Alright folks, it’s time for another one of the most commonly asked questions I get as an “equipment purchasing advisor”  (AKA, that friend everybody knows will talk your ear off about lenses…)

“If I already own the 70-200 2.8 mk1, do I really need to upgrade to the mk2?  How much better is the mk1 versus the mk2?”

What a great question! Actually this question gets asked by both Canon and Nikon shooters, since there are mk1 and mk2 versions from each.  Not to mention the innumerable other versions of 70-200 and 80-200 lenses out there.  Some have stabilization, some don’t, some are f/4, etc. etc.  And we haven’t even considered third-party 70-200mm’s yet!

SLR-Lounge-Upgrade70-200mm-7Nikon 70-200 2.8, (VR1) Nov. 2013

As hopelessly geeky as it sounds, I have indeed tested pretty much every single one of those 70-200mm lenses.  Some more than others, but at least I have shot entire jobs with the big four.  We’ll focus on those first, and then talk about the others:

Canon (mk1) 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS  (Approx. $1400, only available used now)
Canon (mk2) 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS  (Approx. $2500)
Nikon (mk1) 70-200mm f/2.8 VR  (Approx. $1500, only available used now)
Nikon (mk2) 70-200mm /f.28 VRII  (Approx. $2400)

These four lenses, I would wager, have probably earned professional photographers millions of dollars in profits over the past decade or so.  Yes, you heard me right!  These four lenses are considered “bread and butter” lenses to many different types of photographers, from weddings to portraits to action sports.

So the question remains: Are the mk2 versions really that much better?  They can cost as much as $2400 or $2500, if you don’t buy them with any rebates.  The mk1 versions are now discontinued, however you can find plenty of them in mint condition for as little as $1400 or $1500, or cheaper if you’re willing to buy something moderately used.  (The latest 70-200 2.8’s from Sigma and Tamron cost about this much too, but we’ll save that for later) Even to a full-time pro, a $1,000 difference should raise an eyebrow.

If you’re the type of person who loves spoilers, here it is:  You could probably shoot your entire career without ever upgrading and be just fine.  The mk1’s, as well as most of the even older lenses and third-party lenses, are all really good.  So, let’s not get into an argument about whether or not a lens can “get the job done”.  They all can.  I’m not a fan of upgrading your equipment simply because something new came out!  We are just going to discuss the various reasons why you might decide to upgrade, or which lens to invest in if you are totally new to this category of lenses.

What Type Of Photography Do You Shoot With Your 70-200?

The very first question I respond with is, what do you use your 70-200 for?  Because in the case of both Nikon and Canon, the mk1 versions are good enough for many different kinds of work, while others will indeed “demand” that you upgrade to the mk2.

The Nikon 70-200mm lenses

The original Nikon 70-200 2.8 VR probably has a slight edge over the original Canon 70-200 2.8 L IS.  I am basing this off both the actual optical performance as well as the resale value.  In other words, people seem to still desire the older version of the Nikon a little bit more than the older version of the Canon.

Of course this doesn’t matter to a Nikon user.  To get to the point, yes the original Nikon 70-200 2.8 VR is all you need if you’re just going to use it for medium telephoto general candid work such as for weddings, theater, light sports action, etc.  Heck, Nikon’s flagship action sports camera has “only” 16 megapixels, which is well within the resolution capabilities of a properly calibrated version of the mk1 lens.  (Don’t listen to veteran pros who talk about their lenses being soft after 10 years of heavy abuse; optics are a delicate thing and even the best pro lenses need to be calibrated every now and then for optimal sharpness!)

SLR-Lounge-Upgrade70-200mm-6For general photojournalism and candids, the Nikon 70-200 (mk1) does a fantastic job!

Of course, that is only considering wide-open image quality.   If you take pretty much any Nikon 70-200 or 80-200 and stop it down to f/5.8 or f/8, you’ll have ridiculous sharpness right up until almost the extreme corners.

SLR-Lounge-Upgrade70-200mm-3The Canon 70-200 (mk1) will forever be a killer studio portrait lens!

