With the same optical design as the Tamron 70-180mm, which I reviewed in 2020, I was tempted to wholesale copy my results from that lens, but I can’t say for sure whether Nikon is using Tamron for actual production, or is using their own manufacturing for the optics. However, since I did see differences in how this lens and the Tamron performed with regards to flare, it’s possible Nikon is using their coatings on the glass. Also, in re-reading my earlier review, I don’t think I did the most thorough of job describing the sharpness profile. In addition to my observations shooting with the lens while out and about, I did do controlled tripod mounted tests to be able to discuss the fine details of the optical performance with a bit more nuance.
I was always pleased with the sharpness from my Tamron 70-180mm, and the Nikon Z 70-180mm f/2.8 is no different. The lens is generally a very sharp lens throughout the focal range, even wide open, though there are a few minor caveats to sprinkle in here.
70mm is the lens’s weakest focal length, but the optics still do a nice job here. Starting at f/2.8, the lens shows good central sharpness that extends over about 80% of the frame before softening a little towards the corners. The extreme corners here are soft. Stop down to f/4, and the center improves from good to excellent, while the edges improve as well, maintaining very good sharpness to the edges of the frame, save for the very extreme corners, which improve, but never get fully sharp. The lens stays at this level until diffraction sets in beyond f/8.
Zoom in a bit to around 105mm, and the lens improves, with very good sharpness at f/2.8 over almost the whole frame, with just minor softening at the corners. Stopped down to f/4 and beyond, the lens jumps to excellent sharpness from corner to corner.
135mm is the Nikon 70-180mm’s best focal length, where sharpness is excellent across nearly the whole frame wide open and tapers just very slightly to very good sharpness in the corners. At f/4 and beyond, sharpness improves very slightly, becoming absolutely razor sharp from corner to corner at this focal length. The shot below was taken at 145mm at f/2.8. Click on the image to view full size (you can zoom after the image loads)
180mm also performs extremely well, with very good sharpness across the frame at f/2.8, improving to excellent corner to corner sharpness at f/4 and f/5.6. Overall, I have no issues whatsoever about shooting this lens at f/2.8 throughout the focal range. The lens performs very well wide open and while there is a small visible improvement at f/4 if you’re pixel peeping, this is something you’ll only notice if you’re comparing shots side by side with the same subject matter, zoomed to 100%.
If you attach the rather good Nikon Z 1.4x Teleconverter, the lens turns into a 98-252mm f/4 lens (though Nikon shows the long end as 250mm in EXIF data). As you’d expect, you do take a hit with regards to image sharpness with the teleconverter attached. The wider focal lengths don’t play as nicely with the TC as the longer ones do, but in the 200-250mm focal range, the lens shows some softness wide open, but when shooting beyond about 2 meters, even wide open, the lens produces perfectly usable results. Stop down to f/5.6, and sharpness improves dramatically, becoming very good to good across the frame.
The lens has a very high near macro magnification level when shot at 70mm. Unlike the Tamron lens, the Nikon 70-180mm can focus to the closest focus distance using autofocus, while the Tamron required manual focus to get to its highest magnification. The 70mm ‘macro’ mode is a bit dreamy in the center wide open, with a fair bit of residual spherical aberration, and sharpness falls off dramatically to mush as you move away from the center. Stopping down to f/5.6 or f/8 brings the center up to good levels of sharpness, but the outer 50% of the frame is still very blurry here, as can be seen in the shot above. Anticipate shooting things at this focus distance only if you need detail centrally.
The Nikon 70-180mm f/2.8 shows a slightly mixed performance when it comes to bokeh. Closer up and for most portrait applications, the lens renders backgrounds softly and without any major issues. There’s some distinct cat’s eye shape to specular highlights near the edges as well. At more moderate distances, things get a little bit busier, adding some texture to the background. It’s not terrible here, but it also isn’t as creamy as some other top tier telephoto zooms. Overall, a solid, if unspectacular performance in this regard.
Color, Contrast and Chromatic Aberration
The Nikon Z 70-180mm f/2.8 shows strong contrast throughout the focal and aperture range, and lovely rich color. Only when at that super-close focus at 70mm do you start to see some loss of contrast wide open, but that picks up when stopped down a little.
Chromatic aberration is very well controlled, with only minimal lateral chromatic aberration, and similarly well controlled longitudinal CA. There can be some very mild green and magenta tinting before and after the plane of focus, but it’s very minimal and will only be seen in limited circumstances.
Distortion, Flare and Vignetting
Nikon has made the decision to bake distortion and vignetting corrections into their RAW files for quite a lot of their lenses, and the 70-180mm is one of them. As such, if you are shooting in Lightroom or any other RAW converter that directly reads embedded correction parameters, you will never see any distortion whatsoever with the lens. However, if you look at the files in a different RAW converter that allows disabling these corrections, you’ll see that the Nikon 70-180mm f/2.8 shows a bit of barrel distortion at 70mm that changes to a rather pronounced pincushion distortion at the long end. This will end up having a minor affect on sharpness after correction. Below shows an image taken at 180mm, with the distortion uncorrected (top) and corrected (bottom)
The Nikon 70-180mm puts in a pretty good performance when it comes to control of flare. The lens shows only minor contrast loss from the sun in the frame, and the ghosts that are present are very faint, so they don’t affect the image too much. Veiling flare is also not much of an issue. You won’t be shooting into the sun that often with a telephoto lens, but if you choose to use it for backlit portraits or other similar applications, you won’t have any problems.
Vignetting is also pretty well controlled, with some darkening at the edges at f/2.8 that improves quickly upon stopping down. Of course, as noted earlier, vignetting correction is taken care of with an imbedded profile, so most users won’t really see any.
Overall, the Nikon 70-180mm f/2.8 performs very similarly to its Tamron-clad brother, as one might expect. It’s still an incredible value and shows strong optical performance in a very compact package.