The Nikon 200mm f/2 VR II: The World's Best Portrait Lens

The Nikon 200mm f/2 VR II: The World's Best Portrait Lens

The Nikon 200mm f/2 VR II is one of those lenses you always read about, but short of running into a professional sporting event, an affluent amateur, or Ryan Brenizer you just don’t see them. They’re rare and they’re expensive, but besides the obvious lust factor of the lens, is it any good?

To begin with, who is this for? I think that one look at the price tag will let you know it’s not for the average Joe, but tailored to professionals who absolutely demand it. It is an updated version of the 2004 model, with the new VR II system that claims four stops of improvement, and a Nano Crystal Coat that reduces flare and ghosting. If you’re shooting indoor sports and cannot afford not to have that extra stop from f/2.8 you probably already own this, beyond that though, this lens becomes an artistic choice.

So let’s start with the build quality. Simply put, this lens is a tank. It has a solid metal body, which honestly feels like it could stand up to anything, and a thick, knobbly focus ring which lets you adjust focus with one touch. It also comes standard with a massive metal hood that you probably shouldn’t remove due to the front elements size. You can’t put any kind of filter over it, and I would hate to scratch a lens this pricey.

200mm 1

Overall though, It’s a solid, well put together lens, but that comes with few problems. It’s big, and it’s exceptionally heavy.

Weight is something that you just learn to live with on super telephotos like the 300mm f/2.8 and beyond, they’re big and heavy and that’s that. But this is a 200mm lens, not a super telephoto. This lens will make you wish you went to the gym more often, it’s just on the cusp of not being hand holdable. You can do it, but you won’t like it after about 10 minutes. In addition to the weight, the ergonomics of this lens are a little awkward for hand holding. The massive focus ring is exactly where I want to put my hands every time, so I end up bumping focus. Really it just boils down to the fact that the best way to shoot with this lens is probably on a monopod. Luckily Nikon has included a built in tripod/monopod mount to the base of the lens. It is also on a swivel so you can rotate the barrel of the lens for vertical portraits, without having to remove the camera from the tripod.

The only real issue that I have with this lens is the fact that it’s just plain gaudy. When I’m shooting downtown, usually all comments from passersby (if any) are directed towards the couple that I’m shooting. When shooting with this lens, I was guaranteed to have at least 5 people come up to me and ask me what lens I was shooting with.  So, if you’re looking for a lens for street photography or any other type where you’d need to be discreet, this is not that lens. At the same time though, if you want to impress your friends and forever have a bigger lens than anyone you come across, you might want to consider this as a long-term investment in your ego. But please don’t.

So it’s built like a tank and it weighs a ton, but what about its performance? In a word, it’s awesome. It’s one of the sharpest lenses I’ve ever used, and the absolute best bokeh on the planet. From headshots to full length portraits, you can’t find a better portrait lens.

200mm test 4

Backgrounds just sort of melt away

Heather Shoot 12

The Autofocus is extremely fast as well, it’s nearly silent and very accurate. The second generation VR is also amazing for taking pictures of still images when you might not have the light to shoot at 1/200th and beyond. I was able to get usable (not perfectly sharp, but passable) images at down to 1/40th of a second. That’s stellar in my book.

In addition to all of the usual refinements, the 200mm f/2 has a battery of switches and nobs on the side that allow you to set up the lens to your own specifications. You can set the focus distance range, VR settings, memory settings, and even turn on the focus beep (please keep this off).

200mm 2

It also has the option to add a rear ND filter, which is a huge help if you’re trying to use this lens with strobes. I didn’t have one to play with, but it seems simple enough, just unscrew the slot and place the filter in. I can’t imagine it would be anything short of awesome, although what I have heard from someone who has used the filter, is that it is somewhat frustrating because the slot is only narrow enough to accept proprietary Nikon filters, which are of course much more expensive than other options.

Overall this is a straightforward, masterpiece of a lens. If I didn’t have to be seen with it (or carry it), I’d shoot with this thing every day, it’s just that good.

Once we get into price though, this is where things get painful. At nearly $6000 ($5300 imported) this the most expensive 200mm lens on the market and do you REALLY need that extra stop? If you shoot indoor sports than the answer may very well be a resounding yes, but otherwise, this isn’t a lens you buy out of necessity, it’s a lens you buy because you want something truly special . If you want an excellent 200mm lens, with all of the professional features, the solid metal body, VR and the brilliant optics, PLUS the added practicality of a zoom range from 70-200mm, just buy the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II. It’s three thousand dollars cheaper.

