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Nikon matching Canon with 70-200mm f4 lens

As full-frame SLRs spread, high-end but not top-end lenses become more important. Nikon just announced a promising new telephoto -- and it's got next-gen vibration reduction, too.

Nikon's AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR
Nikon's AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR Nikon

When photo enthusiasts entering the digital SLR market ask me whether they should go for Canon or Nikon, one of the points I often raise is Canon's appealing choice of high-end but not top-end lenses.

Well, Nikon just undermined that potential selling point. At the Photo Plus Expo show today, it announced its AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR, a telephoto zoom lens that provides a competitive answer to Canon's superb EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM.

Let's be clear here. These are still professional-grade lenses, and they aren't cheap. Canon's costs about $1,200 these days, and Nikon says its rival will cost about $1,400 when it ships in late November. But for enthusiasts looking to move to high-quality, fast-focusing, durable, and weather-sealed lenses, those prices are still much more affordable than the two alternatives, Canon's EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM and Nikon's AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, which each cost about $2,400.

The top-end models can shoot at faster shutter speeds by virtue of their wider aperture that enables shooting at f2.8, so for example you could shoot at 1/200 sec. in the same light with the high-end models compared to 1/100 sec. with the f4 lenses. But the top-end models are not only more expensive, they're also bulkier and weigh a lot more.

I expect these not-quite-top-end lenses to be of greater interest as full-frame cameras get a bit cheaper, most notably with Nikon's new D600 and Canon's new EOS 6D.

Nikon still doesn't have as affordable an answer to Canon's $840 EF 17-40mm f/4L USM ultrawide zoom -- its AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm f/4G ED VR costs about $1,250, although that model has vibration reduction that Canon's lacks. In the middle of the zoom range, Nikon added the $1,300 AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR to the range in 2010 that competes with Canon's $950 EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM.

Another notable feature of the new Nikon lens: it's the first to use Nikon's third-generation vibration reduction (VR) technology, which counteracts camera shake. The second-generation technology could stabilize the lens with a four-stop improvement, meaning that a person who could shoot at 1/200 sec. without VR could shoot at 1/15 sec. with VR.

The third-generation technology gives a five-stop improvement, Nikon said, which would bring that down to 1/8 sec. Most reviewers take the camera makers' promises of stability improvement with a big grain of salt. But even so, it's a very useful technology and it's good to see it improving.

Nikon's new 70-200mm f4 lens has 20 optical elements and a close-focus distance of 1 meter.