Today I’m reviewing Nikon’s relatively new fast telephoto zoom lens for their Z system: the Nikkor Z 70-180mm f/2.8. This is an interesting release, as Nikon already has an f/2.8 telephoto zoom in the 70-200mm f/2.8 S, which was released in 2020. Now the 70-180mm comes out with a less expensive build, a slightly shorter telephoto end, and no image stabilization, but with the same fast f/2.8 constant aperture. On the positive side, the lens is almost half the weight, significantly smaller and costs less than half what the S-line lens costs. Those who follow the industry may notice the specs of this lens are extremely similar to a different lens that’s been on the market for a couple of years. Let’s take a deeper look at the ‘budget’ fast Nikon telezoom.
Those who have paid attention to the photography industry may look at this focal range and aperture and say, “Hey, didn’t Tamron release the same lens for E-mount?” And one look at the block diagrams for the two lenses (below) will tell you that the answer is yes: Like the 17-28mm and 28-75mm before it, the Nikon 70-180mm f/2.8 is a Tamron design that has been repackaged as a Nikon lens.
I think it’s actually a neat strategy move from Nikon, as it appears they are using this lens to give a different option to customers in lieu of an f/4 version of the 70-200mm. My guess is that Tamron wanted to bring their 70-180mm to the Z mount, but Nikon didn’t want to totally canabalize their own sales. As such, with the reconstruction of the lens, Tamron makes money on each sale from the design and optics, while Nikon reaps profit from their cut on top. The Nikon version is $100 more expensive than the Tamron, so that may cover some of Nikon’s tooling for production and some profit for them.
Construction and Handling
While the optical design and good portions of the mechanical design are the same between the Nikon and Tamron versions of this lens, Nikon did do some retooling when making their version. The exterior of the lens is of course clad in a Nikon-esque shell rather than the one from Tamron. As a former owner of the Tamron 70-180mm, I find this a nice upgrade. The lens is constructed with a matte black polycarbonate exterior on a metal mount, and everything feels tightly assembled. The plastic used here is the same as in other Nikon Z lenses, and it feels nicer than that on the Tamron. Despite the lack of S-Line branding, the 70-180mm is weathersealed against dust and moisture, with a mount gasket as well as foam sealing at all potential points of intrusion. In terms of cost-cutting compared to S lenses, the 70-180mm has painted rather than engraved markings, and it lacks the metal ring near the mount that the S line lenses all have. There is one small bit of metal on the exterior, though, and that’s the slim portion at the end of the zoom ring. Not sure why that is metal and the rest of the zoom ring is plastic, but it is indeed the case.
The broad rubberized zoom ring turns smoothly and with a nice damping, and the knurled plastic focus ring turns fluidly as well. Like the Tamron version, there are no control switches on the lens of any kind, so switching between manual and autofocus must be done in camera. The lens does have a zoom lock with a Nikon gold accent that shows when the lens is locked for storage. The zoom lock is on the opposite side of the lens from where it is on the Tamron version, and I like Nikon’s placement here. It’s very east to flick off with your thumb when bringing the lens up to shoot.
The biggest benefit of the 70-180mm f/2.8’s design is its compact and lightweight nature. The use of an extending zoom barrel for this lens lets it remain surprisingly small and light. In fact, while the Nikon version is just a couple millimeters longer than the E-mount Tamron due to the difference in mount registration, the Nikon 70-180mm f/2.8 is actually a few grams lighter, coming in at a surprisingly svelte 795g, making this the lightest f/2.8 telephoto zoom for full frame cameras on the market. Compared to the 70-200mm f/2.8 S, the 70-180mm is 2.7 inches (69mm) shorter, 0.3 inches (5.5mm) narrower, and weighs 1.25 pounds (565g) less. As such, the lens handles beautifully on any Z mount body you’d care to mount it on.
One other nice improvement that the Z 70-180mm f/2.8 has over its third-party brother is the ability to use Nikon’s 1.4x and 2x teleconverters, which turn the lens into a 98-252mm f/4 or a 140-360mm f/5.6 lens, respectively. I did not have the 2x converter available to test, but I did use the lens with the 1.4x teleconverter, and everything worked very well. I’ll detail teleconverter results in the image quality and autofocus sections.
The lens comes with a petal shaped plastic lens hood, which snaps easily in place and is reversible for storage. It’s nice to see Nikon include a hood in a non S-line lens, something Canon could take notice of when selling their non-L series lenses.
In one change that may not be for the better, Nikon changed the autofocus motor in the lens. Instead of Tamron’s VXD III voice coil linear motor, Nikon has put a stepping motor that is used in most of the Z series lenses. Now, compared to a lot of other stepping motors, Nikon’s are very quick. The lens, especially in good light, is able to focus very swiftly and near silently, though it’s not quite as quick as the Tamron version when I used it on Sony, which was near instant. Still, I don’t think you’ll be missing shots because of the small reduction in focus speed, as there’s still plenty of speed on tap for shooting action.
Focus accuracy is excellent, and I saw no residual hints of the occasional odd distant front focusing I had in single shot mode on the Tamron version with my A7R IV. The lens, as a native optic, of course works seamlessly with all AF modes including eye detection for people and animals. In tracking fast moving objects, the lens is able to keep up and maintain a very high hit rate when shooting with my Z8.
With the 1.4x teleconverter attached, focus slows a little bit in dimmer light, but there’s minimal impact when shooting with the lens outdoors in good light. Focus remained fast and accurate.
Continue: Image Quality