Just for the sake of it however, let's compare the Nikon 200mm f/2 vs. the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8. If you take a look at the images below, they're a comparison at 100% between the two lenses at their maximum apertures. The conclusion? The 200mm f/2 is noticeably sharper with much nicer bokeh. But, is it really $3000 sharper? For me it isn't. In a perfect world I would own this lens and I would be exceptionally happy, but I have to realize that these differences aren't things that my clients see, and therefore the return on that $3000 wouldn't be worth it.

200mm 3 comparinson

200mm 3a final

That being said however, this really is one of the best lenses I’ve ever used. If you want it, and you can justify the huge price tag, buy it. You won’t regret it.

For all of you people who’s immediate response to this article was tl;dr, here’s a quick overview of my thoughts on this lens.

What I liked:


Depth of Field

Occasionally life saving VR System

Easy to use tripod mount

Protective metal lens cap

What Could Be Improved:

Weight (I doubt there’s much to be done, but it’s still an issue)

Position of focus ring


As I said earlier, this is really one of the best lenses I’ve ever used. It’ s fast, solid, sharp and in my mind anyway, worth every penny. That being said though, I’m still not going to go out and by one. The 70-200mm f/2.8 works just fine for me.

If you're interested in taking the plunge, check out this lens on B&H HERE.

If you're interested in seeing more shots from this lens, take a look at my website or my like Facebook page HERE for more frequent updates!

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You probably never tried the Canon 135mm f/2 L USM, isn't it? :-)

Hear, hear! This is my favourite lens to shoot with. Ever.

the canon 200 f2 or f1.8 are not bad either.. i have both

I own it and tried the Nikon 200F2. The 200 is in a different league.

I've owned the Canon 135 f2 and it is an excellent lens but the 200 f2 which once you learn to use it to its fullest potential is in another league.

I have this lens, I did a shoot for Top Gear 2012 indoor arena, I had D4 with 70-200 F2.8 , then I went with this big brute, this lens blew away the 70-200, so as always with camera kit , when pushed hard (very low light indoor arena) this lens made a very big difference.

When you have big kit , you get the quality, but the weight and ease of use becomes a big issue,

looks nice! but a lot of kit can be had for that price tag! i know its needed for certain specialty fields, but i couldnt ever justify that price tag for a "portrait" lens...

Worlds best portrait lens is a big claim considering most of the worlds best portraits were made with much shorter lenses. The photographer makes the portrait, not the lens. Just saying. However, this lens does come in handy for the right situation. And I do covet thy neighbors glass a little bit.... >_>

Thanks for the great review! We've had the 200/2 for a couples of years now (VR 1) and make use of it at almost every wedding and engagement shoot...and we agree with all the points around AF speed, bokeh, and sharpness.

The issue we have with the common 70-200 optical design is the focus never quite get a true 200mm. Since bokeh is related to focal length (and among others), we stick by our 200 as a consistent bokeh monster, popping our couples out of any and all backgrounds like no other lens (eg. Busy outdoor foliage, bustling city scape, dimely lit church...).

For times that we need bokeh but have constraints, we swap out the 200/2 with a Sigma 120-300/2.8 or a Sony a99+Zeiss 135/1.8 combo.

Of course, you should stick to your shooting style and budget but we can't recommend the 200/2 enough for people portraits and candids, in our line of work; weddings.

We have started a small FB album of shots taken with just the 200 at engagement shoots. There's not enough real-world samples of the lens in use...

Joe McNally shot with this lens on the flash bus tour.

Kidding me? Nikon 135mm . ^^

I actually just did a review of this lens a few weeks ago, and for my purposes anyway, this is quite a lot better. It's an excellent portrait lens, but it's a little too unreliable for what I would use it for.

The Nikon 135 is not even close to this lens.

like kenrockwell says to the Nikon 135mm : -This lens does it all. It's fast, super-sharp, and designed for the best portraits you've ever taken.

"like kenrockwell says to the Nikon 135mm"

That was back in he days when the highest resolution Nikon was 12 mpx. On 24 or 36 mpx, it is not the case. It is not fast, it is not super sharp (unless topped down to F6.3) and does not take thebest portraits you've ever taken.

wrong again : he says _ "It's also super-sharp on the 24MP D3X. At this high resolution, it almost gets a tad softer at f/2.8 and f/2 compared to f/4 and f/5.6, but not enough to notice except in carefully controlled tests at infinity. It's sharp! "

why does you read his stuff then?
many people says thing, but they are still good what they do even if they are wrong or not.

