Here is a brief overview of my experiences with various telephoto prime lenses that I have either owned or used. One important factor to remember is that I have found sample variability in all lenses I have tried from the cheapest to the most expensive, although I find much less variability in the more expensive products. I state this as a "grain of salt" in this or any other lens reviews. What one person finds in their testing may or may not reflect what someone else finds depending on how good or bad their samples are. I also utilize both formal and field experience to form my opinions. I am very picky about lens quality and have sent many lenses back for either exchange or adjustment that did not meet my expectations. The opinions below are based on the best examples of each that I have used. Please contact me if you would like to know more about any of the lenses in detail for specific uses.

Telephoto FX Zooms - Listed from favorite down

Nikon 200-400mm f4 VR: A great lens with very good optics and tremendous flexibility for nature and sports work. The optics are best a stop down but still very good wide open, though not prime quality. I find it has a bit of noticeable vignetting wide open, which almost all zooms that I have tried do, so no biggy! The lens takes converters pretty well. My copy handled the 1.4 the best, although all converters really put a hit on AF speed and bokeh with this lens. For DX this is just about a slam dunk in my opinion for wildlife with an effective 300-600mm range. On FX, it is more of a compromise both optically and range, so it needs to be thought through more intently. It is superb for confined position photography, such as safari use. I would recommend a serious look at this lens.

Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR:  A highly thought of lens, that I find a solid, but not perfect, solution. This lens is not as sharp as the 80-200 AFS or 180mm prime wide open. Unfortunately that is often how I would like to use it for sports and wildlife use. It is still very acceptable and is simply excellent only one stop down. It take all the converters pretty well also, although all zooms suffer more than primes with converters. The VR, handling, and weight are better than the 80-200mm, although the added length actually creates a few issues in packing a few of my camera bags with it. I had to go through several copies of this lens and have had my current one adjusted twice to get it to my level of satisfaction for optical performance. It does vignette wide open, especially at the long end, however it is not all that bad and not much different than my copy of the 80-200mm. This is a bit contrary to some reports I have seen on the net, again sample variation may be the culprit. I have also yet to see that much abnormal corner degradation on FX that has been reported.

Nikon 80-200mm AFS: This is a very sharp zoom lens. My copy was sharper than my 180mm prime at the long end!! It does vignette some wide open. The two biggest drawbacks are its bulky diameter and tripod collar. The tripod collar does not rotate smoothly, either the factory one or an aftermarket Kirk. It is still an outstanding lens that I very much recommend checking out.

Nikon 70-300mm VR: For an increase in girth and cost over the below rivals you get a lens with really excellent optics and VR to ease hand held shots. I find the optics really excellent. My copy was as sharp as my 70-200mm f2.8 at any equivalent focal length or aperture!!! It handles pretty well also, although a bit bulky on D80 or smaller bodies. As they share a 67mm filter size, it teams nicely with the 18-70mm, 16-85mm, or 24-85mm AFS. This is my no hesitation pick in this focal range with a good copy.

Nikon 70-300mm ED: Pretty good optics from 200mm down, especially stopped down a bit. It has decent build quality with a very compact size for its focal range. I think it handles better on the D80 and smaller bodies than the other choices. The VR pretty much thrashes it optically and has VR and AFS but at about twice the street cost. Choices, choices!!

Nikon 75-300mm AF: This is the best build quality in this class other than the old 100-300mm AIS. It has solid construction and a tripod collar. The collar is great on smaller bodies however is a bit loaded on pro class bodies. Optics are in about the same class as the 70-300mm ED, good but certainly not great. It is also annoying that the focus ring for this lens is at the end of the lens and the lens itself is fairly long, creating a reach to manual focus it.

 

Telephoto FX Primes - Listed from favorite down

These are much tougher to rank than any other category. Every lens listed below is extremely sharp and will deliver professional results in just about any situation. Nuances separate them and I rank these on personal preference as much as any real optical significance. In fact the top five in this list are also the top five sharpest lenses that I have used with the 55 f2.8 Micro as the only other contender to the list.

Nikon 200mm f2 VR: Although I actually do not often carry this lens, I must rank it first because it is the sharpest lens I have ever used. Stunning wide open or stopped down. My copy takes all converters extremely well. It is about as sharp with 1.4X as the 300 f2.8 and as sharp with a 2X as 200-400mm!!! Very impressive! I honestly find virtually nothing to complain about on the optics of my copy of this lens. I am not a huge fan of the handling and in fact like to handhold my 300mm 2.8 better. This is a phenomenal lens though!!!

Nikon 300mm f2.8 VR: Another Nikon that is blistering sharp, only exceeded by my copy of the 200mm f2. It takes all converters well. The 1.4 can be used wide open and is sharp as the 200-400mm straight. My copy with the 1.7 converter, stopped down 1/3 stop, is as sharp as the 500mm f4 wide open!! Even the 2X gives excellent results 2/3 of a stop down. The lens is easy for me to handhold and balances great on a D3/D2X body. I love this lens!!

Nikon 300mm f2.8 AFS: This lens is almost as sharp as my copy of the VR model however is not quite as convenient to handhold without VR. It is still an awesome optic with virtually all the above description for the VR applicable.

Nikon 200mm f4 Micro AF: Very sharp at every aperture in field use other than f32 on FX. You get the onset of diffraction a stop sooner with DX. I love this lens. The only drawbacks are its large size and a flimsy collar that engages manual/AF that usually ends up splitting. This is my immediate go to lens for macro work as it has about twice the working distance as the 105mm and four times the 60mm and always satisfying results.

Nikon 105mm f4 Micro AIS: I have often mourned selling this lens. This is the second best macro solution that I have used. My copy was very sharp and fully usable across the aperture range. It is also much smaller than the new VR version, making it much easier to pack and carry. The build is typical AIS excellence.

Nikon 85mm f1.4 AF: This along with the 200mm VR are my preferred portrait choices. The bokeh is amazing and the lens goes from excellent wide open to stunning one stop down. It has a bit of CA with really harsh edges sometimes. This is one lens I wish came in AFS.

Nikon 500mm f4p: A great lens and even better value. Mine is tack sharp and even takes all the converters extremely well, especially the 1.4X. This lens is also light weight and compact. It is the lightest 500mm, non mirror, prime that I know of. It is even smaller and lighter than the 200-400mm zoom!!! It vignettes a bit wide open but nothing serious. The only draw backs are being manual focus and not complete information integration with the E series converters. This is a great lens that I can certainly recommend.

Nikon 180mm f2.8 AIS: Very sharp, even sharper than the 80/70-200mm zoom wide open. This is a great old lens with extremely good build quality. Unfortunately for this lens the zooms are very close optically and much more convenient, so it usually sits on the shelf.

Nikon 105mm f2.5 AIS: What a fabulous portrait lens. It is small, light, and oh so sharp, even wide open. I find few real flaws with my copy other than as with all the AIS lenses it is manual focus and you have to program it into the new cameras for full metering capabilities.

Nikon 105mm f2.8 Micro VR: Very good optics and in any other field of competitors might be the top choice! I have seldom been dissatisfied with the results from this lens, however it never seems to have quite the bite of the 200mm Micro or 105mm f4 Micro. VR is very convenient in circumstances that you are not going into extreme magnification and can’t use a tripod. The lens is also very bulky and not quite the “no brainer” to pack as the 105 f4 was. I am still impressed enough with it that it often accompanies my nature adventures as my macro solution for non macro specific adventures, similar to what my old f4 did.