Kudos to Nikon, or a 70-200mm VRII 5-foot drop test

There are a lot of reviews out there on the web about cameras and lenses, Canon vs. Nikon, point-and-shoot vs. SLR etc. I probably should not contribute to the endless discussions but I thought I would share a personal experience, obtained today through, unfortunately, an accident.

The Green Flash on a frosty wing
The Green Flash on a frosty wing

It was a beautiful frosty morning in Christchurch, and among the haste of working on the instruments I couldn’t help but take a few pictures of the frost on the wings of the Gulfstream (above) and also of this and that. In all the hurry I left the unzipped camera pack under the air stairs, with camera and lenses in it, ready to shoot. Later in the day we gathered our things to go for a drive and an unsuspecting friend picked up my pack and flung it on his shoulder. I turned to the sound of a crash just in time to see my Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII landing nose first on the asphalt of the tarmac, in a brilliant flash of glass shards, and tumbling end over end for another 5 feet before coming to a stop.

Wallaby at the Willowbanks
Wallaby at the Willowbanks

I recall myself saying something not worth repeating here and picked up the lens with shaking hands to see what is left of it. To my amazement and in a rising wave of hope I saw that the glass that now lay all over the tarmac was all from the Hoya HMC Super UV filter, a nice piece of glass by itself but certainly not in the price range of the lens. The filter gave its life protecting the lens, its aluminum ring and the lens cap took the brunt of the impacts, and aside from a few minuscule marks on the coating of the front element from the glass fragments, there was no other damage to the lens! A quick test verified that the lens is auto-focusing, zooming and VR-ing as it did before its unfortunate acrobatic number.

Now that is build quality! I think that my plastic 55-200mm would have become a middle school science project material after an impact like that, and my grieving friend would need to scoop up not just filter remains but also the USM motor, matrix chip and the diaphragm blades from the tarmac. With the 70-200 I can see only one small scuff on the body, bent filter ring and scuffs on the lens caps. I shot pictures on this page with the lens the same evening, and it appears to be working properly.

Filter ring removed, folded inward
Filter ring removed, folded inward

I happened to have a spare 77mm Hoya HMC Super filter with me and wanted to put it on the lens, having seen how great those work for what I seem to use the lens for (like, throwing it around). However, the remains of the old filter were stuck in the lens threads for good. The filter ring just would not unscrew from the lens, and the dented area was clearly visible, so the ring in effect turned into a self-locking nut. To remove the ring I grabbed it with a pair of vice grips, locked them onto the dented part of the ring making sure not to grab the edge of the lens barrel and with the lens in my lap, slowly twisted the vice grips, while holding the opposite side of the ring with my other hand, preventing it from hitting the glass should it snap loose. The ring is fairly soft and working slowly, I was able to fold it inwards without much trouble. I re-positioned the vice grips to the other side of the bend I made and twisted again, and the ring easily pulled out without turning it in the threads. Filter threads in the lens barrel were not damaged, which could happen if a dented ring is forcefully unscrewed, and after a careful removal of all glass dust from them using an air blower and a lens pen brush, the lens now has a new Hoya HMC Super on it. The picture of the sacrificial filter ring is taken with the victim lens.

I gained a lot of respect for the Nikon lens build quality, especially in the light of all the comments that people have like “the build quality of today’s lenses is not nearly as high and in the past”. If this is not good enough, I don’t know what is. If you want you can find a lot of technicalities and detailed information on this excellent lens here or here, but I would like to summarize my experience with the 70-200mm in a few short bullets:

  • if you are looking for a medium telephoto zoom for your Nikon SLR;
  • want to use your medium telephoto in the morning or evening in fading light (when the colors are the best);
  • want the best full frame quality and absolute best DX quality;
  • like brilliant color and contrast with no detectable chromatic aberrations, green or purple fringing;
  • notice poor bokeh in pictures and want not to have it;
  • do not mind that your lens weighs more than your submachine gun with 30 rounds of ammo;
  • and foresee occasionally throwing your four-digit-price lens on the concrete here or there,
The drop tester
The drop tester

then you can not go wrong with a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII. I used all of the above listed qualities and the Nikkor passed with flying colors.

In retrospect, the only thing that hurt more than seeing that lens tumble on the asphalt was seeing the face of my friend who felt so guilty that I was more sympathetic for him than for my potentially damaged lens. You know, once it happens it is done and can not be undone, and there is no point in accusations, lamenting or finding out who’s fault it is. It was not intentional, he just meant to help but it just happened. Get over it.

You can (maybe eventually) replace a broken lens; you can’t replace a broken friendship.