However, the new Nikon 70-200 2.8 VRII does have an edge in almost every respect.  (Except looks; the original 70-200 2.8 is much more sexy looking!)  It is noticeably sharper, so if you shoot high-end portraits and you need to make huge prints from a 36 megapixel D800, while shooting at f/2.8 all day long, then the mk2 is well worth it.

Its autofocus is slightly faster and more accurate too, so if you shoot anything high-speed you should definitely consider the mk2.

Lastly, it does have a slight improvement in the stabilization however I personally don’t consider this to be a huge difference since I’m a little oldschool and I believe in trying to shoot as steady as possible, or from a tripod / monopod even.

SLR-Lounge-Upgrade70-200mm-4With practice, even the older 70-200’s can still track action and nail sharpness!

SLR-Lounge-Upgrade70-200mm-5(100% crop, Nikon D700, Nikon 70-200 VR (mk1)

Then again, if you’re very concerned about sharpness and you actually don’t need f/2.8 that desperately, don’t hesitate to get the 70-200mm f/4 VR instead.  If you’re a landscape photographer toting around a D800e, for example, the 70-200mm f/4 VR is definitely going to be a fantastic choice.  Or if you shoot mostly in daylight or casual conditions and are simply looking for something robust and reliable, the DOF / bokeh of the 70-200mm f/4 is still fantastic and beautiful.

Last but not least, if you’re on a very serious budget then I will mention the Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8’s.  I would stay away from the older push-pull AF-D models if you’re shooting action sports, but there is a new-ish SWM (Silent Wave Motor) version that is actually even sharper than the mk1 70-200!  If you’re okay with using a monopod for low-light photography, this is a fantastic lens to own.  While it probably costs about the same as a third-party 70-200 that has stabilization, if you buy a used Nikon 80-200mm at the right price and take good care of it, you will be able to sell it later with basically zero depreciation!

Which 70-200 Do I Use Personally?

In case you’re wondering, as a Nikon wedding photographer I opted for the original Nikon 70-200 2.8 VR.  Why? Not just because it’s “more than sharp enough”, but also admittedly because I hate the weight and I try to avoid using it whenever possible. Don’t get me wrong, I bust it out whenever I need to, however I do prefer my 85mm prime by far.  Or maybe Nikon will come out with a new 135mm f/2 VR that will be insanely sharp and weigh a pound or more less than the 70-200’s.  Then I could have the best of both worlds!

So, that’s just me. I love what 70-200mm affords me while shooting church ceremonies and reception toasts, but other than that I try to minimize its use; I grab my primes instead.

The Canon 70-200mm Lenses

The Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 situation is a little different. Their older f/2.8 L lenses (both IS and non-IS) were never really amazingly sharp, they were mostly just “usable”. Yes, of course innumerable pros loved these lenses and used them daily to make tons of money. However that doesn’t mean they were flawlessly sharp.  They were simply the only option, and they got the job done.

So if you are a Canon user I do highly recommend considering the upgrade to the 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS mk2. The mk1 is really only “awesome” if you plan to stick with it as a photojournalist lens that you shoot mostly in mRAW. (the 10-12 megapixel range)

It will definitely start to show its optical shortcomings if you’re printing big with 20-22 megapixels, and certainly will not play nice with whatever 40+ megapixel behemoth is just around the corner.

By the way, I haven’t mentioned HD video recording however the same issues apply even though you’re only capturing 1080p image frames:  For some reason, both the Canon and Nikon mk2 lenses have a noticeable amount of “bite” to their overall detail.  Not to mention the fact that 4K (roughly 8 megapixel video!) is just around the corner, and this will probably utterly destroy all older lenses.  (Please feel free to fervently debate this in the comment section below, of course!)

SLR-Lounge-Upgrade70-200mm-1Canon’s 70-200mm’s are all known for their gorgeous bokeh and fantastic colors.
(Canon 70-200 mk1 (2.8 IS) pictured)

Canon also makes an older 70-200mm f/2.8 that doesn’t have stabilization, as well as a “very old” 80-200mm f/2.8.  Once again, all of these older lenses perform decently on the latest DSLRs, and hold their resale value well if you’d rather invest in them and just plan on selling them later when you can upgrade to a 70-200 2.8 mk2.  If you’re a skilled shopper, you can probably break even or maybe turn a profit if you find a great deal!