No I am not wrong. I own the lens and have owned it for 3 years.

Rockwell doesn't have a clue what he is talking about. It is definitely NOT super sharp wide open and the difference between F2/2.8 and f4/5.6 is huge.

On the D3/D3s/D700 is was very good. On the D3X not so much. On the D800/E it is simply inadequate for such demands.

I have to agree. I've used both the 105mm f2 DC and the 135 f2 DC, both disappointed me when it came time to print out 20x30 images shot at f/2.

I've got the VRI version. I bought it when I was not satisfied with the 70-200 VRI. It is an amazing lens and if I was bigger and stronger, I'd use it more often. The 70-200 VRII does a great job and is much more practical and flexible. It took me quite a while to convince myself but this lens is great wide open all day long. Put a DX camera on it and you've got a 300 mm f2.0. How about a D7100 in crop mode for a 400 mm f2.0... It is the fastest focusing lens that I've got.

A 200mm lens is always a 200mm lens.. the DX is only a cropped image,the F.O.V of a 300mm but not a real 300mm...

Yes of course. The FOV is smaller the DOF is the same as 200 mm. So, I also use it with the 1.7x and it's really 340 mm at f3.3.
The bokeh is also amazing. I call it milky.

There is no difference between a "real" 300mm and "fake" (eg, cropped) 300mm. They look both EXACTLY the same FOV wise.

I almost bought one of these a few months ago.. but the weight is just too much,this lens weights a hell of a lot. it fells like a concrete block..good I.Q though and a good match to the D800E.. is it the worlds best portrait lens?maybe for some people but not for most people,Hasselblad's HC100mm 2.2 or the Nikkor 85 1.4G/canon 85 1.2 would come before this if it was my choice..or the HC150mm N..
The VRii version is the same as the VR1 except for the nano coatings on the elements to prevent flare..

Too expensive, too heavy, and makes it difficult to direct your subject in full body shots unless you're using a loudspeaker. "The Best" I suppose, is subjective. I much prefer my Nikkor 105mm f/2 DC.

No doubt the Nikon 200mm f/2 VR is an exceptional lens. $6,000 is alot of jack though. I think one of Nikon's most overlooked primes for portraits is their 180mm 2.8. Exceptional IQ from that lens also and extremely affordable used.

Yeah, fantastic lens on paper. No way I'd ever use it in a real-world 10-hour shoot. Besides, it's the same as owning a Rolls - a masterpiece of engineering, but then somebody might actually see you using it and it is embarrassing. A perfect match for it would be one of those horrid photo-vests, eh eh.
What I NEED is an AFS 200/2.8. Compact, lightweight as Canon's. Please, Nikon, please... Or at least an AFS 135/2. Can't believe they don't have these two lenses yet; no choice for people who don't want massive chunky zooms...

Ha, Rolls are not a masterpiece of engineering, but a masterpiece of design. They are terribly put together, and break constantly. They are almost always a money pit. They are only worth it if you really want it.

I have used many Nikon and Canon lenses and their great but my fav port lens is my 80mm 2.8 Zeiss .also weighs less

I can't see what advantages having this lens over a 180mm 2.8 or 135/105mm DC that would warrant paying that large amount of money to have it?
I am tired i may not be making sense, apologies if i am rambling idiotically... :)

But what's the advantages this gives that's worth that amount of money?

The massive difference is the addition of Nikon's second gen VR system, and the fact that it's autofocus system is VASTLY Superior.

Plus the 200 has all of Nikon's newest optical coatings that, especially when compared to the 135/105, make a big difference. Chromatic Aberration is a really big problem with those lenses.

The 135 DC might be 5 times less than the 200, but the 200 is 5 times the lens.

I think the 105/135 2.0 handle CA much better than say, 85 1.4. In addition, their handling of sun flare is so elegant. I've rented the 200 2 a few times, but I can't imagine using it for more than 30 minutes at a time, let alone a whole afternoon full of portrait sessions.

Which 851.4 are you referring to? The 851.4G handles CA much better than the 135.

85 1.4G. We shoot a lot of backlit portraits during sunset. It's been great, but I've put it up on eBay recently, and replaced it with 105 f/2 DC. The flare I get during sunset shoots with it is simply unmatched.

