he is at 1/800th of a second (f4 and 500 ISO); I was being elbowed and didn’t take the time to do him right, so the highlights are not what they should be, but you get the general idea.

Prometheus at Rockefeller Center
Prometheus Sculpture at Rockefeller Center

Across the way, two of New York’s Finest, mounted variety, provided another test of the 70-200mm. Again, at about forty to forty-five feet away, this image of two policemen on horseback was done on the short end at ISO 500 and f4 and a shutter speed of 1/200th.

Mounted NYPD Police Officers at Rockefeller Center
Mounted NYPD Police Officers at Rockefeller Center

A close up of the slightly more attractive of the two horses provides some additional perspective: 175mm shot at f4 and 1/125th of a second, ISO 500. Note that no additional sharpening was done in Photoshop.

NYPD Police Horse Close Up
NYPD Police Horse Close Up

Next up, here is an absolutely lousy picture of the crystal star at the top of this year’s Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. Not only was it cloudy at the time, but the sun was nowhere where it needed to be. Shot at f11 and 1/320th of a second.

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Ornament
Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Ornament

Leaving Rockefeller Center, I did some street shooting and got a few decent images that might end up somewhere, and then I wandered into Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, which has just entered a renovation phase. The scaffolding rising around the pews would have made for a staggering shot, but I had the wrong lens for that, of course, so I did some handheld snaps of the stained glass; when I got home, I stacked some of these images in Photoshop to reduce some of the noise, since I was shooting at ISO 5000, but it didn’t make a tremendous difference.

St. Patrick's Cathedral Interior Shot, Stained Glass Detail
St. Patrick’s Cathedral Interior Shot, Stained Glass Detail

Out on the street, with the clouds getting thicker, I got a quick shot of an interesting mannequin display that’s been up for a while on Fifth. This was done at ISO 5000, f32 and 1/320th of a second, with no noise reduction out of the camera.

Mannequins in Store Display on Fifth Avenue
Mannequins in Store Display on Fifth Avenue

Lastly, here is a quick shot of the Bulgari storefront on Fifth Avenue. This was also done at ISO 5000; fatigue from carrying the lens had begun to dull my senses by this point.

Bulgari Bejeweled Snake on Fifth Avenue
Bulgari Bejeweled Snake on Fifth Avenue

All around, Nikon’s 70-200mm zoom is an extremely satisfying lens to shoot with, although it’s not for the faint of wrist if it’s used sans monopod. So, does it live up to the hype that surrounds it online? In my opinion, there’s no question; it’s a solid performer and it does exactly what it’s supposed to do, and yes, it warrants all of the praise that it’s been awarded. As to whether this means that it’s worth its sticker price, which currently stands at $2,396.95 at B&H Photo, that’s another question entirely. For anyone who lives in NYC, it may make more sense to rent it for $35 a day from Adorama, especially if you consider how sharp many of Nikon’s equivalent telephoto zooms are when they’re held up to this lens (granted, with much less speed and the loss of the constant aperture across the range of the zoom). With that said, the 70-200mm was a pleasure to shoot with, and I’m sure it will pass through my hands again.