Lastly, Canon makes a pair of 70-200mm f/4’s, the IS version being almost as sweet as Nikon’s f/4 version.  Similarly, the Canon 70-200mm f/4 L IS is a top choice among landscape photographers who care more about sharpness and saving weight than they do about gaining f/2.8.

Sony 70-200mm Lenses

Sony is, like Canon and Nikon, in a similar boat.  Except that their older 70-200’s can still cost as much as $1998, and their newest 70-200mm f/2.8 mk2 costs a whopping $2998!  Yikes!

However since Sony’s camera body lineup is currently undergoing some serious changes, it is really hard for us here at SLR Lounge to give a thorough enough assessment of which lens you should buy for which purpose.  Getting the new 36 megapixel Sony A7r, which has no AA filter and (apparently) has even better detail than the Nikon D800e?  …You might want the absolute best lens that money can buy, otherwise you probably won’t get the most out of that sensor. Then again, you’d have to be using an adapter to put an A-mount lens on an E-mount body.  In other words, Sony probably has many, many lenses coming for their new E-mount and hopefully they won’t cost almost $3,000.

Personally?  If I were a Sony user I would stick with their mid-priced 70-200mm f/2.8 SSM, for now, and see what 2014 brings.

Third Party 70-200mm Lenses

I still haven’t spent much time talking about third-party 70-200mm’s yet.  However there are a few really great performers out there, namely the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC USD and the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 OS HSM.

By the way, VC and OS mean that both of those lenses have stabilization, and USD and HSM are the new type of silent autofocus that is similar to Canon’s USM and Nikon’s SWM.

Want the short version?  Both of these lenses are killer, and a great investment.  Their closest name-brand competition would actually be the mk2 versions from either Canon or Nikon.  Considering that they cost about as much as a used mk1 version, that is quite a temptation!

Why wouldn’t you buy them?  Firstly, because pros tend to be highly abusive of their gear and third-party lenses are usually a little less sturdy than the name brands.  Sigma EX lenses are indeed built very well, however their overall quality control doesn’t have a perfect track record.  (Of course I’ve owned two Sigma EX lenses for a total of 10+ years, and they have both been rock-solid!)  So if you invest in a third-party lens, don’t abuse it too much, and/or get it serviced regularly.  If this sounds acceptable to you then you’re good to go!  Secondly however, name-brand lenses tend to hold their resale value a lot better.  I used to think that this was a terrible reason to buy one lens over another, because a lens purchase used to be a lifelong commitment.  To an extent, I still believe this.  However I do understand that many people do consider a lens’ resale value, so that is why I am mentioning it.

In case you haven’t read it yet; read our Gear Guide about how to best invest your money in the lenses that define your style the most:

[Rewind:  Choosing the right zoom lenses for wedding photography]

In short, if your 70-200mm is a bread-and-butter type lens that you can’t live without, then buy the best!  (Whether it is an f/4 zoom for landscapes or casual shooting, or an f/2.8 zoom for low-light action and bokeh.)

However if you are really the type of shooter who prefers primes, or wider angles, then maybe 70-200mm is just a “fill in the gaps” type of tool that you buy only to get a job done.  In this case, you have many more options to choose from.

SLR-Lounge-Upgrade70-200mm-2For color, detail, and low-light AF reliability, you can’t go wrong with a mk2 70-200!

70-200mm Final Verdict

I know this isn’t exactly a full 70-200mm review, however I hope it has helped you with your buying decisions!

Again, personally, if I shoot Canon or Nikon it doesn’t matter: I’d still rather have an 85 and 135 prime for most shooting conditions, so that is why I would opt for one of the more affordable 70-200mm options. Besides if I really need boat-loads of sharpness or bokeh, I feel like that is what primes are for!  I know that many probably don’t feel the same way, but hopefully there are also many photographers out there who can relate.

And don’t forget to check out our Canon Lens Wars series, the ultimate visual guide to real world differences between a whole host of Canon professional zoom lenses and primes.

Take care, and feel free to let me know if you have any other questions,