The last comparison is startling... the prime creates a sort of "bow-keh" effect, completely invisible in the zoom shot.


The lens is so good it made the bow disappear.

"The world's best portrait lens"?!?! Um, no. First, to be a great portrait lens, it has to be packable and very mobile, since portraits these days are mostly done on location. I can think of a handful of setups that are more portable, cheaper, yet feature similar sharpness and bokeh -
Mamiya RZ67 with 140mm f4 or 110mm f2.8
My Contax 645 with a 80mm f2 (it's bokeh bananas!)

The list could go on. I'd agree that this might be a good-to-great lens, but world's best is way over the top. It does make a catchy headline.

Sorry,you are speaking from ignorance.

Portraits can be taken anywhere and some shooters use the 300f2.8, so no, the lens does not have to be very mobile. You are confusing quality with practicality.

None of the set ups you mentioned comes close.

why is it every time someone speaks of or reviews a big, expensive lens, they can't resist including terms such as "ego" and phrases that indicate there is some kind of size competition involved ("want to impress your friends and forever have a bigger lens than anyone you come across")in the ownership? Grow up. Photographers buy this lens for the same reason they buy any other lens: they have a use for it. Period. Stop projecting your own reasons for ownership.

I'm pretty sure that was just a joke from the author ... we shouldn't take everything so seriously ;-)

Well, another discussion that becomes very emotive when superlative words like "best portrait lens" are used.

I have not yet tried this lens, but I know the 135mm DC very well.

Still, I do not believe that this lens is the "best portrait lens" to shoot with, since a 200mm is very inconvenient for portraits to start with, even 135mm is close to far enough (hence the declination in 105mm DC).

It all depends on where you chose to shoot your portraits. I agree that the 135 is often on the long side for indoor portraits, but for location work, 200mm is excellent. Some shooters use the 300 2.8.

At double the price of a 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII and 6 times the price of a 80-200 f/2.8 , does the 200 f/2 VRII REALLY blow those lenses away or do you WANT to think that it does to justify you spending that kind of money on a single purpose lens? You can get a 200-400mm f/4 for that kind of money.

When you start getting to this class of lens, the price increases d exponentially for relatively small benefits, but there are shooters who demand that. Why do you think fashion and advertising campaigns still call for MF backs which are 5-10 times the price of a D800?

Also, the 200f2 is a popular sports lens and having one stop extra speed can make the difference between getting a shot and not.

Yes you can get a 200-400mm f/4 for that kind of money, but the 200f2 will be far superior for all apertures at 200, and coupled with a TC, at least matches the 200-400mm f/4 up to 400mm.

Well I agree that at a certain level, you want the absolute best of everything at every focal length but unless I did professional work at the highest levels, I just can't see spending that kind of money just to get a slightly nicer blur or slightly sharper picture.

I have this lens, Is it a great portrait lens? Sure. Is that what I typically use it for? No. Ballet, engagement shoots, runway. If you can't afford it, rent it and you will see it blows all the others (Yep event the 135 f/2) totally out of the water. And as for the 1 stop is there a difference shooting Ballet at 1/500 vs. 1/250? Um, yes ... this is why we get paid to shoot it ... Love this lens

Thank you for injecting some common sense and real world experience into the debate.

Here's the best use of the 200mm f/2 I've ever seen.

wow ... and wow again! .. thanks for that

I own the 200 f/2, and use it almost exclusively for portrait work. It's image quality, even wide open, is exceptional from edge to edge. The only portrait lens that marginally surpasses this lens (in my two-cent opinion) in terms of image quality is the Zeiss 100mm Makro-Planar f/2, but that is a different type of lens (manual focus, no VR). On a strictly superficial level, many clients do seem to be impressed when you pull out the 200mm f/2. It is quite the flamboyant piece of glass. If you aren't a photographer, this lens mounted on a D4 or D800 looks like a weapon out of a cheesy science fiction movie. And, it's built like it's hewn from solid rock. I could run over this lens with my car and the car would come away more beat up than the lens.

The 70-200mm f/2.8 is the finest zoom lens I've ever owned, but it's a zoom lens. All things being equal, I will always go with the prime lens over a zoom.

It ain't cheap...but that's par for the course in photography. I won't hurt my credit card when I took the leap to buy this lens. But, I had no buyer's remorse.

200 f2 is the sharpest lens ever tested in dxomark lab. so yeah it makes this lens best portrait.

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